Josef Newgarden gestures in the pit lane during practice for the Indianapolis 500 in Indianapolis

Who’s in Indy’s ‘under-the-radar’ crowd? Depends who you ask

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At most Indianapolis 500s, there are distinctive tiers for the field of 33. Usually there are three or four headliners, five to seven “contenders but not favorites,” a dozen or so “they could be there if not for one thing or another,” and the rest who are there to make up the numbers.

In 2013, throw any such tier breakdown out the window.

As Townsend Bell, NBC Sports Network analyst and driver of the No. 60 Sunoco/ “Turbo” the movie Chevrolet for Panther Racing, told me on Thursday in Indianapolis, there could be anywhere from 25 to 28 cars that could win this year’s race.

He’s among them. You could consider Bell an “under-the-radar” threat, but he’s always been adept at getting up to speed quickly and managing the race in what is often his first IndyCar start of the year.

“The quicker I can get up to speed, going big early, then the sooner I can trust things and really start drilling into the finer details,” he explained. “Sometimes it takes a couple outings. But if you can go fast early, you’ve got that out of the way.”

Like Bell, another top-10 finisher of a year ago who some in the field project as one of this year’s top “sleepers” is Dale Coyne Racing’s Justin Wilson. Wilson, whose oval skills have increased over the last couple years, downplayed his chances in advance of the weekend.

“To be honest, last year the first two stints, I thought we were terrible,” he admitted. “But then we made a couple changes and we started passing everyone. The track continuously changes and you have to keep up with it.”

Another two drivers in the “sleeper” camp are fellow Honda runners Josef Newgarden (pictured, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing) and James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing).

Neither’s really a household name – Newgarden could be in time – but they are a pair of sophomores who now have a year’s experience under their belt and know how to run the race. A year ago, Newgarden was the fastest Honda qualifier, while Jakes’ RLL squad nearly won the race with Takuma Sato. Jakes has been the quickest in the RLL camp all month.

“This year we’ve had a much better focus on my end. I just understand the process a lot better,” said Newgarden. “We’ve prioritized our race package over everything. When we didn’t qualify well, it didn’t bother me because that wasn’t where we needed to be strong. I think it would be a ‘shock’ for those on the outside, but I feel confident we can win.”

Strategy has always been RLL’s strong suit; despite a pace gap all month, Jakes and/or Graham Rahal will likely move forward as a result of some good pit calls.

“That’s everything here,” said Jakes. “They’ve been so close the last two years. It’s massive for me to have had a year under my belt now and know how it works, what the team does, and experiencing what this race is like.”

There are others who’ve had good under-the-radar months – Alex Tagliani (Barracuda Racing), Sebastien Bourdais (Dragon Racing) and his 2012 teammate Katherine Legge (Schmidt Peterson Pelfrey) starred on Carb Day, for instance – but no one really knows how the race will shake out yet. Suffice to say it’s going to be hard for anyone in the 33-car field to break away.

Force India confident of retaining Sergio Perez

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India in the garage during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Force India remains “very confident” of extending the contract of Sergio Perez despite the Mexican driver’s threat that he will be forced to consider changing teams if a deal is not reached this month.

The deal was being held up by negotiations over the commercial terms of the sponsorship between team, driver and the Mexican telecommunications companies Telmex, Telcel and Claro.

“The driver contract has been completed for some time,” Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley said Friday at the Malaysian Grand Prix. “We are literally dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on the commercial side and if it takes a week, that is fine, if it takes a couple of weeks, so be it – it will happen.

“We are very confident ‘Checo’ will be with us next year, and we have never deviated from that.”

Perez had expected the deal to be finalized before the current Asian swing of the season in Singapore-Malaysia-Japan, and said he was losing patience with negotiations.

“At the moment I’m just concentrating on one team,” said Perez, who is eighth in the drivers’ standings with two podium finishes this season. “There are some other options on the table, quite interesting options.

“I hope that it works out with one team, and if it doesn’t, then by next week obviously we will have to look at something else.”

Perez has been linked with moves to Renault – which is in the market for an experienced driver and is yet to finalize either race seat for next season – and Haas, which has close links with Ferrari, which would be the Mexican’s dream move.

“I want to keep my career in F1 going. I cannot wait much longer,” Perez said. “I expect everything should be done by next week.

“Thankfully there is a lot of interest out there, makes you feel in a good position. If things don’t work out as you want, you have to look at somewhere else.”

Hamilton hits back to lead second F1 practice in Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 30, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton responded to the pace shown by Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg during opening practice in Malaysia on Friday morning by topping the afternoon session at Sepang.

Hamilton arrived in Malaysia trailing Rosberg for the first time in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship since the middle of July, the German’s run of three straight wins giving him an eight-point advantage in the standings.

Hamilton finished almost half a second off Rosberg in FP1, but managed to up his pace in second practice to record a fastest time of 1:34.944, enough to finish two-tenths of a second clear of the field.

Rosberg followed his teammate home in second place as Mercedes once again gapped the rest of the pack, pointing towards a significant advantage over one lap in qualifying.

Sebastian Vettel led Ferrari’s charge in third place, finishing 0.6 seconds off Hamilton’s fastest time, but was able to run the Mercedes duo closer during the long-run stints on the soft tire.

Kimi Raikkonen underpinned Vettel’s pace in the second Ferrari, finishing fourth ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in P5.

