He was 'Incognito' in 2012; now, Josef Newgarden is at Long Beach as a Team Penske driver. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden’s Long Beach career spans ‘Incognito’ to Penske arrival

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In 2012, things were different in the world of the Verizon IndyCar Series when the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach date arrived on the calendar.

Among other notable differences, the series title sponsor was IZOD, not Verizon. Randy Bernard was still at the helm of the series. NBCSN had only just changed to the NBC Sports Network after being Versus prior to that. The Dallara DW12 chassis had only just premiered. Chevrolet and Lotus had entered in as engine manufacturers. Dario Franchitti was in search of his fourth consecutive series title. Rubens Barrichello had arrived from Formula 1, and the series had two full-time female drivers in Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge.

And a then-unheralded 21-year-old rookie out of Hendersonville, Tenn. named Josef Newgarden – the Indy Lights champion whose name was known only to the select few diehard super fans or insiders at the time – was about to make his first stamp on the series. This was five years before the realization he might become a Team Penske driver ever occurred.

A regulation at the time meant that if a car changed engines before the race, it would incur a 10-spot grid penalty. The Chevrolet teams all swapped their engines before the race, creating a grid that was vastly different from the qualifying order.

What that meant was Franchitti, who’d qualified fourth and Newgarden, who’d qualified seventh, would leap frog onto the front row for Sunday’s race.

Franchitti, 38 at the time and Newgarden, 17 years his junior at 21, represented the polar opposites of the birth spectrum on the grid or close. Franchitti was – and still is – one of IndyCar’s biggest stars and a driver that is among the best of his generation. Newgarden has the potential to be there with time, but again, at that time, almost no one knew who he was.

It made for a perfect opportunity to premiere an off-the-wall video called “Newgarden Incognito,” where Newgarden went undercover to talk to fans to ask them who their favorite driver was and if they’d ever heard of a driver named Josef Newgarden.

It was perhaps no surprise that Franchitti got the plaudits as the most commonly mentioned favorite driver while Newgarden received a lot of quizzical looks.

“It’s crazy looking back now and how things have changed,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “The incognito stuff was fun because no one knew who I was… I might be able to get away with it again, now. A lot of folks come to Long Beach race. They’re here to look at race cars. If I wanted, I could probably do another video to rehash it! Now though, being in a Penske car, and having a sixth chance to run at Long Beach, is incredible.”

And then the green flag dropped on Sunday, and Newgarden made one of the ballsier moves in recent memory on a driver who is a historian of the sport and would know how to play the move correctly.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 15: Josef Newgarden driver of the #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara Honda leads Dario Franchitti of Scotland driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Dallara Honda at the start of the IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 15, 2012 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Newgarden attempted a pass for the lead around the outside of Franchitti on the run to Turn 1. Going into the corner though, Franchitti was cagey enough to have left enough room to tempt Newgarden – the rookie in only his third start – to go for it.

Newgarden promptly got in the marbles and crashed into the wall. He’d finish 26th and last; Franchitti eventually retired with a gearbox failure and ended 15th.

But five years on, as Newgarden is now the widely considered face of IndyCar’s next generation and one of its key drivers in its season-long ‘NEXT’ marketing campaign, the daring attempt performed that day still lives on as a key moment in his career.

“With Dario, I learned that as a rookie, Dario wouldn’t be happy about someone doing that type of move,” Newgarden said. “It was a mistake in how I analyzed it. But that was OK. I have no regrets on doing that move. It was probably the wrong thing.”

So, chalk Long Beach 2012 up as the weekend where Newgarden properly “arrived” on the series, via his first quirky video and his first serious passing attempt of note.

Two years later though, a more refined Newgarden was in the midst of his best weekend yet in the series, in his third year of his rookie contract with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

LONG BEACH, CA – APRIL 13: Josef Newgarden driver of the #67 Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Dallara Honda during warm up for the Verizon IndyCar Series Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 13, 2014 on the streets of Long Beach, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

He’d qualified fourth and was in the lead battle with Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and James Hinchcliffe. Once Newgarden emerged from the pits in front on his last scheduled stop, his potential first win was right there for the taking.

