Alonso won ROTY (29); Jones (19) had a case for it. Photo: IndyCar

DiZinno: Inside the 2017 Indy 500 rookie voting process

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It all started Monday night, fittingly, with a tweet from the driver who in 2014 had an argument to win that year’s Indianapolis 500 Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors, but didn’t.

Sage Karam won the 2013 Indy Lights championship, and would make his IndyCar debut against a significantly bigger name from a significantly bigger series, who was racing with Andretti Autosport, while he was in a smaller budget team known for out-kicking its coverage and overachieving from a results standpoint, in Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

That bigger name was NASCAR star Kurt Busch, running the 2014 Indianapolis 500 in a fifth Andretti Autosport car, and finishing sixth after starting 12th in the first of his planned Indy 500-Coca Cola 600 double.

Karam, meanwhile, had dazzled the crowd for DRR in the pit stop competition on Carb Day, made an epic save in the one-hour practice earlier, then drove from 31st to ninth in the race. All this at 19 years old, having missed his prom.

At that time, I wrote that co-rookies of the year would have been a justifiable outcome, as it would not have been without precedent. Busch excelled in his IndyCar debut, soaking up the atmosphere, learning from his Andretti Autosport teammates and finishing sixth – albeit fourth of the five Andretti cars! Teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (first), Marco Andretti (third) and Carlos Munoz (fourth) all finished ahead. Karam, meanwhile, did his performance on a single-car team, albeit one that at the time shared a technical partnership with Chip Ganassi Racing.

With the local broadcast on WTHR-TV delayed by about an hour from when the media banquet was happening live, Karam revealed Monday night that Ed Jones – the 2016 Indy Lights champion making his Indy 500 debut – had not won this year’s Rookie of the Year honors, and instead had lost to Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 World Champion in his oval debut.

The result was par for the course in a month where Alonso dominated the headlines, soundbites, media attention and race coverage… until it mattered most.

With just over 20 laps to go, Alonso’s Honda engine expired in a sad, almost fitting ending. It was a metaphor, in a way, for the overkill of Alonso coverage to fall short to the rest of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil itself, and the other 32 drivers competing in the race.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Max Chilton of England, driver of the #8 Gallagher Honda, Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, and Ed Jones of the United Arab Emirates, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, lead a pack of cars during the 101st Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

All the while, there was Ed Jones, biding his time, racing like a veteran even as he too was a rookie in this year’s race, and promptly finishing third for Dale Coyne Racing, capping off a month where he brought the team so much joy in a month where the team had so many unexpected incidents pop up.

The outrage on social media followed almost immediately once the news began to spread Alonso, not Jones, had won the year’s rookie of the year award.

It’s at this point we figured, let’s not just express an opinion about the process, but instead let’s find out why the process transpired the way it did.

For that we reached out to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway PR staff for a bit of background into how the vote was conducted and why it came to the decision it did – Alonso over Jones.

For full disclosure, I had a vote for the rookie of the year, and selected Jones as my first choice and Alonso as my second.

WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA?

There are four criteria at play for the vote, which awards $50,000 to the Sunoco Rookie of the Year. They are:

  • (a) the driver’s skill
  • (b) sportsmanship
  • (c) accessibility and conduct during the month
  • (d) finishing position

Per IMS, each criteria should be considered the same as any other.

The first three are arguably more subjective categories. It takes time and careful, studious analysis to determine driver skill, and it’s a slippery slope to go on, because if you say one driver is more talented than another, then that driver gets frustrated.

Sportsmanship extends to how well the driver gets on, on track, and with his or her competitors.

The accessibility and conduct during the month was always going to be a massive gap between Alonso and Jones. One was involved in so many media activities and going around the garage at random; the other was staring right across from his garage.

Jones (19) raced hard but fair all month. Photo: IndyCar

There were several times it seemed Jones would have been worthy to bring up to the fourth floor press conference room but he was only in twice; once after Saturday qualifying, where he literally was only asked one question, while Alonso had six formal availabilities on the fourth floor – a special press conference after his one-day test, then five during the two weeks itself. This does not factor in the hour of media availability he had on media day, either.

