Michigan notebook: Penske closing gap on Hendrick, Logano thinking championship, Johnson gets shifty

1 Comment

BROOKLYN, Mich. – What a difference, well, two months make.

Following the mid-June Sprint Cup race at Michigan International Speedway won by Jimmie Johnson, third-place finisher Brad Keselowski said he believed Hendrick Motorsports was about a year ahead on engine development and power than any other team or manufacturer.

Fast forward two months and it was Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano that finished third in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at MIS.

And to hear Logano tell it, that nearly one-year margin has been closed quite a bit by – who else – Team Penske.

“Yeah, we’ve closed the gap,” Logano said. “I don’t think we’re a year behind. Do I think the Hendrick Chevys are the best motors out there right now? Yes, I do. But I think this racetrack caters to the Ford motor a little bit more than normal.

“We’re good on the high rpm stuff. Not slowing much in the corners. This is kind of our wheelhouse. Then for the Hendrick Chevys, it seems like the bottom end horsepower is where they got it. That’s not speed. That’s race-ability stuff, you’re able to get that spot on somebody off the corner.

“We’ve closed the gap, worked a lot on it. We’re coming. We’re coming. We’re just not there yet.”

* * * * * * * * *

Logano has two wins this season, while Keselowski has three.

Do the math and that means Team Penske has collectively won five of the first 23 races this season.

We’ve already seen what Keselowski can do in a Penske car, having won the 2012 Sprint Cup championship.

Now, Logano feels it’s his turn. When asked what message he can take away and the lessons he’s learned thus far when it comes to his performance thus far in 2014, Logano was very blunt.

“That we can win a championship,” Logano said. “I really feel we can do that. That’s the message I want to put out there. I want to put out for my team that we’re strong enough to do that. I think we showed that today.

“We’re close. We’ve still got to keep working hard. We’ve got to find that next level here in three weeks now to be this strong in the Chase. But right now we’re in the hunt. We’re doing what we got to do.”

“…We like the momentum. That’s a good thing to go into the Chase with the momentum we’ve got. A lot of top-five, top-10 finishes. Moves us up in the points, but doesn’t matter unless you have wins.

“That’s why I raced so hard at the end, just to get that position. Almost got (race winner Jeff Gordon) back there again in turn one. Just wasn’t able to clear him. I got pulled back on the straightaway again.”

* * * * * * * * * * * *

While Gordon had an outstanding day, teammate Jimmie Johnson had an outstanding comeback.

Johnson somehow broke the shifter in his Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet early in the race and had great difficulty trying to shift gears.

His team attempted several remedies for a temporary fix, finally settling on attaching a modified pair of vice grips to the shifter mechanism to allow Johnson the ability to change gears as needed.

The fix worked and Johnson was able to rally back from as far back as 35th to finish 10th, his best finish in the last six races this season.

“Granted, we put ourselves in a bad position with the shift lever breaking off and was able to rally back and get ourselves a good finish,” Johnson said. “It was unfortunate we didn’t get any further up in the field, but we still salvaged a lot today.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Johnson had a late race incident with Ryan Newman, and went over to talk with him after the race.

While Johnson is normally diplomatic when he talks about other drivers, such wasn’t exactly the case when a reporter asked Johnson what he said to Newman.

“Oh, it was just normal ‘Ryan Newman stuff,'” Johnson said. “Anybody who has watched this sport long enough or has been in a race car out there understand the frustration that comes along with racing Ryan. Just normal Ryan stuff.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Kyle Larson has been called a “hot foot” for his ability to wheel a race car, but things got hot in a different way for the Sprint Cup rookie in Sunday’s race.

Larson’s car hit the wall just before the midpoint of the 200-lap race and burst into fire.

Larson escaped the blaze and was uninjured from the wreck, but his car didn’t fare so well, being knocked out of the event as a result.

“I’m fine,” Larson said. “It’s just a shame we were up there in the points battle, so we have to work even harder now with our Target Chevy to try to get in the Chase.”

The real pain that Larson felt, however, was in the Race to the Chase standings. Coming into the event, he had all but qualified for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But with his early exit Sunday, Larson is now 21 points out of the top 16 drivers that will be eligible to make the 10-race Chase playoffs.

All is not lost for the likely Sprint Cup rookie of the year: he still has three races to get back in contention for the Chase.

There was a bit of irony with Larson’s wreck. NASCAR mandated Friday that all drivers must remain in their cars after a wreck unless the car is on fire.

Larson had no choice but to exit his burning vehicle, right about the same time that the safety team came to get him as well as extinguish the flames.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

What the heck has happened to Kyle Busch?

So much has been made of Jimmie Johnson finishing 28th or worse in four of the five races prior to Michigan. But Busch hasn’t had much better luck.

In his last seven races, Busch finished second in three of the first four races in that streak. But in the last three outings, he’s had terrible luck.

Busch wrecked on the third lap of Sunday’s race, finishing 39th, adding to the 40th he had last week at Watkins Glen and the 42nd he had the week before that at Pocono.

