Roger Penske

Team Penske on verge of ending 8-year IndyCar title drought

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I’m not sure whether Roger Penske, or his right-hand man Tim Cindric, has Etta James’ “At Last” in their iTunes library.

But that may well be the song that would best describe the end to an eight-year title drought if Team Penske does, as it’s very likely to do, capture the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship Saturday night at Auto Club Speedway.

Going back 20 years, Penske swept through the 1994 IndyCar season with a top-three sweep of the championship, led by Al Unser Jr.

The following year began a six-year title drought, dating until the year 2000, when Penske performed a radical team shakeup.

Gone were Unser Jr., Penske chassis, Mercedes engines and Goodyear tires; in were Gil de Ferran and his then-unheralded Brazilian countryman Helio Castroneves (who began the year with a hyphen in his surname), Reynard chassis, Honda engines and Firestone tires.

De Ferran ended Penske’s title drought in a year when 11 different drivers won races during the CART season and no less than eight drivers still had a mathematical chance at the title in the final two races.

If this all sounds like déjà vu, as we head into the 2014 season finale, it’s because it basically is.

De Ferran’s place in the role of star-who-would-be-but-hasn’t-been-champion-yet is Will Power, who since joining Penske full-time in 2010 (and part-time in 2009) has long been IndyCar’s fastest but never its finest driver.

Castroneves completes his 15th season with Penske this weekend and 17th overall, still in search of his elusive first title.

Juan Pablo Montoya has arrived back on the scene – for the first time since 2000 – and added a third set of valuable data and an invaluable presence on track.

In 2014, we’ve had 10 different race winners. We are guaranteed a first-time series champion with Scott Dixon and Ryan Hunter-Reay, the last two champs, set to be mathematically eliminated once Power takes the green flag Saturday night (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

All the stars are aligning for Penske to end its run without a title since 2006, and it would take a minor miracle for Simon Pagenaud and Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports, 81 points back of Power, to pull it off.

As my MotorSportsTalk colleague Chris Estrada noted earlier this week, and I’ve noticed all season from the season opener in St. Petersburg, Power has been in a much better mental state most of if not all the season.

He’s overcome a mid-season run of penalties that threatened to destroy his title chances yet again; he’s also officially conquered ovals, and put to rest any notion that these aren’t in his wheelhouse.

Castroneves has done enough, once again, to be in title contention heading into the finale. He’s not entering Fontana in great form at the moment – four consecutive finishes outside the top-10 have cost him 79 points and turned him from 28 up to 51 down to his teammate.

Still, he’s smart and savvy enough to remain focused and committed in a 500-miler, and he will factor into the win.

The Penske pair made their championship charge early this year with three wins in the first seven races, and they’ve stayed atop the points heap despite their rivals’ challenges.

Meanwhile the Chip Ganassi Racing team – by its illustrious standards – stumbled out of the gates while adapting to an engine change and two of its four drivers also changing. Additionally, Andretti Autosport had the opposite season trajectory, with a fast start and a roller coaster second half with more downs than ups.

It’s been Penske that’s stayed consistent, yet fast, all season. Heading into Fontana, Penske has led 938 of 2,145 laps this season – a staggering 43.72 percent – between Power (615), Castroneves (241) and Juan Pablo Montoya (82).

Ganassi has the second-most laps led this season… with 440, less than half that.

The three Penske teammates have made 12 Firestone Fast Six appearances (Power 6, Castroneves 5, Montoya 1). Andretti, with four drivers, made only one more (13).

And outside of a handful of rough qualifying weekends, the three Penske teammates have given themselves less of a hassle on race days, with solid qualifying performances. Castroneves has an average grid position of 6.0, Power 7.7 this year.

All told, this has been the year where minimal outside influences have conspired to knock Penske down, and the team has been the class of the field in an intensely competitive season.

It’s time “The Captain” is rewarded with another IndyCar championship, because either Power or Castroneves has done enough to earn it.

