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IndyCar: 2014 midterm progress report

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Technically, the Verizon IndyCar Series won’t reach the halfway point of the season until after the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend on Saturday. That will mark 9 of 18 races complete, and signal just two months left in the season.

But, with this having been a two-week break, the longest the series will have at any point this year, we take a look back at the stunners, spoilers and stragglers thus far in 2014:

BEST DRIVER: HELIO CASTRONEVES

So why am I picking the 39-year-old Brazilian over his Team Penske teammate and series points leader, Will Power, or the guy he lost out to for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay? Castroneves has shown the resilience and determination I didn’t think was possible after his near-title miss in 2013. His Detroit weekend was one of his out-and-out fastest weekends in years; he was revitalized at Indianapolis, just missing the 500 win to Hunter-Reay, and was frustrated with thirds at both St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. If he holds it together in the second half, he may well finally put together that elusive first series championship. Power and  Hunter-Reay, for as much as they’ve been the two drivers with the highest ceilings this year, have been in the headlines for controversy or mistakes as much as their highlights. And being the best driver on IndyCar’s biggest day does not necessarily mean he/she has been the best driver over the course of the season.

BEST ROOKIE: JACK HAWKSWORTH

It all comes down to circumstances, and Hawksworth is excelling most in his. A rookie on in the single-car No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda entry should not have three top-five starts and 32 laps led this year, but indeed he does. I was surprised when Bryan Herta brought him in instead of offseason favorite Luca Filippi, but Hawksworth has been nothing short of impressive this year. This is not to sell the other rookies short, but all of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing) have excellent teammates at their disposal to learn from; Hawksworth does not.

NEED A REBOUND IN SECOND HALF: SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, GRAHAM RAHAL

I don’t want to call either of the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Champ Car teammates “disappointing,” but thus far these two have been below my expectations. Bourdais has made way too many mistakes, especially for someone of his experience level, and incurred the wrath of several penalties. For whatever reason, despite having all the resources at his disposal at RLL, Rahal has struggled in qualifying and has had to rely on great starts and restarts to make up positions this year.

HARD-LUCK AWARD: JOSEF NEWGARDEN

I gave Josef my “most improved” driver award last year and his qualifying has been significantly better in 2014, especially impressive considering a change in engineers preseason and working as a single-car entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But man he can’t buy a break. Speared by RHR in Long Beach, Martin Plowman at the Indy 500 and Power at Detroit Race 2, plus a rare unforced error in Detroit Race 1, have left Newgarden’s results not at the level of his qualifying performances.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE: INDY 500

Hard not to give it to the race where Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged a thrilling six-lap bout for the win after the red flag, and the field kept it clean and green for the first 149 laps. It had just the right amount of passing, pacing and fuel strategy for my liking, with an excellent finish to boot.

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF

  • Power vs. the world: Points leader Will Power has made himself no friends with some of his on-track moves this season, but, as he said post-Texas, he’s still been earning a lot of penalties. How he handles himself and the pressure in the hunt for his first title will be fascinating over the coming weeks.
  • Pagenaud, RHR, Castroneves in with a shot? Figure these three – RHR, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – have the best shot to overtake Power for the championship. The top four are within 91 points heading into the final 10-race stretch. Pagenaud’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda team needs just slightly better qualifying efforts (no top-three starts this year… RHR has four), but otherwise is a title contender.
  • Can Ganassi pull second-half comeback encore? The pre-Pocono test at Sebring last year has entered the annals in recent IndyCar history for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But at 156 points back in eighth place, Scott Dixon has a higher mountain to climb if he wants to repeat his 2013 series championship. Teammates Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball seek the glory of wins, and not also-ran performances.
  • The double points lottery: Pocono and Fontana offer double points on their own, and with doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto, those four weekends of the remaining eight on the calendar have a greater determination towards the championship than the four other, standard points weekends of Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Sonoma. A driver like a Marco Andretti or Tony Kanaan, for instance, could bag the Pocono win and if the leaders hit problems, suddenly vault himself back into title contention as well.
  • Fatigue: There’s 10 races in the next 10 weekends… there’s six races in the next four. How drivers and crews hold up over what’s going to be a physically demanding and at times, exhausting schedule, will determine much of the championship chase.

See the rest of the season on NBCSN, and both of this weekend’s races from Houston at 3 p.m. ET each of Saturday and Sunday on NBCSN and Live Extra.

Longtime Knoxville Raceway promoter, Ralph Capitani, dies

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Photo via @KnoxvilleRaces Twitter
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Knoxville Raceway likely wouldn’t be what it is as one of the country’s most renowned short tracks without the work of Ralph Capitani.

Capitani has died following a battle of cancer (according to Speed Sport), news of which was announced Monday by the track. The longtime promoter at the track was born in 1932.

Capitani, better known as “Cappy,” oversaw a huge rise in the stature and popularity of the track’s premier event – the Knoxville Nationals – after taking the reins as the track’s new race director and promoter in 1978.

Some of the elements Capitani worked to implement were improved facilities, purses, safety standards, car counts and audience, the latter of which saw the Knoxville Nationals eventually make it to TV. He also established the Knoxville Raceway Hall of Fame.

In his 40th year at Knoxville in 2007, Capitani said the prestige of the Knoxville Nationals remained incredible.

