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How to solve the problem of Sprint Cup drivers racing in the Nationwide Series

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As it typically does every season, the debate about whether or not Sprint Cup drivers should race in the Nationwide Series has once again heated up in recent weeks.

While racing against NASCAR’s best is definitely beneficial for up-and-coming NNS drivers seeking to learn and improve upon their natural talent, there’s no question that Sprint Cup drivers have a field day when they race in NASCAR’s junior league.

Consider these stats: In the first five Nationwide races this season, four have been won by Sprint Cup drivers, the lone race won by a full-time NNS driver was Regan Smith’s win in the season-opener at Daytona last month.

That quartet of NNS wins by Cup drivers includes Saturday’s winner at Fontana, Kyle Larson, who even though he earned his first NNS triumph, is still a full-time Cup driver this season.

Let’s extrapolate things even more.

Of last season’s 33 Nationwide races, just five were won by true full-time NNS drivers, and two others were won by essentially an NNS ringer (now full-time Cup driver), AJ Allmendinger.

Sam Hornish Jr. won early last season at Las Vegas, Smith won last spring at Talladega and Michigan, Trevor Bayne won last spring at Iowa, and Ryan Blaney won late last summer at Kentucky.

And for the record, Allmendinger won both his races on road courses at Road America and Mid-Ohio, the only two NNS events he competed in all season.

Take away Allmendinger’s two wins, and that means full-time Nationwide drivers won just 15 percent of the 33 races on the 2013 schedule.

That’s not even one-fifth of the schedule.

NASCAR is in a Catch-22 situation because track owners and race promoters need Sprint Cup drivers to run in Nationwide races to put more fans in the stands.

Many fans will come on Saturday’s to see their favorite Cup driver race in the NNS because it usually takes less of a bite price-wise from their wallet than a Sunday Cup ticket.

There have been countless ideas floated over the years on how to minimize the number of Cup drivers in.

Some are better than others, but no one has ever hit upon the best solution for a compromise to a very vexing problem.

I’ve been giving this problem a great deal of thought over the last couple of weeks and think I may have hit upon a possibility that may just fly.

It’s actually a pretty simple idea, combining fans’ desire to still want – and get – to see their Cup favorites, while also enhancing NNS drivers’ chances of wins and getting more deserved notoriety for themselves and the series.

Here’s my suggestion:

First, there are 23 tracks that host NNS races. Ten of those tracks host two races each season, most in conjunction with a Sprint Cup race weekend.

This part is easy: allow Cup drivers to only drive in the first race at a particular track that hosts two per year, and not in the second race later in the season. Even better, cut off Cup drivers from competing in NNS races after the midpoint of the Nationwide’s 33-race season, effectively capping Cup drivers to participate in a maximum of 17 NNS events each year.

Sure, fans want to see their favorite Cup drivers compete in NNS races. But if fans know they’ll only be able to see “their driver” only once per year at a race in the first half of the season, it shouldn’t be overly hard for those same fans to adjust their schedules and still satisfy their need for speed.

Which dovetails nicely into the next part of my plan to fix the Cup/NNS dilemma.

Create an eight-race format (the last eight races of the season) for the NNS that mirrors the Chase for the Sprint Cup, with only Nationwide drivers eligible to compete in those events.

At the same time, allow the top 15 or even 20 NNS drivers after the second Richmond race (which is also the cut off to determine the Cup series’ Chase) to contend for the championship after resetting the points prior to the start of the NNS “Chase.”

The first race of a hypothetical eight-race Nationwide Chase could be on the same weekend as the start of Sprint Cup’s Chase at Chicagoland Speedway (there are only eight races remaining on the NNS schedule by the time the series returns to Chicagoland for the second time in the season).

Both series would be able to dovetail off each other, bringing even greater overall attention to all of NASCAR.

Admittedly, five of the 10 tracks that hold Cup Chase races also host two NNS races per season – Chicagoland, Dover, Charlotte, Texas, Phoenix.

But my proposal would give more meaning – and increased attention – to NNS drivers to truly win their own series’ championship while not having to share attention – and more importantly, wins – with Sprint Cup interlopers.

And it’s a heck of a lot better than the potential alternative – not being able to see their favorite Cup driver in ANY Nationwide race, if NASCAR were to ban such.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Simon Pagenaud has tunnel vision about Indy 500 — but that’s a good thing

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(Photos: IndyCar)
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To say Simon Pagenaud is a thinking man’s driver is an understatement.

The French driver has one of the most analytical minds in the Verizon IndyCar Series. It seems like he’s always thinking, always figuring out different scenarios, trying to outthink his fellow competitors.

He’s certainly had a lot to think of recently. He’s riding a three-race winning streak. He’s part of Team Penske’s 50th anniversary celebration.

