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IndyCar title contenders to start up front at Sonoma

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A concern for all the Verizon IndyCar Series championship contenders was that qualifying could see any of them slip down the starting grid due to any one of a number of different issues. However, that ultimately proved not to be the case.

The top five in championship standings all advanced to the Firestone Fast Six for Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Below are quick reports on where the championship contenders will start.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN – POLE

Josef Newgarden’s second career came at an opportune time, as he increases his points lead over Scott Dixon to four and gives him a nice shot of momentum heading into Sunday’s race as he looks to secure his first career IndyCar championship.

On the surface, the momentum comes at a critical time for Newgarden, who looks to counter an error at Watkins Glen that saw him hit the pit exit wall after his final pit stop. However, this was something he downplayed.

“It helps for the start of the race, I think. You got to think it helps. But how many IndyCar races have you seen where being on the pole wasn’t the right thing for the race with the way yellows fall or whatever it is?” Newgarden quipped in the post-qualifying press conference.

Ultimately, Newgarden is hoping for a clean, smooth race on Sunday. “I hope it’s straightforward (on Sunday). That would make our job a lot easier. We just have to focus on making a fast race car that lasts. But you never know,” he added.

SCOTT DIXON – SIXTH

Scott Dixon will start Sunday’s race in sixth. Photo: IndyCar

Scott Dixon qualified the worst of the all the main title contenders, ending up sixth at the end. Dixon explained afterward that, while his No. 9 NTT Data Honda felt solid, it just lacked sufficient speed, especially through the corners, to make a run at the pole.

“As a team, I think this is always one of our most difficult circuits that we come to,” Dixon explained. “This morning, we made some good gains, but the conditions this afternoon, we just didn’t have the grip. It was kind of strange. The balance felt good. The car was kind of decent to drive, but just couldn’t carry the speed through the corners.”

Granted, Dixon is not surprised to be outqualified by the Team Penske Chevrolets, given the aero advantage they possess. “The other manufacturer’s aero kit is going to be strong at this track. We know the deficits that we have. But we can still as a team overcome those, whether it’s strategy or a car on the long run that’s hopefully going to be good,” he added.

All told, Dixon remains confident, even noting that he won this race in 2015 after starting ninth, a feat that saw him clinch that year’s championship. “Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there,” he asserted. “I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.”

HELIO CASTRONEVES – FOURTH

Helio Castroneves qualified the worst of all four Penske cars. Photo: IndyCar

Castroneves qualified fourth, the worst of the Penske cars. He revealed that setup problems at two specific corners ultimately doomed his chances of fighting for the pole.

“Unfortunately, I was having some issues in Turn 2 and Turn 6, so I was losing quite a lot of time,” he detailed. “We made some changes for the last one, the last qualifying. Unfortunately, this place is so much of a commitment, I had only one lap. I made that lap, in fact. The second one I was actually even a little bit faster, about 2/10ths faster, but still not quick enough for those guys. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the corner.”

Still, Castroneves believes he has a car that can fight for the race win, which could put him in position to secure his first IndyCar title. “The Hitachi Chevy was actually really good. The entire Team Penske did a phenomenal job. Today was Josef’s day. I’m happy for him today, but prefer have the win actually than the pole position,” he added.

SIMON PAGENAUD – THIRD

Simon Pagenaud made a gutsy run at the pole, but came up a little short. Photo: IndyCar

Simon Pagenaud made no bones about it: he was going for the pole and threw everything he had at it during qualifying. “I went all in, as hard as I could. Made a little bit of a mistake in turn six, asking for too much. But that’s how you get pole positions. Today it just wasn’t my way,” he discussed in the post-qualifying press conference.

In the end, Pagenaud starts third, a result he feels happy with, and noted that tire wear is expected to be a significant factor on Sunday’s race, and that anything could happen.

“Quite satisfied. I mean, overall it’s awesome for Team Penske, 1-2-3-4 once again here. A testament to the team doing such a good job. Nothing’s lost. Tomorrow is a long race. Lots of tire wear. I’m hoping for a really strong showing,” he added.

WILL POWER – SECOND

Will Power fell three hundredths of a second short in his effort for the pole. Photo: IndyCar

Will Power’s championship hopes suffered a little on Saturday. At 69 points off the lead (counting the point Newgarden gets for securing the pole), his best chance was to maximize his point total this weekend, which of course starts with securing the bonus point for the pole.

Power made a valiant run at Newgarden, but his lap of 1:15.5556 fell three hundredths of a second short of Newgarden’s 1:15.5205.

Despite missing out on that valuable championship point, Power knows he is still in the hunt, and that bad days for his title rivals would open the door for him.

“It’s absolutely possible,” he said of his title chances. “I mean, you know, if Scott and Josef have a bad day, I mean, I can be right there. Yeah, see how it all plays out.”

Of note: Alexander Rossi, who is also still mathematically eligible, will start eighth.