Finishing position, objectively, goes to Jones. Third to 24th is the widest gap between the two. This also doesn’t factor in Jones’ other on-track performance successes this month – he also had the second fastest lap of the event, fifth quickest lap of the race, qualified 11th after Sebastien Bourdais’ accident in qualifying. Jones never looked a driver outside the top 10 outside of qualifying, and that was down to bad timing more than anything. Had Ed Carpenter Racing’s cars qualified earlier in the day on Saturday, or if Jones qualified later, it could have been a different outcome.

WHO VOTES?

Per IMS PR, it’s “a group of current and past members of the media alongside a group of IndyCar/IMS officials. It’s a moderate sized group of individuals who are close to the sport year round. What’s more important is that everyone on the list has the background/qualifications to make their choice. There are more media members on the list than IndyCar/IMS officials.”

While that doesn’t provide an exact number of voters, it does provide enough background to determine that the voting bloc is one of people that pay attention to the sport close enough to where they can make educated decisions.

HOW DOES THE VOTE HAPPEN? 

Again, per IMS PR: “Those who vote receive an email with instructions. The email outlines the criteria for selection. They then supply a first and second selection. We add up the votes.

“We ask the voters to weigh the four criteria equally. Ultimately, it’s their decision who they select as first and second and whether a certain factor weighs more heavily in their decision. We simply monitor the tally of votes supplied.”

LET’S USE HISTORY AS A GUIDELINE

P24 hasn’t looked so impressive at Indy since 1996. Photo: IndyCar

That’s the process outlined. It’s at this point we now look back through history and see where Alonso who again, starred all month, fits in compared to others who were not the highest-finishing rookie, but was awarded rookie of the year honors. Here’s a few examples:

  • The last time this happened was in 2010. Mario Romancini of Conquest Racing finished 13th, Simona de Silvestro of HVM Racing finished 14th. Essentially a wash, either would have been a deserving candidate and de Silvestro was justifiably awarded the spot.
  • In 1996, Richie Hearn finished third in the first 500 run as part of the Indy Racing League, still under USAC sanction, while Tony Stewart finished 24th with a blown engine, and Stewart won top rookie. Hearn drove for a smaller team (Della Penna Motorsports) and finished third, while Stewart’s Team Menard team was widely considered one with the most resources at that time.
  • In 1983, Teo Fabi was the polesitter and went out with a fuel gasket issue early, ending 26th. Al Unser Jr., a then unheralded-son of a several-time Indianapolis 500 champion, was top rookie finisher in 10th. Fabi was rookie of the year.
  • The infamous 1981 race, which took months to officially decide between Bobby Unser and Mario Andretti, saw Josele Garza (finished 23rd with a crash) win rookie of the year while the top rookie finisher was Kevin Cogan in fourth.
  • In 1966, Jackie Stewart finished sixth and won rookie of the year while Graham Hill, also a rookie, won the race.

So while it’s not unprecedented that a driver who’s finished worse has been awarded rookie of the year, it’s not something that happens frequently.

In terms of co-rookies-of-the-year, that’s happened in 1961 (Parnelli Jones, Bobby Marshman), 1978 (Larry Rice, Rick Mears), 1984 (Roberto Guerrero, Michael Andretti), 1989 (Bernard Jourdain, Scott Pruett) and 2002 (Alex Barron, Tomas Scheckter).

The last time the rookie of the year finished outside the top 20 was in 2007, when Phil Giebler was 29th. The only other rookie in that year’s field was the less heralded Milka Duno, who was 31st.

SO WHY DOES IT MATTER, AND WHY DID I CAST MY VOTE FOR JONES?

