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.”

Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.