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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.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.

Bottas remains confident he can close gap in F1 title race

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MONACO (AP) Valtteri Bottas has put his recent bad luck behind him and remains confident he can close the gap in the Formula One title race at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Finnish driver’s fledgling Mercedes career has been a topsy-turvy one since he joined from Williams as a replacement for F1 champion Nico Rosberg.

He drove brilliantly to win his first career race at the Russian Grand Prix after securing his first ever pole position in Sochi last month. But two weeks ago he was undone by engine problems in practice for the Spanish GP and then failed to finish because of a turbo issue late in the race.

“It’s one to forget for sure. It’s been a bit up and down for me this year,” Bottas said Wednesday at the Monaco GP. “Bad result, good result.”

His other results so far are two third places and one sixth place, putting him 41 points behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and 35 behind three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate.

“The gap to Sebastian, to Lewis, is bigger than I was hoping for this year. But things can change quickly,” Bottas said. “What gives me confidence is that there is still 75 percent of the season left. I feel my best races are ahead this year. I feel I’ve done a good job in some races, but I feel there is more to come to be at a consistently good level.”

Although Bottas has impressed with this speed, he has yet to show the hallmarks of a genuine title contender.

His magnanimous approach goes somewhat against that.

Bottas showed his team ethic by allowing Hamilton past him in Bahrain so that the British driver could chase after Vettel.

He did so again in Barcelona, holding up Vettel for a crucial few laps. That allowed Hamilton to gain some precious seconds on Vettel’s chasing Ferrari. Hamilton won a thrilling race, Vettel was second and Bottas got nothing – except praise for his efforts.

It is a difficult situation for Bottas, who is on a one-year contract and has the added pressure of the demanding Hamilton as a teammate. With 55 race wins to his name, Hamilton is clearly the No. 1 driver, even though the team has not officially said so.

Over the past three years, Hamilton was on an equal footing with Rosberg as they fought each other for the title. This led to tensions and fall outs.

The 27-year-old Bottas is not relishing the prospect of finding himself in a similar position. But it might become inevitable if he does manage to close the gap on Hamilton and turn the title race into a genuine three-way battle.

“I can’t even imagine how it can be after a few years with a teammate battling for the title always. There is respect both ways (with Hamilton), which is good,” Bottas said. “(We are) just enjoying working together and hopefully that will help us in this close fight with Ferrari. It is a team sport anyway, so we need to push forward together.”

It’s hardly the talk of a driver desperate to win the title.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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From the streets of Monte Carlo, Monaco, comes the crown jewel of the Formula 1 season (all times for the weekend via NBC or NBCSN here) this weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix.

And here with the pre-race updates from the paddock are NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales, along with the race crew from the F1 on NBC team who are on site in Monaco.

This is an interesting weekend for Monaco, given the Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battle for race wins and the championship so far in 2017. There’s also the question of whether someone can spring a surprise in Monaco, as has been done on several occasions over the years.

Here’s the show, below:

Brown wants to see F1 back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown would like to see Formula 1 return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the future, saying it would “make sense” for the sport.

The United States Grand Prix was held on the old IMS road course between 2000 and 2007 before dropping off the calendar, with a low point being hit in 2005 when just six cars started the race over tire safety concerns.

IMS re-designed its road course in order to host MotoGP and, from 2014, an IndyCar road course race as a prelude to the Indianapolis 500.

F1 is known to be looking to expand its footprint in the United States following Liberty Media’s takeover of the series, with additional races to the current USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being sought after.

Southern California has also been a talking point; Long Beach’s future has been discussed in the press more so than has Indianapolis, as a consulting firm has been brought in to examine what would be the best case scenario for the city.

Brown has spent a significant amount time this last month in Indianapolis as part of two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 entry, and feels the sport would be wise to push for a return to the Brickyard in the near future.

“I am of the opinion that Formula 1 at IMS works. I think they’ve changed the configuration of the track a little bit,” Brown said during a teleconference on Wednesday.

“I think it makes sense for Formula 1 to be at the world’s greatest racetrack. I think the city of Indianapolis is well catered to take care of Formula 1, just like it did in the past, and the Super Bowl.

“I think the drivers like it. I think Indianapolis is easy to get to geographically. I realize it may not have the glamour of some of the other markets that are being spoken about, but it’s here, it’s ready to go.

“I think economically, given that Liberty is taking a different view on some of their future partnerships, I think there is an opportunity there. Personally I’d like to see it happen.”

J. Douglas Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President, told a group of reporters on site that no talks had been held with Liberty as of yet, and while the circuit would be open to negotiations, it would have to be financially viable.

“I have not had any talks directly with the folks with Liberty or with Formula 1. We’d certainly entertain a conversation,” Boles said.

“We’d have to figure out the economics. That’s why it wasn’t here after 2007; in order for it to come back here, the economics would have to make sense.

“At some level that conversation, Mark Miles [CEO of Hulman & Co., INDYCAR/IMS parent company] and Zak have a really good relationship, I think we’d ultimately lead it through Mark.

“When we redid the road course between 2013 and 2014, one of the things that was important to us was to make sure our road course remained FIA Grade 1, so if that there ever was a point in time where we had the opportunity to host an F1 race, we wouldn’t have to go through a complete renovation of our road course again.

“There’s two tracks in the U.S. that are that. COTA’s one, and we’re the other. So theoretically they could run here.”