Yet Hunter-Reay saw an opening at a spot on the 1.968-mile street course where passes rarely occur successfully, Turn 4, and promptly speared Newgarden which took them both – and innocent bystander Hinchcliffe – all out of the race. These three drivers had started in the top four; none would see the checkered flag.

“The Hunter-Reay deal was more unfortunate for everyone involved,” Newgarden reflected. “It’s hard to put the blame anywhere. It’s hard racing at the wrong point of the track. It ended up being a bad break. We’ve been close here.”

Those two DNFs stand out more in Newgarden’s Long Beach career more than his other nondescript results of seventh, 10th and 13th.

For a driver who’s been good, if not great on street courses thus far in his career, coming to Long Beach with Team Penske presents him his best chance yet at being the story line here for a different reason.

The magnitude of this race stands out and it’s one Newgarden would like to have a better weekend at in his No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

“Once you go for the first time, you gain an appreciation for the atmosphere around Long Beach. Indy we all rave about, but it’s something you have to go and see here,” he explained. “It’s such a spectacle. For street course racing, you get that atmosphere in a different way. It’s kind of rare. The atmosphere draws me in. It’s my favorite street course we go to from a layout standpoint. It has a lot of high-speed corners for street courses.

“It’s been a tough place for me! We’ve always found speed around Long Beach. I know we’ll have that. So this year, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”

And winning here for Penske, or getting a result higher than seventh, will help to avoid the “Incognito” memories from coming back once more.

Herta on pole for second Indy Lights race at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta rebounded from a tough Friday dogged by persistent mechanical issues where he was barely on track, and a 13th place start for race one, to take the pole for Sunday’s race two (9 a.m. ET online on IndyCar.com; 11:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN) for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Road America.

The 17-year-old excelled in the cooler conditions this morning for qualifying in his No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda to post a time of 1:52.0034 for the top spot at the 4.014-mile circuit. He’ll start only 13th for today’s first race.

Freedom 100 winner Matheus Leist, who enjoyed his maiden IndyCar test here last week with Andretti-Herta Autosport, was back in his Carlin car and is second on the grid, just 0.0223 of a second off Herta’s time.

For Sunday, points leader Kyle Kaiser made it three teams in the top three for Juncos Racing, with Zachary Claman De Melo and Santiago Urrutia completing the top five on the grid.

Americans Neil Alberico and Aaron Telitz are sixth and seventh with Nico Jamin in eighth.

Leist’s pole time for today’s first race was 1:53.1760 with qualifying in warmer conditions, set yesterday afternoon.

Leist, Alberico and Ryan Norman will lead the field to green, which comes online today at noon CT and local time, 1 p.m. ET, online at IndyCar.com.

Weekend results are linked here.

Aleshin set to return to action today at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Mikhail Aleshin is set to return to action today in the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda ahead of today’s sessions for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Russian driver was delayed by immigration issues in arriving back to the U.S. after racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans last week with SMP Racing.

Aleshin posted on Friday that he was en route to the U.S. after getting it sorted, and the team confirmed Aleshin’s return on Saturday morning.

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network that Aleshin was en route and was optimistic he’d be back in time for Saturday’s sessions.

Canadian driver Robert Wickens filled in for Wickens on Friday, while facing an abnormal situation where he didn’t know if he’d be able to continue for the rest of the weekend. He posted a best time of 1:44.7085 in Friday’s combined practice, just under 1.9 seconds off Friday pace setter Josef Newgarden.

“I’m really happy with today. Obviously you always want to make as much progress as possible, and you never know if you’ve done enough or if I should achieve more, or whatever the case is,” Wickens said after the day. “The biggest thing for me is the car is still in one piece and I haven’t made a terminal error yet!

“The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team has done a fantastic job getting me up to speed and making me comfortable. It’s been a strange day because I’m not really sure if I’m doing the next session since I don’t know when Mikhail [Aleshin] is arriving or if he’s arriving. So I’m going to work overnight as if I’m driving tomorrow morning, and if not, then hopefully I can help out the team somehow.”

