Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves

The Indianapolis 500: Still alive and making a comeback

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The Indianapolis 500 has witnessed and endured many things in its 97 years of existence. In more recent times, it has had to sustain itself against a crippling split in open-wheel racing, NASCAR’s evolution from a strictly Southern tradition to a national phenomenon, and perhaps more importantly, a wealth of entertainment options that simply didn’t exist when the race was in its heyday.

But times are getting better at the Brickyard. Slowly but surely, the ‘500’ has started to gain back some of its former glory. Helping it has been the on-track product, which improved dramatically last year with the introduction of new cars and engines; 2012’s race saw a record number of passes for the lead and wasn’t settled until the final lap.

This year, it may be easier to determine who doesn’t have a chance at winning the race than who can be a contender. In the first four races of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season, the wide-open competition has meant nobody has been able to dominate. If that carries over to the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the 97th running of this race stands a good chance of continuing the event’s positive momentum.

The pair of three-time ‘500’ winners, Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves, are Indy’s modern legends. And as two of the longest-tenured drivers in the series, they’ve been able to see and appreciate how Indy has evolved throughout their careers.

For Franchitti, it’s about recognizing his place in history, even if he still isn’t comfortable being part of the discussion.

“Where do you start with all of them? My hero Jimmy Clark, Dan (Gurney), Parnelli (Jones), A.J. (Foyt), JR (Johnny Rutherford), Mario (Andretti), Uncle Bobby (Unser) just to name a few,” he said. “It’s always weird to think about it. There’s something not quite right about being in the discussion. To me, they’re on a pedestal.”

Castroneves won his first Indianapolis appearance in 2001 and says the buzz now is as strong as it has been at any point in his 15-plus year open-wheel career.

“The Indy 500, it never lost its star or its shine,” he said. “The race never went away, but certainly, the series might have a different view. The only thing I can say is that the next few years, I see only bright things.”

Castroneves’ Team Penske teammate, AJ Allmendinger, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut fresh from NASCAR. The last time he was in open-wheel racing, in 2006, was during the acrimonious split. It robbed him and others a chance to race in what they considered the most prestigious event.

“I felt like open-wheel (then) had been degraded,” he admitted. “The fans suffered the most because you didn’t get all the best guys in every race and as a driver, you wanted the best guys. I thought Indy lost a little bit of luster … growing up, I was watching it when all the best people weren’t there.”

Now, for Allmendinger, coming from a series that garners more national attention over the course of a season, it’s apparent he was missing out on what the Indianapolis 500 has to offer.

“When I came here in Cup and walked through Gasoline Alley for the first time and went down the front straightaway, I said ‘Okay, I get what it’s all about,’” he said. “Now, having been here for the last two and a half weeks, and on race day, when there’s 250,000 people in the grandstands – it’s brought those emotions over to me and it’s made me say ‘Okay, this really is the greatest spectacle in all of racing.’ I feel very fortunate to be a part of it.”

The 500 represents both a major national event and the banner day for Indianapolis as a city. Drivers who have moved to Indianapolis describe how the fever builds over the month of May.

“You see it even through close friends and family and people just wanting to come to the race,” said Franchitti’s Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and 2008 500 winner Scott Dixon. “I’m lucky enough to live in Indy and see the buzz starting from the first part of the month of May.”

It’s rare racing drivers are united on anything – setup differences and food preferences often run the gamut of opinions. But they all understand, embrace and appreciate the behemoth that is Indianapolis.

“You can’t put a price tag on it,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay, the defending series champion from Andretti Autosport. “You grow up watching and discover this is where heroes are made. The guy who wins might as well have a ‘Superman’ cape on.”

“RHR” wasn’t directly speaking of JR Hildebrand there, but the third-year driver for Panther Racing does have a Superman livery on his No. 4 National Guard Chevrolet this month. Hildebrand admits finding more fans in the younger demographic – really seeing these Indy 500 drivers as heroes – will go a long way towards the race’s continued future growth.

“Over the last few years, there’s definitely been a resurgence,” he said. “But to be frank with you, in order for that to happen, guys like me and Hinch [James Hinchcliffe] and [Josef] Newgarden gotta have a shot at winning the thing. We’ve got to run up front and be there at the end of the day.”