Jones (left), Zach Veach (center) and Jack Harvey (right) were the three “traditional” rookies in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Using the four criteria as a guideline, and also considering the respective situations the two drivers who could realistically deserve the award, I selected Jones for the following reasons:

  • Skill: Jones, too, we must remember, was also making his first big oval start in an IndyCar, although his runs over two years in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires gave him a bit of a head start over Alonso. The Coyne team made engineering changes this year and it paid dividends; Jones’ 11th place start is the team’s best in its history and in the last two years with the Honda aero kit, the Coyne cars qualified 21st, 24th, 25th and 28th (2016) and 18th, 21st and 28th (2015), and in 2015 two of them moved to the back row with in-week driver changes. After a strong week of practice, Jones never looked like qualifying worse than 12th and as noted, was disappointed not to be higher. In the race, Jones sustained rear wing damage from the Scott Dixon/Jay Howard crash. He’d also had his nose of his car punctured by debris, which cut a hole in it. His race craft in traffic was mature beyond his years.
  • Sportsmanship: Jones was unafraid to tell it like it is while also noting how thankful he was to be part of the Coyne team. As a driver who was unafraid to admit he was annoyed by the amount of Alonso coverage, Jones pressed on regardless. Several drivers, notably Helio Castroneves, hailed Jones’ efforts: “I have to say he did a very good job. When we ran side-by-side, he was very smart. I have to say that you drove not like a rookie, to be honest, so congrats.”
  • Accessibility and conduct during the month: As noted earlier, a bit of an unfair fight: Alonso was everywhere, Jones not so much. But Jones poked fun at himself after having to milk a cow following the rookie luncheon on Tuesday – that was funny.
  • Finishing position: Three is better than 24. Also, even if Alonso’s engine didn’t blow, there was a case to be made he might have only finished sixth or seventh, so Jones could have legitimately beat him on track anyway – and was all set to in the final stint.
Jones actually milked a cow. Photo: IndyCar

Resources are not factored directly into the vote, but they are worth noting.

As Busch did in 2014, Alonso walked into a team with outstanding resources and a significant financial edge at Andretti. He had the combination of teammates in past winners Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi, two near-winners (and now one new one) in Takuma Sato and Marco Andretti. And with Jack Harvey there in a sixth car, Andretti had double the amount of cars.

While Coyne has made massive strides, it’s not got the winning pedigree Andretti does. Andretti has five Indianapolis 500 victories; Coyne has five total wins in its history, and only one on an oval (Justin Wilson at Texas, 2012). Setting aside the rookie angle for a second, how Jones stepped up as an overall rookie in the full series for a team in need of a leader with Bourdais sidelined was incredible to witness.

Lastly, there’s the question of what does this do for the series or the race going forward.

Alonso ended P24. Photo: IndyCar

Forever, in history, Fernando Alonso will be able to say – and IMS will be able to declare – he is the 2017 Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year. But the award coming 11 years after he won the second of his two Formula 1 World Championships is never going to be the first thing mentioned when Alonso’s career is put into context.

Jones? We don’t know how his career will progress, but at only age 22, the Dubai-based Brit has more of his career ahead of him than behind him at this stage. Saying he was Indianapolis 500 rookie of the year for Dale Coyne Racing, a year after winning the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship (yes, some would argue in controversial fashion), would be a springboard for him and for Coyne’s team – which has been an IndyCar stalwart for more than 30 years. Consider also that Coyne’s team has incurred more than half a million dollars in damaged race cars the last month, and that that extra $50,000 might have helped.

In many ways, the debut of Alonso and return of McLaren was about hailing the past glory of F1 stars at Indianapolis, and in that regard, both driver and brand lived up to the hype, and the expectations.

But for an award that should go to a driver who plans to make his or her future in IndyCar full-time, it was a swing-and-miss.

Jones was P3, but not rookie of the year. Photo: IndyCar

How much higher — and faster — can NHRA Funny Car driver Robert Hight go?

Photo courtesy John Force Racing
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At the rate he’s been going, Robert Hight is going to keep going higher and higher.

During the week, Hight is the President of John Force Racing (and son-in-law of the legendary drag racer). On weekends, Hight transforms into one of JFR’s three Funny Car drivers.

But he’s been standing out above the rest of the NHRA Funny Car crowd of late – boy, has he ever.

