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Year after year, IndyCar has delivered championship thrillers

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For the last decade, NASCAR has utilized a playoff-style format – the Chase for the Sprint Cup – to determine the champion of its top-tier series. But INDYCAR has not done the same thing for its IZOD IndyCar Series.

The latter is all the better for it. Because while the Chase is designed to juice things up by resetting the field for the final 10 races of the Sprint Cup season, there’s something to be said about INDYCAR opting to let its competitors settle their title disputes on their own and without gimmicks.

In each of the last seven seasons, the IZOD IndyCar Series championship has come down to the final race of the year. And with the 2013 campaign winding down, it seems like a good time to take a quick look back on all of those thrilling battles from 2006-2012.

2006 – Sam Hornish Jr. over Dan Wheldon

The entire ’06 season was basically a duel between Team Penske’s Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves versus Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. The foursome earned 12 wins in that year’s 14-race schedule, and they were the ones to duke it out for the title in the season finale at Chicagoland Speedway.

Castroneves entered the Windy City with a one-point edge on Hornish, but on race day, a speeding penalty on pit road forced him to rally from the back of the field. He made it back toward the front but problems with lapped traffic caused him to finish fourth. Wheldon and Dixon took a 1-2 finish for Ganassi, but Hornish’s third-place finish ensured that he would win the title on a tiebreaker – his four wins besting Wheldon’s two.

2007 – Dario Franchitti over Scott Dixon

Dixon started to set the stage for a dramatic ’07 finale against Franchitti with a second-place finish at Kentucky that pulled him within eight points of the Scotsman. Then he moved into the championship lead with a win at Sonoma that came about after Franchitti made late-race contact with Marco Andretti.

But things got even more heated at Detroit, when an incident on the penultimate lap involving Scott Dixon and Buddy Rice sent the former into a spin (and the latter into the tire barriers). Franchitti tried to go to the outside of the spinning Dixon, but Dixon’s car then moved across and blocked Franchitti.

Franchitti was still able to finish sixth and headed to Chicagoland with a three-point lead over Dixon. Fittingly enough, the two drivers fought each other over the final 50 laps for the win and the championship. But on the last lap, Dixon’s car ran out of fuel in Turn 3 while leading the race, enabling Franchitti to zip past and take the IndyCar title in dramatic fashion.

2008 – Scott Dixon over Helio Castroneves

Castroneves did his best to whittle down his deficit in the standings to Dixon late in the ’08 season. In Sonoma, Castroneves took the checkered flag and chopped the gap to 43 points with two races left. Detroit saw him penalized for blocking late in the race, but while it cost him the win, he still moved within 30 points of Dixon going to Chicagoland for the finale.

There, Castroneves did everything he could do right. Despite starting dead last after running below the white line during qualifying, Castroneves still managed to win the race by .0033 of a second. The only problem? Dixon, a six-time race winner in ’08, was there with him at the finish – netting a runner-up result that garnered him a second IndyCar title by 17 points over the Brazilian.

2009 – Dario Franchitti over Scott Dixon and Ryan Briscoe

Briscoe emerged as Team Penske’s lead driver over the winter and took a 25-point lead over Franchitti into the final two races after his third win of the season at Chicagoland, the third-to-last race of the year. That put him in position to beat the pair of Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammates.

But an incident leaving pit lane at Motegi, the second-to-last race, left him 18th on the day and with a minimum 12 points achieved. The Target teammates went 1-2 there, led by Dixon. Then at the finale in Homestead, a fuel mileage derby, Franchitti ran slower but pitted one less time; DIxon and Briscoe needed a final splash of fuel in the last eight laps. That left Franchitti, back in IndyCar after a year’s sojourn to NASCAR, champion with 616 points to Dixon’s 605, and Briscoe’s 604.

2010 – Dario Franchitti over Will Power

On the strength of five victories, most in the field in 2010, Will Power was poised to capture his first championship in his first full season with Team Penske. It all went for naught though at the final race in Homestead, where Power entered with a 12-point lead over Franchitti.

