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Penske vs. Ganassi: IndyCar’s championship showdown

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In August, Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather fought in what many dubbed “the fight of the year.” While Sunday’s season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN) expects to have far fewer punches thrown, the battle for the Verizon IndyCar Series championship will be no less intense.

At the top, three drivers from Team Penske (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, and Simon Pagenaud) and one driver from Chip Ganassi Racing (Scott Dixon), IndyCar’s two powerhouse goliaths, will fight it out in a largely winner-take-all outing. Will Power, the fourth Penske driver and the 2014 champion, is not to be forgotten either, but at 68 points out of the lead in fifth place entering the weekend (now 69 after Newgarden won the pole), he would need a lot of help to take his second IndyCar title.

Regardless, the 2017 IndyCar champion will come from either Penske’s or Ganassi’s operation, for the fifth straight season.

And yet, despite having all four of its drivers against Ganassi’s one in the title decider, history suggests it’s Ganassi who may have the upper hand – even if on pace this weekend, Penske has had the edge.

Since leaving CART to join what is now the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2002, Penske has claimed three championships: 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.), 2014 (Will Power), and 2016 (Simon Pagenaud). In that same time period, Ganassi has seven: 2003 and 2008 with Dixon, 2009 through 2011 with Dario Franchitti, and 2013 and 2015, again with Dixon.

Further, dating back to 1996, the first year Ganassi’s operation claimed a major American open wheel championship (that year’s CART PPG Indy Car World Series title), Ganassi has 11 overall IndyCar championships compared to Penske’s five.

Recent history further supports Ganassi’s possible advantage. All four of Dixon’s championships have seen him beat Penske drivers, among others, to do so – Castroneves and Gil de Ferran in 2003, Castroneves again in 2008 and 2013, and Castroneves, Power, and Juan Pablo Montoya in 2015.

Further, Dario Franchitti’s run of three straight championships from 2009-2011 also came at the expense of Penske. Franchitti used fuel strategy in 2009 win the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway and claim the championship over Penske driver Ryan Briscoe (and Franchitti’s own teammate Scott Dixon). The next two years, Franchitti got the better of Power to take the crown in each season.

Conversely, Penske’s two most recent IndyCar championships came in intra-team battles, with Power beating Castroneves in 2014 and Pagenaud beating Power in 2016 (of note: Pagenaud was mathematically alive entering the 2014 finale at Auto Club Speedway, driving for what is now Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, but was not a factor in the title-deciding race).

Team Penske president Tim Cindric discussed as much in a teleconference earlier this week, and revealed that fighting Dixon for a championship is always a tall task.

“I think if it wasn’t Scott Dixon, I would say that our odds are really good,” he said of Team Penske’s chances of overcoming Ganassi and Dixon for this year’s title.

“When you look at the fact that Scott has been there, done that, executed really more than all of our guys combined, I would have to do the math, but he’s been the guy to beat when it comes to championships.”

Cindric and Penske have been witness to Dixon overtaking their drivers to a win a championship before. In 2015, Penske drivers Will Power and Juan Pablo Montoya made contact, sending Power into a spin and damaging Montoya’s front wing. While they rebounded to finish sixth (Montoya) and seventh (Power), Dixon took the race win and claimed the championship from Montoya on a tiebreaker (he had three wins, the most of anyone that year, to Montoya’s two).

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 30: Scott Dixon of New Zealand, driver of the #9 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet Dallara celebrates winning the Verizon IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at Sonoma Raceway on August 30, 2015 in Sonoma, California. Dixon clinched the championship with his win. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Another wrinkle in the Penske team’s plan is points leader Josef Newgarden taking part in his first championship battle as a big player. Given Newgarden’s misfortune at Watkins Glen, one might assume the added pressure makes things all the more difficult.

Cindric, who now serves as the lead strategist on Newgarden’s No. 2 entry, explained that it is critical to continuity with a driver who is entering his first true championship fight.

“I think the approach with (Josef): I don’t know how else to say it, but business as usual. You try and go through each session and build on the last session. It’s just typically what he responds to. If things don’t work out well, and we don’t end up toward the front, the guy’s really, really good at making the most out of a situation.”

On the other side, Mike Hull, managing director at Chip Ganassi Racing, is aiming to keep his objectives entering the weekend as simple as possible, and the math suggests things are very simple. If Dixon, only three points back of Newgarden, wins the race, he wins the championship.

