IndyCar title chase may shape up as a battle of mental chess match

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Some years, luck determines the Verizon IndyCar Series championship outcome. Some years, it’s runs of success over a certain period.

This year, it might be who can keep their head in check best after overcoming adversity.

For all of the series top drivers and presumptive title contenders – Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – managing both their own expectations and their view of their competitors could determine who emerges ahead once this season is over.

The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans weekend kicked off a stretch of 13 races over three months, and begun the crucial “summer stretch” between now and the last doubleheader weekend, the Honda Indy Two in Toronto July 18-20, that will go a long way towards determining this year’s championship.

From Detroit to Toronto, the series will race nine times in eight weekends. There’s a two-week gap in-between Texas next Saturday night and the Houston doubleheader June 27-29, which is many weeks off as the series will have the rest of the season after Houston (the Sundays of July 27 and August 10 represent the remaining off weekends).

This stretch includes all three doubleheader weekends (Detroit, Houston, Toronto) plus Pocono, which is a double points, 500-mile race. Only Texas next weekend and Iowa the second weekend of July will be one qualifying, one race weekends with the standard points structure.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen how drivers are starting to handle themselves as we head into this mental stretch of races.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis to kick off the month of May saw Pagenaud and the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team at the forefront, quickest car on the weekend and smartest too, in terms of nailing their fuel strategy to make it home over Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.

Then RHR and Castroneves engaged in an epic scrap for the win at the Indianapolis 500… neither giving an inch and RHR ultimately making two brilliant passes for the win. He was elated; Castroneves did well to hide his frustration publicly, but you know he was gutted to finish second by that little a gap, and lose out on his fourth ‘500 win.

This weekend saw Power take on the role of the villain, the masked avenger who made contact with Pagenaud on Saturday (no penalty, just as he also did not receive one in Long Beach) but did make contact with Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal on Sunday (which did trigger a penalty).

Meanwhile Castroneves came out revitalized with arguably his best weekend in the series in years. He’s won races with the DW12 before, yes, but not with as much “he’s still got it” pace and gusto as he delivered both races this weekend, particularly Sunday. It was a seriously impressive mental bounce back after losing out in Indy.

Power’s mind has long been hard to decipher. He’s consistently been IndyCar’s out-and-out fastest driver since he joined Team Penske, but he’s never been fully able to keep it all together over the course of the season, and hasn’t yet captured an elusive championship. This year, he’s not making any friends, and he’s not focusing on points – only on driving the best he can every race. It remains to be seen whether that mindset will ultimately pay dividends.

Hunter-Reay is arguably IndyCar’s most versatile driver, as he excels on any of road courses, short ovals and big ovals. If he has even the tiniest of weak points, it’s on street courses, where he’s been plagued either by mechanical issues or slight mistakes the last year and a half. After Indy, RHR had a weekend nearly as bad as AJ Allmendinger’s last year in Detroit, and now must find a way to recover in Texas.

Pagenaud and Dixon are similar in that they both have a seriously steely resolve and exterior, and haven’t let issues get to them this year, at least publicly. Dixon’s Sunday drive from 22nd and last to fourth was one of those classic “don’t forget how good the Iceman/defending champion is” type-performances. Pagenaud, too, came back on Sunday following a rough Friday and Saturday.

What about Castroneves? He might have the best mindset going forward. At 39, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He nails the game outside of the cockpit; he’s still IndyCar’s most recognizable star on a national level and he’s won everything he’s ever needed to in IndyCar. Except, of course, that elusive first championship.

The Brazilian is basically IndyCar’s walking, talking version of Pharrell’s “Happy!” but there’s still a burning desire to be the best when he straps his helmet on. He’s driving so much calmer, cooler and consistently than he was three years ago.

If Power and/or Hunter-Reay self-destruct around him, Dixon can’t make up the 140-plus point deficit (he’s 142 back now, and we’ll know likely by Pocono whether he still has a shot) and Pagenaud isn’t consistent enough to match the “big teams,” Castroneves may well samba into this year’s title.

Marco Andretti’s the remaining driver in the top five still with a shot at the title, but he’s at the point where he has to win – particularly at Pocono, given double points there – before you can really begin to factor him into title contention. Given his results consistency level though, you can’t rule him out of it, either.

How drivers and teams manage this summer stretch, both on-track and in their heads, will be fascinating to watch.

Tony Stewart to race in Rico Abreu fundraiser at Calistoga

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SONOMA, Calif. (AP) NASCAR is back at Sonoma Raceway and the defending race winner won’t be part of the field on Sunday.

