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Max Chilton anxious for road courses to avenge slow start to 2017

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While Scott Dixon has gotten the Chip Ganassi Racing Teams/Honda reunion off to a strong start in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, his teammates have been less fortunate.

Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball have each been involved in two incidents in both of the first two races.

Meanwhile series sophomore Max Chilton has been stuck in a weird spot altogether. The Englishman has had improved testing pace to where he nearly led the series’ open test at Barber Motorsports Park last month and qualified seventh at St. Petersburg, but endured an anonymous weekend off pace in Long Beach.

The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Honda was caught out by the Kanaan/Mikhail Aleshin contact and yellow flag at St. Petersburg when in a top-10 position and fell to 16th there; retirements helped turned a frustrating 20th place start into a respectable, if still unsatisfying, 14th place at Long Beach. It leaves him 19th in points through two races, although just six points behind 10th place.

With Chilton having excelled most on the permanent road courses last year – he qualified 11th at Barber, seventh at Road America and sixth at Watkins Glen – a turnaround in fortunes is due on the agenda for the likable Englishman, who turns 26 on Friday starting this weekend.

“I think you’ve nailed it on the head to be honest,” Chilton told NBC Sports last week. “The Long Beach weekend put a spanner in the works – I don’t have the answer why we didn’t have the pace we did elsewhere. I’d made the Fast Six or close a couple times last year. Then we were P2 at the Barber test, and was quick at Sonoma.

“We were very quick at St. Pete and got screwed at the race, but Long Beach we had no pace. We tried changing the car every time we were out. It was a head-scratcher. Drivers do get weekends like that. It was a good weekend for us. The result wasn’t the end of the world, so we got some points. It’s a weekend to forget. Hopefully we have stronger weekend in Barber.”

Chilton has adapted to the street courses in IndyCar although admits he could do without Detroit, easily his least favorite track on the calendar. But he has a natural affinity for the permanent road courses and provided the Honda enhancements that have come to start the year continue, he thinks Barber could be the sign of a needed turnaround.

“I’ve always quite liked street circuits and done quite well on them. But the American ones are so different,” he said. “Detroit, I’ll admit I don’t like it there! I just don’t get to grips with it. It’s too much a rallycross track.

“But I’m looking forward to these ones – Barber, Elkhart Lake’s Road America, Watkins Glen, the fast, flowing tracks I was brought in up. Barber for me is such a great event, not just a great track. It’s’ a fantastic atmosphere, and there’s plenty of people in RVs. The track is absolutely pristine – like you want any event to be. I’ve been watching The Masters. It’s not a million miles from Augusta. If I owned a race course, that’d be the one I want.”

Chilton’s had a slight change to his timing stand this year with Ganassi technical director Julian Robertson taking over as strategist, working in tandem with engineer Brandon Fry. The two have meshed well in spite of the tough results thus far.

“He’s fantastic. It helps that he’s a fellow Brit so we bounce off each other well,” Chilton said. “His knowledge is mind-blowing. But because he’s been Ganassi that whole time, he is their IndyCar team. He works very well with Brandon to come up with the strategies. Brandon now has someone to help make the decision with strategy. He’ll say something. It’s always better to have two than one.”

Chilton hailed the Honda’s fuel economy and low-end torque as the noticeable improvements he’s picked up on so far.

The Reigate, England-based native still commutes to and from the U.S. as he did in 2016, preferring the comforts of home instead of a more regular relocation. Chilton said he’s already accomplished five or six of his planned 13 intercontinental trips this season, and with his wedding to his fiancé Chloe on the horizon in August, that’s taken up a bit of his planning.

Beyond the road courses, Chilton is bullish on having a good month of May and with Honda, he’s optimistic that’s more possible.

“For us, Indy’s the one for us. A good Indy for us would mean the rest of the year really doesn’t matter.”

‘Game-changing’ multi-year agreement will take INDYCAR, NBC Sports ‘to the next level’

Photo: Chris Estrada, NBC Sports
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NEW YORK – As the fourth Nor’easter in three weeks bore down on the Big Apple, it was tough to spot people that were clearly in a good mood.

But Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, was clearly in a good mood.

On Wednesday morning at 10 am ET, we all found out why: NBC will become the exclusive home of the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, starting in 2019.

The new three-year deal not only makes “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” part of the network’s “Championship Season” – its collection of high-profile championship events from May to July – but also reaffirms NBC’s status as the home of motorsports television in the United States.

That status is something Miller doesn’t take for granted.

“It’s important people know that storytelling is in our DNA, and motorsports lends itself very well to storytelling,” Miller said as he, INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles and driver James Hinchcliffe made a snowy trek to the New York Stock Exchange to promote the deal on CNBC’s “Squawk on the Street.”

“We’ve had great success with the second half of the entire NASCAR season, and then we’ve had half of the IndyCar package [since 2009] … But we never had the real meat of the series and that didn’t set anybody up for success.

“Having the entire package of IndyCar now – all 17 races, qualifying, practice, you name it – really sets IndyCar on a strong path and solidifies NBC’s position as the home of motorsports. I think it becomes a property much like the Premier League, the NHL, and even the Olympics and the Triple Crown. We have 100 percent of the media opportunity and we can put all those great assets behind it.”

With the storm no doubt keeping some traders home, the floor of the NYSE was relatively subdued. But that made it no less important to be at the heart of Wall Street. Miles and his team are pursuing a new title sponsor for the IndyCar Series to replace Verizon, which will fully focus its efforts in the series with the powerhouse Team Penske going forward in 2019.

The new deal – which includes 8 races per year on the NBC network (with the remaining races going to NBCSN), live streaming of all races, and a direct-to-consumer package with NBC Sports Gold – gave Miles plenty to push for any potential backers. As for Hinchcliffe, he held his own nicely in an interview that also explored IndyCar’s global ambitions, the impact of technology on the sport, and of course, his spin around the ballroom on “Dancing with the Stars.”

On the ride back to 30 Rock, Miles was confident that NBC can play a big role in attracting a sponsor that can help the series keep growing.

“With respect to our work in finding the best title sponsor, it’s really important – and this has not been talked about much – but we expect to work with hand in glove with NBC’s sales,” he explained. “We have the opportunity to create packages which are both broadcast sponsorship and series sponsorship, I think, in a way that doesn’t come along very often.

“Usually, the media deal and the sponsorship deal doesn’t align like this, so we’re really excited about the offering we’ll have and the approach to the market we can take.”

Should the partnership with NBC bear fruit on that front and others, it will only add to the upswing that the IndyCar Series has had in recent years.

Hinchcliffe has been a witness to that. He entered the series in 2011, when it was trying to find its footing after the sport’s reunification three years earlier. After 13 years of CART vs. the Indy Racing League, getting everything back under one roof was not a smooth process.

But fast-forward seven years, and things have changed for the better. TV ratings and digital viewers have gone up. Race scheduling has become more stable and enhanced with the return of traditional open-wheel markets. And this year’s debut of the universal aero kit aims to pump up the action on the track, while also giving the cars a cleaner, meaner look.

Now, with NBC all in, Hinchcliffe is bullish on his sport’s future.

“This is a game-changing thing for us,” he declared. “If you look at the last four or five years, we’ve seen a steady growth in pretty much every measureable metric that there is – in a time where, globally, motorsports is in a bit of a downturn.

“The fact that IndyCar was able to rally against a global dip in motorsports interest, attendance, sponsorship – it speaks volumes to what we have been doing and this is just gonna take us to that next level.”