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IndyCar shaping up as more competitive in 2014 than 2013, through 10 races

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Sinking my teeth into the statistics is always one of my favorite parts of a post-weekend debrief in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and the analysis after this weekend’s Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston doubleheader is no different.

Here’s some of the cool nuggets and/or trends that have emerged following the weekend’s action around the M.D Anderson Cancer Center Speedway at NRG Park.

The stats reveal one thing: After a ridiculously competitive 2013, 2014 has only carried that over.

  • 16 podium finishers: The three rookies that bagged their first podiums in Houston, Carlos Huertas, Mikhail Aleshin and Jack Hawksworth, upped the number of podium finishers to 16 this year. Through 10 races in 2013, there were 14 podium finishers; that number grew to 20 by the end of the year. The seven full-timers who haven’t yet: Ryan Briscoe, James Hinchcliffe, Justin Wilson, Sebastien Bourdais, Sebastian Saavedra, Takuma Sato and Josef Newgarden. The potential exists at least five of those seven could get one in the final eight races, and beat the 20 mark to hit 21 or more.
  • Number of different winners tracking on par: Through 10 races last year, we had seven different winners. Through 10 this year… we have seven different winners once more. Those who have won in both years: Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Mike Conway, Simon Pagenaud, and Helio Castroneves. New additions for 2014 are Ed Carpenter and Carlos Huertas, replacing Hinchcliffe and Sato. Last year there were 10 different winners in total; the record in a single season is 11.
  • Top-10 finishing droughts: Eight drivers: Scott Dixon, Power, Saavedra, Sato, Conway, Newgarden, Graham Rahal and Luca Filippi didn’t finish in the top 10 in either Houston race. Saavedra hasn’t bagged a top-10 since Round 2 at Long Beach; it’s been since Round 3 for Newgarden at Barber, and Round 4 for Sato at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
  • RHR, Andretti and Power’s qualifying outage: Both Power and Hunter-Reay need to recapture their qualifying magic. In the first five races, both drivers had four top-five starts apiece. Since, Power’s Texas pole is the only combined top-five start between them. The grid spots the last 5 races: Power: 16, 8, 1, 18, 18; RHR’s: 21, 21, 12, 8, 21. Continuing the theme of “bad five-race qualifying stretch,” take a look at Marco Andretti’s last five grid spots: 18, 18, 17, 16, 16.
  • Hinch’s odd stat continues: Hat tip to The Set-Up Sheet’s Steve Wittich who discovered this first, but Hinchcliffe has yet to finish better than he’s started this year, and that dubious stat continued through Houston despite finishes of fifth and 14th. The driver of the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda has eight top-10 starts in 10 races this year, including five P2 grid spots. Helio Castroneves leads the field with nine top-10 starts in 10 races.
  • Huertas/Kimball no top-10 starts: Huertas and Charlie Kimball are the only two full-time drivers without a top-10 start thus far in 10 races. Huertas has started 12th on two occasions; Kimball’s best is 13th, set in Houston race one.
  • Pagenaud mirrors one streak as two more continue: Pagenaud joins Dixon as the only two drivers to set fastest race lap in back-to-back races. Meanwhile, through 10 races, no polesitter has won a race this year, and no driver has won back-to-back races.
  • First big margin of victory: Pagenaud’s 7.2622-second margin of victory over teammate Aleshin is the first this season in IndyCar north of 1.9 seconds.
  • Two wins, two liveries: Pagenaud’s also won driving two different liveries in the same year, with blue, white and orange on his No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda at the GP of Indy, while now he’s won in orange Oculus colors this weekend. The last driver to do that was Helio Castroneves in 2012 (Shell No. 3 red/yellow St. Petersburg, Penske Truck Rental yellow Edmonton).
  • More cautions: Houston’s two races produced six (race one) and five (race 2) cautions. The six in race one is a season-high thus far; 24 laps for race one is also the most. Unsurprisingly, as a result, these two races produced the lowest winner average speeds this year (70.389 mph race one, 78.981 race 2).
  • Barber, Houston 1 end in common: Barber and Houston share the unfortunate commonality of being two rain/time shortened races, and also the only two races that have ended under yellow.

