Rick Mears sits on the wall during practice for the Indianapolis 500 in Indianapolis.

Rick Mears excited about Indy car return to Pocono after 23-year absence

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He hasn’t driven a race car since retiring in 1992, but when modern-era drivers talk about the return of Indy cars to Pocono Raceway for this Sunday’s Pocono IndyCar 400 Fueled by Sunoco, invariably the first name out of their mouths is legendary driver Rick Mears.

“He was the master of this place,” Helio Castroneves said of Mears in a recent interview with the Scranton (Pa.) Times-Tribune. “We’ve heard a lot about this place. We’re honored to be back here with Team Penske. Hopefully, we can do the same as Rick Mears did in the past.”

Mears, now in his 21st year as a consultant to Penske Racing, dominated Indy car racing at Pocono – until the track stopped hosting open-wheel racing in 1989.

But even as the hiatus ends with this weekend’s race return to the 2.5-mile tri-oval track in Long Pond, Pa., what Mears did there in a relatively short period of time is the kind of thing that legends are built from.

In just 10 races at Pocono (nine in the old CART series and a 10th in the USAC Champ Car series), Mears won three times, had six overall podium finishes (including two runners-up and a third) and earned four pole positions.

His average career finish there: an outstanding 8.3.

“You can never have too many tracks and you can never have enough tracks,” Mears told the newspaper. “I’m a racer. I like to run on all of them. Anything with a history like here with our cars, I think it’s great to get back.”

Much like it continues to remain a challenge to other series that have raced at Pocono for decades, including NASCAR, the track’s unique three-turn layout – with no turn the same – should make for some exciting racing this Sunday.

“It was like having three race tracks in one,” Mears said. “So the challenge was getting set up for three race tracks with one car. That was part of the fun.”

While lots has changed since Mears last appeared at Pocono a quarter-century ago, a famous old saying appears to still be true: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“You still basically have to get the balance of the car the way you want it,” Mears said. “The patterns on the race track as far as the line goes don’t change much. What was a good line back then is a good line today. All that stuff is still relative and still comes into play.”

Even with such a lengthy layoff, Penske Racing returns as one of the most dominating Indy car teams in Pocono track history, with seven wins there between 1971 (the late Mark Donahue) and 1989 (its last there with Danny Sullivan). In addition to Mears’ wins in 1982, 1985 and 1987, Tom Sneva (1977) and Bobby Unser (1980) also won there under the Penske banner.

Said current driver Will Power, teammates with Castroneves at Penske Racing, “Pressure’s on.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field. Finishing sixth in 2015 after a late rally was Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 6th Place, 3 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 195 Laps Led, 10.2 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 6th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 71 Laps Led, 12.2 Avg. Start, 10.4 Avg. Finish

The old adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” would probably be the best way to sum up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2015 season, which until the final quarter of season could best be described as a forgettable nightmare.

The first three races seemed somewhat OK, with eighth, seventh and fourth place grid spots. But none of the three produced a result of note; Hunter-Reay was also caught up in the three-car, late race accident at NOLA Motorsports Park and didn’t bank any good finish until a fifth place at Barber the end of April.

A tailspin followed. Hunter-Reay started between 14th and 21st every race between the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Milwaukee – a stretch of eight races – and only had one top-10 finish in that stint, eighth at the rain-affected lottery that was Detroit race two. Some seasons are just ones you want to end and by Milwaukee it was obvious that Hunter-Reay was racing just to get to the end of the year, without things getting any worse.

Things finally came good with a typically good drive at Iowa and arguably one of the drives of his career, two races later at Pocono, to end with two wins and extend his streak of winning a race in each of his six seasons at Andretti Autosport. It was no coincidence, either, that Hunter-Reay’s uptick in form came with the return of the late Justin Wilson’s presence in a fourth car.

After Pocono, Hunter-Reay also drove well to finish second at Sonoma, and by that point he’d completed an incredible late-season turnaround to jump from 14th to sixth in points. But if asked, he’d probably admit this was his toughest season yet at Andretti and arguably his toughest overall since his 2009 season, when he was in-between full-time rides and saw out the year with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.