As the NHRA heads to Minnesota for this weekend’s Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, Hight has been hotter than the flames that shoot out of the exhaust pipes on his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro.

He captured two of the last three NHRA national events – also known as the Western Swing – at Denver and Seattle (and reached the quarterfinals at Sonoma).

Robert Hight

And during last week’s off-weekend from the NHRA 24-race schedule, Hight kept his hot hand … err, foot … going, winning the Night Under Fire match race at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

“When you’re on roll like we’ve been on and the car’s running so well, this is what you want,” Hight said in a media release. “Even though last week was a match race, we still got the win, and we ran great.

“You don’t want this to ever end. It’s going to at some point, but we want to roll into Brainerd and get right back in there.”

If Hight’s good fortune continues at Brainerd, the next race on the schedule is the biggest race of the year each season, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana on Labor Day weekend.

In addition to his two wins, Hight has made a dramatic jump upward in the Funny Car point standings, climbing from eighth to third place.

He’s 166 points behind Funny Car points leader and defending series champ Ron Capps, but is just eight points behind second-ranked Matt Hagan.

But wait, there’s more:

* In addition, Hight has qualified No. 1 in three of the last four national events, and has qualified third or better in the last nine consecutive national events.

* He also made major news three weeks ago when one of those No. 1 qualifiers was the fastest speed ever seen in Funny Car annals: 339.87 mph at Sonoma.

Now he’s looking for even more speed this weekend – and maybe even more records to fall.

“If conditions are good, Brainerd can be a fast race track,” said Hight, the 2015 Brainerd winner. “I’m looking forward to going there, having a successful weekend.

“We have a good shot at getting up to second points, and going into Indy No. 2 would be pretty cool. We’re looking for another win.”

Hight also is on the verge of becoming part of another NHRA milestone. If he gets past the first round in Sunday’s final eliminations, it will be his 400th career round victory.

Only five other Funny Car drivers have ever earned 400 or more round wins, led by Hight’s boss and father-in-law, John Force, with 1,278 career round wins.

“That’s big,” Hight said. “You’ve got to get round wins before you get race wins, and that’s how you get race wins. John has 1,278 round wins, so 400 doesn’t seem like very much.

“I don’t know how 400 stacks up to other guys who have raced the similar amount of time, but I’m happy that the round wins are coming more frequently than there were for us. That’s encouraging, and that’s exciting.”

The first two rounds of qualifying at Brainerd on Friday are at 4:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET.

The final two rounds are Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.

Final eliminations begin at Noon ET, with live coverage on Fox Sports 1 from 2-5 p.m. ET.

Want to learn more about Hight? Check it out:

  • Hight won the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship. He’s going for his second title this year, being one of six Funny Car drivers that have already qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
  • Hight has competed in 12 races at Brainerd, and has qualified for 11 races and every race since 2010.
  • Hight has advanced to the finals once at Brainerd, in 2015. He won that race, defeating Tommy Johnson Jr.
  • Hight is 9-10 all-time in 19 elimination rounds at Brainerd.
  • Hight’s best qualifying effort at Brainerd has been No. 3, which he has achieved three times – 2007, 2008 and 2010. Brainerd is one of two current tracks in which Hight is still looking for a No. 1 qualifier (Bristol being the other).
  • Hight has won five of his 11 first-round elimination matchups at Brainerd.
  • Hight’s 39 victories are the fourth most in Funny Car history, behind John Force (148); Ron Capps (55); and Tony Pedregon (43). He is tied with Del Worsham for 21st on the all-time professional victories list; Worsham has 31 wins in Funny Car and eight in Top Fuel.
  • Hight is one elimination round victory away from 400. His 399 round wins are 24th all-time in NHRA history. Angelle Sampey currently has 400 round wins.
  • Hight has been the No. 1 qualifier four times this season, and three times in the last four races. His 53 No. 1s are third most in Funny Car history, and he is tied for 11th with Larry Dixon across all professional categories. Only Force (155) and Cruz Pedregon (61) have more in the category.
  • In 2017, Hight has two victories, a 26-14 record in elimination rounds, and four No. 1 qualifiers. He holds a season-best 38 elimination-round wins in a season, in 2014. He has surpassed 30 elimination-round wins in a season seven times in 12 previous seasons.
  • Hight has set the fastest event speed a career-best nine times this season, which exceeds his previous season-best of seven set in his rookie season, 2005. He now has 50 fastest event speeds in his career, the 50th coming last month at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, where he set the NHRA record at 339.87 mph.
  • Hight has four final rounds this season and 61 in his career.
  • Hight has competed in 158 consecutive races, tied for 17th all-time with Doug Kalitta, dating back to the second race at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., in 2010.
  • Hight’s most recent NHRA victory – 2017 Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash.
  • Hight’s most recent No. 1 qualifying effort – 2017 Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash.
  • Hight’s best time/speed at Brainerd – 3.885 seconds (2016 E1); 330.31 mph (2016 Q1)
  • Hight’s best time/speed of career – 3.807 seconds (2017 Sonoma Q2; third quickest elapsed time in history); 339.87 mph (2017 Sonoma Q2; fastest speed in history)

