Race Weekend Central

Pace Laps: Cars, Drivers, And Rookies Come Sharply Into Focus

Sprint Cup: A Burton Still Walks Among Us – NASCAR is a sport built on families, famous siblings and their sons carrying us through racing generations. Petty. Earnhardt. Elliott. Even Pearson and Bodine. It’s a seamless transition of success that jolts us when it reaches an end.

That makes Monday’s pending announcement of Jeb Burton’s ascension to Cup, taking the third seat at BK Racing a sweet cherry on top of a ho-hum Silly Season. A sport that was on the verge of losing that Virginia twang on-track, no Burtons running at least one Cup race for the first year since 1992 instead welcomes its youngest and perhaps most talented driver to NASCAR’s top level. While Jeb’s experience is quite limited, with just two full-time Truck Series seasons to his credit his potential, with one win on the resume appears high. You can’t expect miracles, especially with a team that struggles to finish inside the top 20 on a good day but what you can look for is for Burton to log laps, charm a portion of the Southern audience connected to that famous last name and keep the BK car in one piece while learning the ropes.

While father Ward and uncle Jeff will be smiling proud Monday, don’t miss the biggest smiles of all sitting on the side Monday: NASCAR officials. One year after a rookie class of eight, the sport looking to attract new fans was in a somewhat awkward position of having zero new rookie candidates for fans to follow. Now, there’s at least one in the freshman class, and maybe Burton’s entrance will cause part-timer Ryan Blaney to chase after the award as well. Wait, did I say Ryan? Son of Cup veteran Dave? I think we’ve proved the point here. – Tom Bowles

XFINITY: New Faces In New Places – It’s that time of year again. Yes, Speedweeks are set to begin shortly, and teams are starting from scratch. There are plenty of new faces in different places, like always.

However, this year, there is something different about the NASCAR XFINITY Series, and it isn’t just the division’s title sponsor. Following a quiet offseason last year, shuffling drivers around became a trend during the winter months in NASCAR’s second-tier division.

Ross Chastain, Harrison Rhodes, Darrell Wallace, Jr. and Daniel Suarez highlight the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class for the XFINITY Series in 2015. Although Brandon Jones, Ben Rhodes and Ryan Preece will be racing this up coming season, they are only running partial schedules. Chastain and Rhodes, who have combined to race 20 races over the past two years in the division, will be racing for JD Motorsports as teammates to Landon Cassill.

Wallace is making the move from Joe Gibbs Racing, where he was promised a ride in the XFINITY Series, but they didn’t secure funding to put him in the car for the entire season. Instead, he will be piloting the No. 6 unsponsored Ford, albeit Roush Fenway Racing is aggressively searching for sponsorship. After winning four races for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series last season, the Alabama-native is geared up for his first full-time stint in the XFINITY Series.

(Credit: NASCAR)
Daniel Suarez has earned a promotion from the K&N Series this upcoming season. He’ll drive full-time in the newly-named XFINITY Series for Joe Gibbs Racing, backed with Arris sponsorship. (Credit: NASCAR)

Suarez is the lone rookie that will have full funding in 2015, with Arris coming aboard the No. 18 Toyota. Wallace and Suarez are expected to compete tightly for the Rookie of the Year title, but neither one has a true advantage. Roush has the potential to be either very strong this year, like they were late last season, or weak, which was how they performed for most of last year. Gibbs has seen plenty of success over the past few years, yet their full-time drivers that compete for the title have struggled to find consistency, which could be seen with the inexperienced Suarez.

As for the veterans, Elliott Sadler is making the move to Roush in the No. 1 Ford. He was the only major championship factor to swap teams over the off-season. Coming off of a year with an average finish of 9.4 doesn’t sound too awful, but finishing third in points after finishing of the top 10 on 25 occasions wasn’t enough to win the title, or keep him in the No. 11 car.

TriStar Motorsports will have a clean slate for the 2015 season. The team will field four full-time cars in 2015, with a line-up highlighted by Cale Conley and David Starr, who will each race an entire season in the XFINITY Series for the first time. Although sponsorship has yet to be announced for Conley in the No. 14 car, he was able to race well for Richard Childress Racing in 11 events last year, and could be a key to the team’s success in 2015. Blake Koch will move over to the No.8 Toyota this year, with funding from LeafFilter at Daytona, and additional sponsorship beginning to piece together. Mike Bliss is returning to the team in the No. 19 car, but he will switch to another car within the team for the season-opener as Scott Lagasse, Jr. will run that vehicle.