Sergio Perez followed in sixth place for Force India ahead of Fernando Alonso, who is set to start from the back of the grid this weekend after making changes to his power unit to accommodate new upgrades from Honda.

Daniel Ricciardo ended the session eighth for Red Bull, while Nico Hulkenberg and Jenson Button rounded out the top 10 positions.

The session saw Kevin Magnussen head back out on track following his firey exit from FP1, the Renault crew producing a rapid turnaround to get the singed R.S.16 car ready to head out midway through FP2. The Dane eventually finished 19th in the classification.

Pla powers to unofficial lap record at Petit Le Mans night practice

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Cooler conditions produced the fastest lap times yet this weekend for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale in night practice, and Olivier Pla kept the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda at the top of the charts.

A 1:13.541 is an unofficial lap record for IMSA (note times were quicker in the American Le Mans Series, but we’re talking post-mergification in 2014 when ALMS and GRAND-AM came under one roof) as Pla dropped the hammer Thursday night in the car he shares with Ozz Negri and John Pew, in Shank’s 250th and last scheduled prototype start. It also gave Shank a Thursday three-practice sweep of the top of the timesheets.

“I’m very happy with the performance today. I love this track, Road Atlanta, and the car has been great from the beginning. We just kept improving the car during each session. All of the changes we made were very positive so thank you to the team for that. I think it’s looking good for the race,” Pla told IMSA Radio.

Other class leaders at night included 2015 IndyCar driver Stefano Coletti, in the third Starworks Motorsport entry in Prototype Challenge, Dirk Mueller in GT Le Mans in the No. 66 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT and Marco Seefried in GT Daytona in the No. 44 Magnus Racing Audi R8 LMS.

Night practice, like the two day sessions that preceded it, was largely uneventful – a welcome departure from last year’s nightmarish day of crashes and rain on Thursday.

A final pre-qualifying practice occurs on Friday before qualifying later Friday afternoon.

Session three times are linked here.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Rosberg’s ascendance, Pagenaud’s title

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP speaks with his team-mate Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP as he celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Stefan Johansson’s latest blog entry previews the forthcoming Formula 1 title battle between Mercedes AMG Petronas teammates Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, recaps the IndyCar title just won by Simon Pagenaud, and addresses some other topics from both worlds as well.

Per usual, it’s the latest conversation with Jan Tegler live on Johansson’s website, and continues with what we’ve been chronicling throughout the year on NBCSports.com.

On the Rosberg vs. Hamilton title title, Johansson notes that the narratives around the two keep popping up depending on who’s winning and losing on-track.

“Nico really dominated this one, no doubt,” Johansson wrote of Rosberg’s peerless weekend in Singapore. “He had a flawless weekend throughout qualifying and the race and never put a foot wrong.

“But what’s funny is that again some of the pundits are back saying that Lewis is finished because he’s partying too hard, he’s not focused, etc. I say leave the guy alone. What we’re seeing is the normal, natural dynamics over the course of a 21-race season. You’re going to have good and bad races.

“Rosberg was certainly off-the-boil too for a few races mid-season and the pundits were saying he’s not mentally strong enough and this and that. The changing of momentum back and forth is completely normal but I guess some people just don’t have enough to talk about. Because there is effectively only two of them at the moment with a realistic chance of winning and they are so incredibly closely matched all the time it doesn’t take a lot for the momentum to swing one way or the other.”

Johansson also acutely notes how Sebastian Vettel has taken advantage of 2017 Pirelli tire testing to perhaps gain a leg up on the competition next year.

He writes of Vettel and Scuderia Ferrari’s test runs on the newer 2017 rubber, among other things, “What’s more interesting is that Sebastian Vettel has been doing every test lap for Ferrari that has been available. I guarantee you that this will give him an advantage next year. Every time you run a car you gain some level of knowledge. Racing and F1 in particular is no different than any other business in that it relies on human interaction and relationships to get the best results.

“The fact that Pirelli has Vettel doing testing, making every single run he can make will pay off. I’ve done lots of tire testing in the past and it’s absolutely the best way to move things forward for driver or a team performance.”

On Simon Pagenaud’s IndyCar title, Johansson praised the 32-year-old Frenchman who’s come into his own this year:

“Pagenaud ended the season in a pretty impressive way. There’s no doubt that he went to Sonoma to win the race as well as the championship. He did a superb job all weekend and the Penske team definitely has the momentum now. Ganassi had the momentum for several years but it seems to have swung toward Penske now. They also have four very strong cars with any one of them capable of winning any race under right circumstances, Ganassi doesn’t have that at the moment.”

Johansson still said Scott Dixon, the 2015 and four-time champion, put together a barnstorming 2016 campaign – but it was one undone by horrific luck.

“As I’ve said, it’s weird but Scott had his best year for many years in some ways. If everything had gone his way, he could have won three races where he had mechanical failures which are almost unheard of now in IndyCar. But he had engine problems at Detroit, Road America and St. Petersburg. There were also a few strategic errors all adding up to a Championship finish that was his lowest for quite some time. If all that hadn’t happened he would have almost dominated the season.”

There are several more great nuggets within Johansson’s latest blog, which you can view in its entirety here.

Previous linkouts to Johansson’s blog on MotorSportsTalk are linked below:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.