Guess who showed up at Indy? New NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 26:  Mark Martin, driver of the #55 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota, stands in the garage arstands in the garage areaduring practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Samuel Deeds 400 At The Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 26, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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INDIANAPOLIS — Newly NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee-elect Mark Martin isn’t even entered in either race, but he’ll be doing the proverbial motorsports “double” on Sunday.

Martin will be in Indianapolis for the start of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. A few hours after the green flag drops on the Greatest Spectacle In Racing, he’ll be on a plane headed for Charlotte to take in the Coca-Cola 600 that evening.

Actually, there’s a bit more to all that. Martin felt he had such little chance to be chosen for the Hall that he left his native Arkansas earlier this week to attend the 500.

“It was a bucket list sorta thing,” he said.

But then came Wednesday’s announcement that he had been elected to the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2017 – while he was on the road headed to Indy, no less – and Martin’s travel plans suddenly got a lot more complicated.

He was in Indy on Thursday, attending Indianapolis 500 media day. He flies to Charlotte Friday afternoon, returns to Indy on Saturday, and then does the Indianapolis-Charlotte jaunt on Sunday.

“I was speechless, still not sure what to say, other than I’m surprised,” Martin said of his selection for the NASCAR Hall. “If I’d been voting, I’d have voted another way.

“But I’m humbled and honored and not only to be in this class because of the performance of the people in this class and the people, the persons they were. … I just feel really fortunate. It’s like icing on the cake, like the race you never won but always wanted to, and more.”

To further illustrate his total surprise at being chosen for the Hall, Martin quipped, “I did not expect it, or otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the motor home driving up here yesterday.

“I hadn’t been to (the Indy 500) in my lifetime, so now it appears I’m going to be doing the ‘double.’ I’m not driving, but I’m doing the ‘double’ anyway.”

Here’s a few posts from Martin’s Twitter account about his time at IMS on Thursday as well as his selection for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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Oh, Canada! James Hinchcliffe hopes to repay countrymen for support with Indy 500 win

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INDIANAPOLIS — Polesitter James Hinchcliffe wants to obviously win Sunday’s 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 for himself and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

He also wants to win for his family – all 35 million of them.

Hinchcliffe understands very well the huge significance of what his being in the 500 means to everyone in his native Canada.

Since winning the pole, Hinchcliffe has been front-page news from Halifax to Vancouver. He also knows millions of his fellow Canadians will be watching the 500 on television and cheering for the guy who proudly wears the maple leaf.

“After last Sunday, the amount of support pouring out of home was very overwhelming,” Hinchcliffe said during Thursday’s Indy 500 Media Day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The amount of messages I got that were ‘regardless of what happens Sunday (in the Indy 500), we’re all behind you,’ that’s so nice.”

Now Hinchcliffe hopes to repay the faith his countrymen have had in him throughout his racing career.

“Being the only full-time Canadian driver in the field. I want to do my country proud,” Hinchcliffe said. “I want to give Canadian motorsports fans something to cheer for.”

Hinchcliffe is one of a number of IndyCar drivers that have hailed from north of the border. Among those have been Paul Tracy (from Scarborough, Ontario), Scott Goodyear (Toronto), Alex Tagliani (Montreal) and Patrick Carpentier (LaSalle, Quebec). Tagliani, who starts 33rd, book-ends the field of 33 this year.

And let’s not forget Jacques Villeneuve (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec), the only Canadian to ever win the 500, having done so in 1995, ironically when Goodyear passed the pace car.

“The support I’ve felt from back home from Day 1 of my IndyCar career has just been incredible,” said Hinchcliffe, who hails from the outlying Toronto suburb of Oakville. “We’ve had some good years and bad years, and regardless of the results and in true Canadian fashion, they’re behind you win, lose or draw.

“It’s just incredible. I’ve gotten so lucky to come from that place. To know you have that support and they’re behind you in any situation is huge.”

While Hinchcliffe was a huge Villeneuve fan, the one Indy car driver that he has tried to emulate in his career is the late Greg Moore, who was killed in a crash at Fontana, California, in 1999.

Moore never got the chance to race at Indianapolis, primarily due to the split between CART and the Indy Racing League in 1996.

“Obviously, we lost him too soon,” Hinchcliffe said of Moore. “I was a huge (Jacques) Villeneuve fan. He was really the guy that got me into it (Indy car racing).