Tony Stewart, who scored the last of his 49 career victories here, is retired now and watches the Cup races as a team owner. He still plans to race this weekend.

Stewart will run at Calistoga Speedway in an event that is being largely promoted by Rico Abreu and his father, local businessman David Abreu.

The race used to be called the Wine Country Classic, but has been renamed the Boys and Girls Club Dirt Track Classic. David Abreu designed the event as a fundraiser for a facility to house after-school programs for local children in Calistoga.

“My dad and I have always wanted to promote a race to raise money for the Boys and Girls Club,” Rico Abreu said. “There is a need for it with our demographics and it accommodates hundreds of kids in our valley. It provides them a safe place to learn and grow.”

Rico Abreu, one of the nation’s top dirt track drivers, benefited from the program along with his two siblings in St. Helena.

Stewart, Abreu and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are among those entered in the Saturday night dirt track event to help draw attendance.

David Abreu, founder of St. Helena’s Abreu Vineyards, is hoping to raise $250,000 for an equipped clubhouse at the Calistoga Boys and Club location. He will give a famous “Macho Magnums” – 40 magnums from his Napa Valley 2010 collection – to the first $100,000 donor.

It will be Stewart’s first Winged Sprint Car start at the Calistoga half-mile. He did win a USAC Western Midget Series race in 1994. He also set the midget track record that same weekend and held it until USAC made its return to the venue in 2008.

“I’m really looking forward to running the Calistoga Speedway since I haven’t raced there since 1994,” Stewart said. “I’m also excited to see all the improvements that have taken place at the track since the last time I’ve been there.”

Abreu is driving as well as promoting and fundraising. He’s competing Saturday night in the Sprint Car Challenge Tour 360’s and the King of the West-NARC 410’s.

“Having Tony Stewart and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in competition will certainly be an exciting thing for all the fans in Nor-Cal,” said Rico Abreu.

More AP Auto Racing: http://racing.ap.org/

Newgarden, Penske top second practice at Road America

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Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden topped second practice in a 1-2-3-4 sweep for the Team Penske outfit, driving the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet. Newgarden’s best lap of a 1:42.8229 was about five hundredths of a second quicker than teammate and defending race winner Will Power, who was second with a 1:42.8229. Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves completed the Penske top four sweep, with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe the best of the Honda drivers in fifth.

The session was only briefly interrupted early on when Alexander Rossi went off the track in Turn 14 and gently slid into the tire barrier. The red flag was flown to remove the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda from the barrier, but Rossi was able to continue, ending the session in 11th after leading the morning practice.

Of note, Dale Coyne Racing’s Ed Jones enjoyed a strong session to end up sixth, while teammate Esteban Gutierrez was 17th on his return to Coyne.

Also, Robert Wickens continued to fill in for Mikhail Aleshin, ending Practice 2 in 20th. While Aleshin is reportedly en route to Road America, it is unknown if Wickens will continue his fill in role through the weekend.

Times are below. Practice 3 rolls of at 12:00 p.m. ET (11:00 a.m. local) on Saturday.

Sauber says it’s ‘soon’ to naming Kaltenborn’s successor

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Sauber F1 Team enters this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix without a team principal and trying to work ahead on its 2018 preparations, making it a tough weekend for one of Formula 1’s smallest teams.

Sauber team manager Beat Zahnder attempted to explain the team’s managerial structure this weekend in Kaltenborn’s absence and teased when he hoped a decision would be made regarding Kaltenborn’s successor.

“Jorg Zander, the technical director and myself, we’ve been entrusted to run the operation of the team this weekend but this is only temporary,” Zahnder explained during the FIA team principal press conference on Friday.

“It doesn’t change a lot for us because our job is to have two cars running as quickly as possible around the circuit and for me it’s a little bit more media work.”

Asked when he hoped to have a successor named, Zahnder replied, “I hope soon. We were talking to some candidates and I hope we can announce it sooner rather than later.”

Former Renault F1 chief Frederic Vasseur’s name has been floated this week, as have other former F1 team chiefs Dave Ryan and Jost Capito, after Colin Kolles’ name was floated earlier in the week.

Zahnder said he could not explain the insider workings of the team.

“I cannot, no. You’ve seen the official press statement from Mr Picci and it seems that Mr Picci and Mrs Kaltenborn had different views how to operate the company. We shouldn’t forget that it’s not only a race team, it’s a home team as well with 350 people or so, but I cannot give you more information because I’m not actively involved in that decision,” he said.

