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Preseason over, it’s time for Newgarden’s actual Penske race debut

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Both of the two major offseason story lines in the Verizon IndyCar Series parlayed themselves into an actual race weekend story line this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

And after all the talk about them and the thousands of words written about them, it’s time for Chip Ganassi Racing to actually race with Honda and Josef Newgarden to actually race with Team Penske. Ganassi got two of its Hondas in the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday and Newgarden qualified fourth.

Newgarden’s switch to Penske is the highest profile driver change in the series in several years. The 26-year-old from Hendersville, Tenn. made waves in his first five years in the championship. Although he’s only won three races, he’s made year-to-year jumps in the championship (23rd, 14th, 13th, seventh and last year, a career-best fourth) and quickly established himself as the series’ marquee star of the future thanks to his outgoing personality, great relationship with the media and speed and improved race craft on track. His return to action just two weeks after a devastating accident in Texas last year was remarkable and then he promptly went out and dominated at Iowa barely a month after the wreck.

Alas, Newgarden’s answered all the buildup of questions and is more than ready to go tomorrow in the 110-lap season opener in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. He starts fourth and teammate Will Power secured his seventh pole in the last eight races at St. Petersburg, the 45th of his career.

“When you change teams… you don’t want an offseason. We’ve had a long time. I’m excited we’re finally here and through our first qualifying session,” Newgarden said. “It’s been exciting. It’s been a blast working with Will. We have a great unit, great group. I can see why they have been such a great team. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to get through Round 1 and then go to the rest of the calendar year.”

Newgarden thought an appearance in the Firestone Fast Six was possible, if a pole was slightly out of reach. Newgarden’s not had the best of results in St. Petersburg to date – his best start prior to today is 10th in 2015 and his best finish here is ninth in 2014.

“I think for us we thought this was feasible. We felt very good about our race cars,” Newgarden explained. “The other guys were happy, too. We thought Fast Six was possible, but pole was more questionable. We didn’t think we’d have enough for pole. Will did an awesome job. He maximized the most of it.”

On the line for Newgarden is a chance to extend the streak of the No. 2 Chevrolet to win at St. Petersburg. Juan Pablo Montoya, confirmed earlier Saturday by team boss Roger Penske to also race a fifth car at the IndyCar Grand Prix in Indianapolis in May, has won here the last two seasons.

And another streak on the line is that of drivers who’ve started fourth at St. Petersburg have all gone on to win four years in a row. That’s where Montoya rolled off those two years, where Power started in 2014 in the only year since 2009 he hasn’t been on pole, and where James Hinchcliffe, who starts next to Newgarden on row two tomorrow in third, won from in 2013.

“So I’ve been told all this,” Newgarden deadpanned. “Hopefully the odds favor us this weekend. This car has been victorious twice the last two years. No pressure.

“It’s the best I’ve started around St. Pete. I feel I didn’t maximize that Fast Six as much as I could have. But Will put an awesome lap together. Our race cars off the truck have been pretty good. We’ve stayed inside of our window. The next thing for me is to learn the race car, and perform over a tire stint. We’ll try to do a great job with the Verizon 2 car.”

Penske, who’s added Newgarden in place of Montoya alongside Power, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, said earlier Saturday Newgarden is a driver the team can build around for the long-term.

“For us, it was key that we hired an American… but he’s a young man, he’s articulate, and he shows up when he’s on the race track,” Penske told a small group of assembled reporters earlier Saturday. “He’s a tremendous team player with our other drivers. He’s represented us with our sponsors. He’s exactly what we want to help build our team.”

Asked if Newgarden’s usual propensity for fun on social media could continue, Penske brought some humor of his own to the answer.

“I just tell them to wear white shirts and black pants… other than that, they can do whatever the hell they want!” Penske laughed.

The race will not only see Newgarden’s debut with the team but also his first race working with Team Penske president Tim Cindric as his race strategist, Cindric having moved off the box from Power’s No. 12 team where he’d been since the middle of 2011. Jon “Myron” Bouslog shifts to Power’s car and starts from the pole position. Penske explained the rationale behind the change.

“We wanted to give him more support since he’s moving,” Penske said. “Dave (Faustino) is one of the best engineers on Will’s car, and that hasn’t changed. It worked out well. When you go to four cars, you choose from a talent pool, it’s one of those things. So from the 12 car, Tim will move over.”

The Penske/Newgarden relationship is one of the key story lines to watch this season, starting tomorrow. IndyCar returns to NBCSN on April 9 with Round 2 from Long Beach.

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook

Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.

Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session)Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.7808 (Session 8)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.7953 (Session 8)
4. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.0900 (Session 5)
5. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.1419 (Session 5)
6. 31-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:16.1585 (Session 8)
7. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
8. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
9. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
10. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.8124 (Session 5)
11. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.1931 (Session 5)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8142 (Session 5)
2. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:19.9394 (Session 5)
3. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:19.9815 (Session 5)
4. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
5. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
6. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.1928 (Session 5)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.2141 (Session 5)
8. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:20.6289 (Session 5)
9. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
10. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
11. 82-Aaron Telitz, Team Pelfrey, 1:21.2144 (Session 8)
12. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:21.3713 (Session 8)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Keane ended head of queue in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.1424 (Session 5)
2. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
3. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
4. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:25.7021 (Session 5)
5. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:25.7791 (Session 5)
6. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, 1:25.8514 (Session 5)
7. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
8. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:25.9792 (Session 6)
9. 37-David Osborne, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.9996 (Session 8)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.0042 (Session 6)
11. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2295 (Session 8)
12. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
13. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.3668 (Session 8)
14. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
15. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5058 (Session 2)
16. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.6004 (Session 8)
17. 90-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:26.6460 (Session 5)
18. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
19. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.9362 (Session 6)
20. 38-Oscar DeLuzuriaga, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:27.7455 (Session 8)
21. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
22. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.5449 (Session 8)
23. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Old USF2000 teammates Jamin and Telitz share a high-five. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
  • There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
  • The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
  • Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
  • Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
  • Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Veekay. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.

Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.