IndyCar 2014 Primer: Some key story lines

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There is no shortage of story lines to follow in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series. Here are just a few…

-DIXON VS. POWER

It’s perhaps the best rivalry in the Verizon IndyCar Series. Scott Dixon and Will Power, few would argue, are two of IndyCar’s best drivers at the moment. One’s from New Zealand, the other from Australia. One drives for Target Chip Ganassi Racing, the other Team Penske.

They’ve sparred numerous times, most recently in the back-to-back races of Sonoma and Baltimore in 2013. But they haven’t yet fought head-to-head for a series championship.

Dixon’s two when Power was in the series (2008 and 2013) came when Power was in his first year under INDYCAR sanction and driving with KV Racing, and when Power was essentially eliminated last year and wasn’t able to contend as he had from 2010 through 2012.

It had been a Power-Dario Franchitti showdown those years, with Dixon’s luck taking him out of the equation. Now, with Franchitti retired, the stage is set for these two to have a potentially epic bout for the crown.

Of course, that’s unless any of their respective teammates, three of the four Andretti Autosport, or potentially another wild card, have anything to say about that…

-BIG THREE HAVE HALF THE FIELD, BUT WON’T HAVE ALL THE WINS

With 11 of the 22 full-season entries, Chip Ganassi Racing (Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe, Charlie Kimball), Team Penske (Power, Juan Pablo Montoya, Helio Castroneves) and Andretti Autosport (Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Munoz) on paper could lock out the top 10 in the final points standings. But it’s not going to be that simple, with several other top-flight operations looking to overachieve.

Any of Simon Pagenaud (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports), Justin Wilson (Dale Coyne Racing), Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Sebastien Bourdais (KVSH Racing), Takuma Sato (A.J. Foyt Racing) or Mike Conway (Ed Carpenter Racing) pose a true threat to the establishment on the road and street courses. Swap Ed Carpenter in for Conway on the ovals and there’s another win threat.

That’s without even projecting some of the emerging young guns – a Josef Newgarden, Sebastian Saavedra, Mikhail Aleshin or Jack Hawksworth – making strides as well.

Simply put, there is no shortage of depth in team or driver talent throughout the grid. There were 10 winners in 19 races in 2013; there could well be 10 or 11 in 2014, even with a reduction to 18 races.

-WHO’S THE “NAME” DRIVER?

With Franchitti retired, IndyCar is unfortunately down to just a handful of “big names” that are truly well known on a national stage. Penske’s Castroneves and Montoya and defending Indianapolis 500 champion Kanaan certainly qualify. But they all have at least 15 years in the North American racing sphere to fall back on.  Andretti and Rahal have the right last names, but not the overall results as yet.

One of the elements new entitlement partner Verizon may seek to work on this year is developing a true new generation of mainstream stars that can be as recognizable beyond the entrenched set of hardcore IndyCar fans. Power and Hinchcliffe are getting there, and Dixon and Hunter-Reay should be better known than they are now.

GENERATIONAL GAP

I touched on this earlier this offseason, but seeing which of the old guard versus the mid-level veterans versus young guns will take flight this year is going to be fascinating to watch. Key in this segment is how well JPM will do after an eight-year absence since his last season of Formula One, and after 14 years since his last season in North American open-wheel racing.

HANDLING THE RULES CHANGES

Whether it’s a shift from single to twin-turbo if you’re a Honda team, or whether you’re the field adapting to any of restart, pit lane opening/closings or qualifying adjustments, there are still plenty of new things teams will need to get a handle on even if the equipment basically stays the same for 2014.

-NO REST FOR THE WEARY

It’s been discussed in brief, but with the condensed schedule from the end of March through the end of August, with only one three-week gap in-between races (from Texas to Houston June 7 to June 28-29), how will the crews and drivers hold up through the relentless stretch of races? The ones who can maintain their composure and top level of performance are likeliest to succeed.

Perhaps the toughest stretch this year is from that Houston weekend June 28-29, followed in immediate succession by a 500-mile race at Pocono, 250 laps on the Iowa bullring, and another double-header in Toronto to make for six races in four weekends.

