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Opportunity to grow in year two excites Rossi for 2017 Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – The thing that’s so exciting to think about for Alexander Rossi as he prepares to defend his title in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil is that he wants to be even better than he was as a rookie in his sophomore year for the entirety of the month.

Rossi’s win in last year’s 100th running from 11th on the grid has been written about to death, almost, and he’s been paraded through so many events and availabilities in the year since that’s almost hard to remember the preceding days that led up to race day and then-strategist Bryan Herta’s now-famous “clutch and coast” radio call.

Items such as Rossi not even having a primary sponsor on his No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda until the Friday before qualifying, then Rossi getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout right at the end of Saturday, and his practice pace throughout the month are things that got overlooked.

For year two, while Rossi has enjoyed the accolades – and now has a proper sense of what he achieved and how his name and drive fit into all-time Indianapolis lore – the drive to improve upon the things he struggled with last year is a huge motivating factor.

“As much fun as it is to talk about last year, it’s time to regroup ourselves and prove ourselves once again,” Rossi told NBC Sports. “And there’s a lot of work we have to do to accomplish that, and be able to embrace the little things more.

“I’m now looking forward to a much different experience. One thing I’ll definitely keep in focus is Sunday morning itself, and just look at it as another race.”

By that line, Rossi noted the sheer magnitude of all 300,000-plus fans in attendance when walking out to the grid on race morning. That can be overwhelming and it definitely made an impact on Rossi’s viewing of the race, and understanding its scale in the greater sphere of the racing world.

When asked whether he wanted to be even better in traffic and qualifying, Rossi laughed and agreed as quickly as humanly possible.

“It’s all of that,” he said. “Now I know how qualifying works, so I guarantee I can do a second run. I still lose sleep over that because we had a Fast Nine car, and we should have been in the Fast Nine. I definitely want to make sure that’s the case come Sunday.

“I need to be better in traffic. It’s still something that’s uncomfortable to me.

“We were at the Texas test a couple weeks ago. The track has changed so much. And my engineer (Jeremy Milless) was like, ‘Dude it’s OK, it’s your fifth oval.’ And it’s weird.

“Because going into Phoenix, that was just my fifth or sixth oval race. Pocono we challenged for a win, Iowa we were strong, Indy obviously, but overall it’s still so super new for me.

“So it’s things like pit in and how aggressive I come in, needs to be better. I’m happy to have the amount of practice we do.”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 29: Alexander Rossi of the United States pumps his fist as he crosses the finish line to win the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

Rossi’s race title defense sees the notable changes of Herta to Rob Edwards, Andretti chief operating officer, as race strategist and Milless replacing Tom German as race engineer. Although Herta isn’t directly on the box for Rossi, he is still a co-entrant of the No. 98 car, which means he’s still an invaluable resource.

“It’s down in hour-by-hour decision-making, car direction and such as he’s on the 27 car,” Rossi explained. “But whether there’s good or bad things to note, or things I need advice on, he’s in the same truck. He’s literally an earshot away from answering any question.”

Edwards elaborated on how much more cohesive the Andretti and Herta team partnership is now this May, compared to when they were only four or five races into their combined program this time last year.

“Yes we’ve moved some pieces around. But particularly in early races, the Rossi/Herta merger was so new and close to the start of the year, we didn’t maximize the benefits of both,” Edwards told NBC Sports.

“The chemistry is there as we had the offseason to mesh. We could hit the ground running. With the continuity, we had the right pieces to move around. It wasn’t wholesale. It was good changes we’ve made.”

Edwards said Rossi had to endure a tougher learning curve last year because of that merger process, and he excelled in spite of that.

“I think last year was his education. Overall we weren’t as competitive, and it meant his learning curve was more difficult because of that,” he explained.

“Generally with his program, every race now we think we’ve got a legitimate chance of winning and being on the podium.

“Last year he developed off the radar because of how the season went. This year is a chance to realize what he learned last year.”

Rossi has the benefit of his five Andretti Autosport teammates to work with, in fellow winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, two near winners in Marco Andretti and Takuma Sato, and two rookies in Fernando Alonso and Jack Harvey. Rossi’s thoughts on Alonso are linked here.

