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Fresh focus for Newgarden ahead of first May with Team Penske

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For as much jubilation and utter shock as there was for Alexander Rossi in victory lane, there was pure agony standing hundreds of yards away for 2016 Indianapolis 500 runner-up Carlos Munoz and third-place finisher Josef Newgarden.

Munoz seemed to have the inside line on victory barring Rossi’s surprise 36-lap stint on fuel economy to the finish, and Newgarden seemed the only Chevrolet runner to post a proper threat to the Hondas last year, having been that manufacturer’s best balanced car nearly all month in the marquee race of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The third place finish for Newgarden, then in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, was his best finish yet at Indy in eight combined starts between the Indianapolis 500 and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course races. His others, in order? A forgettable 25th, 28th, 17th (2014 GP), 30th, 20th (2015 GP), 9th and 21st (2016 GP).

Yet his best finish to date might have been the hardest to swallow.

Newgarden was left to soak up a tough 2016 P3 last year. Photo: Getty Images

“It took probably 24 hours (to recover). It was so tough because it’s the Indianapolis 500,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “That was the first opportunity I truly had at winning it. When you feel that, when you see it within your grasp… it was tough to lose. It was tough not to capitalize. It was a tough pill to swallow. But if you’re running it enough years a row, maybe one will work out.”

The sting also overshadowed the fact Newgarden made a big leap forward in the season-long points as a result of his incredible month.

After the Grand Prix, he sat 12th in points with only 100 points scored from five races all season.

In the Indianapolis 500, after qualifying second and finishing third, Newgarden scored 111 points for that one race, and spring-boarded to fourth in the championship, which put him in the title conversation for the first time.

“Indy you have to treat as its own event. It’s hard to look at it from a points standpoint… yet you still do, because there’s a lot there,” Newgarden said.

“Indy is a race you want to win. Points are secondary. It’s a big month… but you ask where do you stack up when you leave. To some degree you have to look at it, and in qualifying, you have to look at it as almost a full race of points.”

Things are of course different now for Newgarden, and the first key to starting off a better month of May will be getting past what’s been a traditional stumbling block for the likable 26-year-old out of Hendersonville, Tenn., driver of the No. No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

He has an utterly brutal record in the Grand Prix race, with this stat line: he started 15th and finished 17th in 2014, then started 12th and finished 20th in 2015 (got caught up in Turn 1 accident), and last year, started 25th (qualifying penalty cost him after making Firestone Fast Six) and finished 21st.

“It’s been tough so far, but hopefully we can change the trend there,” Newgarden said. “We either aren’t stellar, or we got better – we got Fast Six and had some speed at ECR – but didn’t convert. It’s not been a good three years there.”

The rest of May will see Newgarden bonding for the longest stretch of time with engineer Brian Campe, who it must be said, is already an Indianapolis 500 race-winning engineer – he did so with Newgarden’s predecessor, Juan Pablo Montoya, in the No. 2 Penske Chevrolet in 2015.

Newgarden tried different aero configurations during testing at Indy this year, as evidenced here with Simon Pagenaud’s rear wing assembly mounted on his No. 2 car. Photo: IndyCar

The Newgarden/Campe relationship has come together quickly, which has been impressive considering Newgarden’s success and dynamic with past engineer at ECR, Jeremy Milless.

“That’s a good point actually… that he’s a race winner. He’s more successful at the Motor Speedway than I am!” Newgarden laughed. “It’s only been three years, but he’s had more success.

“He’s become a very good IndyCar engineer. He’s a great engineer. He’s learned what IndyCar racing is all about, and what you have to look after. He has great notes with him and Juan, and more on what can sneak up on you during the month of May. He’s looked at my list of notes. We collaborate. I get to listen to him, and he listens to my ideas.

“I think it’s been good … I don’t know what I really expected. I never had any issues. Brian and I clicked right off the bat. I didn’t expect us to have any big issues. We’re going through the natural learning process. You have to have experience together for the relationship to grow and blossom. Every weekend we have, the better we get. The more you have those experiences, the better you are.”