But right here, right now, Pagenaud has just one race on his mind. As far as he’s concerned, Belle Isle next week is 10 years away, while Texas the week after that is 20 years away.

And don’t even ask Pagenaud if he’s thinking about winning the IndyCar championship.

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To say Simon Pagenaud is pumped up for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 is an understatement.

The only thing on Pagenaud’s mind is winning Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. Not only would it be the biggest win in the Frenchman’s career, it would also extend team owner Roger Penske’s record to 17 Indy 500 victories.

“I’m thinking about the race itself, statistics are after the race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports. “It’s hard on the last lap if you think about it! I’m always focused on the task itself. Prepare the best we can and try to win.

“When you step into the car, you have to think about how to do the best job you can with your machine. It’s you and your machine, you and your team, let’s get the best strategy possible, make the best pit stops and make no mistakes.

“So you have to be clear-minded and focused on the task. It’s a tunnel vision thing. I’m not thinking of anything else. I’m not thinking about the 50th anniversary of Team Penske, or it being the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.

“If I was, I tell you what, they wouldn’t work really well. It’s about being in the moment and not thinking about anything else.”

Even with his three-race winning streak (Long Beach, Birmingham Grand Prix of Indianapolis), preparations for the 500 have not gone as well as Pagenaud would like.

“It’s not as good as I wanted to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who will start in eighth position, the middle of Row 3 on the starting grid. “We’re not as dominant as we were last year. It’s been tough. It’s not been easy to get speed out of the car. We’ve done a good job of trying, but we haven’t found the speed of the Hondas.”

But as concerned as Pagenaud may seem, Penske is more confident than concerned.

“Obviously he’s a hot hand right now and he’s shown how good he is,” Penske said of Pagenaud. “That’s the reason we hired him a year ago.

“I think he wasn’t as happy with his performance in 2015. This is a different race. This race is wide open. It’s a long-distance race. It’s four different corners, lots of strategy.

“Certainly executing in the pits, you saw how good he was last year and bumped into a back marker when he was trying to make a pass there. So I think he’s going to have a great chance. He’s certainly excited.

“John Menard (Pagenaud’s primary sponsor of Menard’s Home Improvement Stores) coming on board is probably one of the great things of the month for us because John has spent a lot of time and a lot of money here over the years.

“(It was) great to see his car in the Winner Circle at the Angie’s road race here a couple of weeks ago. I think (Pagenaud’s) on his way to a championship. We’ve just got to continue to stay focused.”

Winning the biggest race in the world would also help Pagenaud’s countrymen.

“It’s great news that there’s a lot of interest (in France) in IndyCar,” Pagenaud said. “They’re showing races there. It’s big. There’s also half a large plane coming to the race from my hometown (Poitiers, France).

“I know it’s an American sport, but it’s a worldwide event. The last time a Frenchman won in Indy was 1920. It was Gaston Chevrolet, and I’m driving a Chevrolet! Hopefully, it’s my year.

“What would it mean (if he won)? I don’t know, to be honest. It wouldn’t be a bad time. We’re having a tough time in France right now, so a little bit of joy from the sport would be good.

“It’d be awesome to go back to France with that trophy and that ring on my finger.”

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Honda bullish ahead of pivotal Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  James Hinchcliffe of Canada, driver of the #5 ARROW Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Chevrolet,  drives  on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr feels bullish about the manufacturer’s chances in the 100th Indianapolis 500, believing all of its cars stand a serious chance of winning Sunday’s race.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe ended a long drought for Honda in qualifying last weekend, claiming its first pole position since Simon Pagenaud won the Verizon P1 Award at Houston in 2014.

Sunday’s ‘500 is a pivotal one for Honda given the occasion and its standing among its numerous motorsport programmes, and is made all the more crucial given its winless start to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

“We weren’t expecting the outcome of the first few races that we got this year,” St. Cyr conceded.

“We thought we were going to be OK. But obviously when we first came out at St. Pete, especially Phoenix, we had to focus on those, as well.

“I wouldn’t say the beginning part of the season went according to plan. But we kind of know what we have right now and where we’re going with this one.

“We’re working and the other side is working as well to try to improve as much as you can.”

The Honda-powered cars impressed throughout practice and qualifying at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, appearing to make a significant step up in performance from the Angie’s List GP of Indianapolis two weeks ago.

Besides Hinchcliffe getting pole, the Andretti Autosport cars regularly ran quickest through the speed trap with Ryan Hunter-Reay qualifying third, while Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal has looked strong in race trim.

“The Indy 500 is a major focus for Honda. We really worked hard for 12 months on this particular race,” St. Cyr said.

“We used two of our three allocated boxes from an aerodynamic standpoint on this race. We have a pretty major upgrade of our engine specification for this race.

