Kyle Lavigne

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IndyCar takes quick breather after busy, news-heavy July

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The month of July was a hectic month for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Between three race weekends on tap (the Iowa Corn Indy 300, the Honda Indy Toronto, and the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio), the unveiling and initial testing of the 2018 aero kit, and the annual insanity that is “Silly Season,” the month of July had no shortage of news.

With a three-week break between last Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio and the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (August 20, NBCSN), IndyCar’s teams and drivers have a chance to catch their breath before a stretch of four races over five weeks to end the 2017 season.

A recap of a busy news month is below.

NEWGARDEN PLANTS HIMSELF AT THE FORE

Josef Newgarden has sprayed champagne as a race winner three times in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Expectations will always be high for a driver who signs with Team Penske, and Josef Newgarden was no different. A three-time race winner prior to joining the team, and the highest ranked non-Penske driver at the end of 2016 (he ended the season fourth in the championship for Ed Carpenter Racing), all things pointed to a strong first year with Penske.

However, it isn’t always as easy as some make it look (see Simon Pagenaud’s first season with the team in 2015), so there were some questions about how the 26-year-old Newgarden would adapt to the Penske outfit.

Simply put, he has answered every question emphatically.

With three wins to his name this season, a number that equals his career wins at the start of the year, Newgarden now leads the IndyCar championship and has quickly put his own stamp on the team. And Mid-Ohio serves evidence of his firm place as a big player within the Penske squad.

While his first two wins of the year saw luck on his side (Will Power cut a tire at Barber Motorsports Park and a caution fell perfectly for him at Toronto), nothing out of the ordinary intervened at Mid-Ohio. Newgarden made an authoritative pass on teammate Will Power in the early laps to seize control of the lead and he looked untouchable from there, only losing the lead briefly during exchanges of green-flag pit stops.

The importance of the victory was not lost on Newgarden at all. “I feel like no one can take anything away from this win,” he said after Sunday’s triumph. “With this team on the (No.) 2 car side, I feel like we really did a great job (at Mid-Ohio). There was no luck involved in that. We went out and won the race.”

As for his championship hopes, Newgarden’s confidence is sky high heading into the final four races. “We’ve just got to keep it up. No mistakes. If we don’t have any mistakes, we’ve got plenty enough to win this championship, so we’re going to keep giving what we got for the last four races,” he asserted.

Newgarden currently leads teammate Helio Castroneves by seven points (453-446), though the championship remains incredibly close, with 17 points separating the top four and 58 separating the top six.

HELIO…GOODBYE?

Helio Castroneves is every bit as strong in 2017 as he’s ever been. He’s captured three poles this year, and it would’ve been four if not for a penalty during qualifying for Detroit Race 1. He nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in a car that was damaged after he narrowly avoided Scott Dixon’s frightening airborne crash. And, he snapped a three-year winless streak at the Iowa Corn 300 on July 9.

With Newgarden the only driver so far to have scored more points than Castroneves, it seems that the affable Brazilian still has plenty of IndyCar life left in him, right? Maybe not…

Penske’s July confirmation of it’s Acura DPi program and rumored intentions to scale back to three cars leave Castroneves as possibly the odd man out in the IndyCar program. Rest assured, Castroneves will likely be driving something in 2018, but what it is and which team it will be with remains up in the air.

Helio Castroneves remains a stalwart at the front of the IndyCar field, despite an uncertain future. Photo: IndyCar

At 42 years old, his age indicates that Castroneves is in the twilight of his IndyCar career. Dario Franchitti was forced into a medically advised retirement at 40 years of age in 2013 after a vicious crash in Houston. Paul Tracy’s last IndyCar race came in 2011, when was 42, the same age as Castroneves. Gil de Ferran was a comparatively young 36 when he retired after the 2003 season. And Rick Mears, who has served as a mentor to Castroneves in his time at Penske, retired at 41 after the 1992 season.

Yet, aside from de Ferran, the aforementioned drivers all retired due to injuries or fledgling racing careers. Castroneves remains a regular front-runner and has avoided injury his entire IndyCar career.

When asked at Toronto about his future, Castroneves remained noncommittal and asserted that his sole focus at the moment is securing his first IndyCar championship. “(Penske) is going to make a sports car team, and we all here would love to drive. I mean, no question about it,” he explained. “But at the moment, there is no commitment, no official decision, and I’m just focused — in my case, I’m just focusing on doing my best (for the championship).”

