Three Toyotas lead the field. Photo: Toyota

Le Mans 24: 2017 LMP1 Preview

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While the LMP1 class may be short on numbers heading into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the fight for overall honors at the Circuit de la Sarthe is bound to remain as fierce as ever.

ENTRY LIST

Following the withdrawal of Audi at the end of last season and Rebellion Racing’s decision to step down to LMP2, this year’s LMP1 field will feature just six cars – down from nine in 2016, and 14 in 2015 – all of which race full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

As the post-Audi era begins at Le Mans, Porsche and Toyota are poised to continue their close battle for supremacy through the early part of the WEC season, with the latter appearing to hold the upper hand after the test day.

Toyota stormed to a 1-2-3 sweep of the timesheets on June 4 at the Circuit de la Sarthe, its trio of TS050 Hybrids mustering up laps that Porsche simply could not live with. While it is only a test day and the true colors of both manufacturers are yet to come to light, it could nevertheless prove to be an indication of things to come.

Top honors within Toyota went to Kamui Kobayashi in the No. 7 entry, with his time of 3:18.132 already dipping below the pole lap from last year despite efforts to slow the LMP1 field down.

In the sister No. 8 car, Sebastien Buemi finished 1.1 seconds off Kobayashi’s pace, while Le Mans rookie Jose Maria Lopez completed the test day sweep for Toyota in third. Earl Bamber was Porsche’s fastest man in fourth, with defending Le Mans winner Neel Jani taking fifth.

Toyota may be the early favorite at Le Mans, yet with the heartbreak of last year’s race still fresh in the mind for all at the team, all will know that nothing is certain until the checkered flag has been taken.

THREE-PIECE TOYOTA OUT TO AVENGE GHOSTS OF 2016

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 15: The Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Undeterred by its last lap defeat in 2016, Toyota Gazoo Racing has put a great deal of focus on its plans for Le Mans, opting to field a third LMP1 car for the first time since joining the category.

Third cars last ran in LMP1 at Le Mans back in 2015 when Audi and Porsche added an entry for the 24 hours, the latter’s wildcard No. 19 919 Hybrid ultimately taking a famous victory. The companies agreed for 2016 not to run third cars in a bid to cut costs following the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Toyota will bring back the tradition this week with its No. 9 car that made its bow at Spa last month. Shared by Lopez – swapped into the line-up from the No. 7 due to his inexperience and recent injury – Japanese Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto and defending LMP2 Le Mans winner Nicolas Lapierre, the car will give Toyota a numbers advantage that, while being far from decisive, could prove important.

Few figures within the Le Mans paddock would begrudge a Toyota victory following last year’s heartache. The TS050 Hybrid has looked strong and reliable through the early part of the WEC season, taking two victories from two races and a one-two at Spa.

Porsche may have more to come at Le Mans, but for now, the smart money would be on Toyota to finally break its duck and take its maiden overall victory as a manufacturer at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

CAN PORSCHE’S FIVE-STAR LINE-UP FIGHT BACK?

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Porsche LMP Team 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Porsche heads into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with what is arguably the most experienced and successful driver line-up on the grid. The re-jig that saw 2016 Le Mans winners Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas get relocated within its motorsport family (plus the retirement of Mark Webber) freed up space for Audi refugee Andre Lotterer and 2015 victors Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy in its full-season line-up.

Add in Jani (2016 winner with Lieb and Dumas) and Timo Bernhard (2010 winner with Audi), and you get to five Le Mans victors in a line-up of six. The exception is Brendon Hartley, who finished second in 2015.

Toyota may have enjoyed the upper hand through the early part of the season, but that is not to say Porsche has not been a force. The team made clever strategy work to get in the mix at the front at both Silverstone and Spa, and as we saw with Toyota last year, outright pace isn’t everything when it comes to Le Mans.

With Audi no longer on the grid, Porsche is left to fight alone for the Volkswagen Group’s pride at Le Mans. Its brands have won all but one 24-hour since the turn of the millennium (2009 being the break when Peugeot was victorious). Continuing that record and taking a third straight overall victory would be significant; perhaps even more poignant (or neat for the numbers fans out there) would be a 19th overall win claimed in a 919.

LIFE AFTER AUDI BEGINS AT LE MANS

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

Audi and Le Mans have been synonymous with one another since 2000. My colleague Tony DiZinno penned an excellent column following the withdrawal announcement at the end of last year about how Audi made Le Mans cool again – and it’s true. Audi and Le Mans went hand-in-hand.

The WEC paddock has felt a bit emptier this year because of Audi’s absence, and the same will likely be true at Le Mans. To not have the likes of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich and Leena Gade (who admittedly had already left Audi prior to its own WEC exit) decked out in Audi colors in the garage and pit lane will be strange.

The majority of the Audi drivers will still be around, though. Lotterer is the only one who has stayed in LMP1, joining Porsche; Marcel Fassler has a seat with Corvette in GTE-Pro; Lucas di Grassi is also in a GT, racing a Ferrari for AF Corse; Oliver Jarvis is in LMP2 with Jackie Chan DC Racing. The only members of the 2016 cast missing are Benoit Treluyer and Loic Duval.

Motorsport, like life, goes on. There is still a Le Mans without Audi. And we’ve got two heavyweights in the form of Porsche and Toyota ready to duel for top honors.

AND WHAT OF BYKOLLES?

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Bykolles Racing Ream car of Oliver Webb, James Rossiter and Dominik Kraihamer drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Don’t go thinking that LMP1 only comprises Toyota and Porsche. After Rebellion’s decision to step down to LMP2, the ByKolles team is going it alone for the LMP1 privateers, with its ENSO CLM P1/01 NISMO car set to be shared by Oliver Webb, Dominik Kraihamer and Marco Bonanomi.

Being in what is effectively a one-car race, the ByKolles team’s expectations will be chiefly internal. A solid result would be getting to the finish without too many major dramas, and if the team can stay ahead of the LMP2 field as it did at Spa last month, that would be a solid achievement.

Otherwise, the privateer side of LMP1 is more a case of looking to next year, when increased numbers are expected. Ginetta, Perrin and BR Engineering are all working on chassis for customers to buy, and a few established teams have been linked with making the jump up. More details will hopefully come out across the course of Le Mans.

PREDICTION: TOYOTA TO WIN, BUT WHICH CAR?

SPA, BELGIUM – MAY 6: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, Toyota LMP1 crew celebrate in the pit lane during the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the second round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship’s at Spa-Francorchamps Circuit on May 6, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Toyota is probably going to be the neutral’s pick for victory given the events of last year, but even putting that aside, the Japanese marque has looked really strong so far this season. It proved last year it has the strategy nous to succeed at La Sarthe, so I’m going to put my money on a first overall victory for Toyota this weekend.

But which car?

It’s really a toss-up between the No. 7 and No. 8. The No. 9 has strong drivers in it, but the lack of Le Mans – and, frankly, general endurance racing – experience makes it a real wildcard. So which of the full-season Toyotas will get the job done?

The No. 7 was the car to beat at Spa, even if it finished second after being, to quote Mike Conway, “screwed” twice by full course yellows. But I think if the No. 8 crew can work out why it lacked the pace there and get things turned around for Le Mans, then we’ll see last year’s ’23 hours and 59 minutes of Le Mans’ victors Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi finally – and deservedly – take a maiden 24 hour victory.

12 months on, it would be the perfect narrative.

But when has Le Mans ever cared for that?

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: Kazuki Nakajima of Toyota Gazoo Racing reacts in his car after suffering engine problems while leading at the end of the Le Mans 24 Hour race handing victory to the Porsche Team at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

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.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.