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DiZinno: Appreciating Helio, once again, for possibly the last time

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In just a handful of days, Helio Castroneves may well be making his final start as a full-time driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The emotion or magnitude of that moment may not fully hit until the checkered flag falls in Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

That the uncertainty of whether this will or will not be Castroneves’ last start has lingered all summer is a shame, as he stands on the precipice of finally winning his elusive first championship after 20 years of trying.

More than the stats – of which Castroneves has wracked up since 1998, and include 30 wins, 50-plus poles and include 13 top-five finishes in 17 years with Team Penske (will be 14 in 18 provided he ends top-five again this year) – is his importance and key moments he’s made for IndyCar, since arriving as a rookie with a hyphenated last name all those years ago.

Like his Brazilian countryman Tony Kanaan, Castroneves has been a rock for the championship through all its various twists and turns, ups and downs, leadership and schedule changes, and car evolution over this period.

If you think of IndyCar as a whole since the late 1990s, you think of turmoil, and regret for a lost opportunity to keep its ascendance from the perceived “glory years” of the mid-1990s going as the divisive split shattered the fan base, the ratings, the participants, the manufacturers, the sponsorship and the overall landscape of the sport.

But if you think of Castroneves in that same time period, you think of a number of magical moments that have permeated to this day.

18 Oct 1998: Helio Castroneves from Team Bettenhausen Motorsports driving the Reynard Mercedes 98I during the CART – Honda Indy Australia in Surfers Paradise, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

After losing out to Kanaan for the 1997 Indy Lights crown, both made it into CART the next season. From his first couple podiums at Milwaukee in 1998 and Gateway in 1999, finishing second for the low-budget Bettenhausen Motorsports and Hogan Racing teams, respectively, you knew there was a driver high on life, high on happiness, and high on outright potential.

That his own career could have stalled out if not for the tragic 1999 CART season finale in Fontana would have been a shame in itself. It took the loss of Greg Moore, sadly, to keep Castroneves’ career going as Moore’s replacement.

But from 2000 onwards, he and Team Penske have become as much of a natural partnership as peanut butter and jelly together on a sandwich.

And in many respects, Castroneves has served as that “jelly” to Penske’s “peanut butter.”

Whereas peanut butter isn’t often known for its flavor, it is the bedrock of this kind of sandwich – the staple, the ground level ingredient that provides the starting point for all other additions.

Castroneves, the “jelly,” has been Penske’s effervescent, colorful add-on that you can’t imagine the team without going forward, even though the day he won’t be in a Penske IndyCar full-time for good would always arrive at some point.

16 Jun 2000: Helio Castroneves #3 of Brazil who drives a Honda Reynard 2KI for Marlboro Team Penske is sitting in his car before the race during the Tenneco Automotive Grand Prix of Detroit, part of the FedEx Championship Series at Belle Isle Park in Detroit, Michigan.Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge /Allsport

The peanut butter was the Penske perfect pit stops and strategy that positioned Castroneves for his first win in General Motors’ backyard in 2000, on Belle Isle Park in Detroit. The jelly was Castroneves’ spontaneous eruption leaving the car, running for the catch-fencing and launching his “Spider-Man” tradition that continues to this day after each of his 30 career wins.

The peanut butter was Penske returning to its spiritual home of Indianapolis, the track where Mr. Penske wants to win more than anywhere else, in 2001 as the first team back when the split was five years in. The jelly was Castroneves, the more emotional of Penske’s two Brazilians along with Gil de Ferran, being first to break through at the track and win that year’s Indianapolis 500 as a rookie.

27 May 2001: Helio Castroneves climbs the fence in celebration after winning the 85th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis, Indiana. Digital Image. Mandatory Credit: Robert Laberge/ALLSPORT

The ebullient emotion continued in each of Castroneves’ wins the rest of the way, from that controversial win over Paul Tracy in the 2002 Indianapolis 500, all the way towards his most recent win at Iowa this July on the weekend when the news broke after rumors had percolated for months that he was likely destined for a Penske sports car.

And emotion permeates even when he doesn’t win, too. The crying relief he revealed in 2009 when he was cleared of tax evasion charges came through when he made his return to action for Penske at that year’s Long Beach race, and shuffled Will Power to a third car.

That restored order to the galaxy after the strange, weird emotion that it wasn’t Castroneves in Penske’s No. 3 car in St. Petersburg, while it was Power in a one-off fill-in drive.

And then there was that famous angry outburst he had at then-INDYCAR security director Charles Burns at Edmonton in 2010, when he ran towards him and grabbed him after being aggrieved at a call that didn’t go his way.

That eruption was pure Helio. No other driver – save for maybe Kanaan – could have ran after the security director, grabbed him by the chest and tried shaking him, and yet got a reaction like Helio did. Burns laughed, and we got the lasting memory to go along with it.