His status for 2018 still uncertain, how he finishes the year off may be the most intriguing storyline to follow.

NOTHING BEATS THAT NEW CAR SMELL

The speedway aero kit for 2018. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar unveiled its long awaited 2018 aero kit to much fanfare earlier this month. The car has been universally praised for a much sleeker, smoother appearance. Gone are the “Kardashians” (aka the rear bumper pods) and the abundance of winglets that currently adorn the Honda and Chevrolet aero kits on the Dallara DW12.

And praise did not stop at its appearance. Test drivers Oriol Servia (piloting a Honda car with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Juan Pablo Montoya (piloting a Chevrolet car with Team Penske) have both spoken very highly of the new aero package and even admit it has surpassed expectations in its early tests.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said Servia following a test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away. I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

The 2018 aero kit in road/street/short oval spec. Photo: IndyCar

Montoya also revealed after this week’s test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course that the downforce levels of the car make it more difficult to drive, and that’s a good thing.

“I think you’re going to be able to see the (driver’s) hands moving a lot more on the steering wheel and I think you’re going to see the cars get out of shape a lot easier,” said Montoya. “The chances of mistakes are higher, so I think it’s going to bring better racing.”

Further tests at Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26) will complete initial development of the 2018 package, and soon there after Honda and Chevrolet will receive chassis for their teams to test, with the individual teams receiving their chassis later in the Fall. Individual team testing with the new aero package is scheduled to begin in January.

OH, NOW YOU’RE JUST BEING SILLY!

Does Helio Castroneves stay in IndyCar or will he move to Penske’s IMSA program? Does Andretti Autosport stick with Honda or move to Chevrolet? If they do, where does that leave Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi? What about Tony Kanaan, who like Castroneves, faces an uncertain IndyCar future at 42 years of age? What about other drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Munoz, Conor Daly, Ed Jones, Esteban Gutierrez, and Spencer Pigot?

And what new teams could be joining the fray? Juncos Racing? Carlin? Harding Racing? All of them?

Yes, the annual Silly Season madness that typically begins during the Mid-Ohio race weekend is upon us (although, Penske’s DPi announcement kicked the rumors into high gear a little earlier than normal this year).

Currently, only nine drivers are locked in or nearly locked in to their current teams heading into next year. That leaves over half of the grid with question marks about their future for 2018 and beyond. My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno offered a roundup of Silly Season rumors this week.

As always, there is much speculation about who will go where and which team will run which manufacturer, but nothing is set in stone as of writing and a lot can change between now and the end of the season, let alone between now and the start of next season.

Still, this year’s Silly Season offers plenty of intrigue, and if any, some, or all of the rumors come true, the off-track news will be just as fast-paced as the on-track news.

Kyle Lavigne.

Rahal scores another home podium at Mid-Ohio

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Graham Rahal’s initial record at his home track of the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course left a lot to be desired. In his first six starts, between 2008 and 2013, Rahal had only one top ten (eighth in 2009) and three finishes of 18th or worse.

However, between 2014 and 2016, Rahal enjoyed a run of three consecutive top fives at his home track, including a win in 2015.

In Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, Rahal enjoyed a strong run that saw him in the top five the entire day before eventually finishing third, extending his top five streak at Mid-Ohio to four in a row and giving him two podiums in his last three Mid-Ohio races.

When asked about the recent run of success at his home track, Rahal credited Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s base setup as well as the race’s position late in the season, making it a vital stop during the championship push.

“You want to do a great job when you come home. So, yes, there’s part of that. I think our guys have just done a good job here and the setups have been strong. You know, it’s just every time we come here, it feels like it’s championship time and we’re pushing, we’re all pushing and at our best at that time. So it’s worked out well for us, but hopefully, we can keep this going,” Rahal discussed.

Of course, the home crowd also helps get Rahal pumped up. “I must say the crowd, the vibe, it’s tremendous here. So thank you so much to the fans that come out,” he said of the atmosphere. “It’s a blast. I mean, it makes me proud too. I know Ohio people are big sports people. I know people from lots of other states come too, lots from Indiana and up north. But it was awesome this week, and the turnout was phenomenal.”

Although Rahal lost a little ground in the championship, falling to sixth behind Will Power, he is still in the hunt, sitting sixth on 395 points, 58 behind new points leader Josef Newgarden.