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Newgarden thankful to be leading, not chasing, in IndyCar title push

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares for its final four-race stretch of the 2017 season over the next five weeks, new points leader Josef Newgarden is thankful he’s made up a big deficit in the last two races rather than chasing as he pursues his first series championship.

Newgarden moved into the points lead for the first time in his career after winning the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course three weeks ago, his third win this season and second in a row. Heading into Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), he has his first chance to win three races in a row in his career, and also to get his first Pocono win after banking three top-five finishes there in four past starts.

Just three races ago at Iowa, before he won at Toronto and Mid-Ohio, Newgarden was 56 points behind then-leader Scott Dixon, in fifth in points. He’s now leading, seven clear of Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, eight clear of Dixon and 17 clear of defending series champion Simon Pagenaud.

Naturally, Newgarden’s happy to be leading, but wary of any slip-ups at Pocono while in the No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet that could see him lose this slim gap.

“I think with the way I view it, I always prefer to be in the lead,” he said. “I don’t know why you ever wouldn’t want to be the leader. If you can be in a position where you’re leading the championship, I always think it’s better than having a deficit because to me, I don’t really approach a race weekend different if I’m leading or if I’m trying to catch up.

“I think for us it’ll be hard to hold on to it because everyone is so close, so you have one little mistake or one little mess-up in the next race and it’s very easy to slip back. So we’ve just got to try and stay out front if we can, and like I was saying before, the more that we can build a points gap, that only helps to Sonoma, so if we can’t do that, I think we need to just stay at least in touch with the lead as much as possible and make sure that we have a shot at winning the championship on our own terms when we go to Sonoma.”

Moving into the lead at Mid-Ohio puts Newgarden in an interesting position in recent IndyCar history.

Last year, Pagenaud’s decisive win against Will Power was a net 20-point swing in the championship and moved him into a 58-point lead over him with four races to go. That same 58-point spread now covers the top six entering this weekend’s race.

In 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya led Mid-Ohio winner Graham Rahal by nine points after that race, with two races to go. Eventual champion Dixon was third in points, 34 back.

Power led Castroneves by four after Mid-Ohio in 2014 with three races to go, and a dominant win the next race for him at Milwaukee helped seal his maiden championship win by Fontana a few weeks later.

There were still five races after Mid-Ohio in 2013. Castroneves led Dixon by 31 points, and Dixon came back to win that year’s title.

In 2012, Newgarden’s rookie season, Power led Ryan Hunter-Reay by five points out of Mid-Ohio with three races to go. Despite Power building the gap, he lost that year’s title in the last race to Hunter-Reay.

The 2015 title combatants… swap Pagenaud for Montoya and that’s all 2017’s title combatants. Photo: IndyCar

So how does Newgarden, who’s contending for a title in his first season at Team Penske, focus on the task at hand now that he’s thrust into a his first real title-contending scenario? Although he’s been on the fringes of it each of the last two years with Ed Carpenter Racing, he’s never quite been in this position.