“And when he switched to F1, sure, I followed his F1 career very closely, but in IndyCar, his replacement was Greg Moore. And that’s the guy that really connected with me somehow, and not just how he drove.

“There were a lot of bad-fast racing drivers, but Greg was a really great human being. That was the guy that I looked at and thought, ‘Hey, if I ever get to do this for a living, that’s the guy I want to be like.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Indy 500 Thursday notes: Logos, lights, Lilly, lunches and more

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Photo: Dale Coyne Racing
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INDIANAPOLIS – The beauty of media day for the 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is that you get a lot of interviews done. The downside of media day is that you then have to transcribe those interviews.

Alas, even though on-track activity was limited to just Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires practice and qualifying, it’s still been a busy day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Quick notes are below:

  • 101st500logoThe logo for the 101st Indy 500 and the “race to renew” were unveiled. Much, of course, is being made about the 100th running of the race and as you’d expect, the powers-that-be are concerned with the retention plan for the 101st race, which will take place May 28, 2017. A full release from IMS is linked here, while the logo is posted to the right.
  • Indy Lights qualifying got canceled. Not from a lack of effort. Practice was shortened from three hours – 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. – to just 90 minutes from 9 to 10:30. Juan Piedrahita led the way for Team Pelfrey. Qualifying then got through the first eight drivers before an accident for Zachary Claman De Melo and then rain hit. Carlin’s Ed Jones will have the pole position, with the field set by points, over Santiago Urrutia and Kyle Kaiser. The race airs live at noon on Friday as part of NBCSN’s Carb Day coverage, which begins at 11 a.m. ET.
  • Other lights announced. “Lights at the Brickyard” was announced late Wednesday, to tentatively run from Nov. 18 to Dec. 31. Here’s that full release.
  • Lilly to Conor Daly’s car. Lilly Diabetes joins Conor Daly’s No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda as co-primary sponsor. From a team release: “Lilly Diabetes of Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly and Company (LLY) will serve as co-primary sponsor of the No. 18 ShirtsForAmerica.com/Lilly Diabetes Honda, driven by Conor Daly, in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, May 29. As part of the sponsorship, Daly’s No. 18 car will run a special patriotic paint scheme with a series of four stars, one colored in blue to recognize the one in four veterans who live with diabetes, which is two and a half times greater than the general population.”
  • Newgarden “wins” media day. My colleague Jerry Bonkowski have a boat load of interviews to get through that you’ll see on NBCSports.com throughout the coming days. But a quick hat tip first to the Indianapolis Star, who already has this post up on Josef Newgarden’s prank as an interviewer himself.
  • Pennzoil, Penske host lunch. Team Penske’s usual Thursday night media dinner shifted to being a lunch this afternoon to pay tribute to its partnership with Shell Pennzoil – Pennzoil adorns the No. 3 “Yelio Submarine” Chevrolet driven by Helio Castroneves – and to prepare for the 100th Indianapolis 500 race. Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya all spoke along with Roger Penske, Tim Cindric and a key Shell executive. Penske said IndyCar has “one of the best products” and is determined for his team to win his 17th Indianapolis 500 with any of its four drivers.
  • So does Townsend Bell with California Pizza Kitchen. Based on the pics below, we’re in for a doozy tomorrow as part of our Carb Day coverage.

  • Which speaking of that coverage… It runs from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on NBCSN and will feature Carb Day practice, the Indy Lights Freedom 100, and the 2016 Pit Stop Competition.

The Pit Stop Competition bracket is below:

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More to come from Indy later today and tomorrow.

F1 Paddock Pass: 2016 Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

MONTE-CARLO, MONACO - MAY 26: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo and Valtteri Bottas of Finland driving the (77) Williams Martini Racing Williams FW38 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Monaco Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Monaco on May 26, 2016 in Monte-Carlo, Monaco.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 arrives in Monaco this weekend still reeling from the events of the Spanish Grand Prix two weeks ago.

Not only did Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg take each other out on the first lap of the race, but 18-year-old Max Verstappen became the youngest winner in the history of the sport on his Red Bull debut.

Monaco is ordinarily the biggest race of the year regardless of the circumstances, yet the events of Spain have added an extra edge to this weekend’s grand prix.

Previewing the race with interviews and analysis from the Monaco paddock, NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.