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Verizon IndyCar Series 2016 Year in Review

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After the half-term report at the, obviously, mid-year point of 2016, it’s only appropriate to do a full-year report of the mostly goods that happened in the Verizon IndyCar Series this season.

We rattled through all driver reviews in the immediate days afterwards, and now at the end of the year, here’s a full recap of what we witnessed this season.

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Anyone who’d followed Simon Pagenaud in his Atlantic, early Champ Car or sports car career knew he had race-winning and title-contending potential, and his first three full-time seasons in IndyCar bore that out once he made his comeback in 2012. One difficult season at Team Penske shifted the narrative slightly but the motivation and confidence was still there that 2016 would be – had to be – much better.

SONOMA, CA - SEPTEMBER 18: Simon Pagenaud of France driver of the #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the IndyCar Series championship with his crew and team onwer roger Penske after his victory at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 18, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Pagenaud and the championship-winning team. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Even so, the run of form that kicked off the year – five first or second-place finishes in the first five races – was beyond anyone’s wildest guess, not least because it’s that hard to pull off in the super deep, super competitive IndyCar field.

Pagenaud stamped his authority as the title favorite by May and never really looked like losing it. He fended off teammate Will Power’s summer comeback with an aggressive, title-defining move on one of the toughest and most physically challenging weekends of his career at Mid-Ohio, then put an exclamation point on his season with his most dominant campaign at Sonoma. He was – and is – a thoroughly deserved champion.

POWER’S ROLLER COASTER RIDE

. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Power at Texas. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

From missing the season opener at St. Petersburg to then making up more than 100 points to teammate Pagenaud, Will Power’s 2016 season was one of the most abnormal in his career.

Once he regained his full strength and physical form, his on-track form came back along with it. The more serene, having already won a title Power was a more complete driver than he was earlier in his career. Savvy victories replaced out-and-out dominant ones and he’d come up second this year by determination and fightback, not heartache. His title-winning season of 2014 was good but this was arguably even more impressive. By the 2017 season opener, he’ll be a dad after wife Liz gives birth to their first child.

ROSSI AND THE 100TH INDY 500 STAR TURNS

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29: Alexander Rossi, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Napa Dallara Honda celebrates in victory circle after winning the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Rossi takes a moment to sink it all in. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Few laps as slow as Alexander Rossi’s at this year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 will ever match the drama and magnitude of the moment. That surreal lap, making it home on fumes following the expert coaching of Bryan Herta on the radio, witnessed one of the more unlikely Indianapolis 500 triumphs in history. With time, the magnitude of what Rossi and the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda team achieved has properly sunk in.

HINCH’S COMEBACK, THEN DANCING TURN

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 27: James Hinchcliffe, driver of the #5 Honda Dallara, prepares to practice during Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Hinch on Carb Day. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

It’s weird to say that if James Hinchcliffe hadn’t had his life-threatening accident in 2015 during practice for the Indianapolis 500, he wouldn’t be on “Dancing with the Stars,” where he and Sharna Burgess starred. But that’s probably a reason why he was. Alas, Hinchcliffe’s return to driving, his emotional pole for the race and his entering the millions of homes this fall was one of the stories of the year. Setting aside the “big picture” storylines, those in the paddock witnessed a driver who was thoroughly better on all circuits in his second year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and desperately unlucky to not win a race and end 13th in points.

NEWGARDEN’S IRONMAN EFFORTS

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 12: Connor Daly, driver of the #18 Jonathan Byrd's Hospitality Honda, slides after contact with Josef Newgarden, driver of the #21 Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet, during the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)
Newgarden came back from this to race a week and a half later. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)

Suffer the scariest accident of the season, then be back in a car 12 days later. Just another two weeks in the life of Josef Newgarden, whose comeback after his accident in Texas to then race at Road America, then wipe the floors of the field at Iowa in early July was unreal. Newgarden’s star potential has long been obvious and he’s gotten better year-on-year on-track as well, thus culminating with a thoroughly deserved promotion to Team Penske in 2017. He finished a career-best fourth in points this season.

PEACE IN THE PADDOCK, AND ON THE SCHEDULE

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Jay Frye. Photo: INDYCAR

The unsung hero of the 2016 season was Jay Frye, promoted to INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, who helped make the paddock a happier and less negative place throughout the season. When the only real complaint was that there was too much in-season testing, you know things are a lot better than in years past.

