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He’s baaaack: Juan Pablo Montoya has high hopes for NASCAR race at Michigan

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Juan Pablo Montoya racing in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Michigan likely boils down to one of two things:

1) He has some unfinished business from his previous seven-year stint in NASCAR, or,

2) Old habits are hard to break.

Whatever the case, while Montoya has returned to a full-time open-wheel ride in IndyCar this season, he just can’t fully quit stock-car racing.

Especially when he thinks he has a chance to win in Sunday’s Quicken Loans 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

“Absolutely, our goal is to win the race,” Montoya said. “Michigan is a huge race for Roger (Penske) and for the manufacturers. It would be an honor for me to be able to do that for them.

“We tested the No.12 Ford several weeks ago at Nashville and it was really quick. I felt like I got up to speed in no time. That said, we realize that it’s going to be difficult. The Cup Series is always evolving so when you aren’t in the car every week you can get behind easily. But I have two teammates that are among the fastest drivers every race (Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano), so I know the speed will be there to contend.”

Sunday will be the first of two Sprint Cup races Montoya will compete in this season, the other being the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis next month.

Montoya is enjoying the challenge of returning to IndyCar, currently seventh in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings, with three top-five finishes, including a season-best third-place showing last Saturday at Texas.

But don’t expect Montoya to make a full-time return to NASCAR anytime soon.

“For me it’s more of an opportunity to maybe win a race or two here,” Montoya said in a media session Friday at MIS. “This year we’ve got two really good shots. This is probably one of the best tracks for the Fords.

“They always excel here and have a car that can win, and the way Team Penske is running right now, if it clicks from the beginning, and we hope it does, we might have a shot at winning this.”

Montoya was twice in contention to win the Brickyard but ultimately came up short each time. In the past, he’s called failing to win there as one of the most frustrating defeats that continues to gnaw at him to this day.

“Going to the Brickyard is a place that I run really well,” Montoya said. “When we ran bad we were always in the top 10, so going there in a car like this you’re definitely looking at a shot at a win as well.”

Montoya hasn’t exactly had the greatest history at Michigan – with just three top-10 finishes in 14 starts – but he feels confident that Team Penske equipment will make up for his past shortcomings there, as well as serve as a tune-up for Indy.

“To be honest with you, with the way Team Penske is running here it’s a hell of a chance,” said Montoya, who will start 28th in Sunday’s race. “You see Joey’s (Logano) comments sometimes and he says it was a terrible day and he finished fifth or sixth, so from my history here I would have killed to have a car that would do that.

“Our goal here, I think, is we’ll take it as it comes this weekend, but the way really look at it is it’s really good preparation for the Brickyard.

“The way Team Penske is running right now, they look like every week they have a shot at winning, so if we do a good job here and we have a decent race we’ll easily get a top 10 and if I’m really comfortable in the car we could even look at a win.

“I think this track, with my background in open wheel, coming here is gonna play into my hands a little bit because it’s a really fast track. It’s a track you don’t brake, it’s a track where you’re really controlling the throttle and you do that a lot in Indy Car.

“Roger gave me the opportunity to come here and we want to make SKF (race sponsor) and the Ford group proud of what we can do.”

Added crew chief Greg Erwin, “Juan Montoya is a world-class driver. Any crew chief would want to work with a driver with that kind of experience. … It’s going to be a fun weekend. Obviously we aren’t worrying about points, so we are able to lay it on the line.”

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Chilton says IndyCar test debut went “swimmingly well”

SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 12:  Max Chilton of Great Britain and Marussia speaks with members of the media during the Russian Formula One Grand Prix at Sochi Autodrom on October 12, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Along with new Chevrolet aerodynamic components being tried out at the “it’s green in February and it’s never this green the later into the year we get” Sonoma Raceway, the other interesting storyline out of Wednesday’s six-car Verizon IndyCar Series test was that it marked Max Chilton’s testing debut with Chip Ganassi Racing in the No. 8 Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Chevrolet.

Chilton’s made the announcement, addressed the media and had his sponsor confirmed within the last week-plus.

But it was on Wednesday that the talking stopped and the driving restarted, for what was not only the 24-year-old Brit’s first time in an IndyCar but also his first time at Sonoma.

“It’s a bit of a shock today,” Chilton said, via a track-issued release. “I haven’t been in a racing car in six months and that was an Indy Lights car, so I’ve got to learn the track today and the car.

“But I think the morning went swimmingly well. I was quicker than I thought I would be.  It’s a really nice kit and I can’t wait to explore it throughout the season.”

Here’s a few photos on social media, either ones he or the track shared, of his maiden day in an IndyCar.

Chilton’s next test comes later this week, still in California, at Auto Club Speedway for his first oval run in an IndyCar.

Chilton joined his three Chip Ganassi Racing teammates, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball, for the test. Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud also tested on Wednesday.

Pabst adds Jordan Lloyd as third USF2000 driver

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Pabst Racing has added a third driver to its Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda lineup, in the form of talented 19-year-old Australian driver Jordan Lloyd.

Lloyd raced the first two weekends of last year’s USF2000 season with John Cummiskey Racing before being sidelined due to financial woes, but he showed quite a bit of promise in those two weekends at St. Petersburg and NOLA Motorsports Park. He finished second in one of the NOLA races.

