(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Brickyard owes Juan Pablo Montoya one, but will it pay off Sunday?

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INDIANAPOLIS – Juan Pablo Montoya has twice come close to winning the Brickyard 400, only to suffer maladies that kept him from kissing the finish line bricks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in celebration.

Even though he’s now back racing full-time in the Verizon IndyCar Series, the Brickyard jinx has continued to tug at Montoya.

That’s why he’s back for his second Cup race of the season (finished 18th at Michigan in mid-June), and ready to potentially get the payback from IMS that he feels he deserves.

“Yeah, once or twice, and I probably coulda, shoulda and would’ve won the 500 this year as well, but coulda, woulda and shoulda doesn’t count,” Montoya said in a press conference at IMS Friday afternoon. “At least I had a chance and I still think I’ve got a good chance this year.”

Having a chance to gain that elusive Brickyard win — to go along with his win in the 2000 Indianapolis 500 — is both a fortuitous chance and an attempt to break a NASCAR curse for Montoya. When team owner Roger Penske suggested Montoya race in the Brickyard (using Michigan in June as somewhat of a warmup), Montoya had to initially give it some thought.

But the more he rolled the idea around in his mind, the more intriguing it proved to be. Shortly thereafter, Montoya was all-in.

“I think it’s fun,” said Montoya, who will drive the No. 12 Penske Truck Rental Ford Fusion in Sunday’s event. “There’s a lot of history here. I’ve done a lot of racing. I’ve run pretty much everything that’s raced here, even with the bikes, I’ve been in a two-seater bike, so I’ve pretty much done everything here.

“Roger (Penske) gave me the chance to come. They have great cars this year and he gave me the chance to come today with the Penske Truck Rental Ford and see what we can do.”

Even though he ran the most laps of the 46 drivers that took to the track, Montoya had trouble getting speed in Friday’s sole practice session, managing a top speed of just 180.144, good for just 28th on the speed grid and more than 6 mph behind the fastest of the 90-minute run, Matt Kenseth.

“Our race pace, looking to compare with Brad (teammate Brad Keselowski, who was third-fastest at 185.939 mph), looks really, really close so it seems like we’re pretty competitive,” Montoya said.

But he subsequently admitted he had hoped to have a better run.

“I wasn’t that happy with the car to be honest,” Montoya said. “It’s hard because they’re so different and what Brad and Joey (Logano) drive every week and what they look for in the car is a little bit different than what I want out of the car, so we’ve got to try and do a lot in one practice.

“Like today, we went through a lot of stuff and it was good – just short runs – try this, try that just to try to get ready for tomorrow. I think the one thing that is gonna be good for us is we’ve got qualifying tomorrow and not today. Michigan was hard because I ran six laps of practice before qualifying, so at least today we got a lot of running done.”

But Montoya and every other driver may not get to qualify Saturday. The weather forecast is calling for heavy thunderstorms through much of the day, and because IMS does not have lights, Sunday’s starting grid could be set based upon Friday’s practice if Saturday’s final practice session and qualifying are washed out.

If that’s the case, Montoya would start where he practiced Friday: 28th. But regardless of that, he’s confident that perhaps his Brickyard jinx may come to an end.

“I feel like coming here we’ve got a good shot,” said Montoya, whose best efforts in seven starts at the Brickyard have been second in his first start there in 2007, as well as ninth (2013) in his last effort prior to this year’s race.

“I think if we can get the car close we’ll be pretty good. It seems like the race pace is pretty good, I think I’ve been pretty good here and I know what I want out of the car. That makes it a lot easier so we know what we need to work on to be a little better. We’ll see once we put it in qualifying trim what it does.”

Even though NASCAR Sprint Cup is no longer his chosen full-time racing series, Montoya could use a bit of a confidence boost from Indy, given he’s struggled to finishes of 16th, 18th and 19th in his last three IndyCar races after winning at Pocono last month.

When asked if he feels like an insider or outsider at IMS now that he’s an IndyCar regular, Montoya was non-committal.

“Neither, I’m just good to be here,” he said. “I felt maybe like an outsider the first six months I came to NASCAR and then it was like normal.

“It’s good. You know how everything works, so I don’t really feel like an outsider because you know how to do everything. You know how practice works. You know how qualifying works. You know where you need to go to sign in and where to drive around in the garage. It’s fine.”

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CJ Wilson completes first test in Porsche GT3 Cup car

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Photo courtesy of CJ Wilson Racing
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CJ Wilson’s new career is officially underway, following his retirement from professional baseball and now having completed his first test last week at Texas World Speedway in his new 2017 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

Wilson, who formally announced the news he’d be transitioning into racing full-time during Rolex 24 at Daytona race week, did a two-day test at the still active oval/road course combo track in College Station, Texas. Wilson tested one of the team’s Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsports (the team runs two in IMSA’s Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge) and then advanced into the Cup car.

Wilson got fairly close to teammate Marc Miller’s times during the test as he acclimated to both the Cup car and the Yokohama tires.

“It’s great to take another step towards my goals,” Wilson said. “We had a chance to burn through two sets of tires today and I made a lot of progress. Having Marc as my coach was incredibly helpful because we have a lot of faith in each other and communicate using the same terms. Having sat in driver debriefings for the past six years with the race team, I was able to take all the input logically and make progress each session.