There, Franchitti took pole and Power qualified third. Needing to at least shade Franchitti or hope the Scotsman didn’t win the race, Power made the first of his title-losing mistakes – with contact in the wall between Turn 3 and 4. His crew worked valiantly to get him back out but he retired after 143 laps with suspension damage. That left Franchitti firmly in the driver’s seat and with eighth place and Power 25th, Franchitti won the title by five, 602-597, over Power.

2011 – Dario Franchitti over Will Power

Power had six wins to Franchitti’s four entering what became, unfortunately, the season finale in Kentucky. The Australian led the Scotsman by 11 points going into Kentucky, 542-531. Power took pole at Kentucky and despite a dominant first half of the race, contact when Ana Beatriz hit Power’s left side sidepod put a dent in his chances. He raced the rest of the day with the aero deficiencies and finished 18th.

Franchitti, meanwhile, lost in a photo finish to Ed Carpenter in Carpenter’s first career win and the first for Sarah Fisher Racing. Franchitti carried an 18-point lead, 573-555, over Power into Las Vegas. The Las Vegas race, however, saw neither driver qualify well (Power 17th, Franchitti 18th in the 34-car field). Power was then caught up in the horrific, 16-car pileup through Turns 1 and 2 that claimed the life of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon. The race was canceled and the points final as of Kentucky, with Franchitti claiming his third consecutive championship.

2012 – Ryan Hunter-Reay over Will Power

Sensing a theme here? Power came second yet again in the title chase after entering the season finale with a lead for the third straight year. After flops at Homestead and Kentucky, the 2012 season finale was held at Auto Club Speedway at Fontana (Power led by 17 points over the resilient Ryan Hunter-Reay).

Again, while neither driver started well (Power 13th, Hunter-Reay 22nd in the 26-car field), they ran in tandem for the first portion of the race. On lap 55, it happened again – Power hit a bump between Turns 1 and 2 and lost control, spinning out, hitting the wall and narrowly avoiding Hunter-Reay. “RHR” prevailed with fourth place – even despite Power’s crew again performing a heroic effort to get him back out and gain two more points – and the American duly captured his first championship by three points over Power (468-465).

CHASE COMPARISONS

Jimmie Johnson’s run of titles from 2006 through 2010 removed some drama from NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup in those years. The 2010 showdown versus Denny Hamlin was perhaps the most memorable, when Johnson overcame a deficit in the last two races. But in the last two years, battles between Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards (2011) and Brad Keselowski and Johnson (2012) have come down to the wire. The 2011 season ended in a tie, with Stewart beating Edwards thanks to winning more races.

Hawksworth’s team’s labor hasn’t yet borne fruit of better results

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What do Jack Hawksworth and Allen Iverson have in common?

Practice, man.

“The Answer’s” famous – or perhaps infamous – “We talkin’ ‘bout practice, man” riff a number of years ago remains the go-to line whenever practice comes up in conversation.

It’s practice where the seeds of success are sown for a team when it comes to game day.

And for Hawksworth and the No. 41 ABC Supply Co. Honda team, it’s been practice where the team has starred in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.

But thus far, following practice, it’s been a case where the rest of the weekend has gone downhill for a variety of small but niggling reasons.

“If it was based off practice one I’d be leading the points!” Hawksworth told NBC Sports Thursday, and the thing is, he’s not joking.

In the three road or street course races this season, Hawksworth has ended second (St. Petersburg), third (Long Beach) and second (Barber) in first practice.

He’s followed it up with fellow top-10 runs in second practice of eighth, ninth and second again, respectively.

But come qualifying, it’s gone awry.

Starts of ninth, 20th and 14th have followed and in the races, it’s gone even worse with results lower than his grid spot: 11th, 21st and 19th. Toss out the Phoenix oval, because that was a nightmare weekend for him.

If ever there was a case where stats are misleading, it’s here, because Hawksworth and the team are clearly better than what they’ve been able to produce results-wise this year, and also far more gelled as a unit now compared to where they were 12 months ago as a new collective group.

“Our team is full of good people; we really believe in the 41 garage,” he said. “We did a lot of hard work over the winter. We haven’t seen the fruits of it yet.