“I tried going to the top in (turns) three and four right away and I got loose all the way through,” Busch said. “Every time I touched the gas, it wanted to spin out and finally it was too much gas and not enough save and I wrecked.

“… I was really optimistic about our car there in the opening laps and we didn’t get to see what we were capable of.”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Five more drivers officially clinched their berths in the upcoming Chase: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Kurt Busch and last week’s race winner, AJ Allmendinger.

There is one caveat, however: each driver still must qualify for the three remaining races prior to the start of the Chase.

 

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

New 2018 IndyCar aero kit makes its formal test debut at IMS

Photo: IndyCar
2 Comments

After months of buildup and following Monday’s reveal, Tuesday marked the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit’s official debut on track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

INDYCAR’s release, with a handful of social media posts embedded, is below:

If the first day of on-track testing is any indication, the new Verizon IndyCar Series car is well on its way to making Indy car racing in 2018 even better.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia turned more than 100 laps each on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in their respective Chevrolet- and Honda-powered Dallara IR-12s equipped with the universal aerodynamic bodywork kit making its public debut ahead of being used by all competitors next season.

Afterward, approval of the new car’s bolder, sleeker look and performance was unanimous from everyone involved. Buy-in from the two test drivers – among the most veteran and respected around – was essential and secured from the outset.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said the 43-year-old Servia, who has driven Indy cars since 2000. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away.

“I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

INDYCAR, sanctioning body for the Verizon IndyCar Series, announced in April 2016 its intent to move away from aero kit competition to a universally supplied kit in 2018. Dallara, a series chassis supplier since 1997, was named to produce and supply the universal kit.

“It’s exciting because, for the first time in the car, it drives really, really well,” said Montoya, 41 and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “I think they addressed a lot of the things and the car looks great. I think having one aero kit for everybody is great for the sport. The car looks good and it drives really good.”

Montoya’s car was prepared by Team Penske and Servia’s by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, though INDYCAR is retaining control of the cars until testing is complete in late September. INDYCAR officials watched with nervous excitement as the two cars took to the track for the first time shortly after 9 a.m. ET and methodically worked through the test checklist. By 5 p.m., the checklist had been completed and a potential second day of testing Wednesday was deemed unnecessary.

“We were pleased,” said Bill Pappas, INDYCAR’s vice president of competition/race engineering who headed up the technical development of the universal kit. “It matched up with our numbers that we predicted in the wind tunnel and CFD (computational fluid dynamics), so we were very happy for that.”

Pappas said the test list included short runs by each car to “ensure that there weren’t any surprises,” followed by longer runs on the 2.5-mile oval to check for durability issues. Everyone at INDYCAR and Dallara felt confident the test would be a success, but there are never givens in racing.

“This is my first experience being part of a car being designed,” Pappas said. “Obviously, Dallara did a great job helping us, but you hold your breath until the first competitive laps are run.”

Love this place. @indianapolismotorspeedway is sooo much fun in an @indycar @teamchevy @team_penske @fitzgeraldgliderkits

A post shared by Juan Pablo Montoya (@jpmonty2) on

Old Boys. @indycar #2018 #shapingthefuture #future #racing #indy500

A post shared by Oriol Servia (@oriolservia) on

Mission accomplished, at least for the first phase of testing. Additional tests for the two cars are scheduled for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 1), Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26). But the fact that this opening test was completed in half the allotted time is reason to celebrate, if only for a short time.

“Everything we had planned to do in two days, we already accomplished in the first day,” Servia said. “We did lots of laps, long runs, and the car feels good. The car feels very benign.

“It just feels right and we’re not having any issues or moments out there. Very consistent. My second long run, I think, was one of my most consistent runs I’ve done at this track in all of my years.”

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season resumes this weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Live race coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with an encore telecast at 7 p.m. on NBCSN.

Ryan Norman set to take next ‘Journey’ in debut Indy Lights season

Photo: Andretti Autosport
1 Comment

One of the more unheralded drivers entering this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires campaign has been Ryan Norman, the 19-year-old out of Cleveland who has made strides in his rookie campaign.

Norman was the only one of Andretti Autosport’s Indy Lights quartet new to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires this year. Teammates Nico Jamin, Dalton Kellett and Colton Herta have all been in the MRTI before, while Norman has undergone a significant learning process of taking on new tracks and a new championship.

But Norman’s been one of the year’s more pleasant surprises with methodical growth and improvement over the course of the season.

Through 12 races, Norman has improved his starting position by the end of the race in nine of them, and scored 10 top-10 finishes overall – a number that is tied for second in the series with Zachary Claman De Melo, behind only season points leader Kyle Kaiser who has been in the top-10 in all 12. He’s also won multiple Tilton Hard Charger awards for advancing the most positions in a race from his grid position, and additional Staubli Awards.

Norman ranks 10th in the points standings, ahead of two three-year veterans and two rookies.

Incidentally, it’s been the few races where Norman has qualified in the top five – fourth at the Freedom 100, third at Elkhart Lake race one and fourth in Iowa – where his results haven’t measured up to his starting position. A first lap accident took he and Herta out at the Freedom, while he still banked solid fourth and eighth place finishes in the other two races.