The third practice session begins at 11 a.m. CT and local time from Road America. Qualifying is today at 3 p.m. CT and local time and airs at 4 p.m. CT/5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Renault denies speculation Kubica could enter Monza FP1

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Renault Formula 1 chief Cyril Abiteboul has denied speculation suggesting that Robert Kubica could appear in first practice for the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in September.

Kubica raced in F1 between 2006 and 2010, with his final full-season in the sport being completed with Renault before sustaining severe injuries to his right arm that appeared to end his single-seater career.

After a number of years in rallying, Kubica has recently tested a number of different cars, culminating in an outing in a 2012-spec Lotus F1 at Valencia earlier this month.

The reportedly-impressive test has led to speculation that Kubica could be capable of making a full-time return to F1 in the future, with paddock chatter in Montreal suggesting that an FP1 run-out at Monza was being discussed.

However, Abiteboul was quick to shoot this down during Friday’s FIA press conference, saying that it would not be happening.

“No, absolutely not. I don’t know where this is coming from and I can completely wipe that one out,” Abiteboul said.

“Robert has been a family member of the Enstone team, and Eric on my right knows what I mean. He has been very close and very loyal. The team in Enstone, which is a very small group of people, actually have been very loyal to a number of drivers.

“People feel very loyal and feel they owe something to Robert for making something big in their life and there was this opportunity that we give to him, that we could afford to him to drive again, because it was actually a marketing event that got cancelled, so we had a car available at the track and we offered that opportunity to him.

“Robert is going through some form of program to try to understand what he can do. He has been driving a number of cars, Formula E, GP3, F2, LMP2, you name it, so I think he wants to understand what he can do as part of his sort of rehabilitation program.

“We’ll see. There is nothing else that is planned for the time being, apart from a marketing event at Goodwood, where he will be driving the same car, E20, in front of Lord March’s house.”

Kubica’s links to the Renault seat come at a time when Jolyon Palmer is coming under increasing pressure after a point-less start to the year, leading to suggestions he could be replaced mid-season.

“Our situation is very clear: he has a contract with us,” Abiteboul said of Palmer.

“We are completely committed to helping him get through the period, which is a tough period, that’s obvious.

“He has no ultimatum, but having said that he has to deliver, like every single member of the team.”

Bottas tops final Baku F1 practice ahead of Raikkonen

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Valtteri Bottas closed out Formula 1 practice for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku at the head of the field after edging out Ferrari rival Kimi Raikkonen in the closing stages of FP3.

Bottas led Mercedes to the top of the classification in final practice with a fastest lap of 1:42.742 to finish 0.095 seconds clear of Raikkonen, the pair having exchanged blows in the final 15 minutes in the battle for P1.

After a mixed Friday, Mercedes appeared more comfortable through final practice as Lewis Hamilton completed the top three, four-tenths down on Bottas’ time.

Ferrari, meanwhile, was left to rely on Raikkonen at the front as drivers’ championship leader Sebastian Vettel suffered a setback.

The German driver was forced to pit with 20 minutes to go due to a problem on his car – an apparent hydraulics issue – prompting his mechanics to set to work quickly in a bid to resolve the problem ahead of qualifying.

After finishing both FP1 and FP2 as the fastest driver, Max Verstappen could not complete a hat-trick in FP3 as he was forced to park up at the side of the track late on, citing a shutdown on his car after reporting an earlier engine issue.

Joylon Palmer was another driver to hit trouble, suffering an engine fire in the early part of the session that meant he had to park up in the run-off area. After crashing out of FP2 on Friday, the already-under pressure Briton will head into qualifying on the back foot, if indeed Renault can fix his car in time.

Back on the timesheets, it was Daniel Ricciardo who followed the top three, taking fourth for Red Bull. Despite his stoppage, Verstappen did enough to take sixth in FP3, trailing Force India’s Esteban Ocon.

Felipe Massa wound up seventh for Williams ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Lance Stroll, while Sergio Perez took P10 overall.

Qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 9am ET on Saturday, with a re-air at 1pm ET on NBCSN.