Why this weekend is so important to NBCSN and IndyCar, NASCAR fans

Photos courtesy NBC Sports

This will be one of the biggest weekends of the racing season for the NBC Sports Group.

In a sense, it will be a bookend weekend of sorts, a double-header of the best racing in NASCAR and IndyCar: the start of the NASCAR Cup playoffs in Las Vegas, and the conclusion of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season and crowning of a new champion.

Wednesday, several members of the NBCSN broadcast family took part in a joint media teleconference to talk about this weekend’s racing action.

On the call were Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, along with IndyCar play-by-play announcer Leigh Diffey and analyst Townsend Bell.

Here are some excerpts from that teleconference, with an in-depth analysis of the IndyCar season finale:

MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us today for our media conference call to preview our Sunday motorsports double-header. We’ve got coverage of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs that begin this Sunday from Las Vegas at 3:00 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. That’s immediately followed by the Verizon IndyCar Series championship from Sonoma at roughly around 6:30 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. Although there are others that have a mathematical chance, the championship is pretty much expected to be won by either Scott Dixon or Alexander Rossi.

In addition to being the championship, Sonoma is the final race of the current IndyCar media rights agreement, and beginning in 2019, as I’m sure all of you know, NBC Sports becomes the exclusive media rights holder for IndyCar, televising and streaming all races, including for the first time the Indy 500 in May.

Joining us on our call today are NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood, NASCAR analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., IndyCar play-by-play voice Leigh Diffey, and IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell. Jeff Burton was supposed to be on today’s call, but we apologize he has had a travel conflict and cannot be with us.

SAM FLOOD: Thanks for joining us. This past weekend I was in Indy for the Brickyard race, and it was very special being there knowing that we’re going to be covering the Indy 500 in May for the first time. One of the great, iconic events on the sports calendar, one of those events you circle, and this new partnership with NBC and IndyCar is incredibly exciting for the entire NBC Sports Group, but particularly for the group of us that love racing and love cars going fast and people having the guts to drive it hard into the corner and have fun on a racetrack.

And I thought the NASCAR crew had fun making magic on Monday. We would have preferred it on Sunday, but they had a lot of fun in the last regular season race on that iconic racetrack, so we were thrilled to be there.

We’re thrilled to crown a champion on Sunday out in Sonoma. What a spectacular place to end the season with our team.

And then the playoffs for the Cup Series start on Sunday in Vegas. No better place for a little bit of drama, a little bit of gambling on the racetrack and off the racetrack, and Dale Jr. who gambled on the track for years and is now gambling hanging out with our group on television, I throw it to him now.

DALE EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, this weekend we’ve got a full plate, the last regular season race for the Xfinity Series on Saturday at 5:00 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN, and then we’ll have the first race of the playoffs for the Cup Series Sunday. That’s going to be exciting because the racing over the last several months has been building in intensity. The action has been dramatic and extremely fun to call, and here we are finally at the start of the playoffs that will determine our champion.

We all know how wild and crazy the playoffs get, and with how interesting and dramatic the regular season has been this year, much more so than I believe in the past, I can just imagine this playoff 10-week stretch is going to bring excitement and drama that we’ve not seen in some time. Las Vegas will be a great, great place to kick this off, and I know our drivers love to race there. They want to win there because it’s such a marquee market. It’s an incredible experience to win at Las Vegas. With it being the first race of the playoffs, it puts even more importance on that event, and a win gets you automatically into the next round. Some guys will be eliminated not mathematically but mentally eliminated with poor finishes on Sunday.

So it’ll be interesting to see what happens. Can’t wait to get there.

IndyCarOnNBC analysts Townsend Bell, left, and Paul Tracy.

LEIGH DIFFEY:  For all of us at the NBC Sports Group, this is such an exciting time because with the NFL season kicking off, hockey not too far away, with NASCAR taking that first step towards building the Championship 4, ending at Homestead, and on the Verizon IndyCar Series front, it has been a spectacular year, an amazing year.

Scott Dixon doesn’t project himself or promote himself all that much. He prefers to be quiet, but we’re witnessing greatness with him. If he can win that fifth championship, it would be incredible. And Alexander Rossi, this young American talent who has really stood up and said, I’m here to be the next American hero. It has been something else to witness what he’s done this year.

It’s the 13th consecutive year that the Verizon IndyCar Series will be decided at the final race, which is something special, and that’s a pat on the back for the series, as well. From where all of us sit, there’s nothing but excitement. Can’t wait for things to get going.

TOWNSEND BELL: The IndyCar Series championship to me this year is really fascinating because of Alexander Rossi, young American rookie that — well, rookie a few years ago that’s come on so strong into a series where for the better part of 15 years, Scott Dixon has been the measuring stick. He’s been the bar. And he’s really stood alone in sort of persona. Doesn’t talk a lot, does most of his talking on the track, and has performed year in and year out for so long and really kind of stood alone in his own space, and for the first time I think in Scott Dixon’s career, somebody has surfaced and emerged on the scene in Alexander Rossi who is very, very much like Dixon, reminds all of us in the booth of Scott Dixon, quiet, confident, kind of stealth-like execution, and the two of them now find themselves squarely in the points race with double points on the line at Sonoma. I think it’s going to be a terrific show.