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Mexican GP to go ahead as planned, facilities unharmed by earthquake

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Next month’s Mexican Grand Prix is set to go ahead as planned after facilities at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez were unharmed by the earthquake that struck Mexico City earlier this week.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the lives of over 200 people as well as toppling dozens of buildings in the capital.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to host the third-to-last round of the 2017 Formula 1 season on October 29, and will go ahead as planned after facilities were unharmed by the earthquake.

“It’s been inspected twice already from the track surface and also the buildings, and it’s OK,” marketing chief Rodrigo Sanchez told Reuters.

“We’ll continue doing the assessments as we go but so far there’s really no concern. We’ll have a race.

“We’re trying to put out there all the information relevant to how people can help. Right now the concern is really getting everything back to moving from the city perspective and supporting any way we can.

“If things stay the same, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing.

“The track is fine so we just need to re-focus and get this show done.”

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has donated $170,000 to support those affected by the earthquake, while the Carlos Slim Foundation is set to match every donation made five-fold.

IndyCar delivers its second-best season on NBCSN in 2017

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In the ninth year of its 10-year contract with the Verizon IndyCar Series (formerly as Versus and now as NBCSN), NBCSN produced its second-best season on record this year.

With a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 507,000 viewers per race, the 2017 season of races on NBCSN was just 1 percent off the best mark of 510,000 viewers per race in 2015.

This season’s viewership on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app exceeded the 2016 TAD of 492,000 viewers by 3 percent (excludes Texas and Pocono races in 2016, which were rescheduled due to weather), and was just 1 percent shy of NBCSN’s record TAD in 2015 (510,000).

TAD measures consumption across multiple platforms, combining the average minute audience (AMA) for television and digital. The 2016 release details are linked here.

Seven of the 12 races aired on NBCSN had a TAD of more than 500,000 with the most coming at Pocono with 624,000. In terms of household ratings, Indianapolis was the top local market with Richmond-Petersburg, Greenville, West Palm Beach and Greensboro coming in the top five.

The full 2017 release details are linked here.

Veach, Andretti, Group One Thousand One able to build for future

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Rare are the words “American,” “young driver,” “multi-year” and “IndyCar” assembled within a sentence in modern day Verizon IndyCar Series racing.

But for young American driver Zach Veach, he’s got a multi-year IndyCar contract at his disposal thanks to Group One Thousand One at Andretti Autosport, and with it, an opportunity to build, grow and develop over that three-year time period through 2020.

It’s hard to believe Veach, the Stockdale, Ohio native, is only 22 considering his history in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires between 2010 and 2016, competing every year save for one (2015) due to injury and a lack of budget.

But throughout that period he gradually improved year-by-year, first in USF2000, then in Pro Mazda and finally in Indy Lights. Over his three years and with two different cars in Indy Lights, Veach grew into a race winner and bulked up from his already slender frame.

Veach is also the first driver in MRTI history to have been with the same team in all three levels, and graduate into IndyCar. He detoured to Belardi Auto Racing in 2016 but otherwise, was part of Andretti Autosport’s lineup from 2010 to 2014, and will now come back “home” for 2018 in IndyCar.

Veach and Michael Andretti before Star Mazda debut, Sonoma, 2011. Photo: IndyCar

“I think he was 14 or 15 when we met the first time… and he looked like he was 10. Now he’s 22, and looks like he’s 15!” Michael Andretti laughed.

“But he’s always impressed me. OK, he’d come out of the box not bad. But the next race, he got better, and you could see it. It wasn’t by mistake. You’d see how he’d work, take the information, study it for hours, and then come back so much more prepared the next day.

“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s as many drivers I’ve known outside the car who’ve worked that hard to make themselves better, and he did that all the way up the ladder system. There’s a lot of confidence in big cars, and now he’ll have more tools and will use them to his advantage. So he might start here, qualify top-18, then it’ll start to go up, up, then qualify top-10 by the end of the year and I believe the next year he’ll be more of a contender. That’s how I envision it.”

Setting reasonable and realistic expectations will be key for Veach, who should look at drivers like Josef Newgarden or Charlie Kimball for inspiration.

Newgarden’s first year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was littered with rookie errors, not a single top-10 finish, and ending 23rd in the championship. But knowing he had two more years to build off of, Newgarden was a podium finisher each of the next two years and had leapt 10 spots in the standings. By his fourth year and his second contract in 2015, he was a race winner.

Kimball was the same way with Chip Ganassi Racing. Barely in the top-20 in points his first year with only a couple top-10s, he ascended to podiums in year two as well, and scored his first race win in year three – when he also cracked the top-10 in points.

Given Veach’s years of preparing for this moment, he’s happy to have gotten to IndyCar now, rather than rushing it years earlier.

“I was one of those kids who thought he would be in IndyCar at 18. That’s so dumb! Looking back, I’m so glad that’s not how it happened,” Veach told NBC Sports.

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re young. I know I’m saying that at age 22, but at 15 or 16, all you care about is getting to IndyCar.

“Luckily, life forced me to be patient in some things. I would much rather have this deal at age 23 than at 18, because now I feel I can deliver what these people have put on my shoulders.”

