Scott Dixon: Rules offer ‘big range’ of possibilities with superspeedway aero kits

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FORT WORTH – Five days. That’s all that remains for Verizon IndyCar Series teams to figure out the new superspeedway aero kit, which emphasizes downforce over horsepower, before they face racing conditions in a little race called the Indianapolis 500.

Leading the 33-car field to the green Sunday will be polesitter Scott Dixon, who was second fastest in Monday’s practice sessions with a speed of 226.542 mph.

“We’ve had a really smooth month,” said the Target Chip Ganassi Racing driver during a media event at Texas Motor Speedway. “The cars are different, the style of racing is different. The race this weekend is going to be on the edge-of-your-seat stuff. The draft is fairly big, it’s going to be impossible to pull away from the field.”

Dixon’s fastest speed in May was 233.001 mph in the seventh session, which is the second best behind Team Penske’s Helio Castroneves at 233.474 mph.

“It’s kind of the rules package that we run, we sort of work within that window,” Dixon said. “So as far as big picture, what combination would be better for each person, it’s kind of hard to tell. We’ve been through different versions of IndyCar racing throughout the years and I think the racing in ‘the show’ right now the best in the world.”

The fastest qualifying Honda for the Indy 500 was Justin Wilson in the No. 25 Honda for Andretti Autosport, who will start sixth.

Wilson says the only drawback of the last two weeks of preparation has been a lack of testing the aero package in warm weather conditions.

“Now it’s a case of getting a fast race car,” Wilson said. “We’ve got 500 miles to do and want to make sure we’re good in traffic, be good on our own. That’s the hard part now.”

Wilson’s best overall speed is 230.348 mph, which is 20th fastest.

“The aero configuration has changed a couple of times,” Wilson said. “We trimmed right out for qualifying, we’ve put the downforce back in yesterday for more race running. We had done that earlier in the week, we put a lot of downforce on to get ready for running in traffic.

“Right now, it feels fine. Personally, you always want for horsepower. You want to be able to drive the cars through the corners and have fun with that. At the end of the day, if my car is one percent better than everyone elses, then I’m going to be happy.”

After Sunday, it will be two weeks before IndyCar returns to oval racing at Texas Motor Speedway, this time with a slightly different aero kit from the one used at IMS.

Dixon was part of a very early test of the aero kit at TMS and said the series has gone through many iterations of the kit since then.

“I expect the racing to always be good here,” Dixon said. “These last few years, (the racing field) has probably been a little strung out compared to some of the early years when we would pack race here, which for the drivers, we prefer what we’ve had the last couple of years. Driving the car is much more difficult and it’s very exciting for us.”

Dixon believes rules dictated by IndyCar gives teams a “big range” of possibilities to work with on the aero kit.

“I think the racing style could change a little bit,” said Dixon, who won the 2008 Bombardier LearJet 550 at the track. “You could have someone very quick at the start of the stint, but have a massive falloff and not be very good over the 30, 40, 50 laps that they need to go on one set of tires.”

Wilson, who won the 2012 race but doesn’t have a deal in place to compete in the June 6th race, agrees.

“You’ll see some people pile on the downforce and run a couple of mph hour slower most of the night,” Wilson said. “But they’ll keep their average speed up because they’re not wearing out the tires. You’ll have some people sprint off in the distance for a couple of laps and slide around and wear them out.”

But before that comes the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit and the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” at Indianapolis, where the last opportunity for teams to prepare for the race on-track is Carb Day on Friday.

“We’re still trying to make those last couple of tweaks that will hopefully be the race-winning tweak,” Wilson said.

F1: Russian Grand Prix post-race interviews (VIDEO)

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The Russian Grand Prix is in the books, with Valtteri Bottas scoring his first career victory at Sochi.  Bottas had both a dynamic start and a dynamic defense for Mercedes against Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to win in his 81st career start, and fourth with Mercedes since changing over from Williams.

NBCSN F1 pit reporter Will Buxton caught up with a number of drivers either during or after the race. Those interviews are below.

More videos will come in the fourth and final weekend installment of Paddock Pass, the NBC Sports Group original digital series. Stay tuned for that in the next day or so on NBCSports.com.

Anyway, Russia post-race interviews are below:

WIN. Valtteri Bottas

2. Sebastian Vettel

4. Lewis Hamilton

5. Max Verstappen

9. Felipe Massa

DNF. Daniel Ricciardo

DNS. Fernando Alonso

Hinchcliffe endures tough night in Phoenix to finish 12th

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James Hinchcliffe, off to one of the best starts he’s ever had in the Verizon IndyCar Series (certainly his best since his two wins in four races to start 2013) endured possibly the most frustrating race of his 2017 season Saturday night at Phoenix.