Newgarden also admits his comfort level has gone up now having four races under his belt at Team Penske. He was the first of the team’s fearsome foursome to win this year, admittedly a bit lucky with Will Power’s demise but still with a well-judged and executed pass of Scott Dixon at Barber, and enters third in points with 133. So he’s already 33 points ahead of where he was following last year’s Grand Prix, with one more race to add to that tally. He sits 26 behind championship leader, defending series champion, teammate and Phoenix winner, Simon Pagenaud.

“That’s (the comfort level) changed for sure. I’m way more comfortable now, from a jelling standpoint,” he said. “It feels so normal now to get to the racetrack with them.

“But it should get that way. You want to get comfortable with the people you’re working with. It’s a great unit. I love that I feel that way now and go into a race weekend and have success.”

This May also provides Newgarden his first chance to have multiple full-season teammates at his disposal, plus the access of Team Penske’s Rick Mears from a coaching standpoint.

The Penske armada. Photo: IndyCar

This month, Newgarden has four teammates – Pagenaud, Power, Montoya and Helio Castroneves. The last two years were his first years with multiple teammates, and in Ed Carpenter and JR Hildebrand, neither was a full-season driver and were in one of their first races of their respective seasons.

Beyond that, his past Indianapolis teammates were Indianapolis-only entrants in Alex Tagliani (2014) and the late Bryan Clauson (2012) with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing.

This means Newgarden will also be able to do mock race simulations with this group of drivers during practice, in a multiple-car pack – a luxury he really hasn’t been afforded previously.

“I’m very excited about that, to be the fifth or fourth car in line,” he said. “That’s hugely helpful for us to work in traffic. You need three or four – and we have that. People have got better with that on these big times.

“I think (this race) is more about how you manage cars in front of you. Sometimes you want to be behind more than in front of them. If you can lead, great, but it’s very short lived at the 500. You have to be able to get back by.”

Newgarden added of Mears, “He’s our local guru, if you will. He’s on Helio (as a spotter), but he’s available whenever.

“For Indianapolis, it’s the best time to talk to him. He’s a wealth of knowledge anywhere. The 500, having him there, takes it to a different level. Spending time with him, he knows it like the back of his hand. He’s such a great observer of this event.”

Newgarden, like the rest of Team Penske, has tested twice at IMS earlier this year so he won’t be going in blind to his first running at the Speedway with his new team.

With the motivation and determination high to eclipse that near-miss of a year ago and an otherwise tough record at Indy, hopes are high that greater results will bloom for Newgarden.

Report: GP Association of Long Beach ‘most qualified’ firm to run race

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Not for the first time, the future of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach was in the news earlier this year, and the question of whether Formula 1 could re-enter running the race it did from 1976 to 1983, or whether North American open-wheel racing, in INDYCAR, would keep it up.

The city of Long Beach decided to conduct a study using accounting firm KPMG, and paid the firm $150,000 to evaluate whether existing race operators the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach, led by Jim Michaelian, or Chris Pook’s World Automobile Championship, would be best to run the race. Pook founded the event in the 1970s but has in recent years, harbored the return of F1 and suggested it would be a more viable economic prospect.

Per the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the study has now concluded following proposals and interviews from both camps. In a memo obtained by the Press-Telegram, the report indicated the existing GPALB “as the most qualified firm to promote and operate the Long Beach Grand Prix race.”

Michaelian told the Press-Telegram this was an “first but important step” in the process for the race to build a new contract with a city; the existing contract runs through 2018.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, in a statement released to the Sports Business Journal, appreciated the recommendation: that statement is below.

This appears to be a key step towards INDYCAR, the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach and the city of Long Beach all working towards an agreement that will keep INDYCAR racing at its most successful, longest running, and marquee street course event on the calendar.

The 2017 Team USA Scholarship candidates revealed

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ trip to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is usually the time of year when we first hear of the candidates for the next year’s Team USA Scholarship, as Jeremy Shaw’s program identifies the next round of talented American drivers who could go on to greater success in racing.

Shaw, known as perhaps the most ardent and best scout of North American driving talent since the program’s inception in 1990, and the program have revealed the 10 candidates who will participate in interviews and further evaluation this weekend before the finalists are named at a later date.

The full release is linked here, while the 10 drivers selected are below.

