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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Sato return to RLL Racing made official

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Formal confirmation of Takuma Sato’s return to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been expected for several weeks, but has now been made official following the conclusion of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season at Sonoma.

Neither Sato nor RLL Racing could comment publicly on the deal when news of it broke at the Gateway Motorsports Park weekend in late August, although Andretti Autosport team principal Michael Andretti confirmed Sato’s departure in multiple reports.

Now Sato and RLL Racing have both confirmed the news, which will see the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion back for a second tour of duty with the team at which he nearly won the 2012 race.

Sato, now 40, will be in the second Honda-powered entry alongside Graham Rahal, who had tough 2013 and 2014 seasons since coming home but has since starred over each of the last three seasons.

“I’m excited about having Taku back with us,” said Bobby Rahal, co-owner of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with former CBS Late Show host David Letterman and Mi-Jack co-owner Mike Lanigan. “I have such admiration for his spirit and how he approaches everything and was so happy for him when he won the Indy 500 this year. The chance to bring him back to the team was too good to pass up. He and Graham get along very well and we will have two strong cars that can win any race in 2018. I think that will give our team a great chance at being contenders in every race but it’s also going to give each of our drivers a chance to have their best years ever. I’m excited about it and even though the 2017 season just concluded, I can’t wait for the 2018 season to start.”

“I am extremely happy to be back with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing,” added Takuma Sato. “Bobby, Dave and Mike have always been very supportive of me. The team has been ultra-competitive the past few seasons. I can’t wait to be a part of it in 2018. I think we can achieve some great things together!”

Rahal had eyed Sato over the summer and told NBC Sports in July, “A guy like Taku, we have a lot of warm feelings having worked with him a number of years ago.”

Sato finished a career-best eighth in this year’s IndyCar championship in his lone year with Andretti Autosport, much of the standing aided by a whopping 137-point haul at the double points Indianapolis 500.

His first top-10 finish in eight years in IndyCar supplanted his previous best result of 13th in 2011.

Rosenqvist, Heidfeld retained by Mahindra for Formula E season four

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Mahindra Racing will enter the new FIA Formula E season with an unchanged driver line-up after confirming Felix Rosenqvist and Nick Heidfeld in race seats on Wednesday.

Mahindra charged to third place in the teams’ championship in the 2016/17 campaign, taking its maiden victory with Rosenqvist in Berlin and nine further podium finishes.

The team had long been expected to run with an unchanged line-up for the 2017/18 season, with confirmation arriving two weeks before pre-season testing begins in Valencia, Spain.

“We’re thrilled that both Nick and Felix will remain with Mahindra Racing next season,” team boss Dilbagh Gill said.

“With them, we’re confident that our new race car, the M4Electro will prove to be our strongest yet and Mahindra will consistently be fighting at the front of the field for wins and championships.”

“I am proud to be part of Mahindra Racing where we have been going from strength to strength in Formula E,” added Heidfeld.

“It’s exactly where I want to be and I am delighted to extend my contract and commitment to target even more success. I am thrilled and can’t wait to compete in my M4-Electro in this ever-improving championship.”

Rosenqvist finished season three as Formula E’s top rookie, and despite links with an IndyCar drive after a successful test at Mid-Ohio over the summer, the Swede is relishing the chance to continue his development in the series.

“I’m thrilled to be back for a second season in Formula E and to extend my relationship with Mahindra Racing That was our mutual intention from the very beginning, and we’ve already completed a series of promising tests with the M4Electro in recent months,” Rosenqvist said.

“Moving into season four, I will draw on everything I learned in 2016-17 to try and lift us to the next level. It will be a massive challenge with stiff competition, but we have a solid foundation and are all fully committed to taking the fight to the very best.”

Formula E’s fourth season kicks off in Hong Kong on December 2.

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.