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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.

NHRA: Leah Pritchett sets new quickest national elapsed time record

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Photo: Don Schumacher Racing
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Pomona Winternationals winner Leah Pritchett added to her incredible start to the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, one she came in with high hopes with anyway, with a slightly bigger accomplishment:

She set a new national elapsed time record for a 1,000-foot distance in NHRA history.

Pritchett, who drives the Don Schumacher Racing-entered, Todd Okuhara-tuned Papa John’s Top Fuel dragster, ran a 3.658-second pass at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park on Friday outside Phoenix during the first day of qualifying for this weekend’s Arizona Nationals. The speed was 329.34 mph.

Incidentally, both Pritchett and Courtney Force set unofficial best times in Top Fuel and Funny Car testing, also at Wild Horse Pass, earlier this month.

You could barely put a piece of cheese between Pritchett’s two times; her time at the test was 3.654 seconds, but because that’s a test it is not an official mark.

The previous official record in competition was a 3.671-second pass, which Steve Torrence set July 31, 2016 at Sonoma.

“To be behind the wheel of this machine that is constantly putting out time and time again fast numbers and quick numbers is, to be honest, a little bit difficult to comprehend,” Pritchett said, via NHRA.com. “It’s everything that dreams are made of. It’s almost too good to be true, but it’s not.”

For good measure, Pritchett’s teammate Tony Schumacher also eclipsed Torrence’s old mark with a side-by-side run to second at 3.667 seconds, and 323 mph and change in the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster.

Force led the Funny Car charts on the first day of qualifying, while Jason Line led Pro Stock. Both drivers drive Chevrolets.

Lest Force’s day be overshadowed, she set a record of her own. Force broke the track’s elapsed time and speed records during the opening session of qualifying for Sunday’s NHRA Arizona Nationals with a pass of 3.838 seconds at 332.67 mph.

Force lost to Matt Hagan in the Pomona finals while Line beat his KB Racing teammate, Greg Anderson, for the Pomona win.

Butterball, Andretti Autosport extension is all gravy

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27:  Ryan Hunter-Reay, driver of the #28 Andretti Autosport Honda 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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Andretti Autosport and Butterball, a U.S.-based provider of turkey and poultry products, announced a new expansion of their partnership. The newly revamped agreement will see Butterball branding on all four Andretti Autosport entries in 2017.

“Butterball has been a great partner since 2014 and I’m really excited to have them on board again this year,” said Ryan Hunter-Reay. “They were with me when I won the Indianapolis 500 which was a really special moment for everyone involved. Hopefully we can bring them back into victory lane this year, not only at Indy, but throughout the season as well.”

The machines of Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi, and Takuma Sato will feature branding just below the front suspension components. Per the announcement, the placement has created a new nickname for the assembly: “the Butterball Wishbone.”

“Butterball is extremely excited about our sponsorship with Andretti Autosport in 2017,” said Butterball CEO and President Kerry Doughty. “With the addition of the new Butterball Wishbone Sponsorship on all Andretti Autosport Indy cars for the 2017 season, we are expanding the tremendously successful relationship that began with Michael and Ryan in 2014 when we won the Indianapolis 500 in our first season.”

Butterball’s tenure with Andretti Autosport dates back to May 2014, shortly before Ryan Hunter-Reay claimed victory at the Indianapolis 500. Branding has been featured on Hunter-Reay No. 28 entry ever since.

Newgarden completes busy day in Detroit

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Photo: IndyCar
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Josef Newgarden’s media prowess and charisma was again in full display on Thursday during a series promotional efforts for June’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear.

Specifically, Newgarden was in town for Detroit Grand Prix night at that night’s Pistons-Hornets NBA game.

The day began with Newgarden visiting a handful of Detroit news media outlets, where his most notable venture involved duking it out with Pistons mascot Hooper.

The day continued with Newgarden exploring more of the city, and getting in touch with its rock ‘n roll history.

That, Newgarden ventured to The Palace of Auburn Hills to the big promotional event of day, Detroit Grand Prix night. There, Newgarden was greeted with his own Detroit Pistons jersey and even tried a couple of half-court shots at halftime. However, he did not make any, making it less likely he’ll pursue a basketball career when he decides to hang up his helmet.

For an additional recap Detroit Grand Prix night, visit The Chevrolet’s Detroit Grand Prix twitter @detroitgp.

Entry lists revealed for MRTI Spring Training in Miami

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Kyle Kaiser in Miami, 2015. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The first real good, if not final, looks at the season to come in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires come with next week’s Spring Training, which sees four total days of action at the Homestead-Miami Speedway for all three rungs of the ladder.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires will run February 27 on Homestead-Miami’s 1.5-mile oval and March 2 on the 2.21-mile road course. Meanwhile the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series will run solely on the road course over two back-to-back days, February 28 and March 1.

Indy Lights’ field seems closest to being finalized from this group, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 still have some gaps to fill.

In one other bit, Mazda will announce the teams of competition for its Soul Red-liveried drivers this year, all of whom won Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships for their next step up this year. That’s why Aaron Telitz (Indy Lights), Anthony Martin (Pro Mazda) and Oliver Askew (USF2000) teams are listed as TBAs.

Anyway, quick notes:

Indy Lights (14 cars

All drivers on the Indy Lights entry list have been officially announced, and as noted, Telitz’s team is the only significant TBA of note. Car numbers are revealed for Zachary Claman De Melo and Matheus Leist at Carlin of 13 and 26 respectively, with the known in advance.

In terms of team breakdown, it’s four each at Carlin and Andretti Autosport (with Colton Herta’s No. 98 car an Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry), Juncos Racing and Belardi Auto Racing each with two official cars and Team Pelfrey the lone one-car entry.

Of the 14 drivers, the field is split exactly in half between seven veterans and seven rookies.

Questions from here are whether one or two more cars not at this test will join the grid at St. Petersburg and push the number back up. Since the debut of the Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the St. Pete weekend has had 13 cars in 2015 and 16 cars last year, with this one falling in the middle.

Pro Mazda (6 cars)

In what’s very much a survive-and-advance season for Pro Mazda in the final year with its existing car, a small batch of cars come from Team Pelfrey, World Speed Motorsports and the team TBA for Anthony Martin for this test.

Within a 20-to-30-plus, multiple-class series of racing, six cars for one class wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. But six on their own for an independent series is certainly an issue. The number simply has to grow by St. Petersburg to at least eight at a bare minimum, the low-water mark last year, with 10 a significant step forward at this rate (the series had 12 cars at St. Petersburg last year).

USF2000 (22 cars)

Quite by contrast, the new Tatuus USF-17 premieres in USF2000 with 22 cars at this test and the potential of more cars by St. Petersburg (the series had 26 starters last year with two additional withdrawals).

Six returning drivers join 12 rookies and four TBAs on this list, all split among 10 teams. Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay, initially announced as driving for Benik in 2017, is listed in a third Newman Wachs Racing entry for this test.