This year’s Team USA Scholarship candidates are (with age, DOB, hometown and current racing affiliation):

• Sabré Cook, 23, Grand Junction, Colo., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Konrad Czaczyk, 20, Jupiter, Fla., F1600 Formula Tour Championship (Canada)
• Elliot Finlayson, 21, Yorkville, Ill., GPfour Championship Road Racing
• Aaron Jeansonne, 18, Sulphur, La., Lucas Oil School of Racing
• Kyle Kirkwood, 18, Jupiter, Fla., F4 U.S. Championship powered by Honda
• Jonathan Kotyk, 23, Atlantic Beach, Fla., F1600 Championship Series
• Jacob Loomis, 17, Corinth, Texas, F4 US Championship/Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
• David Osborne, 21, Cincinnati, Ohio, F1600 Championship Series
• Simon Sikes, 16, Martinez, Ga., Skip Barber Racing Series
• Carter Williams, 18, Clovis, Calif., Formula Car Challenge Presented by Goodyear

Rahal, RLL on a roll heading home to Mid-Ohio

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Graham Rahal’s potential last best chance to close a boatload of points in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series championship chase comes this weekend at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, and it couldn’t come at a better time on the calendar.

He sits tied with Will Power for fifth in the points, 64 behind championship leader Scott Dixon (423-359) with five races remaining. Closing that gap to within 40 or less this weekend will provide him a realistic shot at securing his first title.

A nightmare start to the year saw Rahal finish no better than 10th in the first four races, and left him 17th in points with 59 total, 100 back of then-leader Simon Pagenaud.

In the last eight however, he’s finished between first and ninth in all but one of them. His lone finish outside the top 10 came at the double points Indianapolis 500, with a late-race flat tire resigning him to 12th place there.

That score of 300 points over the last eight races is second in the series, only two behind Helio Castroneves with 302, and with both drivers ruing an ill-timed caution flag last race at Toronto that cost both likely chances at another victory this season.

On the whole though, the single-car No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing has been a regular consistent threat at the front of the field, same as it has in 2015 and 2016 even despite being up against a trio of four-car entries from Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport.

Rahal’s qualifying lap on used Firestone red alternate tires at Toronto netted second on the grid and he hailed it as one of the best laps he’s ever completed in his career.

Graham’s performance and the recent run of form has Bobby Rahal pleased as the team heads into its spiritual home race in Lexington, Ohio this weekend, where driver and team scored a popular victory in 2015.

“If you look at the start of the year at Long Beach we qualified sixth, but we were running in the train – fourth or fifth right to the end of the race and had the flat tire,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We just couldn’t seem to get a good break.

“Clearly when we got to the Indy Grand Prix we had problems in qualifying, but the race pace was there. Then a flat tire hit in the 500. We led the race from where we gridded (14th) and we could have threatened at the end. It’s been a little bit snake bit prior to this.

“But clearly the pace was there. Texas finishing fourth there was a good finish. Fifth at Iowa was good. Unfortunately in Toronto, and we had the great qualifying performance I thought, I don’t think anyone was happy post-race! I think even Roger Penske told Graham we got screwed, and even though he won, his own car (Castroneves) lost!

“Still the fact we did it on used reds versus new reds, I thought was pretty impressive. In Toronto we were pretty good – maybe not as good as we were in Detroit – but still pretty good and kept getting better and better.

“I think he’s driving very well. I’m pleased about that. What’s so hard about that qualifying there, is you only have one lap to do on tires on Toronto for example. It’s easy to overdrive a car in that situation, but he hasn’t. I think he’s done a good job in that respect.”

Graham Rahal

For Graham Rahal, who loves coming home to Mid-Ohio, this is an important weekend but one that he always takes the opportunity to savor.

“It’s always great to go back to Mid-Ohio,” he said. “I have a lot of fond memories, and have had a lot of great days there. Obviously winning there in 2015 really highlighted my career thus far. I’m excited to get back and hopefully see a great crowd once again. I know we will have a lot of support and I’m very appreciative of that.  Hopefully we can have a great run in the Steak ‘n Shake Honda because we definitely need it at this point in the championship.”

