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MotorSportsTalk’s 2013 IndyCar season review, Part 2

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Earlier this year, my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada and I took a two-part look at the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season. Part one focused on our respective bests/worsts, with the second each of our top five stories.

We’re continuing our comprehensive, full 2013 IndyCar recap this morning with our respective bests and worsts of this year. You can look forward to a number of posts related to this season over the next several weeks. As you’ll see below, Chris and I agreed on several items, but occasionally for different reasons…

BEST DRIVER

TONY DIZINNO: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. A no-doubter. Four second-half wins including the incredible run of three in eight days at Pocono and Toronto, a revitalized charge at Houston after getting knocked down at Sonoma and Baltimore, and a controlled drive at Fontana all did the trick for Dixon’s third IndyCar title. Helio Castroneves collected points, but Dixon went out and took points away.

CHRIS ESTRADA: Scott Dixon, Target Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s place among IndyCar’s all-time best competitors has to be secure after he charged from seventh in the standings at mid-season to his third career IndyCar Series championship. His three-race win streak in July (Pocono, Toronto 1 and 2) put him back in the title picture, but he proved how strong his resolve is after suffering twin calamities at Sonoma and Baltimore, and capitalized on the misfortunes of title rival Helio Castroneves in the Houston doubleheader with a win and runner-up. From there, he did what he had to do at Fontana and now he’s back on top of the mountain – a well-deserved triumph for one of the sport’s most tenacious drivers.

MOST DISAPPOINTING DRIVER

TDZ: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Sebastian Saavedra’s a close second for me, but the stats don’t lie: Rahal tied Saavedra with the worst starting average in the field (17.7), had only five top-10 finishes in 19 races, and finished 18th in the standings. Plus, James Jakes hassled him way more than I thought was possible. A midseason engineering change from Gerry Hughes to Neil Fife helped, but it wasn’t enough to make a sizeable difference. Perhaps the addition of Bill Pappas for 2014, announced Thursday, will. I certainly didn’t expect this, and I’m fairly certain these guys didn’t either.

CE: Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Things just never really got on track for Rahal in his first full-time season with the family team. He and the No. 15 crew are capable of better as they showed in their flashes of promise this season, like their podium at Long Beach, drive to fifth in Iowa and jumping 17 positions in Houston Race 1 for a top-10 result. It’s moments like those that should make the RLL camp optimistic about what they can do when everything does come together. But 2013 was definitely not that time.

MOST IMPROVED DRIVER

TDZ: Josef Newgarden, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Either “Newgy” or “Chuck strong,” Charlie Kimball, would be a worthy recipient here, and Chris hits Charlie’s case below. I’ll state Josef’s. The kid overachieved on a single-car team in his sophomore season and eliminated the mistakes that all-too-frequently occurred in his rookie year. He could have won at Brazil had it not been for ill-timed defending by Takuma Sato, and his run to second at Baltimore was one of the drives of the year. There, he started fifth, bounced from front to back to front again, and handled the track’s notorious chicane like a boss. His qualifying could be better but that’s my only demerit; 23rd to 14th is an excellent jump in the standings and in 2014 he should be contending for his first win, and a top-10 points finish, a la Kimball this year.

CE: Charlie Kimball, Novo Nordisk Chip Ganassi Racing. The IndyCar Series had four first-time winners in 2013, but it can be argued that Kimball’s breakthrough at Mid-Ohio in August was the most heart-warming of them all. It was the climax of a very competitive 2013 for the American driver, who logged two podiums (the other coming at Pocono), three top-5s, and 10 top-10s en route to a respectable ninth-place finish in the championship. Even better: With Kimball’s star rising on the track, he and sponsor Novo Nordisk’s noble work toward diabetes awareness is sure to resonate further off of it.

BEST RACE

TDZ: Brazil. Several second-half races challenged it from a drama standpoint – Sonoma, Baltimore, both Houston rounds and the Fontana season finale – but Brazil was the best blend of on-track drama and an incredible finish in my estimation.

CE: Brazil. Of course, this race is currently off the schedule for next season (*facepalm*). Time will tell if it comes back in 2015, but let’s hope so. This year’s running was everything a motor race should be – passes for position galore, daring maneuvers, and a battle that went all the way to the final corner. Even the most hardened oval-racing fans had to love what they saw in the streets of Sao Paulo.