Andretti Autosport is renowned for its “mini races” in practice with all five of its cars. Rossi described that process.

“No one wants to be in front – it won’t help because you burn more fuel,” said Rossi, whose final stint of 36 laps was as surprising as it was impressive last year.

“We all run to the back. We do a rotation, and each guys takes a couple laps. Inevitably then you’ll get passed.

“It’s funny now because other teams have latched onto it. Now with six cars and more, it’ll be a mini little race!

“Qualifying is wonderful, but it doesn’t matter where you qualify. Being with as many cars as you can provides the opportunity to be able to experiment.”

Rossi reflected on the whirlwind last year it’s been for him – from not having a ride as his Formula 1 dreams were put on pause, to the last-minute Andretti-Herta deal, to the ‘500 win, and how his life has changed as a result.

“For a year, I’ve been talking about something I’m truly passionate about – and that’s OK,” Rossi said.

“I so much love this race, and I’m so looking forward to going back. In 2017, we can talk about the 101st running and doing it again.”

NASCAR America: Newgarden recaps rise to IndyCar title (VIDEO)

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Newly crowned Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden joined NBCSN’s NASCAR America on Tuesday to reflect on his rise to the top of the series.

Newgarden chatted with show host Carolyn Manno about his championship season, integration to Team Penske and bonding with his three teammates, Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud.

Pagenaud won Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale but it wasn’t enough to overcome Newgarden’s points lead.

 

Report: Verizon likely to drop IndyCar title sponsorship after ’18

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One of the under-the-radar elements that’s percolated in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock this year is Verizon’s activation strategy itself, in its fourth year of its first five-year deal as title sponsor of the championship.

Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, told the Sports Business Journal’s Adam Stern while he thinks it’s likely Verizon will end its title sponsorship of the series after 2018, they hope to continue the relationship in a different capacity.

While Verizon got in before 2014, IndyCar was a viable platform for the wireless company to activate in a way it couldn’t in NASCAR, when Sprint was the Cup Series’ title sponsor.

That’s since changed with Sprint’s contract ending after 2016. Verizon still activates within the paddock, working with CSM Sport & Entertainment, but its activation outside the paddock has seemed rather limited this year.

Verizon’s primary point of access or reference point of digital technology has been the Verizon IndyCar Mobile app, which was initially only for Verizon Wireless users but was later expanded to other carriers. That provides some app-specific exclusive content as well as a compilation of written, photographic and video content from IndyCar.com.

Even in the paddock, a Verizon-sponsored “Lunch with Legends” series – where some of IndyCar’s stars from the past had lunch at tracks with fans to provide some exclusive access – was not retained for 2017. Verizon hosted an event at a 5G-outfitted house in Indianapolis this year, prior to the Indianapolis 500, to showcase some of that network capability and virtual reality (VR) technology.

Provided Verizon does not continue as title sponsor past 2018, it would leave the IndyCar series in almost the same situation as prior title sponsor IZOD was in 2013, with a lame duck year.

The absence of a Verizon contract renewal has lurked beneath the surface all year in a year when INDYCAR (sanctioning body) has announced several long-term extensions with key manufacturer partners Dallara, Firestone, Chevrolet, Honda and many of its race tracks.

The competition side of IndyCar has done rather well and has enough momentum with Jay Frye at the head of its President of Competition and Operations for the last two years.

But it’s imperative for IndyCar’s sake its commercial side does as well too, which will make the 2018 season an interesting one from a “how to progress” and find a partner that can truly activate to lift the series’ profile even bigger than it is now.

The title sponsor evolution and the series’ new TV contract, with the current one set to end after 2018, enter as the early leaders in the clubhouse for biggest off-track stories to follow over the winter and into the start of 2018.

Vettel loses huge ground in title race after Singapore blip

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SINGAPORE (AP) In the space of three races, Sebastian Vettel has dropped twice as far behind Lewis Hamilton as he was ahead of him.

After winning the Hungarian Grand Prix in late July, Vettel led by 14 points, with both drivers on four wins heading into the summer break.