Ed Carpenter Racing confirms Newgarden departure for 2017

during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.
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Ed Carpenter Racing has provided the first official domino of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series silly season, confirming on Thursday that Josef Newgarden will not be back with the team for 2017. Carpenter had Newgarden under contract through Sept. 28 and since that passed, now frees him up to leave.

“While it’s disappointing that Josef will not be returning, it’s also not a total surprise after all of the speculation the past few weeks,” team owner Ed Carpenter said in a release.

“I wish Josef the best in his future endeavors, but also remain focused on ECR’s continued success. We are positioned well moving into 2017 and I have total confidence that we will continue to deliver the high level of performance we expect as a team.”

This doesn’t outright confirm Newgarden will shift to Team Penske, but it makes it a near certain possibility to follow the rumors the last few weeks and reported on by NBCSN contributor Robin Miller for RACER.com.

Newgarden leaves Carpenter’s team after a net five years, the first five of his IndyCar career. He was initially with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing for three years from 2012 to 2014, then did separate one-year extensions under the merged CFH Racing banner in 2015 and with the rebranded Ed Carpenter Racing for 2016, with Fisher and Wink Hartman no longer part of the ECR ownership structure.

Carpenter will continue to drive the team’s No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on ovals in 2017, with the team yet to determine the next round of plans for the No. 20 car on road and street courses (Spencer Pigot drove this year) and a full-time replacement for Newgarden in the No. 21 car.

Brazil GP organizers surprised with FIA doubts on 2017 race

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 15:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP race into the second corner followed by the rest of the field during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 15, 2015 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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SAO PAULO (AP) Organizers of the Brazilian Grand Prix say they are surprised that motor sport’s governing body has not confirmed the race at the Interlagos track for the 2017 Formula One calendar.

In a provisional calendar for 2017 published earlier Wednesday, the FIA put an asterisk indicating “subject to confirmation” for the Brazilian GP, scheduled for Nov. 12.

In a statement, the organizers of the Sao Paulo race said they were “surprised on Wednesday with the publication of the provisional calendar”, adding that “there is a valid contract until 2020” and that it would be rigorously complied with “as it always has in these 45 years.”

Brazil first hosted Formula One in 1972, although the race did not count for that year’s world championship. It will stage the penultimate race of this season on Nov. 13.

The races in Canada, in June, and in Germany, in July, are also marked as to be confirmed for next year.

Ericsson escapes serious injury after hitting ‘big chicken’ while cycling

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Marcus Ericsson of Sweden and Sauber F1 walks in the Paddock before practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Marcus Ericsson escaped serious injury after hitting a “big chicken” at high speed while cycling in Thailand earlier this week.

Sauber Formula 1 driver Ericsson spent a week in Thailand on a training camp between the races in Singapore and Malaysia, the latter being held this weekend in Sepang.

The Swede posted pictures on Twitter earlier this week showing his injuries, appearing to be cuts and bruising to his left arm and right hand.

End of eras define buildup to the 2016 Petit Le Mans

BRASELTON, GA - OCTOBER 04:  A pack of cars races down a hill at sunset at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 4, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia.  (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)
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BRASELTON, Ga. – At a race that has long featured guest appearances from all-star drivers, cars and teams, it’s the current star cars of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship that sign off the 2016 season for the final time in competition at this year’s Petit Le Mans.

IMSA’s new Daytona Prototype international (DPi) era begins in 2017, which brings to an end the three-year merged fusion of the prior GRAND-AM Rolex Series Daytona Prototypes and the Le Mans style LMP2 coupes.

The new DPis will take cues from both: the overall chassis component of LMP2 from the four ACO homologated chassis manufacturers, while embracing the DP brand of allowing OEMs to design their own bodywork styling for the exterior, and to put their own engines in the back.

There’s also a beginning of a drawdown in the Prototype Challenge class and the end for a couple cars in the GT classes, which are at the end of their competitive life spans.

