Newgarden continues second half run of form with P6 in Sonoma

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After a rough stretch of races from the Grand Prix of Indianapolis through Houston, Josef Newgarden and the Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing squad continued their solid second half of the Verizon IndyCar Series season with their best performance yet at Sonoma.

Newgarden qualified second on Saturday, and the good news continued early Sunday morning for both he and the team with the confirmation he’d stay at the merged CFH Racing team – Fisher, Hartman and Ed Carpenter come together in 2015.

“We have that continuity as a group,” Fisher told MotorSportsTalk Sunday morning after the deal was announced. “What Josef’s done, what this team has done in his gelling with Jeremy (Milless, engineer) and the rest of this group has been great. We went from being nowhere here two years ago to front row now, and it’s because of that continuity.”

If Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma would have gone true to form based purely on the qualifying order, Newgarden again could have made the podium.

But varying strategies and a big temperature change – Sunday’s race ran with ambient more than 10 and track temperature more than 20 degrees warmer than the morning – negatively affected the race for the No. 67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda crew.

Newgarden ended sixth after starting second, and that finish marked his best result on a road or street course this season.

Overall, it’s his fourth top-10 finish in the last seven races, after only posting two in the first 10 of the year. As a result, he’s climbed from 20th to 13th in the points standings after this stretch.

“I think the temperature hurt us quite a bit,” Newgarden said in the team’s post-race release. “It was a hot day, and it just didn’t suit what we were doing very well. We were much better in the morning when it was cooler, and we just weren’t as strong when the temperature went up and also as the track got slower from dust and wind pickup.

“It just got slower all afternoon, and we just got worse, and it didn’t cater to what we were doing setup-wise. The tire degradation was tough today. We were out to lunch on that, and I think that was all attributed to temperature. We were strong in some aspects, but the temperature hurt us.”

But compared to the last two years, the team made major strides. Newgarden started 22nd and ended 23rd in 2012, but suffered a broken finger after an accident. Things didn’t get much better last year when he started 17th and ended 24th with a mechanical.

“I think the positive to take away from this weekend is that we secured a solid top-10 result on one of our more difficult tracks over the last couple of years,” Newgarden said. “We’ve made big strides in what we’re doing and the direction we’ve gone.”

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Ryan Hunter-Reay

Ryan Hunter-Reay
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the Verizon IndyCar Series field. Finishing sixth in 2015 after a late rally was Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda

  • 2014: 6th Place, 3 Wins, 1 Pole, 6 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 195 Laps Led, 10.2 Avg. Start, 10.9 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 6th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 3rd, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 7 Top-10, 71 Laps Led, 12.2 Avg. Start, 10.4 Avg. Finish

The old adage “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” would probably be the best way to sum up Ryan Hunter-Reay’s 2015 season, which until the final quarter of season could best be described as a forgettable nightmare.

The first three races seemed somewhat OK, with eighth, seventh and fourth place grid spots. But none of the three produced a result of note; Hunter-Reay was also caught up in the three-car, late race accident at NOLA Motorsports Park and didn’t bank any good finish until a fifth place at Barber the end of April.

A tailspin followed. Hunter-Reay started between 14th and 21st every race between the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Milwaukee – a stretch of eight races – and only had one top-10 finish in that stint, eighth at the rain-affected lottery that was Detroit race two. Some seasons are just ones you want to end and by Milwaukee it was obvious that Hunter-Reay was racing just to get to the end of the year, without things getting any worse.

Things finally came good with a typically good drive at Iowa and arguably one of the drives of his career, two races later at Pocono, to end with two wins and extend his streak of winning a race in each of his six seasons at Andretti Autosport. It was no coincidence, either, that Hunter-Reay’s uptick in form came with the return of the late Justin Wilson’s presence in a fourth car.

After Pocono, Hunter-Reay also drove well to finish second at Sonoma, and by that point he’d completed an incredible late-season turnaround to jump from 14th to sixth in points. But if asked, he’d probably admit this was his toughest season yet at Andretti and arguably his toughest overall since his 2009 season, when he was in-between full-time rides and saw out the year with Vision Racing and A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Helio Castroneves

Helio Castroneves
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MotorSportsTalk continues its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field with fifth-placed Helio Castroneves.

Helio Castroneves, No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet

  • 2014: 2nd Place, 1 Win, 3 Poles, 6 Podiums, 7 Top-5, 10 Top-10, 282 Laps Led, 5.7 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 5th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 4 Poles, 5 Podiums, 6 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 198 Laps Led, 4.9 Avg. Start, 9.3 Avg. Finish

Much as you’d write about his fellow countryman and longtime friend and rival Tony Kanaan, age hasn’t slowed Helio Castroneves, but it’s instead fueled continued success. And while Castroneves went winless for only the second time (2011) in his illustrious 16-year career with Team Penske, he wasn’t down on performance.

Now 40, Castroneves continued to have several shining moments in 2015, which was particularly important to do to stand out against defending champion Will Power, this year’s primary title contender Juan Pablo Montoya and new driver Simon Pagenaud.

Castroneves scored four pole positions and boasted a 4.9 averaging starting position, second in the field to Power, which was very impressive to note. His run of form from Texas through Milwaukee, capturing three podiums in four races, was his best race stretch this season. Additional highlights included back-to-back runner-up results in the NOLA lottery and then on pure pace at Long Beach.

The month of May must though be viewed as a disappointment. Castroneves played a role in the first corner mess at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and got a points penalty (although the number was dropped) as a result. Then he endured another Indianapolis 500 where he was not the out-and-out fastest car in the Penske brigade. While Montoya and Power were dueling for the win and Pagenaud had speed to burn all month, Castroneves’ lone moment of note came with his accident in practice, which mercifully he emerged unscathed from.

As ever though, fifth in this field owed to his consistency and dogged determination to succeed. Castroneves has ended top-five in seven of the last eight seasons since the IRL/Champ Car merger in 2008 and if it wasn’t for Dixon’s top-three run hogging the headlines, we’d probably appreciate Castroneves even more so. As long as he’s continually competitive, he’s still worthy at Team Penske.