“I think the Knoxville Nationals is the best sprint car race of the year, bar none,” he said in 2007, via InLappedTraffic. “It is the only time you see ALL of the best sprint car drivers competing on the same playing field. It is a United States and Internationally wide event.”

He retired from the track at the end of 2011.

Knoxville Raceway released a statement confirming Capitani’s passing, and thanking him for all he did to put the track and race on the map.

A portion of the statement reads: “A visionary in the sport, Cappy aimed to make sprint car racing at Knoxville Raceway grander, the purses bigger and the grandstands fuller. He achieved them all with a smile on his face and a hearty handshake for every team owner, driver, crew member and fan that ever crossed his path.”

IndyCar’s last big pre-season test occurs this week at Sebring

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Conor Daly. Photo: IndyCar
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Pre-season testing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season will conclude this week with all eight full-season teams having two days at Sebring International Raceway’s short course on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sebring marks the closest venue to simulate street course conditions; four of the first eight races are street races while only one street race, Toronto, occurs in the second half of the season.

Although this is private testing, this will be a de facto “spring training” on the 1.5-mile road course for teams to see what the others are running all at once. IndyCar’s official spring training, the Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway’s 1-mile oval, occurred on February 10-11.

The bulk of the field runs tomorrow, with seven of the eight teams set to test – the only exception is Andretti Autosport. Andretti is listed to test on Wednesday.

All but one of the 21 full-season drivers expected for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener on March 12 will test this week. The one not listed is Sebastien Bourdais of Dale Coyne Racing; Bourdais and Ed Jones tested at Sebring in January prior to the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They’ll be joined by the three drivers making their test debuts, all for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Robert Wickens, Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani and Luis Michael Dorrbecker.

Wickens tests tomorrow as part of his planned ride swap with James Hinchcliffe, with Derani and Dorrbecker set to test on Wednesday.

Sebring is usually a hotbed for tests over the IndyCar offseason. This year saw A.J. Foyt Enterprises (in late January with Chevrolet) and Chip Ganassi Racing (in early January with Honda) premiere their new manufacturers and aero kits at Sebring, among other teams that have tested here.

Although the test season has seen an increase in interest this year, the regular season starts in St. Petersburg and returns to NBCSN with Long Beach on April 9.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2017 launch roundup (VIDEO)

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The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass returns today with a recap of the remaining launches of the 2017 Formula 1 cars that occurred over the weekend.

Williams was first to reveal a rendering of its 2017 car, but it wasn’t a formal launch. Sauber’s online launch properly kicked off proceedings last Monday, before Renault, Force India and Mercedes did actual launches, and then Ferrari (online) and McLaren (in Woking) both launched on Friday.

Official launches then followed for Williams, Red Bull, Haas and Toro Rosso over the weekend. Haas had pictures of its car leak the day before its planned launch as it was a filming day on track.

In this edition of Paddock Pass, NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales recap the remaining cars revealed over the weekend.

Previous Paddock Pass editions from this week are below:

Testing continues this week with days two through four of the first test at Barcelona.

Alonso’s McLaren struggles on first day of F1 tests

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 27: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MCL32 on track  during day one of Formula One winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 27, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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MONTMELO, Spain (AP) Troubled Formula One team McLaren has gotten off to a wretched start in preseason testing.

Fernando Alonso spent most of the first day waiting to get back out of the garage after his car broke down following just one lap at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya on Monday.

What the team identified as an “oil system” malfunction to its Honda-made engine kept the two-time world champion out of action until after the lunch break. Back behind the wheel, his 29 total laps was the lowest amount of the 11 drivers who participated.

Alonso also posted the second-slowest time, more than three seconds off the leading pace set by Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes. Only Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson was slower.

“It’s disappointing,” Alonso said. “You work for three months and at the track on the installation lap something breaks down and you lose the day.”

This misstep is the latest technical hiccup to plague McLaren since it paired up with Honda.

One of F1’s most successful teams with eight constructor titles and 12 driver titles, the British outfit has struggled since it switched from Mercedes to the Japanese automaker before the 2015 season.

After earning just a combined 27 points from Alonso and Jenson Button in the first year with Honda, the team showed some growth last season with 76 points and two fifth-place finishes. But that is still a far cry from the glory days of the Woking-based team whose last race win was in Brazil in 2012.

For his part, Alonso hasn’t won a race since he claimed his 32nd victory back in 2013 at the Spanish Grand Prix while with Ferrari.

“It is fair to say that after the difficulties we had the last three seasons, it’s a nice temptation for the media,” Alonso said.

“From the point of view of the team, we are disappointed and sad to arrive to the first day of testing and not run.

“We are focused on what we have to do to make up the lost time. We know that we have four days for each driver and now one day is gone to prepare for the world championship.”

Stoffel Vandoorne, who has replaced Button, will get his turn for McLaren on Tuesday.

McLaren team chief Eric Boullier acknowledged that the relationship with Honda is far from perfect.

“It is like any marriage, you can have some ups and downs,” Boullier said. “We went through a lot of stress through the last couple of years, but we have a positive and constructive relationship and I don’t expect this to change in the future.”

The opening test will run through Thursday.

The track near Barcelona will host a second round of testing from March 7-10 before the season starts at the Australian GP on March 26.