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PREVIEW: ABC Supply 500

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Following a small “summer break” in which they took two weeks off, the Verizon IndyCar Series begins its stretch run to the championship this weekend, with four races spanning a five week period, including three in a row, beginning at this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Since returning to the IndyCar schedule in 2013, Pocono has seen four different pole sitters and winners. In 2013, Marco Andretti sat on the pole while Scott Dixon took the win. In 2014, Juan Pablo Montoya scored both the pole and the victory. In 2015, it was Helio Castroneves leading the field to the green flag, with Ryan Hunter-Reay ending up in Victory Lane. And last year, Mikhail Aleshin took his first career IndyCar pole, while Will Power captured the race win.

In short, no one driver or team has emerged as the predominant force at the three-turn 2.5-mile oval, meaning its recent history since returning to the schedule has been equally as unpredictable as the 2017 season.

Previous speedway races have indicated that Honda should have an advantage, but Honda and Chevrolet have actually split the wins at the big ovals this year. Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato won for Honda at the Indianapolis 500, while Team Penske’s Will Power won for Chevrolet at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. And the rubber match on the big ovals is expected to be somewhat of a wildcard as IndyCar begins its stretch run to the championship.

2017 ABC Supply 500 – Talking Points

500-mile endurance test

The two other big ovals were more about survival than outright pace. Three Honda engines failed during the 101st Indianapolis 500, capping a month of worry that saw no fewer than ten engine failures during the month of May.

And both the Indy 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 were mired by crashes. The two races combined for ten cautions due to accidents, highlight by Scott Dixon’s airborne incident at Indianapolis and a pileup at Texas that collected eight cars.

Outside of the 2015 race, which saw 12 cautions, Pocono has a tendency for long stretches of green-flag running with the other three races combining for only seven cautions between them (the 2016 race saw four cautions, the 2014 race saw one, and the 2013 race saw two). Still, while Sunday’s race is unlikely to be a crashfest, it will be a big test of engine reliability.

Points leader Josef Newgarden discussed such a topic in a media teleconference, revealing that he believes Chevrolet has the upper hand in this area. “I think the advantage to being with team Chevy is you feel comfortable in the reliability that we’ve had throughout many years at IndyCar, specifically the last couple years. I think we feel very comfortable with what Chevrolet brings from a reliability standpoint. We never have issues,” he asserted.

Josef Newgarden, on the back of three wins, leads the IndyCar championship entering Pocono. Photo: IndyCar

Still, this does not mean he is discounting the Honda, who reportedly found the issue that caused their slew of engine failures early in the year.

“There’s a lot of things that give us confidence, but at the same time, we can’t discount Honda,” Newgarden added. “You can’t turn an eye to them. You have to make sure you’re watching them at all points and respecting what they can bring to the table because they’re a very strong manufacturer and they’ve won races and they’ve won Indy 500s, and they’re very capable of taking it from you if you don’t watch that closely. They’re a challenge for us with Pocono being their biggest strength, but I feel confident with Chevy that we have a chance to win the championship.”

Honda’s big oval dominance? 

Speaking of Honda, the assumption is that Honda has a pace advantage over Chevrolet at the big ovals. And while that was true at Indianapolis, Texas was quite different, especially in that race-winner Will Power led 180 laps on his way to victory.

While the aerodynamic package at Texas may have played a factor in that, it nonetheless serves notice that Honda’s advantage on the big ovals is not as big as originally thought.

Last year at Pocono, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay somewhat dominated the race, but it was Power who went to Victory Lane for Team Penske and Chevrolet.

Like Texas, outside circumstances certainly played a role (Hunter-Reay had an odd electronics failure that saw his car lose power late in the race, though he ultimately rebounded to finish third), and the speed of Aleshin and Hunter-Reay that day indicated that Honda had an outright speed advantage.

Scott Dixon is a previous winner at Pocono. Photo: Getty Images

However, Pocono’s unique layout means that pure speed is not enough; the three different turns require a perfect setup balance that features a lot of compromise. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, the 2013 Pocono victor, discussed this aspect, highlighting that Pocono is a track not to be taken lightly.

