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IndyCar’s “nearly” man, Justin Wilson, set to overachieve once more

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Justin Wilson remains IndyCar’s “nearly” man heading into 2014. “Nearly” everyone acknowledges he is a true top-five talent, and top-two or three guy in terms of character.

Yet he’s “nearly” the best driver. He’s “nearly” in victory lane. He’s “nearly” with the best team.

So goes the story again for 2014. Despite Team Penske adding a car for Juan Pablo Montoya, and Chip Ganassi Racing needing to fill two new spots but going with Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe, once again Wilson has “nearly” missed out on a top drive as his contract option was picked up for one more year by Dale Coyne Racing.

Once Champ Car was folded into IndyCar in 2008, Wilson’s never had the true top-flight ride his talent deserves. He’s overachieved with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Coyne, and Dreyer & Reinbold, but in 2013 wasn’t able to crack victory lane.

As 2014 beckons, he’s “nearly” with the same group of people. Engineer Bill Pappas departs, with fellow veteran Michael Cannon entering his stead.

But on the bright side, the lanky Englishman says the Coyne team has made “nearly” all the improvements over the winter to be considered a top-flight organization on merit, rather than by Wilson and crew overachieving.

“We’re generally just working away on things, trying to get used to the new personnel,” Wilson said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We’ve had a lot of changes at Dale Coyne Racing. I’m now working with Michael Cannon, my new race engineer. He’s got a lot of experience, and that’s great.”

Also great has been Wilson’s frequency of seat time in the new year, beyond his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America/Sonny’s BBQ Honda for DCR. That’s important considering where he was in October.

Wilson suffered a fractured pelvis and pulmonary contusion at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which was his second major injury in three years. He also sustained a compression fracture to his T-5 vertebra to his back in 2011 at Mid-Ohio.

But through it, Wilson recovered quickly, and was back in a car by January. He’s alternated between the IndyCar and Michael Shank Racing’s Ford EcoBoost Riley, for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s opening rounds at Daytona and Sebring.

As Wilson’s gained track time, he feels optimistic that the team can improve on its sixth place in the championship in 2013.

“We didn’t expect that at the start of the year. Obviously now this year we want to build on it,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that have got to happen.  We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes.  Trying to get the most out of the car in qualifying, trying to get the car to work over a full stint in the race, that’s just part of it.

Wilson scored four podium finishes, with a best of second at Sonoma. He’s planning a return to victory lane in 2014, to build on his two prior wins (Watkins Glen 2009, Texas 2012) with Coyne.

“It’s easy to go down a path and get trapped and lost. That’s our focus,” he said. “Hopefully we can build on that and win races. That was the one thing last year, we came close to winning a couple races. There were a few races that something happened and I thought, We should have won that one. We didn’t. Want to change that around this year and at least win one, if not multiple.”

Considering Wilson, Cannon and the Coyne team have nearly 60-plus years of combined open-wheel experience between them, they should punch above their weight once more.

They don’t want another year of “nearly” missing out on wins and a potential top-five championship finish.

Tony Kanaan woos IMS after positng fastest Carb Day lap

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Tony Kanaan of Brazil, driver of the #10 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara, practices during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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“I think this track will pick the winner,” Tony Kanaan told reporters Friday after Carb Day practice was completed for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“So I’m trying to massage the track a little bit, talk to her nicely, and then see if she will pick me on Sunday.”

Kanaan certainly impressed the 2.5-mile ‘lady’ in practice, by posting a fastest lap of 226.280 mph that would seem to have her shunning all other suitors. Carlos Munoz set the second-fastest speed, but he was nearly a quarter of a second per lap slower with a speed of 224.772 mph.

Speeds were largely dependent on tows in the final tune-up for Sunday’s race.

All 33 drivers who qualified for the 100th running of the Indy 500 tried their dead-level best to impress the track. They raced side-by-side through the corners and filled the course with cars. For most of the session, a majority of the drivers were on course at the same time, and that surprised many.

“You should have asked me, I would have told you different,” Kanaan said.

“This is the closest we get to the race, two days, and after being here for almost a month, the engineers come up with different plans every day,” Kanaan added. “The more time you give them, the more they come up with stuff. And we had almost five days without being on track, so they go back to the shop and do simulations. So we had to test.”

Race conditions will be markedly different than what everyone faced in qualification and that is another reason so many cars were on track. It is also one reason Kanaan was so pleased with his time.

If a full field had not practiced, no one would truly know what they would face on Sunday. “Everybody is eager to feel how the car behaves in traffic. So it was a race out there today.”

