IndyCar 2014 Primer: The Drivers

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All drivers in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series have been written about in detail already this month. But if you need a one or two-sentence breakdown of each, we’ve got that too.

Here’s a quick look through the projected field of full-season drivers (Note: the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing has not been confirmed yet, and Oriol Servia in the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda is only for Rounds 2-5).

My MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada hit the Chevrolet drivers, and I hit the Honda drivers in this piece.

CHEVROLET TEAMS

TEAM PENSKE 

#2 – Juan Pablo Montoya: It’s not a matter of if the former Indy 500/CART champ can find his open-wheel stride again after seven years in NASCAR, but a matter of when.

#3 – Helio Castroneves: Last year was his best chance yet to win a series title. But was it his last? The Brazilian will do all he can to earn another shot at the crown.

#12 – Will Power: Three wins in the last five races of 2013 have made him a chic pick to be the 2014 champ. We’re not going to change their minds about that: He’s a legit threat.

CHIP GANASSI RACING

#8 – Ryan Briscoe: Steady veteran should be good for at least one trip to Victory Lane this year, but you have to think that he wants so much more in his second go-round with Ganassi.

#9 – Scott Dixon: The defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion has done almost everything in his career – except pull off a successful title defense. The third time could be the charm for him.

#10 – Tony Kanaan: After finally capturing the Indy 500, TK seeks to re-establish himself as a threat on road/street courses in the car that used to belong to friend Dario Franchitti.

#83 – Charlie Kimball: For three years, he’s flown under the radar and shown step-by-step improvement. Mid-Ohio last year was a breakthrough, but can he become a week-in, week-out presence among the leaders in Year 4?

KVSH RACING/ KV/AFS RACING

#11 – Sebastien Bourdais: The four-time Champ Car titleholder showed to be as tough as he’s ever been on street circuits last year. The KV camp, hoping to prove its mettle outside the ovals, surely hopes he’ll be the same in 2014.

#17 – Sebastian Saavedra: The Colombian driver should improve upon his body of work with decent equipment at his disposal. First priority: Start further up the grid (2013 average start: 17.7).

ED CARPENTER RACING

#20 – Mike Conway (road/street): One of the most potent road racing talents in the series, he can certainly put the No. 20 car toward the front on the twisty tracks.

#20 – Ed Carpenter (ovals): Falling back to the ovals for the greater good of his team, Carpenter should still contend for solid results in his speedway appearances as he normally does.

HONDA TEAMS

ANDRETTI AUTOSPORT

#25 – Marco Andretti – Good, not great 2013 will improve to a great 2014 with a win or two and an improved qualifying effort.

#27 – James Hinchcliffe – More changes with new engineer, sponsor and engine manufacturer, but he should handle it well.

#28 – Ryan Hunter-Reay – It feels like a comeback year for RHR after snakebit 2013.

#34 – Carlos Munoz – Early rookie-of-the-year pick looks to build on impressive 2013 cameos.

RAHAL LETTERMAN LANIGAN RACING

#15 – Graham Rahal – Ingredients there for his best season since 2009; like Marco Andretti, must qualify better because the racing chops are there.

#16 – Oriol Servia – A welcome addition for at least four races, and he’ll probably overachieve.

DALE COYNE RACING

#18 – Carlos Huertas – Limited testing plus the small resources of DCR’s second car equal a likely uphill struggle for the Colombian rookie, assuming he will be in this seat.

#19 – Justin Wilson – A likely race winner at some point assuming he overachieves at the same level he consistently has throughout his career.

SCHMIDT PETERSON MOTORSPORTS

#7 – Mikhail Aleshin – Has surprise potential but may take a few races to gel with the series and team.

#77 – Simon Pagenaud – Undoubtedly the biggest threat to the established “power teams” after finishing third in 2013.

A.J. FOYT RACING

#14 – Takuma Sato – Good at times in 2013, and will be better with more race finishes.

SARAH FISHER HARTMAN RACING

#67 – Josef Newgarden – Year three could see the young American sink or swim depending on how well he adjusts to team changes.

BRYAN HERTA AUTOSPORT

#98 – Jack Hawksworth – Late add to the field, but the rookie could surprise on road and street courses. Needs more polish on ovals.

WATCH LIVE: IndyCar at Phoenix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Coverage of the fourth round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, takes place today starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after an encore presentation of Phoenix qualifying, which begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Rick Allen will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 6 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, so 9 p.m. to midnight ET.

Each of the top three drivers on the grid, Helio Castroneves, Will Power and JR Hildebrand, seek their first wins of the year. The first three race winners start fourth (Josef Newgarden), 10th (points leader Sebastien Bourdais) and 11th (James Hinchcliffe).

Track position is expected to be key for the 250-lap race, the first oval event of the season, with passing projected to be difficult – albeit not impossible.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • On the inside of Row 3, is Simon Pagenaud positioned to secure his first oval victory?
  • Will any of the Hondas be able to make significant inroads on the Chevrolets?
  • Is anyone going to be able to make enough gains on pit road to move up the order?

The starting lineup is below:

Monaco apartment bet gives extra spice to race for P5 in Russia

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Remember that episode of Friends where Joey and Chandler go up against Rachel and Monica in a crazy quiz that ends in them swapping apartments for a while?

Well, Formula 1 might be doing its own version on Sunday in Russia.

With Ferrari and Mercedes over one second per lap clear of the rest of the pack, the top four positions seem settled, leaving Williams and Red Bull to battle for P5.

Red Bull has been the third-quickest team for much of the season so far, yet Williams looks more competitive in Russia, with Felipe Massa charging to sixth place in qualifying to split Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen.

“I predicted them to be quick here. It’s been one of their stronger circuits the last few years, and Massa’s always been pretty handy around here,” Ricciardo said of Williams.

“He got close, split Max and myself. I expect that battle to remain tomorrow. Not expecting to have the battle for the win, I think that’s between Ferrari and Mercedes, but we could have a nice little battle within ourselves for the top five.”

To add an extra twist to things, it turns out that Ricciardo, Massa and Verstappen all live inside the same apartment complex in Monaco – so why not add some extra incentive to the battle?

“I was saying whoever maybe wins our battle tomorrow can get the… Massa or Verstappen, they’ve both got pretty good-sized apartments, so maybe they can give the winner their apartment for the weekend as a bit of a token gesture!” Ricciardo joked to NBCSN after the session.

“Yeah I can give a good party and I will join,” Verstappen added.

Massa laughed before saying: “I hope I will win and I cannot give!’

The race between Red Bull and Williams may be tight, but somehow we doubt remembering that the TV guide goes to Miss Chanandeler Bong or that his job is a transpon… transponster (“that’s not even a word!”) will be much help to Ricciardo, Massa or Verstappen on Sunday.

The Russian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Saturday edition (VIDEO)

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Life as a rookie in Formula 1 is always tough, but for Williams’ Lance Stroll, his arrival on the grid has been particularly challenging.

Entering F1 as its second-youngest debutant and after an extensive private testing program with Williams last year, big things were expected of Stroll when he made his debut in Australia.

However, his first three races in F1 have been far from ideal, all of them ending in retirement.

The DNF is Australia was the result of a brake issue, while incidents in China and Bahrain – both of which were hard to pin on Stroll – mean the Canadian is without a classified finish to his name.

So how has he dealt with the struggles? To find out, Will Buxton brings you a special edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ to lift the lid on Stroll’s start to life in F1.

You can watch the video in full above.

JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.