Sauber is still in the process of not only finishing this year but also preparing for its 2018 switch to Honda power. This is an important change and one that comes amidst the turmoil currently encapsulating McLaren and Honda’s turbulent relationship.

“We have started with the project and there is an exchange of information on the logistical side, on the set-up side and the garages,” Zahnder explained. “We have to organize computers and IT stuff and things like this so the work has started, yes.”

With the two McLaren Hondas set to start from the rear of the grid this weekend, Sauber can at least work to get into Q2 and get further up the order with its pair of Marcus Ericsson and Pascal Wehrlein.

Gutierrez set to ‘explore the feeling of enjoyment in IndyCar’

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Esteban Gutierrez has a better peace of mind for his second Verizon IndyCar Series weekend this year, this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), than his first at Detroit earlier this month.

That’s because he’s now been confirmed for the remainder of the races that Sebastien Bourdais won’t drive, until Bourdais’ return to the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, and he has track experience at Road America from both Formula BMW races a decade ago.

“It’s a track that I enjoy a lot. It’s one of my favorite tracks. I have great memories from 2007 when I was racing Formula BMW USA,” Gutierrez reflected. “I was actually fighting my way from the back of the field in one of the races. I got up to second. We finished with a very small margin at the start/finish line. It was a very enjoyable moment, a great race that I have very close in my memory.

“Coming back quite many years after, 10 years after, I’m very, you know, excited to get into an IndyCar. Very powerful, very grippy, really nice racing car. You know, it’s really a nice experience to do every lap in this track.”

Gutierrez had a test day on June 14, which he wasn’t publicly identified for at the test but was always planned following his debut at Detroit.

“Obviously to throw myself into Detroit was quite a challenge, one of the most difficult tracks in the calendar, with no testing, straight in the weekend. I think it was a very interesting experience,” he explained.

“Now that I come to Elkhart Lake with a test behind my belt before the weekend, it’s great. I’m really enjoying a lot. I’m very happy of where I am today, with the challenge I have ahead, with the future ahead.

“I would like to explore more that feeling of enjoyment here in IndyCar. I’m just going to go through it. I’m going to live every moment. I’m going to focus on the present and see what we can do in the future.”

And although his rookie teammate Ed Jones is only nine races into his own IndyCar career, Gutierrez says he’s already been able to learn a lot from him and from Bourdais.

“(There’s) quite a lot,” Gutierrez said he’s learned from Jones already. “And also from Sebastien. I’ve been in contact with him. Been in contact with few drivers to try to get some tips, to get a feeling of what are their thoughts, their experiences, to help me, you know, get quicker into the knowledge of the car, in general, and the series, and the competition here.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with him were related to the technical side of the car, in order for me to understand how the car is working, how the car is evolving through a weekend. It helped me a lot in Detroit. It’s helping me a lot here. Obviously we had the test which allowed us as a team to prepare better.

“Yeah, race by race, it will be clearer and clearer. But Sebastien is always there involved kind of following all the meetings, following the practice sessions, the qualifyings. Yeah, is great to be in touch. Sebastien is a great driver. I really been following him from the past. So, yeah, we’re here and trying to do my best to adapt quickly to the racing here.”

Both Gutierrez and Jones are IndyCar rookies and as such are feeding off each other to learn.

“It’s all about sharing information after each session. It’s about contributing,” he said. “Obviously he has more experience than me in IndyCar, and he has proven to be quite good here. So Ed, you know, we’ve been always together in the meetings. Obviously me trying to understand what is his way of working through the weekend with the setup of the car.

“In my case, I’m very open, because obviously I have no experience in IndyCar. So been always with a very open approach, trying to get as much information as I can, absorb everything, and learn as much as possible.”

Gutierrez briefly dovetailed into the Formula E contractual situation where he had driven with the Techeetah team. He said there was “really nothing to talk about” and that he enjoyed the experience, but said this was an opportunity he wanted to explore.

What he will be exploring for the first time next week is his first oval test at Iowa Speedway on Tuesday, and he’s excited about that.

“I’m aware that it’s completely different. Fortunately I will have a test on Tuesday to prepare, to get to know the reality of an oval, because you can review a lot of data, you can prepare on the theory, but always, you know, when you get to the reality of driving, it’s a complete different story.

“I’m really looking forward to Tuesday. I’m very sure that I will enjoy it, that I will enjoy that kind of racing. So, yeah, I’m excited to get to know — to expand my racing knowledge and to know how to race in ovals.”

For now he’ll get through this weekend and look to build continuity with the Coyne team and Jones as his teammate.