Hinchcliffe has won two of the year’s first four IndyCar races, including a last-lap pass of points leader Takuma Sato in Brazil. But Hinchcliffe admits when you get to Indy, everyone starts at zero.

“You can be cautiously optimistic, but this race has a history of crushing people when you think you’re close,” he said.

Like Hinchcliffe, Newgarden is a social media savvy youngster (he’s 22) who has the potential to captivate a new audience. Mature beyond his years, Newgarden is both candid and blunt about Indy’s prestige level.

“It’s not about points racing. If you don’t believe you can win going in, why are you competing?” he asks. “That’s all it’s about at the 500.”

Townsend Bell, Hildebrand’s Panther Racing teammate this month and also an analyst for NBC Sports Network’s IndyCar coverage, estimated between 25 to 28 possible winners of the race. Bell, having watched all four races this season from the booth, plus practicing with them, would be well-versed to make such a guess.

So who’s a favorite? The closest thing to one could be Marco Andretti, he of the legendary surname and off to the best start of his eight-year IndyCar career. Andretti nearly missed winning as a 19-year-old rookie in 2006, but says the race is at a much higher point now.

“I’d like to think so,” he said. “The league has generated some interest in general but this race in particular has always been strong, yet I think it’s coming back to where it used to be. It used to be crazy, so that’s fun to be a part of that – and I think they need an Andretti to win. That’ll help.”

The latest chapter of history at Indianapolis will occur this Sunday, and 33 drivers will be working tirelessly to ensure it’s their name that enters – or re-enters – legendary status.

See Carb Day coverage on NBC Sports Network starting at 11 a.m. ET, and IndyCar 36 featuring Simona de Silvestro at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday.

Palmer ‘gutted’ after spin costs him first F1 points in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:Jolyon Palmer of Great Britain driving the (30) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS16 Renault RE16 turbo on track  during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Jolyon Palmer felt “gutted” after a likely top-10 finish in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix was lost following a spin in the closing stages, costing him his first Formula 1 points.

2014 GP2 champion Palmer joined Renault for its return to F1 as a constructor in 2016, but arrived in Hungary without a point to his name from the opening 10 races of the season.

Palmer was left disappointed on Saturday after a red flag knocked him out of qualifying at the first hurdle, but a long first stint brought him into contention for points.

Palmer moved into the top 10 after jumping Nico Hulkenberg in the pits, only for Renault’s hard work to be undone when he spun off at Turn 4, losing three positions in the process.

The Briton was ultimately classified 12th after Esteban Gutierrez’s time penalty, extending his points drought to 11 races.

“I’m gutted as my first points in Formula 1 were there for the taking,” Palmer said.

“The car was good and I was driving well within myself in P10. I turned in the same as normal at turn four – I wasn’t hanging everything out and I was looking after the tires – but for some reason I lost the car in a massive snap.

“I need to look at everything with my engineers to see if there is anything we could have done to prevent it.

“I was running tenth, we had completed all our pit stops, we had good pace relative to those ahead and behind so it looks like we’ve made a real step forward this weekend.

“It was the best drive of my career today and just one small spin took away those points.

“I’m gutted today but I’ll be fighting to get in the same position or better in Hockenheim.”

F1 Paddock Pass: Hungarian Grand Prix post-race (VIDEO)

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win in parc ferme during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton moved into the lead of the Formula 1 drivers’ championship for the first time this year on Sunday after a masterful victory in the Hungarian Grand Prix.

Despite facing race-long pressure from pole-sitter and Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton held his own at the front of the pack to lead all but two laps en route to his fifth win at the Hungaroring.

The result sees Hamilton open up a six-point lead over Rosberg in the championship with 10 rounds remaining, having cut the gap down from 43 points six races ago.

The race in Hungary offered a number of interesting fights and strategic battles up and down the field, resulting in an entertaining affair.

Debriefing all of the action in Budapest with interviews and analysis, NBCSN’s Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

Defending champs bank first FIA WEC win of 2016 at Nürburgring

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At the same site where the trio of Timo Bernhard, Mark Webber and Brendon Hartley set sail for their eventual 2015 FIA World Endurance Championship title, the Nürburgring, the trio took their first win in their title defense year at the same circuit in Sunday’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring.

