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Marcos Ambrose has priorities in place: Win at Sonoma, make Chase, re-sign with RPM

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Marcos Ambrose still dreams of winning a race on a Sprint Cup oval.

But if Ambrose is to have a fighting chance to make the field in this year’s revamped and expanded Chase for the Sprint Cup, his best bet to at least get a leg up is to win Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Ambrose is arguably one of the best road course racers in the Sprint Cup Series. In six starts at Watkins Glen, which holds its annual race in August, Ambrose has two wins and five top-five finishes, plus a pole.

As for Sonoma, Ambrose also has six Cup starts there, but has yet to reach victory lane. However, he does have two wins and three other top-10 finishes, plus a pole.

Ambrose hopes to change that Sunday.

“We know that the race here this weekend and in Watkins Glen, the two road races, are our best chance to win a race this year,” Ambrose said on Wednesday’s weekly NASCAR media teleconference. “That will automatically lock us into the Chase.  Clearly there’s a lot to race for at these two tracks for us.

“We’ve put a lot of energy and effort into Sonoma. We went out there and did the Goodyear tire test earlier in the season. We’ve done some road course testing as well, so we feel we’re as ready as we can be.”

When asked about why he’s won two road courses in the Cup series but still has yet to earn his first oval victory, Ambrose was realistic.

“My natural skill set obviously is road racing,” he said. “I’m quite confident on the ovals but haven’t had the same success I’ve had on the road courses. Really it’s just the years of training.  It’s my niche.

“I feel very comfortable road racing. I feel like I can apply myself well on the weekend. The biggest thing I try to do on a buildup to a weekend like this, there’s pressure building, there’s a chance to lock yourself into the Chase, which would make your season, you get a chance to win a Sprint Cup race, which you don’t get to do very often.  What I do this weekend is not try to think about it, be normal, try to relax leading into this week.

“It’s always a pressure-filled environment. The more you think about it, the worse you tend to go. I try to rely on my instincts there. I don’t do anything special this week in preparation for it. But I also know there’s a lot on the line and that pressure is all present. Whatever you can do to try to minimize the pressure is a good thing.”

Making the Chase “certainly would make our year,” Ambrose said.

But at the same time, “I haven’t made it to the Chase yet. This format will give us our best chance to do it, if we can win a race at either Watkins Glen or Sonoma. We know that. It would really make our year, no doubt about it.  It would certainly make our sponsors and Richard Petty very happy.

“We can’t do anything but go out there and try and do it. Talking isn’t going to get it done. We all know what is at stake. I think our team has prepared the car as best we can and I’m as ready as I can be and we’ll see if we can get it done.”

With perhaps his best chance at making the Chase this season, Ambrose was asked his thoughts about potentially adding a road course to the Chase sometime in the future.

“I’m not going to second guess what NASCAR are doing,” Ambrose said. “They’ve got a Chase format. They’ve built this sport up to what it is today. The idea of the Chase is to find the best driver and team for the year, allow them to race for the championship.

“There is an argument to say if you want to be the complete package, you have to be good on road courses as well. But I’m happy with the schedule. If I can win a race here road racing, it’s going to lock me in the Chase, it’s a real win for me.

“Would I like to see more road races? I think the fans need to be asked that question, not the drivers. Really our sport is about the fans, what they like to see.

“Anecdotally, there’s always a huge crowd at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. They seem to get good ratings on TV. There is an argument there you could have more road races in the schedule. But certainly I’m not the one promoting that. I’ll just let NASCAR make their choices.”

Ambrose was again asked his future status with Richard Petty Motorsports. His contract expires at the end of this season, but he still has nothing new to report.

“I’m in a renewal year with Richard Petty for 2015,” he said. “I’m not really thinking about myself here. I just want the best for RPM. They have decisions to make along the way here. I want to help them make their decisions and be where they want to be.

“I haven’t really thought about anything much but that. I want to make sure that RPM are on the right path and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure I help them do that.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Fast Facts: IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen

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Courtesy of the INDYCAR PR staff, here’s this week’s Fast Facts ahead of the IndyCar Grand Prix at The Glen, the second-to-last race weekend of the season. See below:

INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen Fast Facts

Race weekend: Friday Sept. 2 – Sunday, Sept. 4
Track: Watkins Glen International, an 11-turn, 3.37-mile road course in Watkins Glen, N.Y.
Race distance: 60 laps / 202.2 miles
Entry List: INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (PDF)
Push-to-pass parameters: 10 activations for 20 seconds each
Firestone tire allotment: Eight sets primary, three sets alternate
Twitter: @WGI @IndyCar, #INDYCARGP, #IndyCar
Event website: www.theglen.com
INDYCAR website: www.IndyCar.com
2010 race winner (most recent event): Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara-Honda)
2010 Verizon P1 Award winner (most recent event): Will Power (12 Verizon Team Penske Dallara-Honda), 1 minute, 29.3164 seconds, 135.832 mph
Qualifying record: Ryan Briscoe, 1:28.1322, 137.657 mph, July 4, 2009

NBCSN television broadcasts: Practice, 11 a.m. ET Friday, Sept. 2 (live); Qualifying, 6 p.m. ET Saturday, Sept. 3 (taped); Race, 2 p.m. ET Sunday, Sept. 4 (live); Kevin Lee is the lead announcer for the Saturday and Sunday NBCSN broadcasts this weekend alongside analysts Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Pit reporters are Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller. Jake Query fills in for Lee as lead announcer for Friday’s live practice show.

Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts: Mark Jaynes is the chief announcer alongside analyst Zach Veach. Jake Query and Nick Yeoman are the turn announcers with Dave Furst, Rob Howden and Michael Young reporting from the pits. All Verizon IndyCar Series races as well as qualifying sessions are broadcast live on network affiliates, Sirius 212, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app. All Verizon IndyCar Series practice sessions are available on  IndyCar.com,indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.

Video streaming: Friday afternoon’s practice session (3:30 p.m. ET), Saturday morning’s practice (11 a.m. ET), qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (3 p.m. ET Saturday) andSunday’s final practice (10:30 a.m. ET) will be available on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

INDYCAR Mobile app: Verizon Wireless puts fans around the world in the driver’s seat with its INDYCAR Mobile app. The app has been enhanced with new features to keep fans in the know of the latest race-day action. Exclusive features of the INDYCAR Mobile app for Verizon Wireless customers will stream live through the app and includes enhanced real-time leaderboard and car telemetry; the ability to follow the race in real time with the interactive 3D track; live in-car camera video streaming for select drivers during Verizon IndyCar Series races; live driver and pit crew radio transmissions during races and live Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network audio streaming during all track activities.

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Sept. 2
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, NBCSN (Live)
3:30-5:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, Sept. 3
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying),RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live); TV: NBCSN (Taped, 6 p.m.)

Sunday, Sept. 4
10:30 – 11 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
1:55 p.m. – Driver Introductions
2:30 p.m. – Command to Start Engines
2:37 p.m. – INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (60 laps/202.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Championship facts:

•  Simon Pagenaud leads the Verizon IndyCar Series championship with two races to go for the first time in his career.

•  Simon Pagenaud leads Will Power by 28 points. Pagenaud has led the championship since the second race of the season at Phoenix. With 54 maximum points available at Texas, the points lead could change for the second time in 2015.

•  There are nine drivers still mathematically eligible for the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series championship: Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe and Carlos Munoz. Any driver who trails the points leader by 104 points or more following the race will be eliminated from contention.

•  Six drivers were eliminated from championship contention at Texas Motor Speedway on Aug. 27 – Charlie Kimball, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais and Mikhail Aleshin.

• Since the first Indy car race at Watkins Glen in 1979, the winning driver has won the championship once – Rick Mears in 1981.

Key championship point statistic: The driver who has led the championship with two races to go has failed to win the championship in six of the last nine seasons. Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2011 and Will Power in 2014 are the exceptions.

Point differential: The 28 points which separate Simon Pagenaud and Will Power is the fourth-largest  margin with two races remaining since 2010. Ryan Hunter-Reay, who trailed Power by 36 points with two races remaining in 2012, and Scott Dixon, who was 34 points behind Juan Pablo Montoya last year, have overcome a larger deficit. The average deficit with two races to go since 2007 is 20.67 points.

Championship-eligible drivers’ results at Watkins Glen: Will Power, Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon are the only championship-eligible drivers to have raced an Indy car at Watkins Glen International. Dixon and Power are former race winners at The Glen with Dixon winning three in a row from 2005-2007 and Power winning in 2010. Kanaan’s best finish is second and he has a pair of podium finishes. Castroneves has won three pole positions at the track, but has never finished better than fourth in six starts.

