When cautions fly in IndyCar make things interesting. Photo: IndyCar

Will closed pits and bad caution timing shift IndyCar’s title tilt?

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LEXINGTON, Ohio – One of the things that is outside a strategist’s control is when the yellows fall in a Verizon IndyCar Series road or street course race, such as today’s Honda Indy 200 (3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

Depending on when they do, particularly around a pit stop cycle, it can either make or break your race – and potentially your season.

The question is, do you pit right when a pit window opens, which avoids the potential of getting caught out? Or do you opt to stretch your luck, pit later, and potentially catch a caution at the wrong time?

Toronto’s race two weeks ago, the Honda Indy Toronto, was the latest example over recent years where closing the pits for a yellow flag drastically shook up the order.

The previously dominant trio of polesitter Simon Pagenaud, front-row starter Graham Rahal and Helio Castroneves, who’d vaulted to the lead after a perfect start, were caught out when Tony Kanaan nosed into the tire barriers in Turn 1 and they hadn’t visited the pit lane yet.

It was Josef Newgarden who was the beneficiary of that, the Team Penske driver having followed his strategist Tim Cindric’s call to pit just prior to the yellow flag, as Cindric had done for Will Power last year in the same race. Newgarden promptly won his second race this year from there.

Off-sequence strategies and cautions have adjusted how Mid-Ohio has fallen the last couple years. What looked like a fight between Newgarden and his predecessor in the No. 2 Team Penske car, Juan Pablo Montoya, in 2015 went away as Sage Karam spun and Rahal promptly leapfrogged to the win. Karam’s spin was not without its controversy, though.

Newgarden, Rossi and Hinchcliffe moved to the fore in Toronto. Photo: IndyCar

As the Verizon IndyCar Series heads into the final five races of the season with the top four within 23 points and the top seven within 72 – these the seven likely realistic title contenders of Scott Dixon, Castroneves, Pagenaud, Newgarden, Will Power, Rahal and Takuma Sato – how the yellows fall in the three remaining road course races will be fascinating to watch.

Newgarden explained the conundrum drivers find themselves in depending on cautions, but they’re not in nearly as tight a spot as strategists.

“I mean, it depends on where you qualify, right? I think that changes your strategy. Maybe that helps you or hurts you,” Newgarden explained. “I think in Toronto, it was probably a blessing qualifying seventh because, you know, our strategy was to come in early. We just happened to catch a yellow at the right point. I still think we had good potential without it. But that always just makes your day a lot easier.

“So I don’t know. I don’t think there’s really a good recipe for it. You either get lucky on the right days or you don’t. You qualify first up here, it is always good to qualify on the pole. Maybe you just catch a bad yellow. Qualifying 10th was right thing that day. But I have no idea how you guard against it.”

Rahal was particularly frustrated by the caution timing in Toronto. Team owner and father Bobby spoke out against IndyCar’s current rules about how the pits close when a full course caution flies.

“You’re right, we’ve been on both ends of it,” Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “We benefited at Mid-Ohio (in 2015) by ducking in and then gratuitously a yellow showed up. We were fourth or fifth, sixth, and then ended up first.

“But Toronto was frustrating for sure. Really the top three cars in the field frankly, were handsomely ahead of the fourth place car. It was the wrong place, the wrong time and very frustrating. Fate plays such a role, or bad luck, or however you want to describe it.”

Carpenter with Spencer Pigot. Photo: IndyCar

Ed Carpenter can speak to both the driver and owner perspectives. The man atop Ed Carpenter Racing is a driver on the ovals, but on the box for the road and street course races.

“I think it’s the best possible situation for what we have now,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “A lot of times the variety gets taken out of play for the other teams if the pits were closed. Sometimes guys benefit in spite of their own personal preferences!”

Mike Hull, Scott Dixon’s longtime race strategist, has been on both sides of the divide as well.

“I think we worry about it at every road track,” Hull said. “We keep knocking on the door for INDYCAR to maybe adapt a system where they don’t trap the leader on the race track; they did that for a while with the previous Race Director and he did a good job of that. INDYCAR has proven it can be done; it’s something they need to look at. It’s a conversation we’ve had; I think it needs to go past the conversation stage.”

So will this be something INDYCAR examines, or is it just a case of teams just missing the window to pit when they can? Rahal and Newgarden outlined what they would like to see for the way forward.

Bobby and Graham Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m in the process of trying to come up with some ideas, and Jay (Frye) and Brian (Barnhart) are all ears on that,” Rahal said. “One thing is, I’ve never been a fan of is the closed pits. Certainly when I drove, we never had closed pits.

“Number one, it makes for a more dangerous situation when people run in when everyone comes in. I wonder in this case if the Kanaan situation had been a local yellow, and it should have been to my mind, the leaders could get in and get out. I get it when stuff is scattered all over the place and maybe you need it then. I didn’t think the TK incident merited a full-course yellow. But, it doesn’t matter what I thought!

“By not closing the pits, that solves that situation. In the end, that’s the guys who weren’t competitive initially, who are struggling on tires, they’re the ones who benefit. That moved them to the front.

“I want to propose the idea – that in all cases, they don’t close the pits anymore (when a full course caution comes out). It creates a lot of issues and risks you don’t need. We’ll see. It’s a real matter of more using the local yellow. And if someone violates that by speeding through a yellow area, say they’re black flagged or something like that. We saw that at Detroit lost the pole, with Castroneves, and that was in qualifying. I think the local yellows should be used much more often than they are. The pits shouldn’t be closed in any situation.”

And from the driver’s standpoint?

“It’s definitely been an interesting topic,” Newgarden said. “I think definitely in the past, I’ve always preferred having the yellows because it gives you an opportunity if you’re not strong one weekend. I think definitely when I suffered more inconsistently from track to track with performance, it was nice to be able to rely on potential yellows to help you.

“Now it feels like this year we’re more consistently just fast everywhere, so you don’t really want them. I think there’s a different opinion whether you’re at the front or back of the grid.

“It would be cool if we could go back to open pit scenario somehow. The rules are what they are right now.

“How you safeguard against them, I don’t think you can. You’re either lucky or you’re not.”

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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