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What might an Indy 500 win mean for Penske’s newer trio?

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INDIANAPOLIS – Three of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ most successful drivers from a full season standpoint are at a critical point in their respective careers where they are now well-positioned to secure an overdue win in the series’ single biggest race, the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The problem, then, for Team Penske teammates Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden is that only one of them will be first to win their first Indianapolis 500. And how a win would slot into their overall career arches would also be fascinating.

Meanwhile, teammates Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya have already scaled Indy’s mountain multiple times. Castroneves will have his eighth attempt at trying for his elusive fourth victory, to enter into a club that hasn’t welcomed any new members since his advisor and spotter at Team Penske, Rick Mears, did so in 1991. Montoya, in Penske’s fifth car in a one-off entry, will look to match Castroneves with his third win.

Much of the hopes for the Penske drivers come down largely to whether Chevrolet’s aero and engine package will be able to match, or exceed, Honda’s. Honda was known to have a power advantage last year, but rest assured, Chevrolet has not be resting on its heels, and combined with technical partner Illmor figured to be bringing its best fight to the party.

Combined, Newgarden (Barber), Pagenaud (Phoenix) and Power (Indianapolis road course) have won the last three races. And here’s what a win could mean for Power, Pagenaud or Newgarden.

Will Power – In his 10th Indy 500, and more relaxed yet still motivated

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29: Will Power of Australia, driver of the #12 Team Penske Chevrolet walks the grid before the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Power, driver of the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, has only had one true moment of glory at the ‘500 in his nine prior attempts, at a race that has perpetually dogged him where missed opportunities stand out.

His battle with Montoya for the 2015 race was fantastic, in a no-holds barred, drag-out, same team battle that ensured Team Penske would return to the top after a, for them, relative drought of six years since last winning in Indianapolis in 2009 with Castroneves. That was Team Penske’s 16th and most recent Indianapolis 500 victory.

But Power was so frustrated after coming second that day, because he knew it was his best chance yet at breaking through gone, while Montoya had promptly secured his second win in three chances at Indy – almost making it look easy.

Here’s what Montoya and Power had to say after their battle, that day:

“What really matters is the last 15 laps. That was fun racing. Probably the best racing,” said Montoya. “Between Will (Power) and (Scott) Dixon, we have a lot of respect for each other. We understand the risk and we understand when they got you. So it makes it fun.”

Power’s take? “I just had too much push when he got by. I had to lift on that last lap. He was definitely better when he got behind me. That’s why he got the run. Anywhere else I’d be happy with second. But here. … It was a great month overall — first, first and second, second.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 23: Juan Pablo Montoya of Columbia, driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara, races ahead of teammate Will Power of Australia, driver of the #1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet Dallara, on his way toward winning the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 23, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The remainder of Power’s Indy 500 record isn’t the best. That’s below:

  • 2008, KV Racing Technology, Started 23rd, Finished 13th
  • 2009, Team Penske, Started 9th, Finished 5th
  • 2010, Team Penske, Started 2nd, Finished 8th
  • 2011, Team Penske, Started 5th, Finished 14th
  • 2012, Team Penske, Started 5th, Finished 28th (accident)
  • 2013, Team Penske, Started 6th, Finished 19th
  • 2014, Team Penske, Started 3rd, Finished 8th
  • 2015, Team Penske, Started 2nd, Finished 2nd
  • 2016, Team Penske, Started 6th, Finished 10th

Poor results at Indy, by both his own and particularly by Penske standards, blot his otherwise sterling copybook throughout his decade plus in IndyCar.

He won his 30th career race on Saturday at the INDYCAR Grand Prix, but Power’s oval ability – and results – seem to be in a better place now than they ever have been.

“My oval results over the last year and into this year have been better than my road course almost. I mean, just been top twos and threes and wins,” he said Saturday.

“So I mean, I feel like everywhere I go, I have a shot.”

His Pocono win last year was proof confidence of his continued, almost Mears-like development on ovals. Making the car better throughout a run was not something he was known for in the past, but that was something he’s excelled at recently.

Additionally, Power’s in a considerably more laid back this year compared to the occasionally stressed, super serious moments; he’s now a dad for the first time, and that’s provided him a new lease on life at home.

“You know, last year definitely had a few health issues to deal with, and you know, you just — you know, I think that’s just how life is. You have good and bad times.

“You know, the bad doesn’t last forever and neither does the good. So you’ve got to kind of weather it and not get too down in the bad times and too up in the good times.

This is an interesting year for him from a strategic standpoint, too. Instead of Tim Cindric, Team Penske president, Power now has Jon “Myron” Bouslog calling his races. It was key the two of them got their first win together to have that momentum for the rest of the month.

And Power’s year has not seen the results he’s probably deserved. After a mechanical at St. Pete, contact with Charlie Kimball in Long Beach and a puncture in Barber cost him at least one win and likely two other top fives, he’s rebounded nicely with a second and win the last two, to enter this qualifying and race week fifth in points, only 46 behind teammate Pagenaud (191-145). That’s a far cry from where he was the same time last year, when Power was some 137 points back (242-105).