Norman heads to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend for the next step of his journey on his rookie season – literally.

After running in a vibrant orange-and-black livery the first 12 races, Norman will now step aboard the No. 48 Journey Mazda for Andretti Autosport this weekend, as the legendary rock band formed in 1973 comes onto the car, and the livery changes along with it for the balance of the season.

Not far from Norman’s hometown of Cleveland, the same city of The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Lexington, Ohio course will see Norman debut the new livery. ORACAL’s new 970 Premium Special Effect Cast in Sunset Shift, a color-changing wrap like Norman’s Red Bull Global Rallycross teammate Scott Speed’s race car. The new design echoes Journey’s iconic logo, featuring giant wings on the side pod and nose cone of Norman’s Dallara IL-15.

It’s an orange livery with yellow and blue stripes. Needless to say Norman is ready to rock out on home turf this weekend and look to continue his rapid growth in his first season this weekend.

“I am very excited to have Journey on board for the rest of my 2017 season,” Norman said in a release. “It’s unique to have a rock band sponsoring a race car. Journey was inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which is my hometown, so it makes the next race at Mid-Ohio very special to me. I love Journey’s music and having “Don’t Stop Believin’” on the side of my car is very fitting. This song has inspired a lot people including athletes like myself.”

Norman isn’t the only Andretti Autosport driver with a story this weekend at Mid-Ohio; teammate Jamin looks to snap a rough patch of results and extend his own personal winning streak at Mid-Ohio from its current run of five races between USF2000 (three races in 2015) and Pro Mazda (two in 2016) while Herta looks to keep his championship hopes alive. Kellett has had the opposite bit of luck as Norman this year; he’s qualified significantly better but had a rough run of results in the races themselves that haven’t matched his potential.

Indy Lights race coverage from Mid-Ohio airs Sunday, July 30, at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Luca Ghiotto joins Hungary test list for Williams

Photo: Sam Bloxham/GP3 Series Media Service.
Leave a comment

Formula 2 front-runner Luca Ghiotto is the latest young driver to be confirmed for the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test, with the Italian set to run on one of the two days for Williams Martini Racing.

Ghiotto battled Esteban Ocon for the GP3 title in 2015 but lost out to the Frenchman, and has since moved up a category on his own.

Ghiotto and Felipe Massa will split the two days of running between Tuesday and Wednesday after the Grand Prix.

“A big thanks to Williams for this opportunity. I think the first F1 test for any driver is a special moment, and to do it with such an historic team is even better so I’m really excited. Of course, I also need to focus on the F2 weekend beforehand, but I’m really looking forward to the test and I really hope it goes well,” Ghiotto said of his first F1 test.

Claire Williams, deputy team principal added, “This will be Luca’s first opportunity of a Formula One outing. Our team has a strong track record for developing young talent, and we always enjoy seeing young drivers getting opportunities to demonstrate their ability. I look forward to seeing how he performs in the car next month.”

Magnus brings in ‘hired gun’ Spencer Pumpelly for Mid-Ohio

Photo: Magnus Racing
Leave a comment

With Mansfield, Ohio the home of the prison in The Shawshank Redemption in the Ohio State Reformatory (also known as the Mansfield Reformatory) and with Magnus Racing PR ace and “Dinner with Racers” co-creator Sean Heckman one of two who’ve coined the inside joke that Spencer Pumpelly allegedly tried to kill a guy, it was only natural that Pumpelly will play the role of Magnus Racing’s “hired gun” near the prison at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for Pirelli World Challenge competition this weekend.

The joke stems from the first season of “DWR” and was a running joke throughout the season. The “hired gun” play-on-words riffs on the fact Pumpelly will be substituting for Pierre Kaffer in the team’s No. 4 Audi R8 LMS this weekend, with Kaffer on duty at the Total 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps for Audi Sport.

Pumpelly has raced alongside Kaffer and Dane Cameron in PWC SprintX competition this season – Pumpelly and Cameron actually won the second race of the weekend at Lime Rock Park – and now the veteran sports car driver and Atlanta native will make his first PWC Sprint starts of the year, and first since his similar fill-in role with Heckman’s “DWR” co-creator, Ryan Eversley, at RealTime Racing last year… which also started at Mid-Ohio.

“It’s great to have Spencer back in the team,” stated Magnus Racing team owner and driver John Potter, who is in the team’s No. 44 Audi in GTA. “Spencer has always fit right in with us, but driving the team to our first series victory of course sealed a very special place for his legacy with us. We’re hoping Mid-Ohio suits both Spencer and the No. 4, and hopefully we can repeat the same feat.”

“It’s great to return to the team,” stated Pumpelly. “Obviously our last race together went extraordinarily well, and we’re hoping that same momentum can continue in to Mid Ohio. It’s always tough to say what to expect, especially in these very frantic sprint races, but we’re optimistic that the circuit should suit us. The entire team at Magnus has done a great job putting this effort together, and we look forward to pushing for additional results.”