“You have to put a lot of hard work into getting everything right on this track. Nothing is a given here,” Dixon said of the challenges of Pocono Raceway. “We’ve slipped to third in the championship with four to go here recently, but are only eight points out. This is the time to really start a string of strong finishes that will hopefully get you across the finish line in front of the other contenders.”

In total, Chevrolet leads Honda 7-6 in the win column in 2017, with Josef Newgarden’s victory at the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio giving the edge to the Chevrolet camp leading into Pocono.

David vs. Multiple Goliaths

The championship picture sees six drivers separated by 58 points with four races to go. Four of them (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power) are from the mighty Team Penske, and one (Scott Dixon) is from the equally mighty Chip Ganassi Racing.

The sixth is the famous one-car effort from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the hands of driver Graham Rahal. Since 2015, this combination has been nipping at the heels of all the big teams, even making a championship run in 2015.

Graham Rahal has won twice in 2017. Photo: IndyCar.

In 2017, they’re poised to do it again. Though 58 points behind championship leader Newgarden, there remains time for Rahal to chip away, though he’ll need to finish ahead of his title rivals in each of the final four races if he is to capture this year’s championship.

But, with the experience of 2015 to build on, it’s a task he and the team are ready for.

“The team absolutely has momentum. I think we are the hottest team other than (Team) Penske right now, if you look at it across the board,” Rahal asserted ahead of this weekend’s race.

The younger Rahal’s confidence is very high leading into the weekend, especially because he feels the team’s package is more than enough to contend for a win.

“We’ve got some big races coming up clearly and Pocono is going to be a big one that should suit the Honda really well. Coming out of Indianapolis setup wise, we should have some good knowledge that we didn’t have going into the month that we found very late in the month. We had very fast race cars and ran up front there, so hopefully we can carry that forward and do the same at Pocono this weekend,” Graham added.

Graham and RLL will look to improve upon their best Pocono finish of 11th, which came last year.

Lingering questions

  • Dale Coyne Racing has been a surprisingly mighty force at the big ovals this year. Can they continue that form?
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay is on a winless streak that dates back to this race in 2015. Can you bring that drought to an end?
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Mikhail Aleshin have parted ways, with Sebastian Saavedra piloting the No. 7 SPM Honda entry at the next two races. Saavedra finished an impressive 11th with the team at Toronto; can he repeat that performance on a big oval?
  • Drivers like JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Alexander Rossi are running out of chances to win in 2017. Will one of them break through at Pocono?
  • Can Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing spring a third consecutive top-10 in their third start of the year? The young Colombian American and the new team has been one of the year’s pleasant surprises to date.

The final word

From last year’s Pocono winner, Will Power: “”I definitely had a great time off with (son) Beau and my wife, but am ready to get back on track. The No. 12 Verizon Chevy team put together a really awesome car at Mid-Ohio which produced a strong result. Now we’re going back to Pocono where we won last year. Another win there would be huge for us in the point standings, so we’re really going to give it our all. The team worked on the car a lot and we all feel it’s going to be another strong car.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Saturday August 19

9:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
1:00 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), airs LIVE on NBCSN
5:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Sunday August 20

1:10 p.m. – 1:25 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
2:00 p.m.. – NBCSN on air
2:40 p.m. – ABC Supply 500 (200 laps/500 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10

1. Will Power
2. Mikhail Aleshin
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. Josef Newgarden
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Scott Dixon
7. Carlos Munoz
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Tony Kanaan
10. James Hinchcliffe

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Hulkenberg: Singapore DNF ‘tough to take’ after strong start

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Nico Hulkenberg has admitted his retirement from last weekend’s Singapore Grand Prix was “tough to take” after being in contention to end his long-running Formula 1 podium drought.

Hulkenberg entered the Singapore weekend ready to break the record for making the most F1 starts without recording a top-three finish, having tied Adrian Sutil’s tally of 128 races at Monza.

Hulkenberg qualified an excellent fifth for Renault and dodged the start-line chaos to rise to third, and even ran second for one lap before switching tires.

Hulkenberg settled into fourth place when the switch to dry tires was complete, only for an oil leak on his car to force him to make an unscheduled pit stop and ultimately retire from the race.

“Sunday was tough to take and left me feeling disappointed. We lost a good result, and it was a case of not having a good enough reliability; that’s the way this sport goes sometimes,” Hulkenberg said.