That win last year kicked off a string of four wins in a row through Shanghai.

This year, it’s Porsche’s third win in four races to open the 2016 FIA WEC season, although this one was a far more straightforward performance compared to the fortunate wins at Silverstone (Audi disqualification) and Le Mans (Toyota’s turbo failure). Audi then won at Spa in the Le Mans warm-up act.

Perhaps not the out-and-out fastest car during the weekend, the No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid otherwise avoided trouble during the majority of the race and inherited the lead with just over an hour to go when the sister No. 2 car’s race came unglued in the final two hours.

The No. 2 car – driven by 24 Hours of Le Mans winners and points leaders Neel Jani, Romain Dumas and Marc Lieb – controlled the middle portion of the race, before an ambitious move occurred at Turn 7 by Lieb when trying to overtake the polesitting GTE-Am class car, the No. 88 Abu Dhabi Proton Racing Porsche 911 RSR (Khaled Al Qubaisi, David Heinemeier Hansson and Patrick Long).

Lieb darted to Al Qubaisi’s inside at the last minute of the downhill right-hander, with pitched the GTE Porsche into a gravel and triggered a drive-through penalty for the avoidable contact.

Lieb, to his credit, offered no blame elsewhere, went to apologize and took it in stride.

“These are the rules, and I caused the accident,” he said. “I hit the 88 car. We accept the decision. It’s tough. But in these cars, you make decisions quickly. I tried to pass on the inside. But that’s racing.”

That penalty brought the No. 2 car into the pits and when it returned, it was in third behind the No. 8 Audi R18 (Loic Duval, Lucas di Grassi, Oliver Jarvis).

A battle between Jani, who took over from Lieb, and then Andre Lotterer in the No. 7 Audi followed. Lotterer got by Jani into the chicane and with Jani’s momentum slowed, he was then hit in the left rear legality panel by one of the SMP Racing BR01 Nissans. Lotterer then proceeded to barge past Jani at Turn 6, unpleased by Jani’s late-race racecraft.

An eventual black and orange flag was displayed to the No. 2 car, and it was brought into the pits for repairs with just over half an hour remaining. It dropped that car off the podium for the first time this year, down to a season-worst fourth.

By contrast, the two Audis were both on the podium for the first time this year, with the car’s higher downforce package proving a more viable one after its relative struggles at Le Mans.

The aforementioned No. 8 car of Audi’s younger guns finished ahead of the No. 7 Audi, driven only by Lotterer and Marcel Fassler with Benoit Treluyer sidelined due to injury and thus missing the first race of his FIA WEC career.

Toyota Gazoo Racing – the Le Mans dominators – struggled at its second “home race” as it’s based in nearby Cologne. A lapped fifth and sixth was all that was on the cards for the Nos. 5 and 6 Toyota TS050 Hybrids with its ultra-high-downforce package.

Among the LMP1 privateer entries, Rebellion Racing’s No. 13 Rebellion R-One AER picked up the win with Dominik Kraihamer, Alexandre Imperatori and Matheo Tuscher. Nick Heidfeld, Nico Prost and Mathias Beche were second, the latter in his first Rebellion start this year after Nelson Piquet Jr. ran the first three rounds.

Poor Team ByKolles suffered yet another fire with its CLM P1/01 AER, after two during Le Mans week, as noted by Oliver Webb. Credit though must go to Webb and Pierre Kaffer’s teammate, Simon Trummer, for coming up with a solid AC/DC reference…

LMP2

In LMP2 it was more of the same with the Signatech Alpine trio of Nicolas Lapierre, Stephane Richelmi and Gustavo Menezes continuing their sterling run of form in its No. 36 Alpine A460 Nissan.

That trio won its third race on the trot, ahead of the No. 43 RGR Sport by Morand Ligier JS P2 Nissan (Ricardo Gonzalez, Bruno Senna, Filipe Albuquerque).

