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.

If Dale Jr. wants a part-time job in retirement, John Force has one for him

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”