WORST RACE

TDZ: Houston Race 2. The battle between Will Power and Dixon for the win was good, and there was decent passing throughout the field. So why does this qualify? The last-lap wreck that sent Franchitti airborne was the icing on the cake on what was IndyCar’s most trying weekend of the season. Franchitti and fans got injured, the national passerby media popped up again questioning IndyCar’s safety, and most folks left with a sour taste in their mouths.

CE: Houston Race 2. If you saw our coverage during the Grand Prix of Houston weekend, you’ll know that the on-track proceedings left much to be desired: Constant schedule changes, temporary chicanes, bipolar weather conditions, the botched setting of the Race 2 grid, and then, Franchitti getting sent into the catch fence on the final lap and scattering debris into the grandstands. Thankfully, Franchitti survived the incident and the injured fans weren’t severely dinged up. But altogether, it was certainly not IndyCar’s finest hour.

BEST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Going to take a step down to the Mazda Road to Indy ladder for this. The announcement that Dan Anderson and Andersen Promotions will take over Indy Lights, thus putting it under the same umbrella as Pro Mazda and USF2000, is huge. There is more cohesion, more announcements, and more possibilities for growth under one tent than separate.

CE: I don’t really see this so much as a “story,” but more so as “the right thing to do.” Shortly after the events of Houston, IndyCar drivers such as Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon went to a local hospital to visit some of the fans that were hit with the debris from the aforementioned crash. It was a poignant reminder of just how many good people there are within the series.

WORST OFF-TRACK STORY

TDZ: Take your pick of the 2014 schedule and the doubts that raises among some IndyCar fans, the IMS road course race, the lack of a commercial division head or the rash of sponsors that are on the way out at the end of this year. To me, IZOD’s departure is the biggest – and worst – off-track story this year. It was not unexpected as signs of its leaving have been forecast for almost two years. At the moment though, there is little to no buzz about a potential replacement. I had mooted a couple suggestions a month or so ago but neither appears serious as time has passed. IndyCar has a good product, but will remain invisible on a national scale so long as it does not have a key title sponsor to activate and promote the series. This remains Mark Miles and Hulman & Co.’s biggest challenge, and as Miles performs company reorganization this winter, they seek the big fish that can help get this product to the people.

CE: I have to go with the condensed schedule rolled out for 2014. While keeping tabs on the season-finale at Auto Club Speedway earlier this month, I had the rather cringe-worthy realization that IndyCar would be almost two months into its off-season by this time next fall. Nobody wants to deal with the NFL, but the proposed international winter series for 2015 better come off or the series will sink further into irrelevance thanks to its extended hiatus.

Advantage Rosberg as F1 title fight resumes at stormy Sepang

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - SEPTEMBER 29:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP in the garage during previews for the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on September 29, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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SEPANG, Malaysia (AP) Rainy weather may be the only thing that can stop Mercedes from clinching a third straight Formula One constructors’ title at this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, as new championship leader Nico Rosberg seeks to capitalize on his current edge over teammate Lewis Hamilton.

Mercedes has won all but one race this year – when the teammates took each other out in a crash – and is now poised to seal the team championship with five races to spare. It needs to score only three points more than closest rival Red Bull, while preventing Ferrari from outscoring Mercedes by 22 points or more, in order to clinch the title.

Thunderstorms are forecast throughout the race weekend, and the Malaysian race and qualifying have a history of being hit by heavy rain. That may give some encouragement to Red Bull and Ferrari that they can challenge Mercedes.

A resurfacing of the track will complicate matters for all teams, as their data from previous years on tire degradation will be obsolete.

Rosberg has won the past three races to turn a 19-point deficit to Hamilton into an eight-point lead. The tension between the teammates is spilling over from the track.

“We are pushing each other very hard on the race track and even off the race track,” Rosberg said Thursday. “It’s a great battle and everything counts, in many areas.”

The German has never won on the sweeping turns and long straights of Sepang, but that should not be considered much of an omen, as he has recorded first-ever victories at five other circuits this season.

Hamilton’s campaign has taken a turn for the worse after his own hat-trick of race wins in mid-season.