But after crashing out on the first lap in Sunday’s Singapore GP, the Ferrari driver trails Hamilton by 28.

“That was very disappointing and it was definitely not the result we were expecting,” Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said. “But it doesn’t mean that the battle is all over, just that it has become more difficult.”

Yet it might seem to Mercedes that, for all of his experience, Vettel is throwing away the Formula One title.

“Clearly we would not feel comfortable in Ferrari’s shoes,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “But this is not the time for cheering.”

Hamilton has won all three races relatively comfortably since the championship resumed in August, and with only six GPs remaining Vettel faces a huge task to stop Hamilton.

“We guarantee that we will be fighting right to the final corner of the very last Grand Prix of the year,” Arrivabene said.

Mercedes is still expecting a challenge.

“This result doesn’t change a thing in the big picture,” Wolff said. “If anything, it’s a stark reminder that there are six more opportunities for the luck to go against us this season, just as it happened to Ferrari.”

But it will be abundantly harder now for Vettel because, unlike last season, Hamilton has so far not retired from any races. Although he has failed to finish on the podium four times for Mercedes this season, that is the same number as Vettel’s finishes outside the top three.

After winning three of the first six races, Vettel’s grip has loosened with only one win in the past eight.

Points have been thrown away, too.

At the British GP in July, Vettel looked at least assured of a podium finish until an unexpected tire problem at the end of the race bumped him down to seventh.

On Sunday, he had a great chance to win starting from pole position on a hard-braking track much more suited to Ferrari than Mercedes.

A few seconds later, he was out of the race.

Vettel made a hasty error of judgment trying to cut off Max Verstappen heading into the first turn and ultimately caused a crash that also took out Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a blistering start – Verstappen and Fernando Alonso.

Vettel apologized to his Ferrari team afterward.

With both Ferraris out, Mercedes had a clear path as Hamilton won his 60th career race and teammate Valtteri Bottas took third.

Mercedes faced a similar scenario at the Spanish GP last year, when Hamilton and then-teammate Nico Rosberg collided on lap 1 and both went out. Mercedes was livid with both drivers that day, and came perilously close to imposing team orders on them.

“You kind of feel for Ferrari. I have been in the situation of losing both cars,” Wolff said. “I know how bitter this is.”

The difference was that Hamilton and Rosberg were fighting each other for the title and, with no main rival from another team, it effectively cost them nothing.

Within Mercedes, Hamilton’s title charge is now the priority.

Although team orders are very unlikely to be imposed, it is clear – unofficially at least – that Bottas will be racing to help Hamilton equal Vettel on four world titles.

Wolff confirmed as much when he inadvertently referred to Bottas as “our second driver” in his post-race debriefing on Sunday, before quickly correcting himself to say “ah, other driver.”

Bottas has had a fine first season since joining as an emergency late replacement for Rosberg, who retired days after winning the 2016 title. Bottas has even exceeded expectations with 10 podiums in 14 races, including two wins, and sits in third place overall.

With a new contract for next year already signed, the Finnish driver has no need to impress Mercedes management and can play an ideal support role to Hamilton in the closing part of the campaign.

Still, he has a little bit of ambition left.

“There are plenty of races to come and plenty of opportunities,” said Bottas, who is 23 points behind Vettel. “Definitely Sebastian is the next target.”

With Hamilton ahead and Bottas closing behind, Vettel is under pressure to deliver at the Malaysian GP in two weeks’ time.

Ocon confirmed for another year at Force India

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Sahara Force India will keep the same driver lineup in 2018, with Esteban Ocon confirming Tuesday he’ll stay alongside Sergio Perez next season.

Although the two drivers have occasionally been at odds this year as Ocon has threatened Perez’s place as team leader, both have been instrumental in keeping Force India a clear fourth place in the Constructor’s Championship, at the top of the crowded midfield behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Ocon’s had a very strong year, with 56 points scored and having made the points in all but one race (Monaco) this season. His best finish is fifth at the Spanish Grand Prix.

Being confirmed for 2018 means like others, the jockeying for spots in 2019 will be fascinating to watch.