The relief comes with only a single off weekend before Mid-Ohio August 3, another off weekend, and three straight weeks in Milwaukee, Sonoma and Fontana to end the season.

Indy Lights: Chad Boat to make Indy Lights debut with Belardi

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Belardi Auto Racing, which currently fields entries for Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, and Shelby Blackstock in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, announced on Tuesday that USAC standout Chad Boat, son of former Verizon IndyCar Series race winner Billy Boat, will make his Indy Lights debut with the Brian Belardi led-outfit. Boat will contest the July 9 race at Iowa Speedway, a track he has previously raced on in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and will return for the August 26 event at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” team owner Brian Belardi detailed. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”

The younger Boat has become a star in his own right in USAC, winning Rookie of the Year honors in both the USAC National Midget and Sprint car divisions. The 25-year-old will pilot the No. 84 entry, with sponsorship from Pristine Auction.

“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”

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Mercedes, Ferrari go conservative on Austrian GP tire picks

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Pirelli has confirmed all 20 Formula 1 drivers’ tire picks for next weekend’s Austrian Grand Prix at the Red Bull Ring in Spielberg, with most opting to stack up on ultra-softs.

As it does for every grand prix, Pirelli will bring three compounds to Austria next week, electing for the softest possible combination of ultra-soft, super-soft and soft tires.

In the regular pre-race release of each driver’s tire picks, Pirelli revealed that Force India, McLaren and Red Bull have gone down the most aggressive routes, stacking up on the ultra-soft tire.

Title contenders Mercedes and Ferrari have gone down a more conservative route, favoring additional sets of the super-soft compound.

Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen will take seven sets of ultra-softs to Spielberg, while Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will have eight sets at their disposal through the weekend.

Graham Rahal survives Road America to finish eighth

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Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing faced a roller coaster of a race during the Kohler Grand Prix at Road America on Sunday.

He was a rocket off the initial start, jumping from sixth on the grid up to fourth exiting turn 1, but was almost immediately ordered to surrender a position for blocking. He quickly slipped back to sixth, and then began plummeting down the order as he battled an oversteer condition that saw his car chew through its rear tires more quickly than others.

Forced to abandon the planned three-stop strategy, he and the No. 15 Gehl Honda team switched to a four-stop plan that saw him drop well outside the top ten at times.

However, they kept plugging away and rebounded nicely in the second half of the race to eventually finish in eighth. While he would have liked to finish higher up the order, Rahal knows that he and the team got everything they could out of it.

“The car was a handful today. I knew about five laps in that I didn’t have the pace for a three-stop strategy,” Rahal revealed post-race. “We tried as best we could to work with what we had during the race and overcome it. I would have obviously liked to have finished better, but eighth is about as good as we could do today. We struggled with a very loose race car all weekend and just couldn’t put a dent in the problem. We worked awfully hard but just missed it this weekend.”

The eighth-place finish keeps Rahal in the championship hunt. Rahal now sits seventh in the standings, 11 points behind fifth-place Josef Newgarden and 72 behind championship leader Scott Dixon.

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Ed Jones continues steady run with seventh at Road America

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Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones has made waves in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season with a string of solid performances that belie his rookie status.

And Sunday’s Kohler Grand Prix at Road America was no different.

The 22-year-old battled an oversteering car most of the weekend at Road America, and had to navigate a little carnage late in the race as Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay both fell through the field with front wing problems.

However, Jones weathered all storms to finish an impressive seventh, his fifth finish inside the top 10 this year, and his best finish since his third place at the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade MotorOil.

“It was a really tough race,” Jones said of the effort. “We had a loose car yesterday. It was loose, but fast, for qualifying, and today again the car was really loose. I was hanging on the whole race, but the team had some good pit stops and we were able to move up.

“Obviously, the strategy was pretty similar to everyone else. Everyone was aggressive out there. It was hard racing but we came out with a seventh place and we moved up a little bit in the points.”

The seventh-place run sees Jones maintain his position in the top ten in the championship. He currently sits tenth in the standings, three points ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Max Chilton.

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