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Will Power runner-up again at Mid-Ohio

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For all his prowess on road and street courses, it’s surprising that Team Penske’s Will Power has yet to win at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Entering this weekend, his best results at the Lexington, Ohio road course were a pair of second-place results in 2012 and 2016, and he looked poised to win both of those races as well, only to see pit stops or on-track passes take those potential wins away.

Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio was more of the same for Power. Sitting on the pole, Power jumped out at to an early lead ahead of teammate Josef Newgarden, but lost it in the early laps after Newgarden made a daring move in which he faked outside and sliced up the inside of Power entering turn 4.

Newgarden quickly built up a gap over Power, and the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion was never able to close on him from there. A lap 67 caution for a spinning Ed Jones erased the gap between the two, which might have given Power an advantage, as he was on the red alternate tires while Newgarden was on the primary blacks.

But, with the lapped car of Esteban Gutierrez in between the two, it was always going to be difficult to mount an attack, and Power was unable to pass the Dale Coyne Racing driver on the lap 70 restart. Power resigned himself to finish second from there, his third runner-up finish at Mid-Ohio.

However, in the post-race press conference, Power actually felt he overachieved given the car’s pace. “It’s much better than starting sixth and finishing seventh! So that’s as good as we could do,” Power said of the result. “(We) kind of weren’t on the pace all weekend and really got the most out of qualifying. So second, for the pace of my car, that was as good as we could get today.”

Still, Power acknowledged that the lapped car of Gutierrez put paid to his chances of a late-race push for the win. He did not fault Gutierrez, but did mention he would like the rule regarding lapped traffic to be revisited.

“It’s actually not Gutierrez’s fault. The rules for IndyCar is kind of ridiculous, that the team would tell him to stay and push and he’s not even in the lead,” Power asserted. “He’s not even leading. I understand if he was ahead of Newgarden because then, if it goes yellow, he gets his lap back. Yeah, I mean, IndyCar on one hand wants really good racing, but then you put a bunch of back markers, people a lap down in the mix. It ruined probably a very good battle at the end because Josef was on black tires and we were on reds.”

Even though he missed out on a victory, Power did gain a little ground in the championship fight. He broke a tie he had with Graham Rahal entering Mid-Ohio and now sits fifth all by himself, 52 points behind new points leader Newgarden.

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Mid-Ohio win vaults Newgarden into championship lead for first time

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Josef Newgarden’s victory at the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, his third win of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, was enough to vault him into the championship lead for the first time in his IndyCar career with four races remaining in the season.

Further, as the first driver to win three races this year, a recent trend suggests Newgarden may have the inside track to the championship. In each of the the last two years, the driver who was the first to win three races (Scott Dixon in 2015, Simon Pagenaud in 2016) went on to win the IndyCar championship. (Of note: Dixon was the only driver to win three or more races in 2015, his third win that year coming at the season finale at Sonoma Raceway).

“I think it’s great!” Newgarden quipped in the post-race press conference when asked about leading the championship. “You know, we’ve got to keep building the gap hopefully. And maintaining it is certainly the number one key, but if we can keep building the gap and increase it, that’s going to only help for Sonoma.”

However, Newgarden’s championship lead is a slim one as the already close championship picture became even closer still following Mid-Ohio. Newgarden leads teammate Helio Castroneves by seven points (453-446), with Dixon one further point back in third, his season total standing at 445 at the moment.

Simon Pagenaud sits fourth on 436 points, meaning the top four in the championship are covered by only 17 points with four races remaining.

Will Power and Graham Rahal are still in the thick of things as well. Power sits on 401 points, 52 out of the lead, while Rahal sits on 395 points, 58 markers out.

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MRTI Sunday notebook: Mid-Ohio

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Sunday concluded action for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with Race 3 for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Race 2 for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires wrapping up the weekend.

Pro Mazda saw utter dominance from one of its title contenders, while Indy Lights saw a duel to the checkered flag after several heavy hitters stumbled.

Reports on both races are below.

INDY LIGHTS: JAMIN OUTDUELS URRUTIA AS HERTA, KAISER FALTER

Nico Jamin swapped the lead with polesitter Colton Herta a couple times in the early laps of Indy Lights Race 2 and assumed the lead on lap 3 after Herta spun out of the lead exiting turn 9. Jamin then had to withstand a late charge from Race 1 winner Santi Urrutia, who closed onto the Frenchman’s gearbox in the final laps.