From the peaceful transition to a new Race Control with the same three stewards, to somehow managing to turn the cancellation of Boston into a multi-year agreement at Watkins Glen, to getting the 2017 schedule out earlier than ever (in August, with date and venue continuity!), to outlining plans for a common aero kit spec in 2018 after the manufacturer aero kits end, to dogged pursuit of a third OEM to join Honda and Chevrolet, Frye was at the forefront of positive business and internal moves for INDYCAR this year. And this doesn’t even mention some of the additional commercial interest in the series, which was great to see.

“We want their opinion… we buy in from the paddock. There’s a lot of smart people there,” Frye told a handful of reporters at Sonoma, the season finale. “Why not go to them to help us graft our future and our plan? We have this multi-year plan in place. Part of it has been announced. There are still some more things to come. I think people understand there’s this direction. They’ve been part of the process to come up with it!”

OTHER SEASON NOTES

Dixon signed off as champ, and Target signed off as sponsor, at Sonoma. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
  • Between Hinchcliffe on “Dancing with the Stars,” plus separate “Celebrity Family Feud” and “American Ninja Warrior” appearances, IndyCar drivers got a good amount of national TV notoriety this year.
  • Road America, Watkins Glen and Phoenix made welcome returns to the schedule.
  • Chevrolet and Honda were closer this year than the 14-2 win differential would illustrate, but Chevrolet has remained ahead in the aero kit war. Honda’s superspeedway strength was offset by its deficiency on the short ovals. Chevrolet captured its fifth straight Manufacturer’s Championship.
  • Veterans Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan continued to defy their age and remain at the top of their game.
  • It speaks volumes of what we expect from Scott Dixon when sixth in points with two wins is considered a disappointing year.
  • Seeing Target leave Chip Ganassi Racing at year’s end is tough, but thanks for the memories. But seeing commitments from Menards, DHL and hhgregg among others is positive from a commercial standpoint.
  • Juan Pablo Montoya won at St. Petersburg but endured a tough rest of the year, ultimately now leaving full-time.
  • Graham Rahal was unlucky to have ended down a spot from 2015 but followed that year up strongly this year, with his Texas win an incredible effort in the spite of personal tragedy (grandmother died, which he found out the next day). More often than not, he and the RLL team again carried the flag for Honda this season.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay endured a difficult year but still produced a number of star drives, particularly at Pocono.
  • The younger Americans born in the 1990s such as Newgarden, Rossi, Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot and RC Enerson all stood out at various points this season.
  • Sebastien Bourdais remains underrated and did a lot with a little in his last season at KVSH Racing, per usual. Additionally, seeing what he and Dixon did in the Ford GT at Le Mans this year was great.
  • Carlos Munoz and Mikhail Aleshin provided more “wow” moments than usual “wow” moment generator Takuma Sato, who along with Marco Andretti endured forgettable campaigns.
  • The loss of Bryan Clauson stung the paddock, but Daly, then-teammate Pippa Mann and the rest of the paddock paid admirable tribute at Pocono. Additionally well-done on that weekend was the one year-on tribute to Justin Wilson, with most of the paddock wearing the Wilson USWAG tribute socks.
  • Brad Keselowski tested an IndyCar at Road America. It was the only bit of NASCAR-to-IndyCar crossover this year.
  • There were changes of the guard at Firestone (Dale Harrigle to Cara Adams) and for INDYCAR’s brake partner (Brembo to PFC) for 2017.
  • The infamous domed skids were a big talking point going into the Indianapolis 500, and then almost never heard from again.

STATS OF NOTE

  • Eight winners in 16 races, seven other podium finishers.
  • First to second in points gap: 127 points (659-532). Second to 14th: 128 points (532-404).
  • Wins by Team Penske: 10 of 16. Poles by Team Penske: 11 of 16. Laps Led by Team Penske: 1028 of 2070. Firestone Fast Six appearances by Team Penske: 28 of 60.
  • Pagenaud started 1st through 3rd in 11 of 16 races, and made nine of 10 Firestone Fast Six appearances.
  • Laps Led by Manufacturers: Chevrolet 1467, Honda 603. Laps Led by Manufacturers, 14 non-500 mile races: Chevrolet 1318, Honda 352. Laps Led by Manufacturers, 2 500-mile races: Honda 251, Chevrolet 149.
  • Rookie of the Year breakdown: Overall, Rossi 430, Daly 313. In 14 single-points races: Daly 275, Rossi 246. In 2 double-points races: Rossi 184, Daly 38.