After racing for JD Motorsports last year, Jeffrey Earnhardt is on the move as well. He will be joining Viva Motorsports in the No. 55 car. Throughout the 2014 season, Viva Motorsports created an alliance with SS Greenlight Racing, along with NTS Motorsports. Although that might continue in 2015, Earnhardt will be in the car for the entire year after team owner Jamie Dick raced the Chevrolet 21 times last season. – Joseph Wolkin

Camping World Truck Series: Eldora Field Will Only Lock in Five – The Mudsummer Classic at Eldora Speedway may still be more than six months away, but Tony Stewart made a comment that will make the excitement – and perhaps the stress that drivers and teams feel headed into the event – even greater come July. Previously, the top 20 trucks in owners’ points were locked into the field regardless of what happened in the feature races, but this year, that won’t be the case.

“With only five locked-in positions, there’s a good opportunity to have more entries than we’ve ever had, if trucks are available, because guys know they legitimately can race their way in much easier than they what they did the last two years,” Stewart told SiriusXM Radio’s Tony Stewart Live on Tuesday night.

I’m not really sure what to think about this one. On the one hand, the thought of more positions available for relative unknowns to race their way into a Truck Series event bodes well for the future of the series as a whole. Just think… a local short track driver who regularly wins or finishes high in the field but hasn’t gotten his (or her) NASCAR break will suddenly be on a national stage in the middle of the week for all of the world to see. Should the right sponsor and team see their performance, it’s likely another new face will find its way into the series.

On the other hand, though, the Mudsummer Classic is a points race, and missing the event based on being taken out during a heat race could spell disaster to a championship hopeful. Of course one race does not make or break a championship, but it sure can put a damper on the season. Just ask James Buescher, who missed one event during the 2011 season and finished the season third in points, just 29 markers behind champion Austin Dillon. Based on Buescher’s performance the rest of the season, it’s reasonable to believe he would have finished somewhere inside the top 15 at that Phoenix race he missed, allowing him to finish the year closer, if not ahead of, Dillon.

In the end, it’s probably unlikely that a legitimate championship contender won’t make the race,  but that possibility remains. Regardless of what happens, I know I’m looking forward to Eldora just as much this season as I did in 2013 when the series first raced at the half-mile clay oval. Beth Lunkenheimer

NHRA: Langdon and Unsponsored Team Make a Statement – If you are suddenly in need of a sponsor, what is the best way to get some attention? Win. That’s what Shawn Langdon and the Alan Johnson Racing Team did at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals in Pomona this weekend.

The Alan Johnson Racing organization was taken by surprise by the sudden departure of partner Al-Anabi Racing a little over a month ago. The team scaled back from two cars to one and headed to Pomona with 2013 Top Fuel World Champion driver Shawn Langdon hoping to show potential sponsors what they have to offer.

“We had to come out here and do well and make a statement. Now we’ll take what we did here and move on to Phoenix and continue what we are doing. We are still looking for sponsorship and trying to do the best we can,” said Langdon.

Langdon made a statement in qualifying by posting the quickest ever pass in NHRA history with a 3.700. While he was unable to make the second run needed to back it up and set the national elapsed-time record, race day still went pretty well.

Langdon raced his way by Steve Chrisman, Leah Pritchett, and Spencer Massey before facing off against Antron Brown in the final round. He took the win with a pass of 3.799 seconds at 309.91 mph.

Defending Funny Car World Champion Matt Hagan got off to a rocky start after an engine exploded during Friday qualifying, but bounced back and picked up right where he left off last season in Pomona, defeating teammate Ron Capps in the finals to take home the Wally.

“You try to put it out of your mind and not think about it,” Hagan said. “These [race cars] are animals out there and you never know what you are going to get when you crawl in there to drive one. It’s always an experience. You have to respect it, but you can’t fear it.”

Hagan won with a run of 4.011 seconds at 320.89 mph.

Rookie driver Drew Skillman said he was “nervous as hell” but you’d never have known it. He raced his way by Pro Stock veterans V Gaines and Allen Johnson and then took out teammate and defending Pro Stock World Champion Erica Enders-Stevens before finally falling to Jason Line in the final round. Line’s pass of 6.545 seconds at 211.83 mph gets the Summit Racing Equipment Team off to a good start for the season.