Race notes:

•  There have been eight different winners in the 14 previous Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2016: Juan Pablo Montoya (Streets of St. Petersburg), Scott Dixon (Phoenix International Raceway), Simon Pagenaud (Streets of Long Beach, Barber Motorsports Park, Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course), Alexander Rossi (Indianapolis 500), Sebastien Bourdais (Raceway at Belle Isle-1), Will Power (Raceway at Belle Isle-2, Road America, Toronto and Pocono), Josef Newgarden (Iowa Speedway) and Graham Rahal (Texas Motor Speedway). Dixon’s win at Phoenix on April 2 tied him for fourth on the all-time Indy car victory list with Al Unser at 39. He is the active leader in wins. Bourdais’ win at Belle Isle on June 4 tied him with Bobby Unser for sixth on the all-time list with 35 wins. Power’s win at Pocono on Aug. 22 tied him with Rick Mears and Helio Castroneves for 11th all-time with 29.

•  The INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen will be the 10th Indy car race at Watkins Glen International. Will Power won the last Verizon IndyCar Series race at the track in 2010. Bobby Unser won the first Indy car race at The Glen in 1979.

•  Scott Dixon is the winningest Indy car driver at Watkins Glen with three victories (2005, 2006 and 2007). Bobby Unser won at Pocono twice. Past winners Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay (2008) and Will Power (2010) are entered this year.

•  Will Power is the only driver to win the race from the pole in 2010.

•  Team Penske has won four times at Watkins Glen. Penske’s winning drivers are: Bobby Unser (1979 and 1980), Rick Mears (1981) and Will Power (2010).

•  Chip Ganassi Racing has three wins at Watkins Glen, all by Scott Dixon from 2005-2007.

•  Scott Dixon has finished on the podium in four of his six starts at Watkins Glen, including his three wins. Tony Kanaan has a pair of podium finishes in his six starts, including a second-place finish in 2005. Marco Andretti has finished in the top five in three of five starts.

•  Eight drivers entered in the event have competed in past Indy car races at Watkins Glen: Marco Andretti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Tony Kanaan, Will Power, Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato. Castroneves, Dixon and Kanaan each have six starts, most among the entered drivers. Six of those drivers have led laps at the track (Dixon 68, Castroneves 50, Power 45, Andretti 11, Kanaan 11 and Hunter-Reay 9). Dixon has led in five of his six previous starts.

•  Five rookies – Max Chilton, Conor Daly, RC Enerson, Spencer Pigot and Alexander Rossi – are entered. Rossi leads the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings by 83 points over Daly, with Chilton 127 points behind.

•  Tony Kanaan seeks to start his 264th consecutive race this weekend, which would extend his Indy car record streak that began in June 2001 at Portland. Teammate Scott Dixon has made 205 consecutive starts heading into the weekend, which is the third-longest streak in Indy car racing.

•  Helio Castroneves will attempt to make his 326th career Indy car start, which ranks fourth on the all-time list. Tony Kanaan will attempt to make his 325rd Indy car start, which is fifth all-time.

•  Ryan Hunter-Reay will attempt to make his 200th career Indy car start at Watkins Glen. He would become the 20th driver to reach that milestone.

•  The 2016 season is the second in which aerodynamic bodywork component kits are used. The aero kits, produced by engine manufacturers Chevrolet and Honda for their respective supplied teams, are the latest technical innovation to enhance on-track performance through competitive aerodynamic development. Each manufacturer produces two kits for teams – one for short ovals/road courses/street courses and another for superspeedway ovals – but within each kit, teams have multiple component options available.

•  The second season of aero kit competition complements the fifth year of engine manufacturer competition between Chevrolet and Honda with their 2.2-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 engines. It will be another season testing speed and durability to determine the manufacturer champion.

Simon Pagenaud puts his French chef skills to the test

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(Photos courtesy Sonoma Raceway)
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Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Simon Pagenaud is a Renaissance man of sorts.

Not only is he an outstanding race car driver, he’s also a well-known food and wine connoisseur.

Pagenaud and Olympic Gold Medalist swimmer Dana Vollmer put their culinary skills to the test Monday when they took food preparation lessons from two of the top chefs in the Bay Area.

Pagenaud was in town to promote the season-ending Verizon IndyCar Series race, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on Sept. 18. Vollmer, who is coming off her third consecutive Summer Olympics and is a seven-time medalist (including five golds), was Pagenaud’s cooking partner.

The duo visited the renowned Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland and took lessons from award-winning chefs Tanya Holland and Victor Scargle.

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From left, chef Tanya Holland, Olympic swimmer Dana Vollmer, chef Victor Scargle and IndyCar driver Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud took the stove to prepare a longtime family recipe passed down by his grandmother: bistro beef tenderloin wrapped in pork belly with French green beans and charred tomatoes.

“This was a really fun event,” Pagenaud said in a media release. “We get to do a lot of fun things as IndyCar drivers, but to come and cook with Tanya and Victor was really something special.