Rahal’s road course performance hasn’t been stellar this year in qualifying with 21st and last at Barber, 20th on the grid at the INDYCAR Grand Prix in Indianapolis, but then a big jump to sixth at Road America, making the Firestone Fast Six. Finishes of 13th, sixth and eighth have represented good comeback drives in the race.

“My hopes and expectations are high,” said Rahal. “We have struggled with our road course setup this year but at the same time I think we are capable of overcoming that. Our guys have put a lot of effort, a lot of time and mental energy into figuring out what we need going forward.”

One of the areas that will help him is his pit position this week. Having qualified second at Toronto last race, Rahal has nearly the perfect pit spot this weekend, as pit lane and track position at Mid-Ohio are crucial.

“Our pit position in Mid-Ohio, based on qualifying second in Toronto, is going to be great. It’s flat so that is going to help us a lot.  Obviously you want to be pitted with the good guys.  You want to be right down there where the fast guys and championship contenders are and we’re right there with them,” he said.

Rahal is in championship contention despite that rocky start to the year and will be looking for some home cooking to fire up the final five races of the season.

New 2018 IndyCar aero kit makes its formal test debut at IMS

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After months of buildup and following Monday’s reveal, Tuesday marked the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit’s official debut on track at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

INDYCAR’s release, with a handful of social media posts embedded, is below:

If the first day of on-track testing is any indication, the new Verizon IndyCar Series car is well on its way to making Indy car racing in 2018 even better.

Juan Pablo Montoya and Oriol Servia turned more than 100 laps each on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval in their respective Chevrolet- and Honda-powered Dallara IR-12s equipped with the universal aerodynamic bodywork kit making its public debut ahead of being used by all competitors next season.

Afterward, approval of the new car’s bolder, sleeker look and performance was unanimous from everyone involved. Buy-in from the two test drivers – among the most veteran and respected around – was essential and secured from the outset.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said the 43-year-old Servia, who has driven Indy cars since 2000. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away.

“I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

INDYCAR, sanctioning body for the Verizon IndyCar Series, announced in April 2016 its intent to move away from aero kit competition to a universally supplied kit in 2018. Dallara, a series chassis supplier since 1997, was named to produce and supply the universal kit.

“It’s exciting because, for the first time in the car, it drives really, really well,” said Montoya, 41 and a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner. “I think they addressed a lot of the things and the car looks great. I think having one aero kit for everybody is great for the sport. The car looks good and it drives really good.”

Montoya’s car was prepared by Team Penske and Servia’s by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, though INDYCAR is retaining control of the cars until testing is complete in late September. INDYCAR officials watched with nervous excitement as the two cars took to the track for the first time shortly after 9 a.m. ET and methodically worked through the test checklist. By 5 p.m., the checklist had been completed and a potential second day of testing Wednesday was deemed unnecessary.

“We were pleased,” said Bill Pappas, INDYCAR’s vice president of competition/race engineering who headed up the technical development of the universal kit. “It matched up with our numbers that we predicted in the wind tunnel and CFD (computational fluid dynamics), so we were very happy for that.”

Pappas said the test list included short runs by each car to “ensure that there weren’t any surprises,” followed by longer runs on the 2.5-mile oval to check for durability issues. Everyone at INDYCAR and Dallara felt confident the test would be a success, but there are never givens in racing.

“This is my first experience being part of a car being designed,” Pappas said. “Obviously, Dallara did a great job helping us, but you hold your breath until the first competitive laps are run.”

Love this place. @indianapolismotorspeedway is sooo much fun in an @indycar @teamchevy @team_penske @fitzgeraldgliderkits

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Old Boys. @indycar #2018 #shapingthefuture #future #racing #indy500

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Mission accomplished, at least for the first phase of testing. Additional tests for the two cars are scheduled for Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Aug. 1), Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26). But the fact that this opening test was completed in half the allotted time is reason to celebrate, if only for a short time.

“Everything we had planned to do in two days, we already accomplished in the first day,” Servia said. “We did lots of laps, long runs, and the car feels good. The car feels very benign.

“It just feels right and we’re not having any issues or moments out there. Very consistent. My second long run, I think, was one of my most consistent runs I’ve done at this track in all of my years.”

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season resumes this weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. Live race coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET Sunday on CNBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, with an encore telecast at 7 p.m. on NBCSN.