Andretti (27) and Newgarden (2) have milestone starts this weekend. Photo: Getty Images

Andretti’s 200th, Newgarden’s 100th IndyCar starts set at Sonoma

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Two American drivers who are only separated by three-plus years in age but 100 starts and six years of experience hit some important career milestones in the Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 season finale this weekend, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Marco Andretti will start his 200th race in a career that dates back to 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when he’d only just turned 19 years old.

Meanwhile Josef Newgarden will start his 100th race in a career that also began at a young age, 21 years old, on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2012.

Andretti is 30 and Newgarden 26 (turns 27 in December), and it’s easy to forget how young Andretti still is given this will be the end of his 12th season. At 26 though, Newgarden only seems to be entering the prime of his career, after overachieving with Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman and Ed Carpenter in his first five years and now looking to secure his first career championship in his first year with Team Penske.

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 27: Marco Andretti (C), driver of the #26 Andretti Green Racing NYSE Dallara Honda celebrates his first IndyCar race win with father Michael (L) and grandfather Mario (R) at the IRL IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma August 27, 2006 at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Of course at one point, Andretti was the hot young American prospect in IndyCar. He almost won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, losing right off the final turn of the final lap to Sam Hornish Jr., at age 19. He eventually did win his first race of his career at Sonoma Raceway later that season.

Andretti has always been solid and perhaps misunderstood; there’s a perception that he doesn’t really seem to care, but in actuality, he cares so much that he often presses or fails to deliver in crunch time. Qualifying poorly after practicing well has been his issue this year. His last name is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability; his results largely have not lived up to the hype or hope of being the next great Andretti, the third generation driver in the iconic family legacy.

All told, Andretti has two wins from his first 199 starts – his last came at Iowa in 2011 – with 18 other podium finishes, and his most recent of those came at Fontana in 2015, 37 races ago. Andretti finished between fifth and ninth in the points in eight of his first 10 seasons but slipped to 16th last year, and is only 13th this year heading into this weekend’s finale at Sonoma.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: Josef Newgarden the driver of the Sarah Fisher Hartman/Dollar General car prepares for his qualifying run for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Newgarden’s ascendance was gradual in his first three years. A tough rookie season revealed a lot of promise but an equal high number of mistakes, and without a top-10 finish, he was only 23rd in points. Podiums followed each of the next two years along with improved qualifying pace, with 14th and 13th place finishes the correct step forward.

Once he finally won his first two races in 2015, Newgarden was on the doorstep of the ascendancy in IndyCar and banked his first top-10 points finish of seventh. He improved to fourth last year, and won widespread praise in the paddock for his quick recovery from a savage looking accident at Texas Motor Speedway that left him with a fractured right clavicle and fractured right hand. That led to his signing with Team Penske for this year, where he’s won a series-high four races and leads the points by three heading into the Sonoma finale. In his first 99 starts, Newgarden has seven wins, and 11 other podiums.

Both have now become part of the IndyCar fabric over their tenures. Andretti has done decently well at Sonoma in the past beyond his win with several other top-10 finishes. Newgarden will almost certainly need to improve upon his best Sonoma finish of sixth if he is to capture his first title.

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.