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IndyCar Preseason Roundtable: St. Petersburg

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It’s the season opening weekend of the Verizon IndyCar Series. The off-season saw a gigantic shuffle amongst teams and drivers, generating several questions and storylines about which combinations will perform the best. The MotorSportsTalk team will dive into a handful of them ahead of the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

1) How will Chip Ganassi Racing switching to Honda impact the balance of power among Chevrolet and Honda?

Kyle: Chip Ganassi Racing’s switch to Honda will put the problematic aero kit in the hands of perhaps the strongest and most-funded engineering staff outside of Team Penske. Can Ganassi’s depth boost Honda’s results? It will likely be a challenge early in the season as the team retool their setups to fit the new package. However, the gap between the manufacturers, especially in their results, should lesson as the year goes on, particularly when the series visits the larger ovals of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, places in which Honda appeared to have an edge over Chevrolet. It will be difficult to completely draw even, but Chip Ganassi Racing should give Honda a much needed boost in the win column and score multiple wins for the Japanese brand.

Tony Kanaan at Sebring test. Photo: IndyCar

Tony: After years where the field was largely split in half between the two manufacturers, Honda has a distinct numerical advantage and its best resource acquisition with Ganassi coming back on board. After 10-6 and 14-2 drubbings in the win category the last couple years, I’d love to see Honda close that gap back to even or close at 9-8, and Ganassi has a shot to do it. But with the aero kits frozen for this year it’s hard to see the engineering strength offset the existing deficiencies, although power gains are possible; if Ganassi, Andretti and either or all of Schmidt Peterson, Rahal Letterman Lanigan and Coyne can win, I could see Honda closing the win gap to say 10-7 or 11-6. But another two-win campaign can’t occur, and I don’t think it will.

Luke: Ganassi’s switch to Honda should bring some needed balance to the Verizon IndyCar Series this year, for it has felt like ‘Chevy or bust’ at times since the introduction of the aero kits. Honda now has both the Ganassi and Andretti stables to lean on, and should get stronger as the year ticks on, although the freeze will limit how much ground can be made up. The bigger ovals remain Honda’s best chance of hitting victory lane without a slice of fortune this year, but I don’t see the disparity between the two manufacturers being as great this year.

2) Of the drivers in new places or ones rejoining Verizon IndyCar Series for 2017, which one will fare the best?

Newgarden looks ahead to 2017. Photo: Getty Images

Kyle: There are several different ways to look at this question. Josef Newgarden may finish the best of anyone who switched teams, given that he is with the mighty Team Penske. Sebastien Bourdais, again teamed up with Craig Hampson, may get the “Did the most with the least” award as he rejoins a revamped Dale Coyne Racing that, while down on funding, possesses enormous spirit and cunning. And, JR Hildebrand may be the one most poised for a breakout year as he begins a full-time role with Ed Carpenter Racing.

In all, Newgarden looks set to have the best results of anyone who signed with a new team or is rejoining the series, and following this particular storyline could be one of the most intriguing aspects of the 2017 season.

Tony: The obvious pick here is Josef Newgarden; the pick I’ll go with is JR Hildebrand. Newgarden’s transition to Team Penske has a lot of potential built into it but also a lot of expectations. It’s funny where if Newgarden finishes fourth or better in the points, you expect it because he’s with Penske. But if Hildebrand gets a top-five points finish and wins his first race with Ed Carpenter Racing, he’ll have arguably had a better season – particularly given his lengthy stint outside the cockpit. He’s in a true team leader position, he has the better aero kit/engine package, he has a team that’s emerged as a title contender and he has a new engineer who will bring fresh ideas from the sports car world in Justin Taylor.

Luke: As both Tony and Kyle have noted, Josef Newgarden is the obvious pick to be the best driver in new colors this year. But his arrival at Penske should come with a word of warning. Simon Pagenaud may have crushed the field last year, yet his first season in the No. 22 was a very different story, yielding just two podium finishes.

Nevertheless, I’ll still go with Newgarden. My reckoning is that he’ll be in title contention come Sonoma. But I’d also give honorable mentions to Conor Daly and Sebastien Bourdais, both of whom deserve to really show what they can do this year with Foyt and Dale Coyne Racing respectively. JR Hildebrand should also make his experience of being Ed Carpenter Racing’s go-to test driver pay off this year and pay a trip to victory lane.

3) This race has seen 10 different winners since it debuted in 2003. Only Helio Castroneves (3), Will Power (2) and Juan Pablo Montoya (2) have won more than once. Will this race have it’s 11th different winner?