For the first time in a long time Team Penske is really an outsider, a long shot, if you will, in the points scenario with Will Power, but they were arguably the fastest team at Sonoma over the last three years. So a couple of really fascinating story lines, and I think we’ll see some great action on Sunday


Question for Leigh and Townsend. I know you talked about it in the introduction, but as the general landscape, what’s been the biggest takeaways from this season?

DIFFEY: I think what IndyCar did in bringing on a car that was esthetically pleasing but on the track effective. The fan base really feels like this car in IndyCar with the new aerodynamic package actually looks like an IndyCar. It has that kind of sexy look about it, it has that sleek look about it. It has raced well. Not perfectly, not all races have been fantastic, but for the majority of the season, it’s got fans and viewers and us tremendously excited again.

I think while ostensibly IndyCar is an American sport, it has a huge global appeal, and that has really started to resonate again on a global level because people are saying — I mean, there have been folks in the UK recently saying, ‘We don’t care what kind of motor sport you’re into, IndyCar is the one you should be watching right now.’

And I think while the NBC Sports Group represents various motorsports properties, again, that’s a huge pat on the back for IndyCar for taking a really proactive step in getting back — a new engine package coming in future years where we’ll step back up to 950 horsepower, I think IndyCar has made some really positive advancements to not necessarily win the fan base back but just to say, hey, we’re not resting on our laurels, we can always be better, and to me that’s been a great takeaway from the year.

BELL: I would just add to Leigh’s comments there that stability and consistency have yielded a lot of positive results for the series, so they haven’t been chasing new, far-out ideas, they’ve just been kind of bolting down what they already have and getting advance news out early, like the new TV contract with NBC, the schedule, and you’re starting to see the benefit, I think, of steady and consistent leadership, the team of Mark Miles and Jay Frye at IndyCar, C.J. O’Donnell.

They’ve all done such a great job, so that the stakeholders now have increased confidence in the direction, and you’re seeing that now with more entries. We’re going to be up into the mid-20s, I understand, next year on full-time entries, where normally we’re right around 20 cars full-time. So the demand is up. We see it in some of the events that have been added like Portland and St. Louis where the crowds have been terrific, great energy.

For the first time since I’ve been involved, there’s really just this amazing upward trajectory, and I’ve been involved for 20 years. So it’s very refreshing to see.

Q. Question for Earnhardt Jr.: Can you just kind of talk about the nerves and emotions that take place when you show up at the race on race day knowing that you’re in the thick of a championship battle?

EARNHARDT JR.: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very tense situation because you spend all year racing, and if there’s a mistake or a misstep, those are things that you always — you don’t take those too hard. You have in your mind that you can recover, you can rebound, the team can — there’s another race, another week. And in those moments racing for that championship and those final events, particularly the last event, there is no tomorrow. A mistake, and it’s over. A part failure, and it’s over. That is evident in every moment of the weekend. That is hanging over your head and right over your shoulder at all times.

And so the pressure to be perfect, to not misstep, to not make a mental error, by everyone on the team, that pressure is so obvious and apparent.

All the while, you’ve got to perform. You can’t dial it back or be cautious or be careful. You have to be perfect and fast and excellent. That’s why teams become champions and some teams don’t.

The ones that can still perform under that type of pressure are the ones that hold the trophy.

Q. Question for Diffey and Bell: How impressive is it that Alexander Rossi is doing what he’s doing in just his third full season in IndyCar?

BELL: Well, I think the first race Alexander Rossi showed up for was St. Petersburg back in 2016, and if you recall, on the closing stint, final say 30 laps, he was literally pulling over and slowing down to let the leaders by so he didn’t get in their way. I’ll never forget that moment in the race because it was kind of that sink-or-swim moment for any rookie coming into the top level of any sport, and it’s an eye opener, when you realize how deep the pool is or how deep the competition is, and what are you going to do about it, how are you going to go back with your team and analyze your performance and come back stronger.

For Alexander Rossi to do what he did at the Indy 500 his rookie year, I was his teammate that year, and while a lot of people made noise about the fact that it was a win on fuel mileage, I knew as his teammate, having the unique privilege of being able to see his data relative to my data, his performance, that there was an incredible amount of talent in what he was doing in practice sessions, how he worked traffic, how quickly he was learning.

And fast forward now three years later, and he’s now met and in some cases exceeded the measure of Scott Dixon, the established milestone, the established marker in the series, is incredible. And he’s a guy that I think more than some in our series thinks about and obsesses about performance and racing literally 24/7. He just doesn’t really have anything else going on and has that purity of focus that I think you find in a Scott Dixon, you find in a Will Power, and it’s no surprise that that obsession and that intensity has yielded the results.

