Ten with Townsend: Milwaukee debrief

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As  the IZOD IndyCar Series returned to the NBC Sports Network for this past weekend’s Milwaukee IndyFest, so too did we check in with our resident NBCSN driver analyst Townsend Bell for his take on the 250-lapper at the historic Milwaukee Mile.

Since Bell’s last “Ten with Townsend” after Brazil, he’s finished fourth in the GT class at the American Le Mans Series’ race in Monterey in a Ferrari F458 Italia, completed his annual appearance in the Indianapolis 500 in the Sunoco/“Turbo” Chevrolet, and made Robert Graham’s line of hats pretty noticeable (right).

Without further adieu, the latest  “Ten with Townsend” installment (St. Pete, Barber, Long Beach/Brazil) from our resident expert after the Milwaukee IndyFest:

-Since we last checked in, you had a little 500-mile race to attend to in May. Although the result was tough, how was this month of May for you as a whole?

Overall it was a great month of May. I sure wish I would’ve had a better result. But we had some issues on race day and at the Indy 500, you can’t have any mistakes. As usual, the countdown begins to next year’s race. I hope to get a chance to go back and continue to apply everything I learn each year.

-What did you make of the Detroit doubleheader weekend and Texas races?

Detroit was incredible racing, especially Mike Conway. What he pulled off there was nothing short of spectacular. I still think that IndyCar racing should be about one main event during the weekend. I’m a traditionalist (agreeing with Mario Andretti here). So from that standpoint, I don’t prefer doubleheaders.

Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Milwaukee win last year kicked off his title charge. How much better do he and the team look now a year later, after this latest win?

They’re just more confident. Ryan was already a strong driver, but winning the championship confirmed to him and everybody else what he believed for so long. Now it’s not about believing, it’s about knowing. And you see that every time he drives – he’s a little less anxious and a little more confident. I think he’s the strongest overall driver in the field right now, with a very strong team that is humming on all cylinders.

-Championship contenders at the halfway point (eight of 16 weekends down): Castroneves, Hunter-Reay, Marco, Sato, Dixon, anyone else? Or probably between those five?

I think you can’t discount Will Power either, especially after a solid Milwaukee weekend. We can’t forget that he has the natural ability and every chance to go on a freakish run of street and road course victories if he can put it together. He’s certainly capable and certainly has proved that over and over in the past.

-Did you feel traffic was more of a factor than normal this year or just typical Milwaukee?

It was just typical Milwaukee.

-The way E.J. Viso is driving right now, would you expect him to join the ranks of first-time winners soon?

Maybe. But I still think E.J. has a ways to go before he has that “quarterback-style leadership” within his team. If he continues to study the way Ryan and James (Hinchcliffe) have behaved in the face of adversity, then I think he’ll have a good chance. He certainly has the ability to lay down the lap times, but piecing together an entire race weekend is still the goal for him in the future.

-Biggest surprise and disappointment at Milwaukee.

The biggest surprise to me was probably how strong Will Power was both in qualifying and the race. I think that was a huge step for him to show so well on an oval. I’m afraid the biggest disappointment continues to be Graham Rahal.

-Is this stretch of six races in five weekends too much? Too hard on the crews? Really doing its job of proving the haves and have-nots in the field?

To me, absolutely not! In a perfect world, we would race every weekend with INDYCAR straight through the summer.

-How did you enjoy the booth experience getting to work with David Hobbs? Had you two had the chance to work together previously for F1 broadcasts?

I had substituted for David Hobbs with Formula One on SPEED previously, but I had never had the chance to work with him during the broadcast. It was fantastic. His voice is iconic and he is so clever with humor and analysis.

-Lastly, what did you make of the ride in the Miller roadster for the GoPro course preview?

The Miller roadster drive will go down as one of the surprising favorite memories of my career. I thought it was gonna be like driving a tractor. But nothing could be further from the truth. It was absolutely fantastic and tempted me to push it harder and harder with each corner. But David was wishing otherwise!

Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

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Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).

Dixon maintains excellent start despite another tough P2 at Barber

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Such is the brilliance of Scott Dixon that his start to his 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – finishes of third, fourth and second – can be viewed as disappointing because potential wins have gone begging.

The latest chapter of his almost-winning-but-not-quite saga to open this year’s campaign occurred at the track where he has his best results without a win, Barber Motorsports Park.

Dixon was top Honda on the day in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, but alas, one spot short of a victory as he scored his seventh Barber podium in eight races – all of them either seconds or thirds.

On this occasion, Dixon did his usual masterstroke of fuel saving by running longest in the first stint, running to Lap 24 and leading two laps.

Dixon also got ahead of Josef Newgarden on the final pit stop sequence despite running behind him and Will Power on the road during the middle stint.

But after a restart from the second and last full-course caution on Lap 68, Newgarden muscled his way past Dixon at Turns 15 and 16 for third place on the inside, leaving Dixon very little room on corner exit in a forceful but not dirty passing move.

While that was for third at the time, it wound up being the pass for the win because Dixon’s teammate, then-leader Charlie Kimball, pitted from an off-sequence strategy and the would-be winner, Power, pitted with a left rear puncture.

It left Dixon high and dry but in his usual so good, yet so close, P2, with three laps led. He felt worse for Power and gave Newgarden plaudits for the move.

“I saw him late coming into Turn 15 or 16. I tried to hold him back, but I wasn’t able to hold him back. It’s deserved for him,” Dixon told NBCSN’s Marty Snider post-race.

“The NTT Data car was strong. I feel bad for Will Power. It was a false flat tire perhaps? So yeah, that and a good job to Josef.”

Dixon elaborated a bit more on the day in the post-race press conference.

“I typically hold a fairly tight line there. But, yeah, he dove it in there, with some speed. He couldn’t make the corner at the appropriate time, so we kind of both ran wide there. But, you know, it was a great move.

“Josef did a hell of a job there on the blacks. Obviously had a clean start and really had some good longevity on that stint and was able to pit short and jump on reds.

“I think, you know, I feel bad for Will obviously with the flat tire issue there, but then also left the door open a little bit in 16. Josef put his nose in there. Tried to turn down, but through that whole complex, 14, 15, 16, I was just so loose. If I turned more, would have spun out.

“Credit to Josef. Drove a hell of a race. Team Penske, congratulations to them. Seventh podium here at Alabama without a win. Good in a lot of ways, but unfortunately we come here to win and we came up short.”

Despite not winning, Dixon still sits second in the points, just six points behind Sebastien Bourdais, who finished eighth.

Dixon and the rest of the Verizon IndyCar Series head to the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix next weekend (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where he has a win to defend.