“The only odd thing about the test is that nobody else was here, which was the first time I have ever been on a track completely alone, so when we did a race simulation I had to use my imagination. TWS is a really fast and bumpy track. Looking forward to getting back in the car in ten days and pick up where I left off.”

Miller added, “CJ did great job, but I expected as much. He is logical and methodical which makes him easy to help and that translated into a very quick progression along the learning curve. Like any professional athlete though he is never truly satisfied because he wants to be perfect. He took quickly to the new Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car. It is confidence inspiring and such a capable platform so that suited him well in getting up to speed. Overall, it was a successful first outing and I look forward to working with CJ this season. I expect he will have a solid debut at Sebring. He better or I’m likely fired.”

A teaser of on-board footage is below, along with a couple other social posts from the test:

Danny Watts: ‘Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain’

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 22:  (l to r) Strakka Racing drivers Danny Watts, Nick Leventis and Jonny Kane pose during the 2013 FIA World Endurance Championship Photo Call on March 22, 2013 at Potters Fields in London, England.  (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Watts (left) with Leventis and Kane in 2013. Photo: Getty Images
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Sports car veteran driver Danny Watts has announced his retirement from active competition, but is in the news for an entirely different reason on Monday.

The 37-year-old Brit has announced he’s gay, penning a first-person piece for the Huffington Post and also doing interviews with both Daily Sportscar and Autosport. The latter article features a well-written op-ed from author Matt Beer.

In the Huffington Post piece, Watts, an eight-time starter and 2010 LMP2 class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, wrote that hiding his sexuality in the heavily white male heterosexual world of motorsport was simply becoming too much to keep under wraps.

“There isn’t any one moment that stands out in my mind as the moment I realized I would need to live in the closet if I wanted my motorsport career to go anywhere; it was just a general feeling I got,” Watts wrote.

“All the other guys in the paddock had girlfriends, so I got one to blend in. When that relationship ended, I got another one, and so I continued pretending to be straight for seventeen years.

“Staying hidden was nothing but torture and pain.

“I hope that there are a few people who are supportive. If the response I’ve had from the queer motorsport community thus far is any gauge, I feel hopeful that I’ll find a supportive group to start driving change for my queer siblings in the sport I love.”

Within the motorsports world, Watts’ name is best known to the sports car paddock, and he was a regular with the Strakka Racing team alongside co-drivers Jonny Kane and Nick Leventis. But he isn’t particularly known to the racing world at large.

This announcement comes as Watts has opted to call time on his full-time driving career and instead will focus on coaching for the future. It also represents one of the higher profile names in racing announcing his sexual orientation, which makes it newsworthy.

Despite some detractors (as you might expect), a number of other drivers and key motorsports figures have revealed their support for Watts, and why this news matters, on social media today:

Marino Franchitti returns to Mazda at Sebring

SEBRING, FL - MARCH 15:  Left to right, Marino Franchitti, Memo Rojas and Scott Pruett celebrate after winning the 12 Hours of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway on March 15, 2014 in Sebring, Florida.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
Franchitti (left) won at Sebring in 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marino Franchitti will make his return to a Mazda entry for next month’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, to be run March 18, as third driver in the team’s No. 70 Mazda RT24-P with Joel Miller and Tom Long.

The Scotsman competed in the team’s RX-8 and 6 models in the GT ranks but has been out of a drive since his role with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing last season in one of the team’s Ford GTs in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

Franchitti replaces James Hinchcliffe, who was the third driver in the No. 70 car at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. He’ll test for the team later this week at Sebring prior to the race run in the second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race of the year.

“A big part of those results are being with great teams and having great teammates. I’ve been fortunate in that regard,” said Franchitti, who co-drove to win overall at Sebring in 2014. “I love driving there, I always have since the first laps I did. It’s a proper old-school track. If you go over the limit, you crash, simple as that, rather than going onto some tarmac run-off like many tracks. I love the challenge of walking that tightrope. Of course, there’s the challenge of the bumps too, trying to get the car to handle over them and the beating the car and driver takes. There’s a reason people come from all over the world to endurance test their cars here, it’s the ultimate test of a vehicle and its durability.

No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA
No. 70 Mazda RT24-P. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“It’s so cool to be coming back into the Mazda family,” said Franchitti. “Like everyone else, I was blown away when I saw the first shots of the RT24-P and how incredible it looks, so there’s a lot of excitement at getting to drive it. I’m relieved I get a chance to test the car, as many times I’ve just jumped in and raced, so this is a bit of a luxury! Being a part of the development process of a car is something I’ve been lucky enough to do several times and it’s something I really love.”

Mazda Motorsports director John Doonan added, “He’s a proven winner there, and he’s been a part of the Mazda family for years. Just look at his record at Sebring! He has the experience that can really help our team. Because he’s driven with Mazda before, we know his personality is a great fit. That’s important to us, and it goes a long way in helping the team chemistry remain strong. He’s a great fit with Tom [Long] and Joel [Miller], just as Spencer Pigot has been great with Nunez and Bomarito.”

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.