IndyCar opener coming up fast — and so are the drivers

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The beginning of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season is a week away and, to some extent, the season opened this week with the only official preseason test at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Ala. This year’s test has a little more significance than last year at Sebring because not only will they race at Barber, but they’ll be back in just a few weeks in race number two. The purpose was to not only run through the preseason checklist and try out the engineers’ offseason ideas, but also specifically prepare for the race at Barber.

The drivers also needed to continue to work off the rust. Though many had some testing at other tracks since January (Sebring and Sonoma), last year’s debut of a new car and engine package necessitated far more testing. At Monday’s media session, most drivers mentioned their disappointment in the lack of testing this year and a couple even said there may be more on-track incidents early in the season because of the inactivity.

Monday was media day and a parade of about 25 drivers through the media center. The great thing about a new season in any sport is the optimism. Everyone is still undefeated (or in motorsports, tied atop the championship standings) and there is hope for significant improvement over the prior season or that a move to a new team will be the answer. We think we have an idea how things will play out, but there are many variables and uncertainties. This time last year, how many would have picked Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the title?

What did we learn on track Tuesday and Wednesday? Well, we already knew Will Power was fast and he reconfirmed that – leading both days of testing. We also learned the engineers, crews and engine manufacturers found some speed this winter. Power was more than three seconds quicker than last year’s pole speed without using the softer and quicker optional red side-wall tires (worth about half a second) and all 28 drivers (in 26 different cars) were quicker than last year’s top qualifying speed. Cool conditions (temperatures in the 50s and low 60s), a recent track grinding to improve grip, and a different Firestone tire compound also contributed to the quicker speeds.

We also learned the competition is going to again be tight. The field was separated by 2.8 seconds (1:07.1 was the best time) and the top 16 were within a second. Among those that likely came away pleased were James Hinchcliffe (2nd quick), Justin Wilson (3rd), Tony Kanaan (4th), Takamu Sato (7th in his new ride with Foyt), Charlie Kimball (8th), James Jakes (11th in only 1 day with his new team, Rahal Letterman Lanigan) and Simona de Silvestro (12th with KV Racing) who said she was shocked when she first felt the Chevy power after suffering with the underpowered Lotus program last year. Graham Rahal (fuel supply issue), Marco Andretti and Sebastian Bourdais were in the group that didn’t get as much done and/or find the speed they were seeking. AJ Allmendinger ended up 18th quick as he tries to readjust to IndyCars while continuing his NASCAR Sprint Cup career. After talking with him, he seems most concerned with having the patience needed to get reacclimated. He understands the stiff level of competition and that he can’t just walk back in and pick up where he was when he won 5 ChampCar races in 2006. But, he’s used to running up front in these cars and has a high standard for himself. He also confirmed if Roger Penske is willing to offer a full-time program, he’s willing (and happy) to commit to IndyCar as his first priority.

The NBC Sports Network crew was also on hand at Barber this week to gear up for the season. The production team gathered many of the elements that you’ll see throughout the season while the announcers and producers reviewed some tape (from our broadcasts and examples from other shows) and got caught up with drivers and team personnel. Like the drivers and teams, we all wish the offseason was shorter as well. But, it’s almost here! We’re excited that we get to bring you the opener this year and I hope you can join us next weekend from St. Pete.

Kevin Lee is an IndyCar pit reporter for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KevinLee23

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.