“We lost our fourth position which is a pity especially after all the hard work from the whole team. It would have been a nice bunch of points but that’s racing and it happens!

“The car is looking fast and we have to build on the positives and take it forward now to Malaysia.”

IndyCar points by circuit type: 2017

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After separate reviews of the street and oval portions of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season – led by Josef Newgarden and Helio Castroneves, respectively – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma season finale was of course, the final road course race of the year as well.

And a third different driver topped the charts in those six permanent road course races this year, in the form of Scott Dixon.

Dixon had one win (Road America) and three runners-up finishes in the six races, with other finishes of fourth (Sonoma) and ninth (Mid-Ohio) which brought him 261 points in these races. That was two points clear of Newgarden, who won at Barber and Mid-Ohio and finished second at both Road America and Sonoma, while losing points at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Watkins Glen.

The top six drivers in permanent road course points – Dixon, Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, Castroneves and Graham Rahal – were also the top six drivers in the overall points, albeit not in that order.

For the year, it was interesting to note how being consistent across all three phases of circuit netted the best results.

The two biggest outliers were Power – who was only 14th in street course points but second in oval and fourth in road course points – who ended fifth in points overall and Kanaan, who overcame 16th (street course) and 18th (road course) points positions with third place in oval points, trailing only Castroneves and Power.

That oval haul brought Kanaan up to 10th in points in a year where several others – notably James Hinchcliffe, Max Chilton and Ed Jones – all occasionally staked their claim to the final spot in the top-10.

Otherwise, consistency across all circuits was key to securing your overall points position for the year.

The breakdown of points per driver by circuit type is below.

P # Driver Street Road Oval Total
1 2 Josef Newgarden 185 259 198 642
2 1 Simon Pagenaud 147 256 226 629
3 9 Scott Dixon 159 261 201 621
4 3 Helio Castroneves 126 220 252 598
5 12 Will Power 86 244 232 562
6 15 Graham Rahal 162 191 169 522
7 98 Alexander Rossi 126 171 197 494
8 26 Takuma Sato 115 112 214 441
9 28 Ryan Hunter-Reay 105 178 138 421
10 10 Tony Kanaan 79 97 227 403
11 8 Max Chilton 91 141 164 396
12 27 Marco Andretti 103 119 166 388
13 5 James Hinchcliffe 155 99 122 376
14 19 Ed Jones 88 99 167 354
15 21 JR Hildebrand 78 90 179 347
16 14 Carlos Munoz 85 109 134 328
17 83 Charlie Kimball 72 135 120 327
18 4 Conor Daly 68 120 117 305
19 7 Mikhail Aleshin 77 68 92 237
20 20 Spencer Pigot 75 114 29 218
21 18 Sebastien Bourdais 93 89 32 214
22 20 Ed Carpenter 169 169
23 88 Gabby Chaves 98 98
24 22 Juan Pablo Montoya 20 73 93
25 18 Esteban Gutierrez 43 23 25 91
26 7 Sebastian Saavedra 19 61 80
27 16 Oriol Servia 21 40 61
28 7 Jack Harvey 40 17 57
29 29 Fernando Alonso 47 47
30 63 Pippa Mann 32 32
31 13 Zachary Claman DeMelo 26 26
32 77 Jay Howard 24 24
33 24 Sage Karam 23 23
34 40 Zach Veach 11 12 23
35 18 James Davison 21 21
36 18 Tristan Vautier 15 15
37 44 Buddy Lazier 14 14
38 7 Robert Wickens 0 0

Ed Jones adds name to IndyCar’s elite as top rookie in 2017

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Sure, you can say Ed Jones didn’t have a full-season counterpart for IndyCar’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors in 2017 and so he was always going to win the award.

But in a year when you don’t have competition and the other first-year drivers did only selected races, you have to compare yourself to the rest of the field at large and make an impression – and Jones clearly did so for Dale Coyne Racing.

Per Trackside Online, Jones joins this list of drivers in the series’ full-time lineup who won top rookie honors in their year of eligibility: Alexander Rossi, Carlos Munoz, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Will Power, Sebastien Bourdais, Scott Dixon, and Tony Kanaan.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Heading into last year’s offseason, Jones was not the favorite to take over the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda; fellow Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires veteran RC Enerson was on the heels of three impressive debut races at the tail end of 2016.

