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IndyCar points analysis: 2016 vs. 2017

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The Verizon IndyCar Series has developed a taste for the unexpected. Quite literally, any team and driver could win at any given time. The unpredictable nature of the series generally makes it one of the most entertaining championships across all racing platforms for several years.

A comparison of the points standings after two races between 2016 and 2017 reveals as much. Last year, Simon Pagenaud led the way after a pair of second-place finishes to start the year. Scott Dixon trailed on the heels of his win at Phoenix Raceway. Juan Montoya was third, Ryan Hunter-Reay fourth, and Tony Kanaan fifth. In short, that made IndyCar’s three “powerhouse” teams in the top five.

Things narrowed even more after last year’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Pagenaud, Dixon, and Montoya stayed 1-2-3, while Helio Castroneves took over fourth, with Kanaan holding down fifth. That meant Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing held down all positions within the top five. The highest-ranked driver outside of the Penske and Ganassi stables was Takuma Sato, who was sixth in the championship after three races for A.J. Foyt Racing.

The 2017 season is a much different story. Sebastien Bourdais leads the way for Dale Coyne Racing on the heels of a win and a second place to begin the year. James Hinchcliffe sits second for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports following his Long Beach triumph. Pagenaud ranks third, followed by Dixon in fourth and Penske newcomer Josef Newgarden in fifth. That makes four different teams represented in the top five: two from powerhouses and two from smaller underdogs punching above their weight.

What’s more: in 2016, Max Chilton was the top rookie after two races. At the time, he ranked 10th in the standings, and sat 13th after Long Beach. This year, Ed Jones, the lone rookie competitor on the grid, has been a standout, finishing in the top ten in each of the first two races to sit seventh in the championship. Currently, Jones outranks all four of the Andretti Autosport drivers, three Chip Ganassi drivers (Kanaan, Chilton, and Charlie Kimball), and one Penske driver (Will Power), among others.

In fact, the aforementioned Power sits 19th in the standings after finishes of 19th and 13th in the opening two races. It’s Power worst start since 2008, when he finished 25th and 8th for KV Racing Technology in the first two races of the newly merged Verizon IndyCar Series.

The topsy-turvy trend could continue at this weekend’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. In seven years, the event has seen five different winners (Power and Hunter-Reay are the only ones to repeat), and frontrunners like Bourdais, Hinchcliffe, Dixon, and Kanaan have yet to win on the 2.38-mile road course.

Practice for Sunday’s race begins Friday at 12:45 ET (11:45 local time).

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

‘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.”