“It felt really good to make something that reminded me of my hometown, and now I can tell my grandma I have some adjustments for one of her recipes.”

Vollmer, who follows a gluten- and egg-free diet, prepared handmade corn tortillas for lamb tacos, as well as a red quinoa salad with figs and apples.

Pagenaud has won four races and has earned nine top-fives this season, and hopes to hold on to his points lead in the final two races to win the 2016 IndyCar championship.

Vollmer, meanwhile, had an exceptional performance at the recently completed Rio Games. She was on the Gold Medal-winning 4x100m Medley Relay team and the Silver Medal 4×100 Free Relay, which broke the American record. She also won the Bronze Medal in individual 100m Butterfly.

“It was so fun to meet Simon and cook with him,” said Vollmer, who became the first American mother to win a swimming Gold Medal. “I loved the dishes I made and can’t wait to try them at home.

“Eating healthy and clean is really important for me. When I’m training, I can feel the difference after I put good food in my body, and now, with my son (born last year), it’s even more important because he eats what I eat.”

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Travis Pastrana back for Race of Champions in Miami

LONDON - DECEMBER 16:  Travis Pastrana of the USA in action during the Race of Champions at Wembley Stadium on December 16, 2007 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)
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Action sports legend and Race of Champions veteran Travis Pastrana will be back in action at next year’s Race of Champions in Miami, to be held January 2017. It will be his eighth appearance in the event.

He’s the fourth announced driver, joining fellow Americans Ryan Hunter-Reay and Kurt Busch, and four-time Formula 1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel. Those three were announced with the race itself earlier this month.

“The greatest part about the Race Of Champions is that you take all these legends and the best in the world from Formula 1, IndyCar and NASCAR and put them all together, but not necessarily in their speciality,” Pastrana said in an RoC release.

“Anybody can win at any time. I took two wins against Sebastian Vettel, who was the Formula 1 champion at the time – in his home country Germany – in a Porsche and an Aston Martin. Then he beats me in Beijing in a rally car, which should have been my speciality. Everyone always has a shot because there are so many vehicles that no one’s ever driven or had experience in, so everyone makes a lot of mistakes.”

“The Race Of Champions is amazing and the atmosphere’s awesome. It’s usually after the season’s over or before the new one starts so the shenanigans going on in the hotel are pretty ridiculous. Some of the best memories of my life have been with these drivers at ROC. Everyone’s super competitive but it’s just about going out there and having fun. So I’m coming back to the Race Of Champions in Miami with a big smile on my face. Game on…”

Next batch of Indy Lights drivers set to test at Sonoma

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From L to R: Negrao, Urrutia and Veach have their first IndyCar tests. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Zach Veach, Santiago Urrutia and Andre Negrao are the next three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers who will have a chance to make their maiden IndyCar tests this year as part of an Indy Lights Driver Test day.

Belardi Auto Racing’s Veach will score a long-awaited first test in one of Ed Carpenter Racing’s Chevrolets (is listed in Josef Newgarden’s car), while Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian teammates Urrutia and Negrao are set to share James Hinchcliffe and Mikhail Aleshin’s Hondas, respectively.

Veach told NBC Sports of the opportunity he “feels like a kid the night before Christmas,” while the SPM twins make a natural step up.

The test occurs September 8 at Sonoma Raceway, in preparation for the Verizon IndyCar Series season finale there September 18.

Meanwhile the three of them will complete their running at Sonoma and then head south to Monterey, where the Indy Lights finale takes place as part of an all-Mazda weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Urrutia currently leads that championship heading into the penultimate round at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca from Sept. 9-11. The Uruguayan seeks his second straight title on the Mazda Road to Indy after winning the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last year.

They also join this list of Indy Lights drivers or graduates, who’ve tested an IndyCar this year:

  • Jack Harvey (2015), Zachary Claman De Melo, SPM, Mid-Ohio
  • Felix Rosenqvist, Chip Ganassi Racing Teams, Mid-Ohio
  • RC Enerson, Dale Coyne Racing, Mid-Ohio (debuted for race team the next week)
  • Ed Jones, RLL Racing, Watkins Glen
  • Dean Stoneman, Dalton Kellett, Shelby Blackstock, Andretti Autosport, Watkins Glen
  • Santiago Urrutia, Andre Negrao, SPM, Sonoma
  • Zach Veach, ECR, Sonoma

It leaves only Felix Serralles, Kyle Kaiser and Neil Alberico as the only full-season drivers in Indy Lights this year who have not had a run in an IndyCar as yet.