“Certainly the easiest way to win the championship is to win the race. But I think that you accept what’s given to you on, in this case, race day at Sonoma,” Hull asserted in a teleconference. “We’re going to race to win. If we can’t win, we’re going to finish second. If we can’t finish second, we’re going to finish third. That’s how we’ve always raced here. We’re going to just stay after it.”

Of course, the numbers game between the teams is something Hull could not ignore. It can be easy to think that Penske’s four cars all still having a title chance gives them advantage, however Ganassi has three other drivers (Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball, and Max Chilton) who could play supporting roles to Dixon.

In the end, though, Hull revealed that he hopes this facet does not prove to be significant.

“Certainly we think about it. But I think we race our race. And we have good teammates here at Chip Ganassi Racing. They pull for each other. And they race clean, they race fair. I think at the end of the day that’s how you’re judged. I would hope that everybody that races in this race will be judged as a result of racing in a very fair and a manner that’s driven by integrity,” Hull asserted.

As mentioned, Penske’s Newgarden led Ganassi’s DIxon by three points (560-557) entering the weekend, but increased that gap to four by capturing the pole. Castroneves now sits 23 points back in third, with Pagenaud 35 back in fourth, and Power 69 points out of the lead in fifth.

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NASCAR America: Scott Speed’s quest for Red Bull GRC three-peat

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Red Bull Global Rallycross points leader Scott Speed is going for his third consecutive championship next month (Saturday, October 14, 4:30 p.m. ET, NBC from Los Angeles) for the Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross team.

Prior to that, he joined Thursday’s edition of NBCSN’s NASCAR America, checking in with his former Red Bull Racing teammate Brian Vickers, show host Carolyn Manno and analyst Steve Letarte.

Speed talked teammate dynamics – he and Tanner Foust have been the class of the Red Bull GRC field for several years – and what it takes to succeed in the diverse championship that features racing on both pavement and dirt.

“Tanner comes from more of a more rally background and I come from more of an open-wheel, road course background,” Speed explained. “You have to meet in the middle and often times that creates success. Our personalties are polar opposites and that’s a good thing.”

One other thing Speed addressed was Austin Cindric’s couple notable incidents in the last month or so. Going for his maiden NASCAR Camping World Truck Series win, Cindric hit Kaz Grala at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park to move for the lead and ultimately the win.

Cindric then made his GRC Supercars debut at the most recent weekend in Seattle and the two collided after a miscommunication in a preliminary race, prior to the Joker section of the course.

“He’s a young kid with not a lot of experience. He’s made a couple big mistakes. He came in like a wrecking ball,” Speed laughed.

“I was more mad because the car couldn’t restart at first. But it did, and we got going.”

Public clashes over future of Detroit Grand Prix

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DETROIT (AP) State officials are deciding whether to continue hosting the Detroit Grand Prix on Belle Isle, a state park and island that opponents say is negatively impacted by the annual event.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is considering whether to allow the race to continue after its current five-year contract expires after the 2018 race.

The department held a public meeting Wednesday at the Belle Isle Nature Center to gather feedback. Dozens of residents attended.

Opponents voiced concerns about the race’s environmental impact. Several conservation groups have requested a third-party environmental impact study on how the race affects island habitat.

But supporters say the race shines a spotlight on Detroit and stimulates the economy.

The Grand Prix has occurred on Belle Isle periodically since 1992 and annually since 2012.

FIA confirms Halo crash test details, International F3 plans and more

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Following the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris, France, a number of updates concerning the championships under the governing body’s umbrella for 2018 had been confirmed.

The stand-out news was the confirmation of a Formula E race in Zurich for June 2018, marking motorsport’s return to Switzerland after being outlawed back in 1955.

A number of tweaks have also been made to the FIA Super Licence points allocation from next year, placing a greater onus on drivers to race in Formula 2 before stepping up to Formula 1.

Here’s a run-down of all the other news from the WMSC’s meeting in Paris.

FORMULA 1

Following the F1 Strategy Group’s approval of ‘Halo’ cockpit protection being introduced to F1 from 2018, the WMSC gave its approval to the required updates in the technical regulations to allow its implementation.

The various technical details can be found in the regulations by clicking here (under Article 17), but the key point is that teams will now be able to finalize their chassis designs for 2018 now they know the crash test details.