Urrutia made a serious run at Jamin entering turn 4 on lap 34 and got to the outside of Jamin on corner entry. However, he locked up the brakes briefly and Jamin was able to hold him off. Jamin kept him at bay from there to secure the victory. It is Jamin’s sixth victory in his last eight Mid-Ohio races – he swept a USF2000 triple-header in 2015 and won twice during last year’s Pro Mazda triple-header (he finished third in the other race). Including Saturday’s Race 1 finish of third, Jamin has eight consecutive podiums at Mid-Ohio.

Nico Jamin won Indy Lights Race 2 at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“I screamed on the radio (because) I was so happy!” said an elated Jamin. “The whole 27 team has been struggling so to be first and third this weekend and coming back a bit in the championship feels really good.”

Shelby Blackstock drove a quiet, but solid race to finish third, with Zachary Claman de Melo and Aaron Telitz doing the same to finish fourth and fifth.

Herta was able to regroup after his spin to finish sixth, taking the position from Nicolas Dapero on lap 33. Championship leader Kyle Kaiser, however, endured a much more difficult Race 2, this after struggling massively in Race 1.

Kaiser was running seventh in the early laps, and actually looked poised to grow his points lead over Herta and Matheus Leist, with both drivers running behind him due to Herta’s spin and a poor qualifying from Leist, who started 13th. However, Kaiser made a poorly timed dive inside Juan Piedrahita entering turn 5 as they battled for sixth. Contact was made, Kaiser’s right-front with Piedrahita’s left-rear, and both drivers spun. While they were able to rejoin, neither was in contention from then on. Piedrahita ended up 11th, with Kaiser 12th at the checkered flag.

Matheus Leist, meanwhile, endured another race in which he seemed to lack the necessary pace to run up front, finishing tenth. Combined with his Race 1 finish of 11th, Leist was rarely a factor during the weekend.

Despite the mistake, Kaiser retains the top spot in the championship, and with a still healthy margin at that. Kaiser now leads Urrutia and Herta, who are tied for second, by 42 points (297 for Kaiser, 255 for Urrutia and Herta). Leist sits fourth on 249 points, with Claman de Melo fifth on 243. Nico Jamin sits sixth with 242 points.

Results are below. Race 2 for Indy Lights airs tonight (7/30) at 11:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

PRO MAZDA: MARTIN REBOUNDS TO DOMINATE RACE 3

Anthony Martin completely dominated Race 3 at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Anthony Martin rebounded from a disappointing and controversial second-place in Race 2 to run away with Race 3. Martin shot off into the lead after starting on pole and never looked back, steadily increasing his lead all the way through, eventually winning by nearly 14 seconds.

In fact, Martin never appeared to ease up at any point, actually setting his fastest lap on lap 22, the second-to-last lap of the race.

“I knew I had one job to do and that was to win the race. I was a little ticked off from yesterday so I might have had a little more aggression today, but I had to put what happened yesterday out of my mind – racing is racing and those things happen,” Martin quipped afterward.

Martin added that the knowledge of Victor Franzoni’s running position (Franzoni quickly moved into second after starting the race in third) was plenty of motivation to keep pushing. “I didn’t look behind me until the back straight, when the team told me that Victor was in second and that I needed to go. From there, it was head down. The Cape boys gave me a great car all weekend and it was almost a 100 percent successful weekend. It was great to see we could do it and that helps with three races to go,” he finished.

Title rival Franzoni battled with Carlos Cunha for second the entire race. Franzoni got the better of Cunha off the start and moved to second with an inside pass entering the keyhole, but Cunha stalked him from there, closing to within a couple car lengths on multiple occasions as they worked through lapped traffic.

However, Franzoni held off every challenge to secure second place, with Cunha rounding out the podium in third.

Unofficially, Martin’s victory puts him back ahead of Franzoni by four points (259-255) in the championship. But the results are not official yet, per this statement from series operators Andersen Promotions:

“Under the direction of series officials, the cars of Martin, Franzoni and Fischer have been impounded for further evaluation to be performed in Indianapolis this week. This is an extension of the current inspection process. When completed, the procedure and outcome will be published. The results from today’s race will remain unofficial until that point.”

(Editor’s note: NBC Sports has confirmed that impound independently as well, with a series spokesperson estimating impound results to be released mid-week).

Race 3 results are below.

Both Indy Lights and Pro Mazda pick their seasons back up at Gateway Motorsports Park on August 26.

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