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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

Bruni, Snow win GT poles for IMSA at Lime Rock

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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A pair of first-time polesitters have the top spot for this weekend’s GT-only IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Northeast Grand Prix from Lime Rock Park. Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole for Porsche while Madison Snow has his first pole of the season.

GT LE MANS

Just 0.535 of a second covered the four manufacturers and eight cars in GT Le Mans in qualifying, but up front, Gianmaria Bruni has his first pole as a Porsche factory driver.

The Italian, in only his third weekend as a factory GT driver and second ever at Lime Rock and sharing the No. 912 Porsche 911 RSR with Laurens Vanthoor, posted the ultimate pole time of 50.404 seconds around the 1.53-mile circuit.

“I’m very happy to do my first pole with Porsche, first qualifying. This team has taught me good things and gets the most out of it,” Bruni told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam after the checkered flag. He’s the 23rd different GTLM polesitter in IMSA since the 2014 merger, this surprisingly his first pole in the series.

Richard Westbrook took the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GT into second at 50.540 in the car he shares with Ryan Briscoe.

The No. 911 Porsche and No. 24 BMW M6 GTLM are third and fourth, with the pair of Corvettes next.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R is back in action this week following its accident at the end of the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Per Corvette Racing, repairs to the car included: the entire front-right corner (components, bodywork), steering rack, diffuser, wing and changed a chassis tube due to a crease. There were no other cracks or damage to the frame. That car qualified fifth in the hands of Tommy Milner, who shares the car with Oliver Gavin. The pair won Corvette Racing’s 100th race as a team this race last year.

GT DAYTONA

After a run of seven manufacturers scoring pole positions in the first seven races in GTD, the streak was broken Friday at Lime Rock Park.

Not too far from its New Jersey base, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 was the first car to score a second pole this year, this time in the hands of Madison Snow. Snow joins Bryan Sellers (Long Beach) as polesitters for this car this season, and this at least keeps the streak of different drivers alive.

The Nos. 54 CORE autosport and No. 28 Alegra Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the hands of Colin Braun and Patrick Long were next. Snow’s 52.508 best lap edged Braun’s 52.699 and Long’s 52.836, with Jack Hawksworth best of the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 brigade in fourth and Jens Klingmann taking the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 into fifth.

The top 15 of the 17 cars in GTD were separated by only 0.992 of a second around the 1.53-mile bullring.

The two-hour, 40-minute race runs late Saturday afternoon, from 3:05 to 5:45 p.m. ET.

Mid-Ohio, Honda Racing go galactic for 2017 at-track camping theme

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Honda Racing will channel a galactic theme for this year’s camping festivities at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a popular camping venue on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar.

This marks the third year of a contest for best campground site, with various Honda Indy 200 gifts on offer. The theme name this year is “May the G-Forces Be With You,” and the hashtag is #CampingWithHonda.  Last year’s was a “Christmas in July” theme, complete with Santa Claus. The full release from the track is linked here.

As this year’s event alludes to a very popular galactic film series in all but name, it will see a number of participants in the weekend festivities by to judge the campsites at the track – potentially in character!

Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in IndyCar, will visit the sites Saturday after qualifying to choose the winners. He did so last year as well.

Photo: PWC

Others, such as last year’s Mid-Ohio race winner Simon Pagenaud and RealTime Racing Acura NSX GT3 factory driver in Pirelli World Challenge, Ryan Eversley (right), are expected to attend as well – though whether as themselves or potentially in a special character remains to be seen.

“It’s always a thrill and a special part of the Mid-Ohio weekend to take part in Honda Racing fun festivities like ‘May the G-Forces Be With You,'” Eversley told NBC Sports; the Atlanta native finished second in the second PWC GT race here last year in the previous generation TLX-GT, in one of his best drives of the season. “These guys always know how to cook up some fun activities and so if there’s an opportunity to dress up, have fun and play along with it, I’m down!”

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Pagenaud, who was a longtime member of the Honda and Acura family before his move to Team Penske’s Chevrolet-powered, IndyCar program (right), added, “For me, as a fan, this film series is just the best. I love the battle between the light and dark side of the force, because I feel like we can all identify with that. I try to channel the force when I’m in my race car, so this will be a really fun weekend in Mid-Ohio.