Pagenaud seized his chance last year to win the 2016 title. It took Power three straight crushing end-of-year, last-race losses from 2010 to 2012 before he won his first and only title in 2014. Castroneves, despite an eternal number of runner-up finishes, has still never won a title. And Ryan Briscoe’s one shot at a title with Penske came unglued courtesy of an unforced error in 2009.

This is Newgarden’s first real chance at a title and as he explained, something he was hoping for once he joined the team.

“I definitely think I hoped I would be in a championship position. How could you not?” he said. “When joining Team Penske, I think you hope you’re going to just dominate.

“I didn’t know how the championship was going to unfold. I knew that we were going to have work in front of us.

“I feel like we’re still gelling, we’re still learning. So I’m a little bit surprised at how quickly we’ve hit the ground running, but I guess there’s also been moments where we could have been better and I could have been better and maybe as a team we could have been better, and I think with experience that will come.”

Newgarden (left) and Power (right) flank Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden said he hasn’t drawn on his teammates for any advice in how they’ve handled other title-contending situations, and that makes sense because he’s also racing each of them for the title at the same time. The strength in numbers at Team Penske means the odds of one of the four drivers winning is strong, with only Dixon or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal poised to steal it otherwise.

“It’s an interesting question,” Newgarden admitted. “I haven’t really spoken much to the other teammates specifically about their mindset or where it was at or where the team was at with regard to the championship.

“It’s actually kind of oddly quiet. You know, it’s almost like we’re just expected to be able to do our job. It’s not that we don’t get spoken to by various people within the teams to make sure we have what we need or make sure we understand what the game plan is, it’s just most of the big broad brush strokes.

“I think they’re just — for them they view it as it should be understood by us. We’re all pretty experienced within the series, and I think everyone that’s come into Team Penske has always had some level of experience.

“I think they expect for you to do the right thing. Penske wants us to work well together. They allow us to race. They allow us to do whatever we want to try and beat each other, but it’s just most important that we work together and take care of each other at the end of the day.

“We try and help the whole group be better, and if it’s not me winning a race or winning the championship, then we focus on trying to get at least one of the Penske cars to do that. You always hope it’s you. You want to be the best within the team. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to have one of the Team Penske cars succeeding, and that’s what we all work for.”

Ocon working harder than Perez in bid to make up for inexperience

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Esteban Ocon feels he is working a lot harder than Force India Formula 1 teammate Sergio Perez in a bid to make up for his lack of experience as the pair enjoy one of the closest cross-garage battles on the grid.

Ocon moved up to Force India for 2017 after spending half a season with the backmarker Manor squad last year, and has impressed through his first 11 races in the team’s colors, scoring 45 points to Perez’s 56.

The pair have been evenly-matched on-track – albeit sometimes too much so, with their collision in Baku costing Force India a possible podium finish as a minimum.

Reflecting on his start to the season, Ocon said he had to work far harder than Perez in a bid to make up for his inexperience, the Mexican boasting an additional five-and-a-half seasons of grand prix racing on his resume.

“We respect the targets that we set at the start of the season, which means scoring points at every race. And that is pretty much what I am doing,” Ocon told the official F1 website.

” I have to work very hard! I have a lot less experience than Sergio, so I have to catch up on so many details that come naturally to him.

“Before and after each race I am mostly in the factory for simulator work. I think that is what makes a big difference.”

When asked how much more time he was putting in than Perez, Ocon said: “I don’t want to say a number, so let’s put it this way: a lot more!”

Ocon said he hoped to have been a ‘big surprise’ to Perez so far this season, adding: “I am not here to stay behind him all the time. I want to push very hard.”

Notable drivers still looking for wins in 2017

Photo: IndyCar
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Counting this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), four races remain in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. And while the season has seen nine different winners, there remain a handful of very prominent drivers who have yet to grace Victory Lane this year, with some even enduring winless streaks that go back several years.