Teams have been planning for the next phase of car evolution over the course of the year and so Petit Le Mans this year marks the race to say goodbye to the original Daytona Prototype formula, which premiered in 2003, as well as some other previous generation models.

The Prototype class will see the biggest change for 2017. All nine cars competing this weekend are expected to field different machinery next year.

Wayne Taylor Racing and Action Express Racing have only run DPs since their entry into GRAND-AM in 2004 and 2010, respectively. Meanwhile, Visit Florida Racing (the former Spirit of Daytona Racing) will shift away from Corvettes – whether it’s been an old AGT class Corvette as early as 2000 or now the Corvette DP which premiered in 2012.

These teams are expected to run Cadillac-branded DPis in 2017, but no formal announcement has been made yet by General Motors, nor a timeline revealed for when that will occur.

BRASELTON, GA – OCTOBER 04: Ricky Taylor,L, and Jordan Taylor celebrate in victory lane after winning Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on October 4, 2014 in Braselton, Georgia. (Photo by Brian Cleary/Getty Images)

The Taylors, in particular, have professed their appreciation for the DP. Jordan Taylor – one of sports car’s youngest and most talented drivers who has made a name for himself as much for his social media presence as his on-track prowess – has often posted about his relationship with the Corvette DP as if it were his long-term girlfriend (send off note below).

Goodbyes are tough. Nobody likes to say goodbye. We've been together for four years now, but this weekend will be our last. People say you're old and ugly, and let's face it, you are old, and you are kind of ugly. But that never mattered to me. All that mattered to me was the way I felt around you and the way you made me feel when I was inside of you. I've put a few scratches on you over the years, but only one that would count towards a domestic violence accusation. I felt bad about it, and honestly, wanted to go back in time to take it back. But we moved on, we learned from it, and we grew stronger. We've had some great times together and made some great memories, but all great things must come to an end. I thank you for what you've done for me and my career. I can't wait to see you again, one last time this weekend in Atlanta, Corvette Daytona Prototype. We'll do our best to give you an honorable send-off. #Corvette

A photo posted by Jordan Taylor (@jordan10taylor) on

But on a serious note, Jordan says the car’s been a good workhorse and he’ll be sad to see it go.

“I’m very sentimental about the DPs going away,” Jordan Taylor said. “These cars mean a lot to the whole Taylor family and we have had a great history with them. I’m looking forward to getting to drive it one last time and pushing hard to win the last race ever for the package.”

Elsewhere Mazda’s pair of prototypes takes their bow for the final time, which also brings to an end the competitive lifespan of Lola chassis. Although Lola has been out of business for several years, the legacy prototypes live on from their Lola B12/80 homologation that Mazda has utilized the last three years. This year, the engine changed from a SKYACTIV diesel engine back to an AER gasoline powerplant dubbed the MZ-2.0T, which has shown speed but not reliability for most of the year.

“It gives me goosebumps to finish the season with the last Lolas that will ever race professionally,” said Tristan Nunez, who shares the No. 55 Mazda Prototype with Jonathan Bomarito and Spencer Pigot. “Growing up, watching Lolas, they were always beautiful cars. The history behind Lola is iconic, and it has held a special place in my heart since I climbed into one in 2014. To be saying good-bye to the car is bittersweet. Everyone says that we have the most beautiful car out there. And we do, but I have the utmost confidence the next car is going to be just as beautiful. I’m honored to drive it in its last professional competition.”

The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The DeltaWing. Photo courtesy of IMSA

The quirky DeltaWing, the prototype that conformed to nothing except shaking up the establishment, takes what was expected to be its final race outing at its home track, although managing partner Dr. Don Panoz made a surprise announcement on Wednesday that the car is set to run the 2017 Rolex 24 at Daytona in a one-race exemption – details of which should be finalized over the winter.