Veach, Towriss and Andretti. Photo: IndyCar

The key person to have come through with the deal is Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. Veach, his pastor and Towriss all connected in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500, with Veach’s program for that race announced at Long Beach with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Towriss explained first off that Group One Thousand One is a separate insurance company from Guggenheim Life, which was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet in Indianapolis.

“Group One Thousand One is a group of insurance companies based in Indianapolis, and again, we’re growing our business, and we’re excited to be associated with Andretti and with Zach in this newest venture of ours,” Towriss explained.

“His story is one of perseverance and continuing to work hard. It resonates with us very well; helping people help themselves, and so we will help him continue on that journey. During May, we noted the way he was able to persevere, and work with his engineers when things weren’t able to work.”

Veach at Indy 500 this year. Photo: IndyCar

Veach is one of the smallest drivers in the series, at 5 and a half feet and hovering around 130 pounds. But outside the cockpit he’s developed a love of mountain climbing, and has been able to scale several cliffs over the last couple years.

His upper body strength is something he’s focused on building and he has come a long way from his early years in the MRTI. Manhandling an IndyCar is difficult, particularly as they don’t have power steering, but it’s something Veach has been working on.

“I think the first couple of tests will be hard, but they’ll be hard for everyone after the three-month offseason,” he said. “But we’re already 10 pounds heavier than we were at the Indy 500 and I’m proud to say there’s not a lot of fat!

“We’ve been busting our butts at St. Vincent’s to get stronger. Our numbers to now from where we started are night and day. We’ll keep working hard and as we get closer to the season, we’ll shift to more cardiovascular work. I’m at 128, 130 pounds now and I’d like to be at 135 when the season starts. I think it’s well within reach.”

Veach described the challenge of advancing up the ladder despite not winning a single Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for winning any of the three rungs on the ladder.

Veach (12) with longtime friend Gabby Chaves (7) in 2013 Freedom 100. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not something I’m proud of. But one thing I am very proud of is that I’ve been very honest,” he said. “I had some success in USF2000, it was hit and miss in Pro Mazda, and in Indy Lights, I really came into my own. I proved to people that I could run up front and win races.

“What got me there was having that work ethic, trying to learn as much as I could from teammates who were quick and put that to use. Working with drivers like Felix Rosenqvist really helped. He showed me just how deep a car can go into the braking zone, with all that Formula 3 experience!

“He’s such a good driver and I hope to see him over here. He’s one of my closest friends and I don’t know anyone who deserves an IndyCar ride more than he does.

“It was a completely different set of skills and I think that’s why we didn’t hit our stride until the last part of the year. We won Road America, but winning at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca showed me where I wanted to be all year.

“It wasn’t until then that the team and I felt comfortable with what we were doing. There was added pressure when I became the team leader but that’s when things started turning around because the setups went in the exact direction I wanted them to go. That’s when things really started to click.”

Veach with USF2000 veteran Ayla Agren and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at Sonoma. Photo: IndyCar

The final element of Veach’s perseverance was his continued presence at the races. He found a home as a regular analyst and occasional pit road reporter for the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network in 2015, and made regular appearances there in 2016 and 2017 as well. He also drove a two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience in the same time frame.

“I think it was extremely important just from the standpoint of showing people I wasn’t going to go away,” Veach said.

“I think I got a little criticism from others involved sometimes just saying, ‘Well, why are you there if you’re not doing anything and not driving?’ You have to stay relevant, and that’s just what we were trying to do. Luckily enough, IndyCar Radio gave me a great opportunity. It’s the first kind of real job I ever had with them.

“I owe them many thanks, and of course the Indy Racing Experience with the two-seater. Even though it’s a two-seater I still got to run at places I’ve never raced at before. So I’m going to a few new tracks next year. It’s not the same thing but at least I know which way to go. I think that’s going to help us be a little quicker.

“It’s just never giving up on the dream. It’s learning every day. It’s never taking no for an answer.”

Boullier: Honda F1 deal ‘a proper disaster’ for McLaren’s credibility

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McLaren’s three-year stint with Formula 1 engine partner Honda has been a “proper disaster” for the team’s credibility, according to racing director Eric Boullier.

McLaren announced last Friday in Singapore it would be parting company with Honda at the end of the season, switching to Renault power units for 2018.

The confirmation put an end to months of uncertainty surrounding the future of the McLaren-Honda partnership, which has seen the British team struggle towards the back of the field since 2015.

McLaren faces a big task to recover the lost financial support from Honda while also trying to attract new sponsors, but Boullier is confident the decision to change engine partner will help its cause.

“When you look at the last three years, it’s been a proper disaster for us in terms of credibility and getting new sponsors,” Boullier told the official F1 website.

“And then you have to take the long-term view: in the next five years I am absolutely sure that we will go back to where McLaren belongs.

“And with this bouncing back we get our credibility back and it will rebuild our sponsor portfolio. It might take two to three years.

“We are ninth in the championship – with a top engine I think we would be fourth right now and just on the FOM money we could cover the engine side, so it will not be a big risk on the monetary side.

“Thanks to the shareholders who have been brave enough to take a sporting choice and not hurt McLaren. They could have said: ‘Let’s wait until Honda wakes up’.”