Carlos Munoz Sunoco Rookie of the Year in a deep IndyCar freshman class

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The early season favorite for Verizon IndyCar Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year was Andretti Autosport’s Carlos Munoz, and Munoz confirmed the award with an eighth place finish in Saturday night’s MAVTV 500 season finale at Auto Club Speedway.

Munoz scored three podium finishes (all third-places), two additional top-fives and three further top-10 finishes to end eighth in the IndyCar points standings.

Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay finished sixth, Marco Andretti was ninth and James Hinchcliffe 12th this season.

As for the other rookies, Munoz was part of one of IndyCar’s better rookie classes in recent memory (2011 comes to mind), in a year that also featured the emergence – and podiums – from Mikhail Aleshin, Jack Hawksworth and race winner Carlos Huertas, all at Houston.

“First of all I want to wish (Mikhail) Aleshin a speedy recovery,” Munoz said. “As a rookie this year, I think it was the strongest rookie field IndyCar ever had. In general, we had the podiums and everything and that was great, and that’s why I feel really nice to be Rookie of the Year.

“As I said before, the competition this year was really tough. I’m just really happy; this is just the beginning, hopefully, of my career in IndyCar for many years. It’s always nice to have this honor in your resume. I think we finished the season strong, so I’m happy.”

Munoz also praised the work done by his No. 34 Cinsay/AndrettiTV.com Honda crew throughout the Fontana weekend, for getting him turned around after a difficult test and qualifying session (he qualified 18th).

“With how we started the weekend…  you know, we started nowhere, and we finished P8 and with a good pace,” he said.” I had one problem in one of my stints; I had to stop in the middle of the stint, so that cost us a lot of positions.

“Anyways, I’m really happy with the car, with the finish, a top 10 in the championship. As I said before, I was really worried coming into the race because we were nowhere, and then suddenly during the race, the Cinsay car was perfect for me. I felt the grip, finally, during the race; when you have a good car, when you feel strong, you move up.”

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.