Down on pace to the Chevrolet cars, particularly those from Team Penske, Hinchcliffe had resigned himself to aim for “best in class,” and he had enough speed to run solidly in the top ten. However, as he explained, poor fuel mileage saw him be the first driver to pit during green flag pit stops, which elongated his final stint and forced him to make a late stop for fuel, dropping him to 12th at the end.

“Man, we just weren’t getting the mileage the other guys were. It’s too bad because the ARROW Electronics car was actually pretty strong,” he told NBC Sports. “We survived that first turn thing; it was unfortunate to see Mikhail (Aleshin) caught up in that.

“And we had decent pace, we were kind of hanging with Scott (Dixon) there in the first stint and ended up just having to pit way before anyone else. And five or six laps a stint compounding, we just never got the yellow at the right time to equalize the field and put us on the same page as everyone else. And at the end, we had to come in for that splash and go.”

Of course, the night could have been much worse, as he barely avoided the first turn pileup that collected five cars after teammate Mikhail Aleshin spun in Turn 2. “It was close, man. I saw Mikhail start to spin and come down, and then Marco (Andretti) hit the brakes and locked up and went around. I was lucky to avoid it, to be honest,” he said of the incident.

Despite finishing 12th, Hinchcliffe held onto fifth place in the standings, 39 points behind new championship leader Simon Pagenaud.

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Newgarden finishes ninth after two wing changes in Phoenix

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The Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix had a promising beginning for Josef Newgarden, who rocketed up to second on the opening lap after starting fourth. However, a pair of front wing changes put paid to any chances of a win, and the Barber Motorsports Park winner was relegated to ninth at race’s end.

“It was a rough night, pretty much as rough as it can be for the No. 2 car,” he told NBCSN’s Robin Miller after the race. “The good news is I think we had speed, I think all the Penske cars did. Simon (Pagenaud) was awesome tonight so congrats to him for getting the win. It’s a victory for all of us at Team Penske, so I’m happy to see that. Will (Power) was good too, and obviously Helio (Castroneves) starting the race up front.”

It was unclear what caused the initial damage, which was on the left-front end plate and happened in the early laps. But, a lap 138 caution when Takuma Sato crashed allowed the team a chance to replace the wing.

From there, Newgarden charged back toward the front and was battling for a podium finish when contact with the lapped car of Ryan Hunter-Reay damaged the new wing, this time on the right-front end plate.

Newgarden described the incident and revealed that there was nothing he could do to avoid contact. “I was following Scott (Dixon), and I had Helio breathing down my neck. We were just trying to ride and catch a podium to recover for the day, essentially. Scott got on the inside of Ryan into (turn 3), they went two-by-two and so I followed Scott through. But as soon as Scott got clear, Ryan wanted to get back down immediately. And I just had a head of steam coming with Scott. I didn’t have any time to check up, I tried to check up and hit the brakes, but I’m in the middle of the corner, so I couldn’t really do much to miss him.”

Hunter-Reay described the view from his vantage point to NBCSN’s Marty Snider: “It’s just very frustrating. I couldn’t do anything with the car all night, because I love short ovals. Survived the start. Then we get a puncture or whatever. Dixon came up behind me, stuck his nose in, I was worried I might have turned across him. I went into the gray and two guys got by me. The car wouldn’t turn at all. Bent the right rear toe link. It was a really tough ride today. It was way too complicated.”

Newgarden pitted a second time for a new wing and ended up finishing ninth. He now sits third in the championship, 26 points behind teammate Simon Pagenaud for the lead.

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Hamilton struggles to fourth in Sochi after ‘very tough weekend’

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Lewis Hamilton endured one of his toughest Formula 1 races in recent memory in Russia on Sunday, finishing fourth at the Sochi Autodrom as Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas took his maiden grand prix win.

Hamilton qualified fourth on Saturday, almost half a second back from Bottas and the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen who locked out the front row of the grid.

Bottas was able to pass both Ferrari drivers on the first lap en route to victory, but Hamilton struggled to keep up with their pace, finishing some 36 seconds behind his teammate.

“It’s been a very, very tough weekend. I can’t remember having as difficult a weekend,” Hamilton told NBCSN after the race.

“Probably the last time I remember is Baku or something like that. Just ultimately not quick enough, not got the car where I was comfortable, and then in the race I was overheating so just had to settle for fourth.”

Bottas’ success came in just his fourth race for Mercedes, having replaced F1 world champion Nico Rosberg for 2017 following the German’s shock retirement.

Hamilton has spoken warmly of Bottas on a number of occasions, and was full of praise for the Finn after his success in Sochi.

“Big congratulations to him. He’s done such a great job,” Hamilton said.

“Fantastic teammate to work with. It’s an amazing feeling to win your first grand prix. It will mean a lot to him and his family.”

With title rival Sebastian Vettel finishing second, Hamilton is now 13 points adrift of the championship lead ahead of the fifth race of the year in Spain on May 14.