ST PETERSBURG, FL – MARCH 25: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, drives the #3 Shell V-Power/Pennzoil Ultra Team Penske on Dan Wheldon Way in the IZOD IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St Petersburg on March 25, 2012 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

There was the emotion of being the right driver to win at the right time. Something felt eerily perfect about Castroneves winning the first race of the Dallara DW12 era in 2012. His stopping at Dan Wheldon Way at Turn 10 on the streets of St. Petersburg to do his fence climb there provided an endearing image that was just the right pick-me-up for a series in need of one after an offseason of turmoil, questions and despair in the wake of Wheldon’s death. That it was Castroneves winning after his own nightmare season in 2011 was excellent timing too, because in 18 years in a Penske IndyCar, that was the only year he never looked a championship contender and provided any ammunition to critics that he couldn’t hack it given the machinery.

There of course, has been the agony of all the lost championships. With four championship runner-ups in 2002, 2008, 2013 and 2014, Castroneves is your equivalent Dan Marino, Buffalo Bills or Mark Martin of IndyCar. He’ll forever be acknowledged as one of the best, but perhaps known more as the driver who never quite won a title, unless he can change that this weekend. Watching his Houston doubleheader disaster in 2013 was sickening as his sure grasp on that year’s crown slipped away.

Even now, Castroneves has not allowed emotion to get in the way – publicly, anyway – this 2017 campaign. He tipped his cap to Takuma Sato after a job well-done at Indianapolis, as Sato joined Ryan Hunter-Reay as an Andretti Autosport driver cruelly denying Castroneves win number four at the Speedway. It’s incredible to think that with three close runner-up finishes, Castroneves could well have six Indianapolis 500 victories.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 28: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #26 Andretti Autosport Honda, races ahead of Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, on his way toward winning the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 28, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

He’s answered all the questions about his future with the professional aplomb and diplomacy you’d expect of a Penske driver, even if his body language has indicated an annoyance the questions even needed to be asked.

And now, he heads to Sonoma having just gone through yet another whirlwind last couple weeks.

At Gateway, he barely kept his head up after making a pit road mistake that cost him a potential win. At Watkins Glen, he bounced back in trademark “happy Helio” style with a fourth place that felt much better, the best Chevrolet on a day when Hondas dominated. And he’s now had to fly west for a Sonoma test while also working to ensure his home in Ft. Lauderdale didn’t get damaged in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

16 March 2001- Helio Castroneves of the Penske Auto Center Special Racing Team talks with Tim Cindric President of Penske Racing after the Friday afternoon practice in preperation for the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200, round one of the Indy Racing Northern Light Series Championship at the Phoenix International Raceway in Phoenix, Arizona. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: ROBERT LABERGE/ALLSPORT

“I believe I’m experienced enough to be able to separate a lot of things, a lot of rumors, a lot of noise,” Castroneves told reporters in a pre-Sonoma teleconference.

“Let’s put it this way. But Roger, Cindric and I, we have an agreement. I enjoy to be part of this team, and we just want to continue to focus on this last race, which is extremely important for, as I said, not only for myself but most important, as well, having a championship for the team.

“Whatever future happens, I’m ready to go. But at this point, I’m really focused on this season and this last race of the season. We are looking forward to whatever happens in the future, and I’ll be happy.”

Tim Cindric said of Castroneves’ professionalism, “I think he’s always been a professional. He’s a guy that there’s a reason why he’s got the longest tenure with our organization and with Roger. He defines team player really at the end of the day. He’s been through some good times and some bad times. We’ve supported him. He’s supported us, vice versa. Me personally, I’ve been through a lot with him. I couldn’t ask for a better guy to work with.

“When you look at it, it’s always amazing, we always tell him, you know, in a lot of ways he’s still a 14-year-old kid. As he continues to grow a year older at a time, he still has the pace. He’s one of those guys that I think he gives hope to all the other drivers around him that, you know, you can still be competitive and still be there when you get into your 40s.

“Yeah, he’s always been a pleasure to work with. He wears it on his sleeves some days. But I know how focused he is on being that close to the championship. He’s been there many times. When you look at the history of how many times he’s gone into the final race with the opportunity to win a championship, he’s there again this year. It would be a no better story than Helio winning the championship this year.”

Castroneves is 22 points back of teammate Josef Newgarden in third place for this weekend’s race.

The potential exists that he finally will break through and win that first title.

The sadness is that if this is Castroneves’ last drive as a full-time IndyCar driver, he won’t have had the season-long appreciation tour to have been celebrated for what he has given to this championship.

Is there one more lasting, potentially defining memory of Castroneves, in a Penske IndyCar to come?

If there is, it will only add to his notebook of brilliance left over the last 20 years… and potentially make the decision that much harder for his bosses whether to end his IndyCar story here.

DETROIT, MI – JUNE 01: Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 Team Penske Dallara Chevrolet winning the Verizon IndyCar Chevrolet Indy Dual II at The Raceway on Belle Isle on June 1, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

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.