The WMSC also confirmed that Sentronics will be the exclusive supplier of fuel flow meters in F1 for 2018 and 2019.

There is also a clampdown on oil burn in F1 for 2018 following the controversy with Mercedes and Ferrari in 2017, as well as continued plans to ban the ‘shark fin’ from next year’s regulations.

One point we already knew but is nevertheless of interest is the reduction in power unit elements permitted to each driver per season. As of 2018, each driver will be limited to just three internal combustion engines, three MGU-Hs, three turbochargers, two control electronics and two MGU-Ks per season, down from four for each element in 2017.

No updates were made to the F1 calendar for 2018, but Bahrain and China are tipped to switch places, the latter becoming the third round of the season.

INTERNATIONAL FORMULA 3

The WMSC confirmed plans to form an International Formula 3 series in 2019 in a bid to complete the pyramid from Formula 4 to F1.

Both the FIA European F3 and GP3 Series co-exist as the third rung on the single-seater ladder at the moment, with the international championship tipped to replace the latter.

The WMSC called for expressions of interest for chassis and engine suppliers for an international series, as well as a promoter.

Loose regulations have also been formed that are similar to GP3’s current rules, with a 24-car grid desired over a nine-to-10 round season featuring single-make chassis, engines and tires.

The FIA is also pushing to create more regional F3 series in the future to bridge the gap between F4 and International F3.

FIA WORLD ENDURANCE CHAMPIONSHIP

Following confirmation of Silverstone’s return to the 2018/19 ‘super season’ calendar last week, the WMSC ratified the schedule for the next WEC campaign that will last 13 months.

The technical regulation amendments for 2018 were also approved as part of the WEC’s bid to attract more manufacturers to the LMP1 class following Porsche’s shock exit.

“The FIA Endurance Commission was also encouraged to pursue a number of exciting and innovative proposals that it is currently working on, with the aim of enticing new manufacturers to the Championship,” part of the WMSC’s release reads.

FIA WORLD RALLY CHAMPIONSHIP

The FIA confirmed its calendar for the 2018 WRC season, with the addition of a rally in Turkey being announced in place of Poland.

1. Rally Monte Carlo – January 28
2. Rally Sweden – February 18
3. Rally Mexico – March 11
4. Tour de Corse – April 8
5. Rally Argentina – April 29
6. Rally de Portugal – May 20
7. Rally Italia – June 10
8. Rally Finland – July 29
9. Rally Germany – August 19
10. Rally Turkey – September 16
11. Rally Great Britain – October 7
12. Rally Spain – October 28
13. Rally Australia – November 18

To see the full release from the WMSC, click here.

FIA tweaks Super Licence points allocation for 2018

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The FIA has tweaked its points allocation for the Super Licence required to race in Formula 1 for 2018, placing a greater onus on Formula 2 as being the final step on the single-seater ladder.

In a bid to tighten up on the route drivers took to reach F1, the FIA introduced a new points system for the Super Licence from 2016.

Drivers require a score of 40 points in a three-year period to be granted an FIA Super Licence, with different scores being awarded for success across a variety of categories.

Previously, drivers scored the full 40 points required for a top-two finish in GP2 (now F2) or winning the title in IndyCar, FIA Formula 3, Formula E or the FIA World Endurance Championship’s LMP1 class.

As of 2018, 40 points will only be awarded for a top-three finish in F2 or winning the IndyCar drivers’ title, with the other series facing points reductions.

One of the most devalued championships is Formula V8 3.5, formerly seen as being equivalent to GP2, with a title win previously worth 35 points now worth just 20.

Here are the points breakdowns for the most valuable championships, running from P1 in the final standings to P10.

FIA Super Licence Points Allocations

Formula 2: 40-40-40-30-20-10-8-6-4-3
IndyCar: 40-30-20-10-8-6-4-3-2-1
FIA F3: 30-25-20-10-8-6-4-3-2-1
Formula E: 30-25-20-10-8-6-4-3-2-1
WEC LMP1: 30-24-20-16-12-10-8-6-4-2
GP3: 25-20-15-10-7-5-3-2-1-0
Formula V8 3.5: 20-15-10-8-6-4-3-2-1-0
Super Formula: 20-15-10-8-6-4-3-2-1-0

You can see the full breakdown by clicking here.