WATCH LIVE: Indy Carb Day, then NASCAR AMERICA from 11a ET, NBCSN

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The busiest and greatest weekend in motorsports takes place this weekend from Monaco, Indianapolis and Charlotte, and you can see quite a bit of it today on NBCSN from 11 a.m. ET. The live stream link is here, via the NBC Sports App.

Indianapolis 500 Carb Day coverage will run from 11 a.m. through to 3:30 p.m. ET, in several chunks:

  • IndyCar final practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil runs from 11 a.m. to noon ET. Kevin Lee, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth with Marty Snider, Jon Beekhuis, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller on pit lane.
  • From there, at noon, it’s the marquee race of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season – the Freedom 100. With finishes of 0.0024 (2016, Dean Stoneman over Ed Jones), 0.0026 (2013, Peter Dempsey over three others) and 0.005 (2014, Gabby Chaves over Matthew Brabham), the Freedom 100 is known for fantastic and close finishes. Lee and Anders Krohn will be in the booth with Hargitt and Beekhuis reporting from the pits. The starting grid for that is linked here.
  • At 2 p.m. ET, it’s the Indy Pit Stop Competition, with the IndyCar crew back in for that. While some of the bigger teams are usually the ones that wins this, others such as Mikhail Aleshin for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Sage Karam for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing have stolen the show in this competition in recent years.

The coverage from Indianapolis runs for those four and a half hours, and leads straight into the now-annual NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special, which features live coverage from NBC crews in all of Indianapolis, Monaco and Charlotte and runs from 3:30 to 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN. A standard NASCAR AMERICA show runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET.

Among the items to look forward to from Indy and Monaco in that show:

  • An update on Fernando Alonso’s crazy month of May, ahead of his first Indianapolis 500
  • Robin Miller tours the A.J. Foyt Exhibit at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum
  • A look at Will Power, the dad, and the change that’s come to his life
  • From Monaco, a look at this season’s stellar battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel
  • A look at the magic of Monaco and a simulation of the track

As a reminder, here’s the IndyCar times from this weekend, and a link to the F1 times as well.

Alonso vs. ‘The Other 32’ hits Indy Media Day, plus Thursday notes

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastian Saavedra served as the perfect foil for the attention generated by Fernando Alonso on media day ahead of this year’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The Colombian driver was never going to be the driver to generate the most attention on this day. He starts 31st and hasn’t started an IndyCar race since the Sonoma season finale in 2015.

But being sat next to Alonso? It gave the impression poor Seb – himself about to start his sixth Indy 500 and a first with Juncos Racing as it makes its debut – was a lost soul in the wrong room, instead of one of his fellow competitors.

Saavedra could well have been speaking for “the other 32” – the drivers not named Alonso racing in 2017 – when he talked about what it meant to be back in this race after missing it for one year, and the preparation that will already begin for the 2018 ‘500, starting Monday.

“We don’t run just to run,” Saavedra, driver of Juncos’ No. 17 AFS Chevrolet, told NBC Sports. “Something needs to make sense. Coming into this year we came in with a different mentality; to build something for the future.

“When you’re not here, you miss this place. On Monday, we want everything to start up again for next year.”

In video and photographic form, the contrast between Saavedra and the scrum around Alonso’s place is captured below (or by satirist, @nascarcasm, here).

Media day inevitably serves up a series of quotes, banter and other topics from the field that we’ll flesh out over the next 48 hours on Friday and Saturday on MotorSportsTalk. As you can see below, here’s some of the facial expressions from the rest of the runners.