Kanaan was pleased with the response he got from Indy.

“I’m happy with my car,” Kanaan said. “Obviously I have to pass 17 people before I get really happy with my car. But, you know, after the struggle in qualifying, we really focused on the race.”

Kanaan will start 18th, alongside Juan Pablo Montoya and close behind some other top-ranked drivers.

“One thing that eases my mind a little bit being back there, there are a lot of good guys back there with me,” Kanaan added. “You know, if you look around Montoya, Charlie Kimball, Scott Dixon, they’re very experienced guys back there, which sometimes it’s not the case.”

“So I really don’t have a plan. My plan is to start the race. If there is a gap, I’m going to go for it.”

Indy occasionally rewards spontaneity, so Kanaan’s fastest speed in final practice may be a strong indication of his odds of winning his second Indy 500. His first victory came in 2013.

Follow: @FantasyRace

When Townsend Bell and Mario Andretti made pizza (VIDEO)

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Before the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil kicks off on Sunday, Townsend Bell and Mario Andretti tossed around a couple pizzas.

Bell, the NBCSN IndyCar analyst who starts fourth in the No. 29 California Pizza Kitchen/Robert Graham Honda, has easily his best shot to win the Indy 500 in his 10th attempt.

He’s part of the five-car Andretti Autosport armada along with Carlos Munoz, Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi.

Stoneman edges Jones in closest finish ever at IMS in Freedom 100 (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – No words other than “wow” to summarize the immediate aftermath of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At a race that had two incredible photo finishes in 2013 and 2014, another one occurred Friday with Dean Stoneman edging Ed Jones by just 0.0024 of a second.

“As you can see on the screen now it was bloody close,” Stoneman said from Victory Lane after driving the No. 27 Stellrecht Dallara IL-15 Mazda for Andretti Autosport.

It’s the closest finish in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history with Stoneman having led the field to the green on the last lap, but lost the lead at Turn 1 when Jones around the outside, before Stoneman got past him through Turn 3 and stayed ahead.

The Andretti Autosport driver then edged the Carlin driver at the line, fist in the air for his second win at IMS in three weeks, after also winning on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

“It’s great. I was in a hospital bed five years ago dreaming to be racing here and winning now,” Stoneman added.

“First [win] ever here for this race,” said Michael Andretti, car owner. “We’re so excited. We’ve been trying so many years to win this and Dean finally brought it to us.”

“It’s so frustrating to lose the race like that,” said second-place finisher Jones. “We were back and forth throughout the race and all the time I was waiting behind Dean for those last few laps. He held up everyone really slowly on that restart and caught quite a few incidents.”

“I got the lead in turn one and I thought I had the good run and I was pulling away but he had the draft down the back straight and I made the decision to stay on the inside,” Jones added, “He got the momentum on the outside and he just beat me to the line. It was so close and the team did a fantastic job of giving me the car to win the race.”

“That minor mistake just cost me everything.”

Previous closest finishes were 0.0026 of 2013 when Peter Dempsey won, and 0.005 of a second when Gabby Chaves won.

In third place, Dalton Kellett scored a career-best result in the No. 28 K-LINE car for Andretti Autosport, with Shelby Blackstock and Scott Hargrove completing the top five finishers.

F1 still Maldonado’s ‘Plan A’ as he chases race comeback

SINGAPORE - SEPTEMBER 18:  Pastor Maldonado of Venezuela and Lotus drives during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Singapore at Marina Bay Street Circuit on September 18, 2015 in Singapore.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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Pastor Maldonado remains hopeful of returning to a Formula 1 race seat in the future, but is open to other series if his “Plan A” fails to come to fruition.

Maldonado lost his drive with Renault over the winter when his backing from Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA fell through.

Since then, the one-time grand prix winner has completed some private testing for tire supplier Pirelli, but is keen to make a racing return next season if possible.

“We will try again and try to be back in a good team, to give me the chance to be competitive,” Maldonado told Reuters in Monaco.

“Plan A is Formula 1. Then of course if it doesn’t come, we need to look around.”

Despite the financial and social problems facing Venezuela right now, Maldonado hopes that PDVSA can find the funding to resume his F1 career.

“PDVSA is a big company, supporting a lot of sport programmes in Venezuela,” Maldonado said.

“They still seem to maintain all the programmes. Hopefully it will be no problem to have them back.

“I am the only Venezuelan who is racing at this level. I have been supported since many, many years. The relationships are very good. Hopefully we can be together for more years.

“Of course the oil price is still a bit low, and when the oil is down, the country is down. For sure it’s painful at the moment.”