However Jones was always going to need a place to land with the $1 million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for at least three races. Between that and with additional budget gathered, Jones found his way into Dale Coyne’s second seat alongside Sebastien Bourdais and together the pairing clicked.

Coyne had his eye on him throughout 2016, and watched him win the Indy Lights title at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – albeit under somewhat controversial circumstances when Carlin teammate Felix Serralles pulled aside to allow Jones through.

“It was Indy Lights. We went to his last race at Laguna Seca when he won the championship,” Coyne said. “We kept an eye on him. We keep an eye on all Indy Lights guys as well. It’s close, we can see them, watch them race, see how aggressive they are.

“He was always smooth in the car. I didn’t know how good he was going to be, because he was smooth. He doesn’t look like Paul Tracy in a car, but he drives better than Paul Tracy, at least in the beginning, at least Paul’s first year. He was a pleasant — it was the biggest surprise we’ve ever had.”

Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Brit who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, was an instant hit on results if not on outright pace. But with finishes of sixth, 10th and 11th among his first five starts and other results lost due to circumstances outside his control, he immediately made a positive impact in the paddock.

Where Jones grew up fastest in a year where he matured so much from a more quiet and reserved driver in Indy Lights – much of that thanks to the family atmosphere at Coyne and its ace PR rep, Karina Redmond – was in May. Bourdais went from points leader and potential Indianapolis 500 contender to hospital-bound after his devastating accident in qualifying.

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)

Jones, meanwhile, was suddenly thrust into the unexpected role of team leader, not knowing week-to-week who his teammate might be depending on the issue. Similar to Alexander Rossi last year, Jones carried a quiet swagger during the month of May in Indianapolis, and was aggrieved for getting knocked out of the Fast Nine shootout.

What he did on race day was equally as impressive as Rossi’s 2016 win in the ‘500 if not more so, considering the disparity in equipment and the fact Jones’ car was damaged in the nose from debris contacting it earlier in the race.

That third place finish (and the double points that went with it) was enough to earn many votes for this year’s Indianapolis 500 top rookie honors (including from this writer) although it wasn’t enough to supplant Fernando Alonso for the award, somewhat controversially. Coyne couldn’t resist trolling during Jones’ season-long top rookie acceptance press conference at Sonoma.

“Obviously Indy, third place there. Did you get Rookie of the Year at Indy or no? Didn’t get that, okay,” Coyne deadpanned.

Alas, Jones pressed on anyway with a consistent appetite for learning, thanks to Coyne’s tutelage, Michael Cannon’s sharp mind on the engineering stand and a crew that embraced him.

“It’s hard to say. There’s a lot of advice that Dale’s given me,” Jones said. “But, you know, he’s always been very supportive of learning everything step by step, learning from Seb. Every time I get to every weekend, even every session, I remember early on it was try to learn as much as you can, take it step by step, there’s no need to overdo it early on.

“I seen myself as well as one of the guys, rookies, younger guys that would come in and they try to be right at the front the beginning. In a series that’s so competitive like this, it doesn’t really happen that often. It’s extreme difficult to do it. Sometimes doing that, you can actually take steps backwards because you kind of lose where you’re at. It’s always better to sort of take it step by step, yeah, get there that way.”

After a ninth place at Detroit race one, Jones’ results suffered the rest of the way through a myriad of mishaps – be it tough setups, bad caution timing, an occasional spin or pit stop issues. A seventh at Road America was the lone bright spot, and a potential top-10 championship finish went begging. Losing Bourdais hurt primarily from a setup standpoint.

“I wasn’t always sure if it was just me or if it was a lot with the car. Yeah, that was the main thing. Seb is really good with setting up the car. Having his feedback to work off from was really helpful,” he said.

“If I ever wasn’t sure about something, I could use him to back something up. Not having him there, yeah, made it harder. Sometimes I was guessing a bit more. So, yeah, that was the toughest part.”

Jones said his driving and development got better as the year went on as, paradoxically, the results got worse.

“It’s always difficult not having another full-time rookie to compare to. Then again, I’ve looked at the rookies over the last few years. I’ve seen it’s extremely tough. I feel pretty happy with how it’s gone in comparison to other guys recently,” he said.