So it’s been very, very impressive, and it’s so cool that we’ve got a young American who has basically stopped pursuing a European F1 career to come be an IndyCar champion, and he’s on the verge of making it happen this weekend.

DIFFEY: We’ve used a lot in commentary, and he’s not the most outwardly going guy. He’s not the biggest personality in the paddock, but one of his common themes is, A, I make no apologies, and B, I’m not really here to make any friends. That’s not a cliché, that’s his words. So he’s here to do one thing and one thing only, and he’s probably done it the best this season.

Q. Question for Bell and Diffey: Earlier in the year there was a lot of talk about maybe Rossi being a villain. Where do you think he’s come as far as promoting the series of IndyCar, especially when he had Formula 1 dreams early in his career?

BELL: Yeah, I think that Formula 1 European history, he really pursued F1 for the last six or seven years, and coming up through that ladder system, it is an absolutely cutthroat existence because you know everybody you’re racing that only less than one of you each season is actually going to get a chance to move to Formula 1 someday. So the probability is definitely not in your favor, and it’s every guy for himself.

He came out of that environment into IndyCar, and you see it a lot, Sebastien Bourdais, the same way when he came over, Nigel Mansell was the same way back in the day, they are so used to and kind of hardened by that European experience, and it’s frankly nothing against anybody personally, it’s just every position is so closely fought, any contested corner like at Road America if you saw how Rossi was racing guys and running people out of the road at the exit and driving right to the limit of what the stewards would allow, race control would allow. He never really had a penalty that I know of this season for rough driving, but he’s ruffled plenty of feathers, and he’s done it, as Leigh said, unapologetically, and again, it’s just that intensity of focus and only really caring about the results.

If that’s made him a villain, like Leigh said, I don’t think he particularly cares. The results speak for themselves, and that’s kind of who he is and how he’s going to race, and I think we’re thrilled for it. We benefit for sure as viewers, as commentators. It’s been an incredibly competitive season.

DIFFEY: And I think the important thing to remember, too, is he did make it to Formula 1, which the majority can only dream of, but in my opinion, the reason he is the driver that he is now has nothing to do with Formula 1 whatsoever. He did five races in Formula 1 in a back- marker team. That wasn’t racing. He was staying out of people’s way.

Where he learned his race craft was in GP2, now F2, and GP3, where he won races in both categories, as Josef Newgarden was in GP3, Conor Daly was in GP3 and GP2. That’s where Alexander Rossi really learned his race craft. That’s what he’s brought to IndyCar. It’s a great thing on his resume that he made it to Formula 1, but he didn’t learn his race craft or do anything there. It was in those junior formulae, and it’s a benefit and a win for IndyCar to have him here.

Q. Question for Diffey: What do you think the biggest factor has been with the comeback in IndyCar? Is it the car changes? What is it?

DIFFEY: Well, I just think in any business the human resource element, whether that be a race team with the right engineer or the right driver, right mechanics, whatever it may be, IndyCar have made some really great acquisitions as far as people, the right people in the right places, in particular Jay Frye in the competition department. I think Jay has done a really nice job, and there have not been knee-jerk reactions. Himself and his department do a really good job of listening to the drivers. They always get back to the drivers when there’s feedback necessary or there are queries or questions.

I just think there was a long period of time where, whether it be back to the mid-’90s when CART and IRL went their separate ways and there was a period there of darkness, of just distance and people kind of went away from the sport because they didn’t know which one to follow or they were disillusioned or whatever, and you’re not going to get that back overnight, and it’s taken many years, and I think with the really encouraging depth of American talent, whether that be Ryan Hunter-Reay leading the charge, Josef Newgarden, Alexander Rossi, youngsters like Jack Veach and Spencer Pigot, the list goes on, Bryan Herta’s son Colton Herta, he’s going to race this weekend, he’s the first kid to ever race in the IndyCar Series born in the 2000s. So the depth of talent is there plus a lot of international talent, and to me that harkens back to IndyCar’s big appeal, fast cars, good-looking cars, the four different disciplines of circuits, great American talent, and then other drivers from around the world, and going to places where there is a really good IndyCar fan base.

I can’t underscore enough what Townsend mentioned right off the introduction earlier how great Portland was two weeks ago, the weather, the fans, the race, the track, the outcome of Dixon being in that first lap pile-up and then driving out of it. There’s just so many good things. I mean, in any sport, people can jump on a downward spiral and try to drive it into the ground, negativity breeds negativity. There is none of that in IndyCar right now.

Everybody is pumped, everybody is feeling positive, and it’s on a massive upswing. I think you can point in multiple directions, to answer your question, to attribute this growth in our TV ratings, this growth in entries, this interest in teams, the fact that Fernando Alonso and McLaren would like to be here. There are just so many positives at the moment. I think it’s a really great time for the series.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 936 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:

Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”