In other notes from the last couple days:

  • Team Penske continues to honor its legends. At its now annual Shell media lunch on Thursday, Penske has inducted legendary mechanic Karl Kainhofer and four-time Indianapolis 500 champion Rick Mears into Penske’s Hall of Fame. Both icons of Penske’s legacy were awarded plaques of honor to join Penske himself and the late Mark Donohue, inducted upon the Penske Hall of Fame’s 2016 debut.
  • This event saw all five of Penske’s drivers speak, and was the second Penske sponsor event in as many days. The first, held at an event at a house in Speedway on Wednesday, saw Verizon debut its 5G LTE technology in-home, done in partnership with Ericsson. Will Power was on hand to witness the public debut of the 5G Smart House; the house is outfitted with wireless technology and ridiculous speed, which also included a Virtual Reality component.
  • We have a pace car driver. Chevrolet announced Thursday that actor Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who has played major roles in hit television series such as “The Walking Dead” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” will drive the 2017 Chevrolet Corvette Grand Sport Pace Car to lead the starting field of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil to the green flag Sunday, May 28.
  • The Indy Lights race has a bevy of potential surprise winners. The front row features Matheus Leist, set to run his first ever oval race, Colton Herta, who is set for his first big oval race, and two more Andretti teammates in Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman who looked great in traffic on Monday. Leist’s Carlin teammate Zachary Claman De Melo is another wild card; the Canadian has a “Jekyll & Hyde” nature to him. Then Aaron Telitz had to deal with a bit of mist and rain on his qualifying run and will start sixth. With the top two drivers in points starting 11th and 13th (Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin), it’s a fascinating day on tap.

Watch all of Indianapolis Carb Day coverage and the Freedom 100 starting at 11 a.m. ET on NBCSN.

Stefan Johansson’s latest blog: Previewing Indy 500, Monaco GP

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It’s open-wheel racing’s biggest weekend of the year this weekend, with the Indianapolis 500 and Monaco Grand Prix on tap.

It also gives a chance to check in with Stefan Johansson for the latest blog as he chats with Jan Tegler, previewing both marquee events on the Verizon IndyCar Series and Formula 1 calendars. Johansson raced at Monaco five times and Indy four times.

First off, Johansson describes how impressive the qualifying run was by Scott Dixon, as he’s on the pole for the race.

“Getting the pole at Indy again is great obviously, and it was a mighty run from Scott for sure. Indy qualifying is not easy under any circumstance. But to go out cold without even one lap in practice all day – he went straight from qualifying on Saturday to qualifying on Sunday – in a car that you have no idea about in terms of how it will perform, that’s impressive.

“Everybody is trying to trim their cars to the absolute limit and I think Scott and his engineer Chris Simmons went all out this time. Scott said he had a small breather in turn 2 every lap just keep the front tight and he was still doing 232 laps so the car must have been extremely light on downforce. Typically, if you have to lift anywhere on the four lap run the time won’t hold up.”

After Fernando Alonso’s taken to the Speedway, here’s Johansson’s thoughts on how he’s gone so far:

“With Alonso being there this year as well, I think a lot more people that normally would not tune in are going to realize again how incredibly exciting it is and how great IndyCar racing and the Indy 500, in particular, are. It’s an outstanding event and qualifying is really an event in itself, apart from the race.

“Alonso also mentioned that he wants to be a “complete driver” which I think is fantastic coming from him. I think his involvement this year could start a trend. I’m sure he’s loved every minute of this experience so far.”

Here’s what Johansson thinks of the magic of race day morning, which is something Alonso is set to experience for the first time on Sunday.

“I remember the first time I raced there, walking out onto the grid for the first time after having been there all month and it’s amazing. Qualifying has a pretty good crowd but when you walk out onto the grid on Sunday morning before the start you suddenly see this mountain of people in front of you. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It’s an incredible experience.”

MONTMELO, SPAIN – MAY 14: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF70H and Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP talk in the post race press conference during the Spanish Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit de Catalunya on May 14, 2017 in Montmelo, Spain. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

And after a dramatic Spanish Grand Prix, here was Johansson’s take on the Ferrari vs. Mercedes battle and his take on how Ferrari managed to muck up strategy for Sebastian Vettel in Barcelona.

“It boggles my mind why Ferrari didn’t stop when there was a VSC. That’s race strategy-101. If you have a virtual safety period and you’re in a pit stop window, you have to stop.

“I am not 100 percent clear if the pits were closed during the safety car period or not, in which case maybe Vettel passed the pits as the track went green and Hamilton being 8 seconds behind was able to duck in just as Vettel passed the green flag.

“It’s fantastic that the championship is so close and we now have two teams fighting for the title.”

