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.

Rosberg delighted with near-perfect lap en route to Russia pole

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 10:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP drives during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on October 10, 2015 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg believes that he produced a near-perfect lap en route to pole position for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Rosberg posted a fastest lap time of 1:37.113 to beat Mercedes teammate and championship leader Lewis Hamilton to pole position by three-tenths of a second.

The result marked Rosberg’s third pole position of the season, and is the first time he has scored back-to back poles since the end of 2014.

Conditions in practice on Friday plus a scary crash for Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jr. on Saturday meant that the field headed into qualifying almost blind in terms of setup and car balance, but Rosberg was pleased with what he achieved.

“It was a tricky session today as we were not able to practise a lot yesterday,” Rosberg explained. “We had to guess what the right set up for this track will be.

“But we nailed it and had a nearly perfect lap in my first run in Q3. So I’m quite pleased with that.

“I’m in the best possible position for tomorrow, which is great. I really hope for a clean race, it will be a great battle with Lewis.”

Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff praised Rosberg for his consistently quick display in practice and qualifying, but believes that the lack of practice running will also have an impact on Sunday’s race.

“A great job from Nico to take a second pole position in a row; he has been quick all weekend and kept that going through qualifying to take P1,” Wolff said.

“For the race, it will be a bit of a journey into the unknown because we have not had much running this weekend. This track is tough on the rear tires and everybody will be watching the tire degradation carefully.

“We’re starting from the best possible position but we need to take everything one step at a time.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 6:30am ET on Sunday.

WEC: Porsche sweeps to front row lock-out in Fuji

Car #17 / PORSCHE TEAM (DEU) / Porsche 919 Hybrid Hybrid  / Timo Bernhard (DEU) / Mark Webber (AUS) / Brendon Hartley (NZL) Qualifying LMP1 & LMP2 - 6 Hours of Fuji at Fuji International Speedway - Shizuoka - Japan
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Porsche extended its streak of pole positions in the FIA World Endurance Championship to nine races by locking out the front row of the grid for the 6 Hours of Fuji on Saturday.

Sharing qualifying duties in the no. 17 Porsche 919 Hybrid, Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard posted a two-lap average of 1:22.763 seconds to give the German marque pole position at Fuji Speedway.

Yet again, it was the sister no. 18 Porsche of Marc Lieb, Neel Jani and Romain Dumas that put up the most stringent challenge, but fell three-tenths of a second short at the end of the LMP qualifying session.

Audi put up more of a fight to the Porsches this time around as both of its R18 e-tron quattros finished within half a second of the no. 17’s time. The no. 7 of Marcel Fassler, Andre Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer will start third ahead of Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis in the no 8.

Toyota endured another fairly routine qualifying en route to P5 and P6 as the TS 040 Hybrid car struggles to keep up with its rivals, beating only the Rebellion and ByKolles runners in LMP1.

In LMP2, G-Drive continued its dominant streak by finishing first and second in class. Sam Bird, Roman Rusinov and Julien Canal will start from pole tomorrow ahead of Gustavo Yacaman, Luis Felipe Derani and Ricardo Gonzalez in the sister car.

AF Corse bounced back from a difficult race in Austin to finish first and second in GTE Pro qualifying, led by the no. 71 of James Calado and Davide Rigon. Toni Vilander and Gianmaria Bruni will start just behind in P2 ahead of the no. 99 Aston Martin Racing entry.

Ferrari’s strong form carried over into GTE Am as well as the SMP Racing F458 Italia took class pole, finishing three-tenths clear of the no. 98 AMR Vantage.