“I plan to bring something to show my pride at the track, but I won’t ruin the surprise for you guys in advance!”

Expect similar characters to be present on site on Saturday evening. There’s also going to be a bonfire, live band (Columbus group MidLife Crisis) and s’mores, plus branded lighted batons which should display well at the bonfire on Saturday.

And for James Hinchcliffe, another Honda driver who is no stranger to having fun, he’s also part of the buildup to this event, as evidenced by the event teaser below.

Wehrlein nonplussed by Sauber-Honda speculation

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Pascal Wehrlein is not paying any attention to speculation that Sauber’s planned Formula 1 engine deal with Honda for 2018 could be on the rocks, saying his future remains open as he focuses on his current duties with the team.

Mercedes junior Wehrlein was placed at Sauber for 2017, and led the team to its first points finish of the year at the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Sauber had been given a boost two weeks earlier when it announced a deal to become Honda’s second customer team for 2018, including technical and financial support.

However, the deal was put in doubt following Sauber CEO and team principal Monisha Kaltenborn’s departure, leading to speculation that it had not been finalized.

Kaltenborn’s replacement Frederic Vasseur has made it a priority to resolve the matter, but it has made for a bleak outlook at Hinwil for the future.

With the 2018 driver market beginning to stir, Wehrlein has stressed he is not yet thinking about next season, nor is he paying any attention to the speculation about Sauber’s deal with Honda.

“I have no idea what is happening next year. Of course, I have heard all these rumors as well,” Wehrlein told the official F1 website.

“I cannot influence any of these things, so why worry about them? Whatever rumors there are in the air, it is no distraction for me – that is the bottom line.

“I have a contract for this season so I am only focusing on this year. Decisions are made by others and I am only here to drive, to perform as well as I can.

“Of course I want to see Sauber do well. They have the potential and have already been in good positions in the past and I want them to get back there. How and when? That is on another page.”

Wehrlein expressed his confidence in Vasseur’s leadership, although he expects the team to shift focus to its 2018 plans.

“I do have expectations of Fred and the team. I don’t know how fast Fred can change things or how he can change them, but we now have one race left before the summer shut down,” Wehrlein said.

“In the second half of the season the team will focus on next year, so I don’t think you will see his touch too much this year. So let’s see what we can still do with the tools that we have right now.

“I really respect Fred. I used to work with him in DTM. He had a team when I drove there in 2015. He has so much experience in motorsport and in many other ventures outside racing.

“He is a very successful man. He could help Sauber. He could be very good for the team.”

Keeping Grosjean, Magnussen for 2018 ‘a given’ in Gene Haas’ eyes

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Gene Haas is planning to field an unchanged line-up for his Formula 1 team in 2018, believing it to be “a given” that Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will continue beyond the end of the season.

NASCAR team co-owner Haas took his eponymous F1 operation onto the grid in 2016, pairing Grosjean with Esteban Gutierrez.

While Grosjean scored a fifth-place finish in Haas F1 Team’s second race and picked up 29 points across the course of the season, Gutierrez failed to record a single top-10 result.

The Mexican was replaced by Magnussen for 2017, with the Dane taking 11 points through the first 10 races of the season.

Despite the fluidity of the driver market for 2018, Haas revealed in an interview with the official F1 website that the team is planning to race with Grosjean and Magnussen together once again next year.

“We will run with the same drivers that we have this year again next year. That is a given,” Haas said.

“And given the other continuity aspects, we should be better racers next season.”

Haas had been tipped to take on a Ferrari junior such as Antonio Giovinazzi or Charles Leclerc for 2018 given its technical ties to the Italian marque.

Grosjean is understood to be a target for Renault should it miss out on re-signing Fernando Alonso, while Magnussen penned a multi-year deal upon arrival at Haas at the start of the season.

Reflecting on Magnussen’s contribution, Haas believes the team has benefitted from his greater race performance that has allowed it to match its debut season points total in just 10 races in 2017.

“Esteban was a good driver. He was as fast as Romain in practice, but I think that Kevin has an edge in terms of race experience,” Haas said.

“He can score points and that was the key for bringing him on board. Kevin can grab points and Romain can too.

“We now have 29 points. Last year around this time we also had 29 points, but did not score for the rest of the season.

“So now if we can score another 29 points by Abu Dhabi, that would be a great position.”