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PREVIEW: KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After a hectic period in the lead-up to and run through the Indianapolis 500 in May, then into the first two and a half weeks of June, the Verizon IndyCar Series is back in action this weekend with the KOHLER Grand Prix at picturesque Road America.

The race’s return last year after nine years away proved a hit for drivers, teams and fans alike and the encore will also be one to watch.

With that, here’s some story lines to look out for the 2017 KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

2017 KOHLER Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does a Will Power “summer smackdown” begin now? 

Last year, Power’s win at Road America was his second in a row after winning Detroit race two, and the second race in his ludicrously good run of four wins and two second-place finishes in six races. He enters the 2017 Road America race in exactly the same position, fresh off a dominant win in the race beforehand.

Power’s Texas win was authoritative and didn’t really seem in doubt, even as Scott Dixon and Takuma Sato posed late-race challenges before they collided. Power seems in a good spot mentally this year, more so than in past years, and a second straight win both in 2017 and at Road America would fully serve as a warning shot to the rest of the field that his title pursuit is underway.

How will the IndyCar trio at Le Mans fare back at Road America?

Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Mikhail Aleshin return to action in their day jobs this weekend after racing at last week’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. There wasn’t much of a hangover here, last year.

Dixon and Kanaan qualified second and third, with Dixon running strong early before a mechanical issue. Kanaan, meanwhile, had probably his best drive on a road or street course in years, ending just behind Power in second. Aleshin had a somewhat quiet weekend, qualifying 13th and finishing 16th.

Can Rahal’s roll continue?

Graham Rahal had a very strong weekend here with a sixth place start and podium finish in third. He’s had struggles on permanent road courses so far this year, though. At Barber he qualified 21st and last and finished 13th; at the Indianapolis road course he was 20th on the grid but recovered to sixth.

A good qualifying effort will be key to snapping that rough run on the road courses and continuing the overall roll he and the Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing team have been on in the last month, with the doubleheader sweep in Detroit and a fourth place at Texas.

Will testing help the six-pack of Hondas that tested here?

Three Andretti Autosport, two Dale Coyne Racing and one Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda all tested here last week, to get an early leg up on the track for 2017 ahead of the rest of the field. It’s been rare in 2017 – Indianapolis aside – that teams have got the opportunity to test at the same track so soon to race day, but the Andretti and SPM teams cannily used an Indy Lights test day to ensure their primary drivers got an extra half day of running in. Coyne, too, got Ed Jones a day on track in an IndyCar here. Jones was in the crosshairs in a crazy Indy Lights weekend here last year but has been much calmer, and solid, in his first season in IndyCar.

Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske also tested at Watkins Glen last week for a Firestone tire test, so they’ve had a bit of extra running in too.

Five extra laps of fuel doom? 

At just over 4 miles, there’s no room to be wrong on fuel strategy at Road America. You run out, and it’s likely game over – the strategy has to be pinpoint perfect.

This year’s KOHLER Grand Prix has been extended five laps to 55. It makes the race longer but it also forces teams into a very tight window of either three or four stops. Usually a fuel stint here is 12 or 13 laps; it can possibly be stretched to 14.

With pace laps to factor in early, pitting sooner on the first stop is possible. Can teams make it home on three stops this year or will a fourth be needed?

The potential eighth winner list has some good potential candidates

Besides the obvious driver you’d have expected to have a win but doesn’t so far in 2017 – Dixon – there’s also the names like Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Helio Castroneves and even Max Chilton or Ed Jones who could be considered potential eighth different winners of the IndyCar season. Marco Andretti has looked strong in road course practice this year but it hasn’t translated to qualifying or a result.

The final word

From Power, who seeks both his second straight win in 2017 and a second straight at Road America: “I’m really looking forward to racing at Road America after the race at Texas. It was a crazy race but the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team worked hard together to pull off a win. I’m confident that the momentum we’ve built off of that win can definitely be a huge benefit for us as we head to Elkhart Lake and get into the championship hunt. It’s a fun, energetic crowd there and a fun course. I’m just ready to get back on track.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, June 23
10:45 – 11:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:15 – 4 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
4:05 – 4:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, June 24
11 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (5 p.m. ET, same-day delay)

Sunday, June 25
8 – 8:30 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
11:32 a.m. – Driver introductions
12:10 p.m. – Command to start engines
12:17 p.m. – KOHLER Grand Prix (55 laps/220.77 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Will Power (pole)
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Graham Rahal
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Charlie Kimball
7. Juan Pablo Montoya
8. Josef Newgarden
9. Spencer Pigot
10. Carlos Munoz

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Will Power
2. Scott Dixon
3. Tony Kanaan
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Helio Castroneves
6. Graham Rahal

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.