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Previews: Pro Mazda and USF2000 Series

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Each of the other two rungs on IndyCar’s Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the Pro Mazda Championship and USF2000 National Championship, have higher car counts and other prodigious talent worthy of watching starting at St. Petersburg.

Pro Mazda kicked off its 2013 season at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas earlier in the month, where sophomore Diego Ferreira and rookie Matty Brabham secured victories in the doubleheader weekend. Brabham, grandson of Formula 1 World Championship Sir Jack Brabham and son of sports car champion Geoff, is a highly touted prospect racing for Andretti Autosport after winning the 2012 USF2000 champion.

Brabham’s adversary from the USF2000 season a year ago, Spencer Pigot, has also graduated from the junior championship and races with Team Pelfrey. Pigot and Petri Suvanto, a talented Finn who’s had more than his share of bad luck in a year and one weekend with Pelfrey, are two drivers who should win their first races this season.

Andretti’s second car is driven by Shelby Blackstock, son of country music star Reba McEntire. Ferreira’s teammate at Juncos is Scott Anderson, another USF2000 graduate. JDC Motorsports also boasts a four-car lineup while M1 Racing and World Speed Motorsports also have cars entered.

USF2000 raced a doubleheader at Sebring last week, and series sophomores Neil Alberico and Scott Hargrove split the two race victories. They both drive for the two-time defending champion Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing team.

A 31-car field, biggest in any of the four open-wheel series racing in St. Petersburg this weekend, takes to the concrete confines of the 1.8-mile street circuit. Some of the other drivers worth watching include Danilo Estrela (Belardi), Garett Grist (Andretti), Stefan Rzadzinski (JDC, whose car is above, right), Jesse Lazare (Pabst), Jeroen Slaghekke (Cape), Austin Cindric (Andretti, son of Team Penske president Tim), and Andrew Hobbs (ArmsUp, son of NBC Sports Network F1 analyst David) among others.

With so many young drivers in such tight confines, the hope is that caution flags do not pepper the races. These championships present a great opportunity for fans to start paying attention to drivers who could be in IndyCar within two to three years.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Tony Kanaan

Tony Kanaan
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MotorSportsTalk continues its run through the driver-by-driver lineup in the Verizon IndyCar Series, after the 2015 season, with eighth-placed Tony Kanaan.

Tony Kanaan, No. 10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 7th Place, 1 Win, Best Start 2nd, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 12 Top-10, 407 Laps Led, 9.2 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 8th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 3 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 213 Laps Led, 7.6 Avg Start, 9.9 Avg. Finish

You have to give TK credit. Armed with one of the best cars on the grid, Kanaan has certainly raised his game the last two years, and probably hasn’t received enough credit or enough results for some of his drives he’s put in since joining Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2013 season.

The 2015 season was no exception. All 10 of his top-10 finishes were between second and seventh, so there were plenty of times he was in win and podium contention. The other area where he improved was his qualifying. Kanaan only had two starts outside the top-12 all season, one of which occurred at Detroit race two, where the grid was set by points following a rain cancellation. Detroit was pretty much the only weekend where Kanaan didn’t figure into qualifying or the race. Blame the Taylor Swift-inspired Big Machine Records livery for that one if you want.

Accidents at the Indianapolis 500 and Pocono were costly retirements as Kanaan definitely had a shot to win both those races. But realistically you couldn’t find many other faults. Losing a sure win at Iowa due to a mechanical issue was a gutting blow. He was also unlucky to come up just shy at Fontana, and may have prevailed in a last-lap shootout.

More often that not however, Kanaan was firmly on top of his game, and reliably on par with his championship-winning teammate Scott Dixon, which was all you could ask for. It’s fitting the two of them opened the year as part of the winning lineup in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, with Kanaan then helping out matters by finishing ahead of Juan Pablo Montoya at Sonoma, to ensure Dixon had enough points to win the title on countback.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden
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MotorSportsTalk continues to run through the driver-by-driver breakdown in the Verizon IndyCar Series field for 2015. Next up on the heels of another breakout year, Josef Newgarden, who has recently re-signed with CFH Racing for 2016.

Josef Newgarden, No. 67 CFH Racing Chevrolet

  • 2014: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 10.7 Avg. Start, 13.7 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 7th Place, 2 Wins, 1 Pole, 4 Podiums, 5 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 345 Laps Led, 8.4 Avg Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

Josef Newgarden’s fourth year in the Verizon IndyCar Series was firmly, and without question, the year he arrived as the series’ biggest rising star. It followed on nicely after three prior years where he seemed to hit almost all the high points at various stages, but didn’t put together a fully complete season.

Perhaps some of that was due to having a teammate for the first time in his career, although it was not the same driver throughout the year – it was split between Luca Filippi and Ed Carpenter depending on the circuit. Still, there was always a second set of data to study and analyze. Even better, there was a Chevrolet in the back of his car for the first time, and that likely helped matters a bit. And retaining Jeremy Milless as his engineer continued to pay dividends; you can’t teach chemistry and it’s apparent these two have it.

It spoke volumes that in qualifying, Newgarden was the single fastest driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi camps all season. An average starting position of 8.4 was not only a career best, but best in the field behind six combined drivers from the two established “super teams.” Only at Detroit, where he had a nightmare weekend and at Texas, where Carpenter admitted the team missed the setup, did he start outside the top 12.

Yet it was in the races where again, he shone brightest. The Barber win was as dominant as it was overdue and deserved. The Toronto win – if a bit lucky due to when the cautions and pit stop cycle fell – was also well executed. Then the drives on the ovals at Milwaukee, Iowa and Pocono were excellent.

Far too often though, still, pit stops proved Newgarden’s undoing. Mid-Ohio was a sore spot again, and Sonoma in particular was the nadir. The other tough results races, notably at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and at Fontana, came through mistakes not of his own doing. Really only Detroit was a weekend he’d like to have back.

But he led the most laps in the field, he finally broke through to win, and firmly lived up to the hype and potential that’s been building for years. If you’ve been paying attention more than just this year though, Newgarden’s 2015 season will have come as no surprise.