“I’ve had ups and downs. I’ve had tough runs and I’ve had good runs, and it’s not particularly any different to any of those,” Hamilton said of the latest reversal of fortunes. “It’s all about how you handle it, how you deal with it.”

His handling of it was commendable in the previous race in Singapore as he took a fighting third place despite a weekend of technical setbacks.

However, Hamilton hinted at some discontent Thursday. Asked about alterations to the set-up of the car in recent races, he said: “If something changes when it doesn’t need to be changed, it can have all sorts of effects.”

“There’s other things in the background which they (the team) can apply more effort to, but that’s internal stuff,” he added.

Team management was staying neutral in the title fight between the Mercedes pair, and Hamilton said there had been no efforts to buoy his spirts following the recent championship turnaround.

“The team doesn’t have anything to say to me because we’re embarking on the team championship, which is what they care about. Me and the (drivers’) world championship are not really their priority in a sense.”

McLaren driver Jenson Button will make his 300th race start this weekend, joining Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello as the only men to reach that milestone.

“When I started in 2000, I remember speaking to my Dad, and he said, ‘How long do you think you’ll race for?’ and I said, ‘I’ll be done by the time I’m 30, and here I am at 36,'” Button said. “It definitely sucks you in, Formula One, and it doesn’t let go for a long time.”

Ed Carpenter Racing confirms Newgarden departure for 2017

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Ed Carpenter Racing has provided the first official domino of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series silly season, confirming on Thursday that Josef Newgarden will not be back with the team for 2017. Carpenter had Newgarden under contract through Sept. 28 and since that passed, now frees him up to leave.

“While it’s disappointing that Josef will not be returning, it’s also not a total surprise after all of the speculation the past few weeks,” team owner Ed Carpenter said in a release.

“I wish Josef the best in his future endeavors, but also remain focused on ECR’s continued success. We are positioned well moving into 2017 and I have total confidence that we will continue to deliver the high level of performance we expect as a team.”

This doesn’t outright confirm Newgarden will shift to Team Penske, but it makes it a near certain possibility to follow the rumors the last few weeks and reported on by NBCSN contributor Robin Miller for RACER.com.

Newgarden leaves Carpenter’s team after a net five years, the first five of his IndyCar career. He was initially with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for three years from 2012 to 2014, then did separate one-year extensions under the merged CFH Racing banner in 2015 and with the rebranded Ed Carpenter Racing for 2016, with Fisher and Wink Hartman no longer part of the ECR ownership structure.

Carpenter will continue to drive the team’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on ovals in 2017, with the team yet to determine the next round of plans for the No. 20 car on road and street courses (Spencer Pigot drove this year) and a full-time replacement for Newgarden in the No. 21 car.

Brazil GP organizers surprised with FIA doubts on 2017 race

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 15:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP race into the second corner followed by the rest of the field during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 15, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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SAO PAULO (AP) Organizers of the Brazilian Grand Prix say they are surprised that motor sport’s governing body has not confirmed the race at the Interlagos track for the 2017 Formula One calendar.

In a provisional calendar for 2017 published earlier Wednesday, the FIA put an asterisk indicating “subject to confirmation” for the Brazilian GP, scheduled for Nov. 12.

In a statement, the organizers of the Sao Paulo race said they were “surprised on Wednesday with the publication of the provisional calendar”, adding that “there is a valid contract until 2020” and that it would be rigorously complied with “as it always has in these 45 years.”

Brazil first hosted Formula One in 1972, although the race did not count for that year’s world championship. It will stage the penultimate race of this season on Nov. 13.

The races in Canada, in June, and in Germany, in July, are also marked as to be confirmed for next year.

Ericsson escapes serious injury after hitting ‘big chicken’ while cycling

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden and Sauber F1 walks in the Paddock before practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson escaped serious injury after hitting a “big chicken” at high speed while cycling in Thailand earlier this week.

Sauber Formula 1 driver Ericsson spent a week in Thailand on a training camp between the races in Singapore and Malaysia, the latter being held this weekend in Sepang.

The Swede posted pictures on Twitter earlier this week showing his injuries, appearing to be cuts and bruising to his left arm and right hand.