“It looks like we’re a long way away, but we’re incredibly close. It’s a few small details, little tweaks and we’ll be at the front. It’s imminent. We’ve not shown it yet but we know it’s coming.”

The big change occurred this weekend was seeing Daniele Cucchiaroni promoted to lead race engineer on the No. 41 car, replacing the departed Dan Hobbs.

Hawksworth and Cucchiaroni worked together at Bryan Herta Autosport in 2014 and he joined the Foyt team last year with Takuma Sato’s effort. Hawksworth called him one of the brightest minds in the paddock.

He said it’s not the operating window of the Honda aero kit that the team has missed, but it has just missed getting the setup right for the qualifying and the race, where mere thousandths of a second make a difference.

“The cars are sensitive to track temperature… the conditions… it’s easy to get outside the window, but our problem hasn’t been balance or anything,” he said.

“You’re completely right in that we’ve had very quick cars at times. We haven’t understood the (Firestone) reds yet. Really, it’s just executing the qualifying and the race, with having a quick car and right car. It sounds crazy, but it’s worked out that way.

“There’s many reasons for that. We’re narrowing them down for the next couple races. It’s just small but vital things that have tripped us up. It’s been frustrating. Different at each race as well.”

Hawksworth also said he was doing everything possible to get out of the way at Barber when leaders Graham Rahal and Simon Pagenaud were trying to overtake him in the final stages.

“What happened there was a funny deal. To be honest, with the day we were having, the last thing I want to do is get in the way of leaders,” he said.

“I really don’t care who wins if it’s not me. But for courtesy, you don’t want to wreck the leaders.

“So I ducked out of Turn 5 to go to the left, that was the only place I could go. I saw Graham and Simon were side-by-side. If I’d have gone to the outside or stayed in the middle I’d have caused a crash. The only place to go was the inside. Rahal tried to get a tow off of me but he misjudged it and clipped my rear pods. That’s just racing.”

Hawksworth’s race was compromised to begin with when Mikhail Aleshin on the start clipped him, after Carlos Munoz clipped Aleshin. All three had to restart at the back of the field.

“The problem is mate, when you qualify (poorly), you’re in the middle of the pack. So we were on the bad side of the 26 and the 7, then you go to the back and toss around all day… much the story of our season.

“I spoke to Brian (Barnhart, Race Director) about it. The rule is, if you don’t reclaim your position by start of the pace lap, you automatically start at the back. With me being at the back, but going onto the grass to avoid running into the side of Aleshin, they deemed that the pace lap. It was a rules thing.”

Hawksworth said he’d like to see the gray areas of the rulebook examined for future use to try to remove warnings and unclear calls as best as possible.

“I’d beat on the drum of making it as black and white as possible. If you cross a line, you cross a line. We need to simplify the rules as much as we can to where things are a straightforward decision. There still seems to be a bit of the gray area.

“Still, it’s up to the series. It’d be easier for them too (to go black and white).”

Heading into May, Hawksworth sits 20th in points (50 points) while Takuma Sato is 40 points ahead, but in ninth.

Hawksworth’s season to date:

	FP1	FP2	FP3	QUAL	WU	RACE
STP	2	8	2	9	21	11
PHX	22	21	-	17	-	19
LB	3	9	11	20	17	21
BAR	2	2	11	14	8	19

Hakkinen sure Rosberg is ready to become F1 world champion

SHANGHAI, CHINA - APRIL 17:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win with his team during the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 17, 2016 in Shanghai, China.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Two-time Formula 1 world champion Mika Hakkinen believes that current series leader Nico Rosberg is now ready to follow in his footsteps and win his first title in 2016.

Rosberg has finished second to Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton in the past two seasons, taking the championship to the final round in 2014.

Having won the last six grands prix, Rosberg is in the form of his career and is the early leader in the 2016 championship, enjoying a 36-point advantage over Hamilton after three races.

Rosberg has cooled talk of the championship with 18 races still to go in the season, but Hakkinen now believes the German is ready to win his first world title.