“As you’ve seen, it’s fairly competitive at this point. Really our whole goal is to get all of our teams with a package that is capable of winning this race.”

And providing such a package is something that St. Cyr believes Honda has achieved.

“It’s pretty great,” he said. “The Andretti guys, the whole Andretti team, all five of their cars, have been fast. They unloaded fast. They typically do really well here. We expect good things out of them.

“The Schmidt Peterson Racing group, all three of them have just had stellar months. You want to give some shouts out to Dale Coyne and those guys who have shown pretty good speed, with people that don’t have a lot of experience running around this track.

“A.J. Foyt and Takuma Sato showed something at the end of qualifying. They qualified third in the last group, right? Graham, we expect him to have a real good race, as well.

“All of our teams have legitimate contenders to win this race, so we’re actually really thrilled about that.”

PWC: Bentley confirms Andrew Palmer sustains head injury

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Photo: Bentley Team Absolute
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Following an accident in practice ahead of today’s Pirelli World Challenge race at Lime Rock Park, Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer has sustained a head injury following contact with another car, an Aston Martin driven by Jorge de la Torre.

Just after 6:30 p.m. ET, Bentley released the following statement:

“Bentley Motorsport can confirm that Bentley Team Absolute driver Andrew Palmer will remain in hospital following an incident at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut earlier today. He has sustained a head injury and is being closely monitored after treatment by specialists.

“Bentley’s Director of Motorsport, Brian Gush, comments: “Everyone at Bentley Motorsport is thinking of Andrew and we all send him our best wishes. We are a close-knit community and we have team members at the hospital with him and his family. We will continue to offer our support to them at this difficult time. Our thanks go to the trackside team at Lime Rock Park and the medical professionals who have helped Andrew so far.”

“No further update is expected today. Bentley Motorsport will release another statement in due course.”

The only official update issued by World Challenge officials reads as follows, and was released after 1 p.m. ET:

“Both Andrew Palmer and Jorge De La Torre were transported to Sharon Hospital where they were stabilized for transportation to Hartford Hospital.  That is all we know at this time.”

K-PAX Racing driver Alvaro Parente won his second race of the weekend in his No. 9 McLaren 650S GT3 in the afternoon, although the results of which matter little in the face of Palmer’s accident and injuries.

Our thoughts and best wishes go out to the drivers and their families affected at this time.

Gutierrez delighted with P12 in Monaco qualifying, beating Grosjean

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 28: Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico driving the (21) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo on track during qualifying for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 28, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Esteban Gutierrez thanked the Haas Formula 1 Team for its work after scoring his best qualifying result of the season so far in Monaco on Saturday.

Gutierrez finished 12th in Q2, beating teammate Romain Grosjean for the first time in qualifying this year and finishing less than two-tenths of a second off a Q3 berth.

Haas arrived in Monaco hopeful of resolving the issues that blighted its Spanish Grand Prix, and Gutierrez’s result suggested that progress had been made.

“I’m very happy with today. It’s been a positive day,” Gutierrez said.

“At the start it was difficult to get the tires right, and run by run I was trying to modify and adapt to the circumstances. Finally, we got everything together.

“With a 12th position start in Monte Carlo, a lot can happen in the front. I’m very proud of the team and the work we’ve been doing. Communication has been improving.

“We’ve been understanding the car step by step, and this will give us a lot of confidence going forward.

“Overall, it’s been a very good day for us.”

Grosjean may have only qualified 15th, but he too felt that the team had made significant progress since the race in Spain.

“We had the speed to go into Q3. We showed that in Q1,” Grosjean said.

“Just two times there was traffic on my out laps in Q2. We went out behind the Mercedes and they were going slow and that’s what got me.

“If the tires had been ready for the first timed lap, everything would have been fine, but they’re really had to warm up.

“Everyone’s doing different things, of course. Mercedes has more downforce than others, so they were going slower when I needed faster out laps. It was tricky.

“Traffic is part of the game, but twice we went in exactly the same group of cars, and that didn’t help us. I think we could have made it to Q3 and that would have been a great achievement.

“The positives are that the car feels better, but the negative is that we are P15.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner was satisfied with Haas’ first qualifying display in Monaco.

“I’m pretty happy with qualifying. Both drivers did a good job,” Steiner said.

“For Esteban to start 12th in Monte Carlo is great. The whole team reacted to the situations that came up in qualifying very well.

“Romain was on a fast lap when he lost time in the middle sector, so we still need to investigate what happened there, but overall we’re happy to start where we’re placed.

“If you line up between 10th and 16th, anything can happen, and providing we don’t get involved in any incidents, anything is possible.”

The Monaco Grand Prix is live on NBC from 7:30am ET on Sunday, with F1 Countdown beginning on NBCSN at 7am ET.