“It feels really great to win, and I’d also like to say congratulations to Drew Skillman for making it to the final today. I told him he did a great job, and he is going to win a lot of races, no question. I just didn’t want him to win that round,” said Line. “That would make it look too easy, make us old guys look like we don’t know what we’re doing. But obviously, the kid is a great driver, and he’s got great equipment. He did a good job today.”

The NHRA Mello Yellow Series takes next week off before returning to action in two weeks in Phoenix for the Carquest Auto Parts NHRA Nationals. Toni Montgomery

Formula 1: The unofficial opening of the 2015 season began on February 1st as teams began testing at Jerez, in Spain.  While laps times are one aspect of the testing, which would seemingly indicate that Ferrari is back (again), the more important aspect is to log laps in an effort to shake down this year’s model.  In that regard, Mercedes enjoyed what would have to be considered a solid outing.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, while continuing to focus on the teams with plum finances, McLaren suffered through the sessions with continued mechanical issues.  Their efforts are not so surprising as they switch engine manufacturers, with Honda’s re-entry into the sport.  The difficulties for the team were anticipated but surely they would have liked to see their car spend a little more time on the track than in the garage.  But McLaren have to be feeling better than, say, oh Marussia or what is now supposed to be called Manor Racing.

Their place in the sport continues to be iffy at best.  After falling into administration late in 2014, and missing the last three races, the team is now defiantly trying to make the grid by racing last year’s car.  Without unanimous approval, which they did not receive, they are not permitted to take such a position but they seem to be advancing anyway.  The key aspect with Marussia/Manor Racing is that by just making it to races they will enjoy money from the purses, which makes their assets attractive for an investor seeking entry into F1.  Let the money games begin.  Huston Ladner

Sports Cars: IMSA Doesn’t Fool Around with Drive Time
NASCAR has traditionally been lenient with post-race infractions being discovered.  A win will never be taken away, no matter the infraction.  IMSA is not so nice to rule breakers, even if it’s accidental.Previously, we reported on Wayne Taylor Racing being sent to the rear of the Prototype class after Jordan Taylor exceeded four hours of seat time in six hours.  Turns out that Wayne Taylor Racing wasn’t the only team to miscalculate.
On Tuesday, IMSA announced that BAR1 Motorsport’s No. 16 entry that finished second in the Prototype Challenge (PC) class has been excluded from the official results of the Rolex 24 at Daytona due to a drive-time violation.  The entry was shared by team owner Brian Alder, Johnny Mowlem, Martin Plowman (who also qualified and started the team’s sister entry, the No. 61), Tomy Drissi and Tom Papadopoulos.  According to IMSA, BAR1 Motorsport’s entry failed to satisfy the minimum drive-time rule for amateur drivers.  Since PC is considered to be a pro-am class, a minimum of two amateur (silver or bronze) drivers must be in the driving lineup for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.  For the team to get credit for their finishing position, both amateur drivers must drive for a minimum of 4.5 hours each.  IMSA did not disclose which one of the team’s amateur drivers failed to meet the requirement, but mentioned that only one of those drivers did.
TUDOR United SportsCar Championship Race Director Beaux Barfield explained the seriousness of the situation in a brief statement.
“For the competitive balance and fairness for other teams with different driver configurations in the ‘pro-am’ environment, minimum drive times for bronze and silver-rated drivers must be enforced,” Barfield said on Tuesday.
Unlike WTR, which was still classified as a race finisher, BAR1 Motorsport’s No. 16 was wiped from the results due to the penalty with the exception of each driver getting one point in the standings for starting the race.  It’s really as if they weren’t there.  Of course, judging by the looks of the car, which advertised the film The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, you couldn’t have missed it.  As a result of the No. 16 being DQ’d, the CORE autosport No. 54 that crashed out of the class lead with 20 minutes to go moved up to second in class, while the No. 85 JDC/Miller MotorSports entry now rounds out the podium.  Phil Allaway

About the author

As a writer and editor, Ava anchors the Formula 1 coverage for the site, while working through many of its biggest columns. Ava earned a Masters in Sports Studies at UGA and a PhD in American Studies from UH-Mānoa. Her dissertation Chased Women, NASCAR Dads, and Southern Inhospitality: How NASCAR Exports The South is in the process of becoming a book.

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