You can read the full blog post here, for even more insight.

2017 columns:

Additionally, a link to Johansson’s social media channels and #F1TOP3 competition are linked here.

Indy field keen to beat him, but agree Alonso Indy 500 win would boost IndyCar globally

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INDIANAPOLIS – Graham Rahal wants to win Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. If not him, he’d like to see a Honda driver in victory lane.

Ditto for James Hinchcliffe, who’d like to win but would also be happy to see a Honda winner, as well.

Will Power is also of the same mindset. If he can’t win, he’d like one of his Team Penske teammates take the checkered flag.

But those same drivers interviewed by NBC Sports Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, are also well aware of the potential impact of having two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso in the race.

And make no mistake, even though this is Alonso’s first foray into IndyCar and oval racing, when it comes to Sunday’s race, he’s in it to win it. And some of the drivers he’ll challenge for the ‘500 win are well aware of that.

“Obviously, selfishly, for a lot of us, we hope he doesn’t,” Rahal said with a smile.

Rahal then grew serious, adding, “But I’m not going to lie to you, he’s driving the same car Townsend (Bell) drove last year, which was one of the favorites to win until the pit lane accident. So it’s a fast car, it’s a good machine, I’ve worked with some of his mechanics in the past.

“They’re quality guys. It wouldn’t surprise me. He’s going to be in the hunt. But I hope it just continues to draw more eyes. I think he’s had a great time here this month. It would be great to have him continue to come back, amongst others. Clearly, we hope one of the regulars wins this thing, there’s a lot of guys that deserve a lot of credit and maybe have been overlooked this month, but that’s just part of it. We’ll see what happens Sunday.”

Hinchcliffe also wants to win Sunday, but knows Alonso brings an additional dynamic to the table that is kind of a mixed blessing.

“That’s one of those bittersweet situations,” Hinchcliffe said with a chuckle. “Obviously, it would be a tremendous amount of coverage for IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500, but if a rookie comes in and wins it on pace, it just makes us look a bit silly.

“Now, if you’re going to be made to look silly, if it’s going to happen at the hands of Fernando Alonso, you’ll sleep a little bit better at night because he’s pretty much the greatest living racing driver.

“The fact of the matter is he’s got a really good shot at it, man. He’s been incredible. There’s a lot of difficult situations that you get put into during a 500-mile race here or in practice and we’ve watched him handle them like a seasoned veteran. It’s been very impressive, honestly. He’s in one of the best cars, he’s starting near the front (middle of Row 2), he’s got as good a shot as anyone.”

In addition to Alonso’s massive talent, Hinchcliffe has also been impressed at the Spanish driver’s personality.

“He’s super down to earth, very friendly and has really embraced this experience,” Hinchcliffe said. “The IndyCar paddock is a very different world from the F1 paddock.

“I know for a fact that there are a lot of (F1) drivers that wouldn’t handle the atmosphere here very well, but Fernando hasn’t been like that. He’s embraced the whole experience, the fan interaction we have, which is a massive degree higher than what you see in F1. He’s been an awesome addition to the field. I hope it’s not the last IndyCar race that we see him at.”

And then there’s Will Power, who has an IndyCar championship trophy on his mantle, but not the Borg-Warner Indy 500 winner’s trophy.

Power feels he has a good chance to finally break through and win the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. But he also knows Alonso presents a formidable challenge in addition to the regular IndyCar drivers he does battle with in every series race.

But Power agrees with his counterparts that an Alonso win would bring a great deal of worldwide attention that would provide a big boost of attention and popularity into the IndyCar Series.

“I think you’d have a new group of Spanish fans if Alonso happened to win the race, plus a lot of interest from Europe, which there already is,” Power said. “He definitely has the car and the capability to do it – but so does a lot of people in the field.”

When asked if he can relate his own first 500 (finished 13th in 2008) to that of Alonso, Power said it was completely apples to oranges.

“It’s not similar,” Power said. “When I came here the first time, the team had never raced ovals and we got the car two weeks before the first race of the season and had no idea of the setup. And my engineer had never run ovals, either.

“(Alonso’s) been placed with one of the best teams, one of the best cars and much more experience. I would have dreamed of having that experience in my first time. It would have made it much easier and given me way more confidence on the oval.”

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