Two familiar goals the focus for Helio Castroneves in 2014

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Is it possible to be the runner-up finisher in the championship, yet be somewhat overshadowed entering the dawn of the new year?

For Team Penske’s stalwart and longtime flagship driver, Helio Castroneves, it is… kind of. Because the words “Castroneves” and “overshadowed” should rarely, if ever, be used in the same sentence to describe the ebullient Brazilian, who’s one of the faces of IndyCar.

But as it is, Penske made the signing splash to kick off IndyCar’s silly season with the recruiting of Juan Pablo Montoya to the team in September, back from NASCAR, to drive a third car. Montoya’s frequent preseason testing in his re-acclimation back to open-wheel racing has been a key headline.

Then Will Power finished 2013 on a tear, winning three of the final five races, and has participated in many of Penske and IndyCar’s offseason projects. Power, whose dry humor is finally being recognized at large, has starred in Team Penske’s “The Penske File” series of videos, and also done some work for IndyCar’s social media this winter. With his primary sponsor Verizon, there’s a lot of activation to be done with the Australian.

Castroneves has been featured this offseason as well. He’s 38 entering the year and into his 15th full-time season with Penske since joining in 2000.

Some of the familiar story lines and same goals exist entering 2014, as he has had each year for the past five.

Win that elusive fourth Indianapolis 500. And win that elusive first series championship.

“Yesterday’s news,” Castroneves joked, acutely, during IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“(For the title) I have the right line with God, to be honest, and with the Pope, too, especially with John Paul,” he said. “He said, ‘When the time comes.’”

And the time nearly came in 2013, in a season that saw Castroneves nearly reach the peak of the summit after one of the best seasons of his career.

Castroneves scored a win at Texas and was the model of consistency, with top-10 finishes in all but one of the first 16 races. He had finished every lap through that point, too.

Of course, the Houston double-header weekend was a painful one. Despite his and the team’s efforts, they came up short two weeks later at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana.

But Castroneves is bullish about 2014. In short, his old sparring partner from the CART days has amplified the determination within the Team Penske operation. The level of respect is mutual between Castroneves and JPM, and his new presence should push the team forward.

“I feel we’re in a different phase of our lives, there is a lot going around, and we’ve accomplished a lot in our career,” Castroneves said. “I guess you can call that mature.

“Honestly, it’s amazing to have him in our side. He’s been an incredible addition, and I mean that. He’s definitely going to be a tough competitor.

“Most of what I noticed, which I knew he would be quick adapting on the car, but most of it’s the information that he brought, that I was very surprised and happy about.  Certainly it’s going to make our cars better.”

Castroneves and Montoya are also two of the “name” drivers in the series, whose presence extends beyond the borders of the I-465 corridor (bubble) that IndyCar sometimes finds itself in.

They’re in the older guard, but they’re both iconic in American open-wheel history. Castroneves relishes the role he’ll need to play from that standpoint this year, as fellow veteran Dario Franchitti was forced to retire in the offseason due to injury.

“Dario, for me, I can’t say for others, but for me he was certainly an amazing competitor, an amazing driver first of all,” Castroneves said. “Second, my competitors, they make me better.  Not having Dario, for sure I’m not going to be as good as I was before.”

Internally, the bonding appears to be there. Castroneves said he, Montoya and Power have all worked well throughout testing and are starting to develop that key word in racing: chemistry.

“What I’m actually happy about so far, is we seem to be speaking in the same way, which is one way: win for Roger.  We want to win this title as bad as anybody else,” he said.

And about that title. It’s been since 2006, when Sam Hornish Jr. captured the crown, that Team Penske has won the IndyCar Series championship.

Montoya’s 1999 CART title achieved with Chip Ganassi Racing is the only combined one in the bank for the three of them.

But the odds of a Penske title are better with the third full-time car added. Castroneves certainly has the desire and the determination to go one better in 2014 – perhaps on the strength of better qualifying efforts and converting a few of those 2013 top-10s into 2014 top-fives.

Say this much, though. You’ll hear plenty from Castroneves throughout the year, and likely, he’ll be working tirelessly to be at the head of the Penske queue in 2014.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”