SONOMA, CA – SEPTEMBER 17: Simon Pagenaud of France drives his #22 Team Penske Hewlett Packard Chevrolet Dallara during practice for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on September 17, 2016 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Kyle: It’s hard to believe, but Simon Pagenaud has never won at St. Petersburg. But, he does boast a strong record there, finishing sixth or better in four of his five races. He finished fifth in consecutive years in 2014 and 2015, and battled Juan Pablo Montoya for the win last year before finishing second.

This year, expect Simon Pagenaud to improve one more position and claim the top step on the podium as he begins his championship defense.

Tony: I’m with Kyle here. I see Simon Pagenaud coming out strong to kick off his title defense with a win here, particularly after learning his lesson from Juan Pablo Montoya’s pass of him on a restart. Given the new push-to-pass rules this year, I think Pagenaud will be savvier in how he uses it.

Luke: Nope. Sorry guys, but this race is Will Power’s for the taking. It would have been last year had it not been for his concussion, such was his qualifying pace. I’ll tip him to edge out Simon Pagenaud for victory on Sunday.



GoDaddy to sponsor Patrick in ‘Danica Double’ at Daytona, Indy — now all she needs are rides

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By The Associated Press

Danica Patrick is going back to green.

GoDaddy Green, to be exact – a fitting color for her farewell tour.

The company will sponsor Patrick in the upcoming “Danica Double” that will close out her racing career, The Associated Press has learned. Patrick has no ride yet for next month’s Daytona 500 or the Indianapolis 500 in May, but she now has the financial backing to pull it off.

This time around, the original GoDaddy Girl will symbolize the new core mission of the company that helped make her one of the world’s most recognizable athletes.

“There’s this great story: I left IndyCar with GoDaddy on my car, I started NASCAR with GoDaddy on my car, I’m most recognized as the GoDaddy green car and driver, and so to finish up my career that way feels appropriate,” Patrick told the AP from Scottsdale, Arizona.

Her final race will be the Indy 500, an appropriate choice because it was “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” that rocketed Patrick and GoDaddy into pop culture notoriety.

GoDaddy and Patrick grew up together. The company switched series with her and marketed her as a strong, sexy woman in 13 Super Bowl commercials – a record appearance for celebrities. Now, the company is most interested in Patrick the budding businesswoman who is firmly closing the door on her racing career and rebranding herself as an entrepreneur . She has a book out, an apparel line, a wine label and confirmed to AP this week that she’s dating Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

“Our goals are so well-aligned,” Barb Rechterman, the chief marketing officer of GoDaddy, told AP. “She’s passionate, tenacious and creative just like so many of our customers who are also looking to leverage the power of the internet and turn their `side hustle’ into a full-time business. Danica absolutely epitomizes the heart of our GoDaddy customers.”

Prepare to hear a lot about the “side hustle” as GoDaddy climbs aboard the so-far fledgling “Danica Double.”

Patrick announced in November she would end her driving career with the Daytona 500 and Indy 500, but didn’t have a deal completed for either race. Still doesn’t. Yet somehow, Patrick always figures a way to get what she wants. Talks ended with Chip Ganassi Racing about a possible ride, and late last month, Patrick said, she called former GoDaddy founder Bob Parsons and asked about a reunion.

GoDaddy has rebranded since it last teamed with Patrick. The company now touts itself as “the world’s largest cloud platform dedicated to small, independent ventures,” and there’s no better spokeswoman than Patrick, who is in the next chapter of her life and her brand.

GoDaddy pulled out of racing after the 2015 season, and Patrick hasn’t had the same level of funding and marketing support since. Patrick has slowly reshaped her image, first into a Instagram model and is now a full-blown lifestyle guru. She realized – at the age of 35 – she was on her own.

She and GoDaddy aligned for a splashy move into NASCAR, where she was glamorous off the track but only mediocre on it. Through all of this, she was married, divorced, spent five years dating fellow driver and competitor Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and then seemed to find herself through a tailored diet, exercise and a healthy lifestyle.

She is cutting the cord on racing after Indy, and her focus is on a sense of well-being far away from the track.

“Their business is so perfectly paired to what is going on with mine, so when we sat down and met, it was like, `Let’s talk about our business. Let’s talk about the messaging. How does this work?”‘ Patrick said. “And this is undeniably perfect for both of us. Not only is it a huge two races and the biggest two races of the year, but on top of that, you have so much `side hustle’ going on, and all the messaging and our brands, and where we are going is so perfectly paired.”w

GoDaddy can help Patrick move on to whatever it is for racing’s former “It Girl.” The company will help her streamline her online presence. Patrick, for the company, is back as a neon green-and-yellow symbol to all the wannabe entrepreneurs chasing dreams.

She’ll get those rides, too. Patrick said she knows she will because she believes she will.

“That’s just the way the universe works,” she said. “You have to ask for what you want. Things have taken a long time with this, but you just have to go with the flow on these things. The universe is not on your time schedule.”

More AP auto racing: https://racing.ap.org/