“I wanted to finish top-10 in the points. Halfway through the season, we were on track to doing that. We had a good opportunity to do it. The last few races, things have maybe not gone to plan.

“But I feel like as a driver, I got stronger. Early on in the season, I had some really great results. I was driving well, but also a lot of things fell my way. I was pretty lucky in that sense. Now I think we’ve gone better, me as a driver, also binding with the team. We got stronger, but things just haven’t gone our way. It’s been frustrating.”

None of the issues were egregious and as Coyne related later, Jones was one of the cleanest drivers he’d ever had in a year where the crash damage bills added up fast.

FORT WORTH, TX – JUNE 09: Ed Jones, driver of the #19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, and Tristan Vautier, driver of the #18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 9, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

With a rotating driver in the second car, be it James Davison, Esteban Gutierrez or Tristan Vautier before Bourdais’ welcome and surprise return at Gateway, Jones was the unexpected but needed rock in the driver lineup.

“I think it’s been a whole progression the whole year. We’ve run a lot of rookies over the years. We run rookies in tests that have never made it to a race, we ran rookies that made it to races,” Coyne said.

“He’s just a puppy. But he’s done a good job, very, very good. I don’t think he scratched the car. He actually did hit the wall at Pocono. The smallest amount of damage I’ve ever seen anybody do hitting a wall at Pocono. Done a very good job all year long, every track.”

Jones isn’t back yet for 2018, but Coyne said “We’re very, very close. I would love to have Ed back next year,” and wants to have a deal struck in the next few weeks.

Looking at what he did as a rookie was quite impressive. The five top-10s matched Conor Daly’s number last year as the lone full-season driver and while Daly was 18th in points in his first full season, Jones ended 14th.

That 14th place in the standings is a Coyne driver’s best finish in the standings since the late Justin Wilson’s incredible run to sixth in 2013, and actually a spot ahead of where Wilson was the following year in 2014, in 15th.

Jones’ qualifying average of 14.3 was 3.5 spots higher than Daly’s last year and Jones out-qualified his teammates nine times this year in 17 races, including Bourdais on three of eight attempts.

What he did for the team this year overall in a tough season will be remembered more than the results itself which again, were impressive given thee circumstances.

“It’s been very tough. But the whole team together, everyone within the team works very well together from the beginning of the year. A big shame to lose Seb after quite a few races. Everyone got on well with it. I remember after the accident, actually Dale got everyone together. We pushed forward,” he said.

“I think there’s been a lot of times that on Dale’s team, there’s things that have happened, gone up and down. As we’ve seen, they’ve always come back stronger.”

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McLaren ‘very close’ to agreeing new F1 deal with Alonso

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McLaren is “very close” to agreeing a new Formula 1 contract with Fernando Alonso beyond the end of the 2017 season, according to team racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last week in Singapore it would be splitting with struggling engine supplier Honda at the end of the season, linking up with Renault from 2018.

The decision was made in a bid to lift the team to the front of the field, having struggled for much of the past three years while working with Honda.

Alonso has made no secret of his frustration throughout the three-year stint, prompting the Spaniard to consider his future with McLaren upon the expiration of his contract at the end of the year.

With the driver market closing up, Alonso looks poised to remain with McLaren for 2018, but said in Singapore he is considering options in many series.

Speaking to the official F1 website, Boullier expressed his confidence in Alonso staying for 2018, saying a deal was “very close”.

“Fernando wants to stay. You can see it in his body language and the way he speaks,” Boullier added.

“There are marketing details that have to be sorted out, and that Zak [Brown, McLaren executive director] is working on.”

Despite suggestions of an ultimatum regarding its Honda partnership being issued to McLaren by Alonso, Boullier stressed that the team made the decision to switch to Renault by its own accord, with the drivers then fitting in afterwards for its 2018 plans.

“McLaren’s DNA is to be competitive. The team has always been in the top three and we belong there again,” Boullier said.

“Today we know that we have a decent chassis, which would allow us to be in the top three again with an equal level engine.

“So for us as a business it is important to be competitive, no matter what role Fernando plays. We had to make a decision for us.

“But if you want to be competitive you not only need an engine, you also need a driver. That is when Fernando comes into the picture.

“We did what we did for McLaren first, but the package includes also the driver.”