There was nearly a last lap change for third, but despite Jonny Kane’s closing stint in the venerable No. 42 Strakka Racing Gibson 015S Nissan, he was unable to get around Ryan Dalziel, in the No. No. 31 Tequila Patron ESM Ligier JS P2 Nissan in its first race on Michelins.

Dalziel held off Kane by just 0.071 of a second for ESM’s third podium in four starts, in the car he shared with Pipo Derani and Chris Cumming. Kane shared the Strakka Gibson with team debutante Lewis Williamson doing a solid job on debut in place of Danny Watts, and Nick Leventis.

Manor, with a similarly changed-up lineup of Tor Graves joined by team newcomers Matt Howson and Antonio Pizzonia (replacing James Jakes and Will Stevens from the regular races, and Matt Rao and Roberto Merhi at Le Mans), rounded out the top five in class in its No. 44 Oreca 05 Nissan.

G-Drive Racing’s quest for its first win this year with another new lineup – Alex Brundle now in to join Rene Rast and Roman Rusinov – came undone with gearbox issues resigning the No. 26 Oreca 05 Nissan to the garage.

GTE

GTE-Pro’s Ford dominance at Le Mans did not carry over to the Nürburgring, with Ferrari back on top in a 1-2 result led by the No. 51 Ferrari 488 GTE turbo of Gianmaria Bruni and James Calado. It’s AF Corse’s third win of the season after the No. 71 car of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon opened the year with back-to-back wins.

Ford’s No. 66 GT of Stefan Muecke and Olivier Pla, the class points leaders heading into the race, looked set to bank a podium in third place ahead of the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, which showed improved form this weekend.

But a drive-through penalty was assessed to the No. 66 Ford for a pit stop infringement; Pla served it in the final 20 minutes and that dropped that car behind the “Dane Train” No. 95 Aston Martin of Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorenson.

It was a tough race for the No. 67 Ford, as it was at Le Mans, this time with a pit fire striking when Andy Priaulx was behind the wheel. Priaulx emerged unscathed though.

GTE-Am witnessed the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8 back on top for its second win this year with the trio of Paul Dalla Lana, Pedro Lamy and Mathias Lauda. The No. 78 KCMG Porsche 911 RSR and No. 83 AF Corse Ferrari F458 Italia completed the class podium.

A crowd of 58,000 was reported for the race, and the date confirmed for a Nürburgring return next year, about a week earlier – July 14-16, 2017.

The FIA WEC resumes at the inaugural Six Hours of Mexico City on Sept. 3, at the redone and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

It’s a massive event for the RGR Sport team, Gonzalez serving as both that team’s owner and co-driver, and the event’s promoter.

Vettel ‘expected a bit more’ than fourth in Hungary

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - JULY 24:  Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Hungary at Hungaroring on July 24, 2016 in Budapest, Hungary.  (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)
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Sebastian Vettel says Ferrari “expected a bit more” than fourth place in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix as Red Bull moved to within a point of the Italian marque in the Formula 1 constructors’ championship.

Vettel claimed his second race win for Ferrari in Hungary last year, but was left to settle for P4 this time around after failing to pass Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo for third in the closing stages.

The result extended Ferrari’s winless run in 2016, and allowed Red Bull to pull up just a point behind in the constructors’ championship.

When asked by NBCSN if Ferrari now how to admit it was in a battle for second, Vettel said: “We never denied it! We have to fight Red Bull.

“Our target is always to fight for P1 but Mercedes is strong. It’s not big news. We try everything. So is Red Bull.

“I think we had a good package today. We expected a bit more. But we’re up against it trying to improve it. We have the best pace right behind it.

“We need to get better Saturdays to have a chance on Sundays.”

Vettel was left fuming over the radio on multiple occasions during the race on Sunday after getting stuck behind lapped cars, calling for blue flags to be respected.

“I calmed down. I don’t think they showed the bit where I said please wave a blue flag,” Vettel said after a couple of his messages were broadcast, albeit censored.

“Obviously you get the impression you lose more than others. Lapped cars are usually doing a good job.

“Mirrors aren’t that big. It’s not like a 75 inch 4K resolution mirror you’re looking into. And we’re quite a bit faster in three to four corners.

“I know that I got pretty loud in the car but I’m not going to criticize anyone.”