Perhaps most prominent in this group is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. The 42-year-old fan favorite has not signed with a team for 2018 and beyond, meaning he’ll be keen to make an impression in the final four races of 2017.

Currently ninth in the championship, Kanaan’s best 2017 finish is second at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, and given that he was also strong at the Indianapolis 500, perhaps Pocono represents Kanaan’s best chance for a victory, which would end a winless streak that dates back to Auto Club Speedway in 2014, before the year closes.

“Pocono is definitely the type of track that I normally thrive at, and the ‘Tricky Triangle’ is such an interesting place to race with the three completely different corners,” said Kanaan, who has led 115 laps in his four prior starts at Pocono. “You have to get so many little things right to suit each corner, before you can really be successful. The No. 10 NTT Data Honda is definitely due for a win and Pocono would be a great place for that to happen.”

However, Kanaan is hardly alone as a driver with something to prove before the year ends. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has enjoyed an uptick in form over last year, and his speed has been evident on Friday and Saturday practice sessions quite often in 2017.

Yet, Andretti’s strong practice pace has rarely translated into strong race results. A fourth-place finish at the Honda Indy Toronto remains his only top five of 2017, with sixth at Texas, seventh at St. Petersburg, and eighth at the Indianapolis 500 his only other top ten finishes, leaving him 13th in the championship.

Marco Andretti has shown better speed in 2017, but race results have still been hard to come by. Photo: IndyCar

With Pocono his home race, and one he has previously excelled at (he sat on the pole in 2013 and led 88 laps before fuel strategy left him in tenth at the end), the 30-year-old Andretti is keen to break through at the 2.5-mile triangular oval.

“Pocono is an important race to me as it is a home race, and I will have a lot of family and friends at the track cheering us on,” said Andretti ahead of the weekend. “United Fiber & Data is also based nearby, and it would be great to have a good result for Bill (Hynes), Chad (Taylor) and the whole UFD family. We’ve sat on the pole at Pocono but (have not finished) on the podium, so I can’t help but feel like I have unfinished business in Long Pond.”

Teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, head into Pocono looking for race wins, which would end long winless droughts for both drivers.

Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay have run better than their results would indicate. Photo: IndyCar

This season, Hunter-Reay has been riddled with bad luck and mechanical problems that leave him languishing in 12th in the standings with only five finishes in inside the top ten, a pair of third-place finishes being his best results and only podium results so far.

Hunter-Reay won this race in 2015 and may have repeated the feat last year if not for a mysterious electrical problem that surfaced late in the race. He eventually rebounded to finish third.

As a result, Hunter-Reay enters the weekend with something of a chip on his shoulder. “I’ve really been looking forward to getting back to Pocono. There’s no doubt the DHL Honda has been very strong here the past few years. Last year’s unfortunate electrical issue that occurred while (we were) leading sent us to the back of the field, yet we were still able to come all the way back through the field to finish third. As a team, we feel like we have unfinished business at Pocono. Certainly, one of our best chances at a victory over the past year slipped away, so we’re looking for redemption,” he asserted.

Rossi, meanwhile, has not won a race since winning the last year’s Indianapolis 500. However, finishes of second at Toronto and sixth at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course see him building momentum late in the year, and place him eighth in the standings at the moment.

He showed impressive speed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway as well, meaning Pocono offers a strong possibility of Rossi battling for a win.

“Pocono is one of my favorite tracks on the calendar, and it is a special one with the whole Andretti family being from the area. We have some unfinished business to take care of this weekend from last year when our day ended prematurely after we felt like we had a car to win. This team always has something special for the superspeedways and since it is our last one of the year, we want to make sure to close this portion of the schedule out with a win for the No. 98 team,” Rossi said of his chances.

As previously mentioned, IndyCar has seen nine different winners in an already ultra-competitive 2017 season. And given the prowess of the four aforementioned drivers – or say if the pair of Ed Carpenter Racing drivers, or another surprise first-time winner this year emerges –  it would hardly be a surprise if that number hit double digits at the end of the weekend.

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