Weekend round-up: Nationwide in Daytona, sports cars in Northeast

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This past weekend was one of the busiest across the motorsports landscape, beyond the German Grand Prix (the second race of Formula One’s back-to-back weekends), IndyCar’s return to Pocono and NASCAR’s annual fireworks show/demolition derby/restrictor plate race in Daytona.

  • NASCAR’s Nationwide Series opened the weekend at Daytona and Matt Kenseth edged James Buescher, who had won the February race at Daytona in 2012, for the win on Friday night. Kenseth is pictured right leading Kurt Busch, in the “Days of Thunder” throwback livery. Neither is competing for that series’ championship; the top five is separated by only 17 points with points leader Regan Smith just six points ahead of Sam Hornish Jr.
  • In the last NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series race before a week off and its annual summer three-race “Western swing,” Khalid alBalooshi (Top Fuel), Johnny Gray (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) scored victories at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, Ohio.
  • As written by my colleague Chris Estrada on Saturday, the American Le Mans Series had its first race since Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in May. Class winners were: P1: Klaus Graf and Lucas Luhr (Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03a), P2: Ryan Briscoe and Scott Tucker (Level 5 Motorsports HPD ARX-03b), GT: John Edwards and Dirk Mueller (BMW Team RLL BMW Z4), PC: Bruno Junqueira and Duncan Ende (RSR Racing ORECA FLM09) and GTC: Spencer Pumpelly and Nelson Canache (Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche GT3 Cup).
  • The Pirelli World Challenge resumed at Lime Rock Park after a month’s hiatus since Detroit, sharing the weekend with ALMS. Five total races took place with Mike Skeen and Johnny O’Connell winning Rounds 8 and 9 of GT, Lawson Aschenbach and Jack Baldwin taking Rounds 8 and 9 of GTS, Brett Sandberg (Rounds 4 and 5) and Ryan Winchester (Round 6) scoring TC victories and Robbie Davis (Rounds 4 and 5) and Joel Lipperini (Round 6) adding TCB class wins to their season totals. See the full race broadcast on July 20 at 4 p.m. EDT on NBC Sports Network.

IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.