That leads nicely into the defending series champion…

Simon Pagenaud – A champion and an oval winner since last May

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 12: Simon Pagenaud of France, driver of the #22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedways)

It’s been a really weird year for Simon Pagenaud to start the 2017 season.

He’s in the same place as he was, points-wise, this time last year – first. And he has a win already on his scorecard.

He drives a car, the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet car, which is blindingly yellow. Yet Pagenaud – the human, rather than his dog, Norman, who’s becoming a social media star – feels a bit overlooked within the scope of this May.

Pagenaud’s utterly ridiculous start to 2016 of two runner-up finishes and three straight wins was a remarkable story because of its stark contrast to his tough first season with Team Penske, when he only scored two podium finishes. Combined with Menards coming back into the sport after a long hiatus, Pagenaud was a topic on everyone’s minds.

Now, weirdly, he seems like he can be the spoiler from a story line standpoint.

In the first five races this year he’s finished in each of the top five positions in the race, but only has two top-five starts all year. It’s been a case of making good days out of bad ones, and combined with engineer Ben Bretzman, their best overall performance came on IndyCar’s only oval thus far at Phoenix.

“I was very emotional at the end of the race there because I’ve been running after this. The desire to be good on ovals for me was really strong. I wanted to come to America and I wanted to embrace the sport, embrace the oval, and show that I could do the job,” Pagenaud said after winning Phoenix.

For being the series defending champion and points leader, Pagenaud’s still in search of that ultimate, breakthrough to the national consciousness moment. A win at Indy would do just that.

Pagenaud credited his first Indianapolis 500 teammate, NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell, for a lot of how he learned how to race on ovals.

His Indianapolis 500 career does not yet boast a top-five finish. In truth, finishing 19th last year could have cost him the championship, but he’d opened up a near-100-point lead going into the month that it didn’t produce near the collateral damage it could have.

Here is Pagenaud’s Indy 500 record, and like Power’s, it’s not the best:

  • 2012, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, Started 23rd, Finished 16th
  • 2013, Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports, Started 21st, Finished 8th
  • 2014, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Started 5th, Finished 12th
  • 2015, Team Penske, Started 3rd, Finished 10th
  • 2016, Team Penske, Started 8th, Finished 19th

Pagenaud’s had strong pace in both 2015 and 2016, particularly 2015, but has been undone as the race has gone on. Mechanical woes slowed him late last year.

With just a 10-point lead on Scott Dixon coming into May and 46 on Power, Pagenaud needs a good May from a big picture standpoint if he is to retain his full-season crown.

Josef Newgarden – First crack at the Penske file in May

AVONDALE, AZ – APRIL 29:  Josef Newgarden, driver of the #2 Team Penske Chevrolet walks to driver introductions before the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 29, 2017 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

We did a fuller breakout on Newgarden last week, but the simple nature of Newgarden’s first crack at May with Team Penske is this: he has more resources than he ever has before, and he has more pressure than he ever has before with the No. 2 hum by Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

He can downplay the pressure all he wants, and so far he has done well to integrate himself in a fast start within the team. Even his last two races since winning at Barber, Newgarden has minimized the damage with ninth and 11th place results despite two wing changes needed at Phoenix and two pit speed violations on the Indianapolis road course.

That leaves him third in points, 39 behind Pagenaud but three clear of Helio Castroneves and seven clear of Power.

Newgarden made a big move forward in points last year as a result of his third place finish after qualifying second, but the sting of both near-misses outweighed his overall gains

“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 told NBC Sports.

“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.”

Last year did provide him his first good points haul here this year. Like Power and Pagenaud, his Indianapolis 500 record is one of the few things in his career that isn’t spectacular.

  • 2012, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Started 7th, Finished 25th (Engine)
  • 2013, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Started 25th, Finished 28th
  • 2014, Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, Started 8th, Finished 30th (Accident)
  • 2015, CFH Racing, Started 9th, Finished 9th
  • 2016, Ed Carpenter Racing, Started 2nd, Finished 3rd

Newgarden’s teammates prior to this month at Indianapolis were, in order, a fellow rookie in the late Bryan Clauson (2012), and veteran Alex Tagliani (2014) in one-off second cars, and then JR Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter (2015 and 2016). None of those drivers were in a full-time seat.

Newgarden will have the built-in advantage of having worked with his teammates all year prior to now, and they’ve also had two tests here already. That will help as he goes through this month.

Whereas with Carpenter and Sarah Fisher in years past, Newgarden could overachieve in one of the smaller teams, now he has the eyes of the IndyCar world watching him at Penske. But with Tim Cindric as his strategist, and as a 26-year-old who needs either an Indy win or a championship as his next logical progression, he’s well-positioned to have a properly big month.

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.