“I remember how he walked around as a four or five-year-old with a small helmet in his hand,” Hakkinen told Spox.

“When I see him now, I’m very proud of him. He has developed fantastically. He has became a man and a father with the responsibility of a family.

“What many people underestimate [is that] the path to being world class is incredibly long, arduous and painful. The emphasis is on pain. Since it does not matter if your own father himself was world champion or not.

“Although he has his friends and family on the side, at the end you are still alone, with an immense burden, especially mentally, to cope.

“The physique and talent were always there. Now he has the goal clearly in mind and says with conviction: ‘Yes, I want to become world champion!’ He has risen to the challenge.

“Therefore my answer is yes, he is ready for the world title.”

Alex Tagliani will make No. 35 lucky for five AJ Foyt fans

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On May 10th, Alfe Heat Treating will unveil the No. 35 “Tribute to AJ Foyt” IndyCar at the Foyt Wine Vault in Speedway Ind.

It’s the formal reveal of the car that was announced when Alex Tagliani’s month of May program was announced in March.

“We want to honor the fans of IndyCar and AJ Foyt by inviting them to partake in a special event with us and share in the excitement surrounding the 100th Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” Ryan Westman, regional sales manager and director of motorsports for Fort Wayne-based Alfe Heat Treating, said in a release.

The event will be a private viewing of the tribute car along with the opportunity to meet and take photos with Tagliani, Takuma Sato, and Jack Hawksworth, all drivers for A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

The tribute car will be driven by Tagliani in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the Indianapolis 500. It bears the No. 35 for the number of consecutive starts Foyt made in the Indy 500 from 1958 through 1992. The number also has the added significance of being Foyt’s birth year, all of which the team hopes will be a lucky omen.

Before the racing begins, five race fans will have already experienced the luck by entering a Facebook contest one week prior to the special unveiling event. Alfe Heating is sponsoring a contest for which five winners will receive two tickets for the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indy on May 14th.

Beginning at noon Eastern time through 4 pm ET on May 3, fans will have the opportunity to answer a question alternately on the Alfe Racing and AJ Foyt Racing Facebook page, with the first person answering each question correctly earning a ticket for two to the May 10th unveiling and May 14 race.

Winners must be 21 years or older, or if younger accompanied by an adult aged 21 or older.

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Gutierrez hoping for more in Russia after finally banking first finish

during practice ahead of the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 18, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.
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An accident in the Australian Grand Prix and brake issues in the Bahrain Grand Prix was not the kind of return to competition Esteban Gutierrez was expecting.

After a one-year hiatus and two failures to finish in 2016, the 24-year-old Mexican driver for Formula 1’s new American team was finally running at the end of a race.

As he heads into this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, Gutierrez is keen to start getting any sort of momentum going.

“For sure it was a relief to finish the race finally,” Gutierrez said in Thursday’s FIA Press Conference.

“It’s been a frustrating start for me, a lot of interruptions over the weekends, but I wasn’t satisfied completely just by finishing the race of course, I want much more than that.”

Gutierrez finished the Chinese Grand Prix 14th, as the first driver one lap down to the leaders in the No. 21 Haas VF-16 Ferrari.

Notably, that is precisely where he finished his most recent five races of 2014—one lap off the pace, but running at the end of the show. Gutierrez’s last complete race came in the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix when he finished 15th.

“China overall wasn’t a great track for our car,” he admitted. “Hopefully we can recover from now on, in Russia, and that this track gives us better possibilities.

“Russia offers… yeah, let’s say a medium range of overtaking so it’s not very straightforward but hopefully the strategy can be a bit more viable, that we can have more pitstops. As you say, the prediction is not the case, but hopefully we have a fun race for the people outside to watch, and have fun.”

Last year, Gutierrez spent his year working on race simulations to stay sharp. It was no substitute for race experience, but it provided a different perspective he hopes will lead to eventually finishing in a points’ paying position.

Working on a simulator in 2015 “didn’t change the approach; it changed my knowledge,” Gutierrez added. “I basically experiment a lot.”

“I feel very confident and I feel very prepared right now and everything is in front of me.”

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