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.

Recap: Green Bay Packers QB Brett Hundley takes in Kohler Grand Prix

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When professional athletes decide to experience sports outside of the one where they make their living, it never ceases to entertain. Case and point: Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley.

The 24-year-old Hundley spent the weekend at Road America, taking in the Kohler Grand Prix. His time at the facility began on Thursday, where he first paid a visit to Team Penske driver Will Power, who gave him a quick tutorial.

Will Power shows Brett Hundley a steering for a Verizon IndyCar Series machine. Photo: IndyCar

The next part of Hundley’s day saw him take a two-seater ride with none other than Mario Andretti. And, unsurprisingly, it left a big impression.

Mari Andretti takes Brett Hundley around Road America in the Verizon IndyCar Series two-seater. Photo: IndyCar

“The first lap, I’m screaming, and it’s the warm-up lap! And then the second lap: I’m just bright-eyed, going through corners. I give so much respect, that’s an awesome sport, man!” Hundley said in a media debrief afterward.

However, the day was not finished. Later on, Hundley showed off his arm strength and throwing accuracy by attempting to throw a football through the passenger side window of a moving Chevrolet Corvette. And while it took a few attempts, he eventually hit his mark.

Hundley stayed through Sunday and dawned a photographer’s bib in order to take in more of the action.

In fact, he even inadvertently photobombed second-place finisher Josef Newgarden during his post-race interview.

A video chronicling Hundley’s visit can be viewed here and additional photos from his weekend can be found on his Instagram page.

 

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Merhi confirmed for WEC return with Manor at the Nürburgring

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CEFC Manor TRS Racing has confirmed that Roberto Merhi will return to the FIA World Endurance Championship for next month’s 6 Hours of Nürburgring, replacing Jean-Eric Vergne.

Merhi previously raced for Manor in both Formula 1 and the WEC, making his most recent appearance with the British marque at last November’s 6 Hours of Bahrain.

Merhi’s last racing outing came in the Formula 2 double-header in Spain and has flirted with a move into Formula E, but was confirmed on Wednesday to be making his racing return at the Nürburgring on July 16.

Merhi will deputize for Vergne in the No. 24 Oreca 07 Gibson while the Frenchman is in New York for the city’s inaugural Formula E event.

FIA to re-examine Vettel/Hamilton Baku F1 clash

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The FIA has confirmed that it will re-examine the clash between Formula 1 title rivals Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton in Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix to see if further action is warranted.

Vettel and Hamilton made contact twice behind the safety car in Baku, with the second incident deemed to be an act of dangerous driving on Vettel’s part.

The FIA stewards in Baku handed Vettel a 10-second stop/go penalty for the clash – the harshest available penalty besides disqualification – but faced calls to issue a stricter punishment post race.

Hamilton said that the incident set a dangerous precedent for F1 and wider motorsport, but Vettel believed his rival deserved a penalty for allegedly brake testing him.

On Wednesday, the FIA confirmed that it would be re-examining the incident in a meeting on July 3, with a verdict set to be delivered ahead of the Austrian Grand Prix.

“Following the recent incident at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in which Car 5 (Sebastian Vettel) was involved in a collision with Car 44 (Lewis Hamilton), on Monday 3rd July, the FIA will further examine the causes on the incident in order to evaluate whether further action is necessary,” a short statement from the FIA read.

“A statement regarding the outcome of this process will be made available before the upcoming Austrian Grand Prix (7-9 July).”

Wickens not interested in full-time IndyCar switch despite practice run

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Robert Wickens is not interested in making a full-time switch to the Verizon IndyCar Series in the near future despite his practice run-out at Road America last weekend for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Mercedes DTM driver Wickens was called up for Friday practice at the KOHLER Grand Prix in the No. 7 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda after Mikhail Aleshin was unable to make it in time due to immigration issues.

Aleshin was able to return to the United States in time for Saturday’s final practice and qualifying at Road America, with Wickens stepping back down.

The Canadian got his first taste of an Indy car in a car swap with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe in March, paving the way for his practice appearance at Road America.

However, Wickens is not looking to make a full-time move over to IndyCar anytime soon despite enjoying his run-out, with his focus lying with DTM.

“Not really, to be honest,” Wickens said when asked if IndyCar was something he would like to move into in Mercedes’ ‘Tales from the Paddock’ press newsletter.

“I just want to race cars. That’s the main thing. I have no urge to leave the DTM at the moment.

“Everything is going well, and I’m really happy with Mercedes.”

Wickens also went into detail about how rapidly things moved with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, having only been told the day before practice that he was required for the running.

“I planned on having a relaxing weekend at home, but on Thursday afternoon I got a call from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which is the team that we did the ride swap with involving James Hinchcliffe back in April,” Wickens said.

“They asked if I could go to Road America and fill in for Mikhail Aleshin who had immigration issues. Fortunately, Toto [Wolff] was happy for me to do it and I was able to jump on a plane and get to Wisconsin.

“We didn’t get to the hotel until about 10pm on Thursday, and Free Practice 1 was on Friday morning very early. It took some getting used to.

“The practice itself was fun. The track was really good. It would be amazing to have a DTM race there one day.

“I definitely wanted to do the full weekend, but the full-time driver got his immigration stuff sorted and he made it to the race track by Friday night. My duties were finished, but it was still a really fun Friday.”