Panoz helped save sports car racing in the late 1990s and founded the American Le Mans Series, and his DeltaWing creation provided a shot-in-the-arm from when it went to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2012. Many of the initial partners involved – Michelin, Nissan, All American Racers and Highcroft Racing – all left thereafter but Panoz has pressed on solo the last four years, and it’s kept a lot of good people employed to field the radical lightweight car through its roadster-to-coupe evolution. An innovator, a dreamer and a racer, it would be a shame if Panoz is not a part of the new-look IMSA fabric in 2017 past Daytona.

Lastly the pair of LMP2-spec Ligier JS P2 Hondas could continue in another privateer hands, but with Michael Shank Racing having secured the factory Acura NSX GT3 program and with Tequila Patron ESM running Ligier JS P217 Nissan DPis next year, these existing cars run their final races in these two teams’ hands.

Outside the top-level Prototype ranks, the Prototype Challenge class is down to seven cars this weekend. PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and JDC/Miller Motorsports have announced steps up to the new-look Prototype class for 2017, and Starworks Motorsport has also announced a purchase of a new DPi. CORE autosport, the five-time class champions, have stepped out of PC having announced a switch to the Porsche 911 GT3 R for 2017.

It leaves Performance Tech Motorsports and BAR1 Motorsports, both of which also field cars in IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites (set to be renamed Prototype Challenge in 2017) series, as the only two PC teams yet to reveal their plans beyond 2017 for the last year of PC, the class. Both Brent O’Neill (Performance Tech) and Brian Alder (BAR1) figure to continue in Prototype Challenge, the series, with customers in either LMP3 or existing Prototype Lites machinery.

In GT Le Mans, Porsche’s current model 911 RSR makes its final scheduled North American start with the CORE autosport-run factory Porsche North America program. This car premiered on U.S. shores in 2014 with a win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and its most famous win occurred here last year at Petit Le Mans, when Nick Tandy and Patrick Pilet won overall in the waterlogged, rain-shortened race after a pitch-perfect performance. A new GTE car was revealed earlier this year and will debut in 2017.

GT Daytona also sees one sendoff to the class’ lone American car, the Dodge Viper GT3-R. This year saw an infusion of second-generation FIA GT3-homologated cars – the new Audi R8, Porsche 911 GT3 R, BMW M6 GT3, Lamborghini Huracán GT3 and Ferrari 488 GT3 all debuted this year in Daytona.

The Viper GT3-R. Photo courtesy of IMSA
The Viper GT3-R. Photo courtesy of IMSA

But the Viper, which was there in GTD from the start of 2014, signs off its program this weekend. Ben Keating, the nation’s largest Viper dealer (Viper Exchange) has announced a purchase of a Riley Mk. 30 LMP2 prototype next year but figures to maintain a two-car, manufacturer-level presence within GTD next season as his primary full-season effort. Keating and Jeroen Bleekemolen, along with ace third driver Marc Miller, look to send the Viper off with a win this weekend.

Beyond the cars, there’s also two driver sendoffs of note. After an incredible 20-year career that’s spanned various series, cars, classes and continents, Englishman Johnny Mowlem makes his last planned professional start this weekend in BAR1’s lone PC car along with Don Yount and Tomy Drissi. Mowlem achieved much of his success with Porsche but in recent years has still produced that occasional blinder of a moment, his pole for BAR1 at Daytona in 2015 a standout performance.

John Pew also makes his last scheduled professional start as part of the lineup in the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda. Pew shares the car with longtime co-driver Ozz Negri and third driver Olivier Pla and has been part of the fabric with Shank’s prototype program – both DPs and P2s – for a decade. The team makes its 250th start this weekend and Pew, who made his Le Mans debut with the team earlier this year, will move outside the spotlight.

Sports car racing is sometimes – OK, often – confusing to follow, but one cool thing is that it’s always evolving from a machinery and technology standpoint.

This weekend, forget the future for a bit and embrace the good ‘ol cars and drivers set to compete for one last hurrah.