For 2016, Lloyd returns to the U.S. after winning the CAMS Jayco Australian Formula 4 championship last year, and was thus awarded with the ‘Road to the World’ scholarship.

“I only touched the tip of the iceberg when I was here in 2015, so on a personal level there is a lot of unfinished business that needs to be tended to,” Lloyd said in a team release. “I am looking forward to a strong season.”

Lloyd, who will drive the No. 21 car, joins the previously announced pairing of Garth Rickards and Yufeng Luo at Pabst, the Oconomowoc, Wisconsin-based team, as the USF2000 field for 2016 continues to grow both in terms of size and talent.

Luca Ghiotto steps up to GP2 with Trident

2015 GP3 Series Round 9
Yas Marina Circuit, Abu Dhabi, UAE.
Friday 27 November 2015.
Luca Ghiotto (ITA, Trident) 
Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
ref: Digital Image _SBL7306
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Luca Ghiotto will step up to the GP2 Series with Trident in 2016 after an impressive season in GP3 last year that saw him finish second in the championship standings.

Ghiotto made his GP3 debut at the end of 2014 with a four-race run-out for Trident before remaining with the Italian team for 2015.

It proved to be a memorable year as he won five races – more than any other driver – but fell eight points short of the title as Mercedes junior Esteban Ocon was crowed champion in Abu Dhabi.

Ghiotto will remain with Trident for 2016, stepping up to its GP2 operation after a successful test in Abu Dhabi at the end of last year.

“I can’t wait to line-up for this new adventure,” Ghiotto said. “Last year, it was tough for me to fight so hard and not winning the title. However, it has been an extremely useful experience with the help of the excellent teamwork among the whole Trident stable.

“I want to thank once again Maurizio Salvadori and Giacomo Ricci for their support, and the Italian Federation for believing so much in me. I really look forward to be back on-track.”

Newgarden on Phoenix: “You have to be really committed”

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Phoenix International Raceway replaces The Milwaukee Mile on the Verizon IndyCar Series’ 2016 schedule as the lone one-mile oval the series competes on.

And that’s exactly where the similarities between the two end.

While Milwaukee’s nearly all-flat banking nature rewards those who find the setup early, and punishes those who don’t, Phoenix is going to be significantly faster and has a series of rises and falls that might make for a more interesting challenge.

Josef Newgarden, who took his first laps during a Chevrolet manufacturer test Monday at Phoenix aboard his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, had high praise for the commitment level it takes to nail a lap at PIR.

“Phoenix, you don’t need as much courage to be flat,” Newgarden told NBC Sports in a phone interview on Wednesday. “It just seems more crazy. From a commitment standpoint, the commitment level is higher, for different reasons.

“From a speed and physicality standpoint, it seems more of a commitment than Milwaukee. That was interesting to me. You really had to be committed… it was almost hard to breathe. It’s a very tough lap.

“It’s easier to be flat than at Milwaukee, and you’re generally flat out, but it seems higher commitment.”

Newgarden, who won his first career IndyCar pole position and dominated at Milwaukee last year, has lamented the loss of the oldest continually operated track from the schedule.

“I loved Milwaukee. It was a very difficult track. It took a lot more courage at Milwaukee to figure out how to get flat, or to get flat,” he admitted.

Newgarden hadn’t been to Phoenix previously and comments leading in – that the track serves as sort of a roller-coaster featuring the track’s legendary, albeit changed, dogleg in the backstraight – were apt.

“The whole thing is flat all around. The dogleg, there’s actually kind of a bit of a hill,” he said.

“You exit out of (Turn) 2, you run up the banking out of 2, then you get high enough, then run down pretty far and it’s kind of a downhill run into the dogleg, then you climb back up before 3. You’re almost constantly going up and down.

“I saw some NASCAR drivers describe it as a roller coaster, and that’s somewhat true. There’s a lot of elevation changes for an oval.”

How intense is the oval on the drivers, from a G-loading standpoint?

“Easy 4 to 5. I’d say 4.2 or 4.5 depending on downforce levels,” Newgarden said.

And that might be the most interesting thing to monitor for when IndyCar arrives at Phoenix, both for the Grand Prix-view open test February 26 and 27 and the race itself on April 2, is what downforce levels teams will opt to run to try to create better racing.

One of North America’s greatest open-wheel oval drivers, Rick Mears, has long been a proponent of less downforce.

Newgarden said less downforce will certainly create more separation and make the cars harder to drive, but it might not provide as close of racing.

“It’s hard to tell. I think if you want to see the cars racing and passing constantly, you’d need more downforce. If you trim it out and guys have to pedal them, it should separate the field better. I think more downforce would equal more racing around there. But it depends on what you want.

“Take Texas for example. Take the downforce away, it’s hard to drive, and there’s no passing. But it’s difficult on the drivers. There’s not as good racing. Add the downforce back, now everyone’s (sort of) packed up, but you’ll have amazing racing action. It really depends on what you want.”

Newgarden’s test was his first day in a car since he and team principal and teammate, Carpenter, tested at Texas Motor Speedway back in October.

A video from IndyCar featuring Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud and Juan Pablo Montoya from the Phoenix test is below.