Milwaukee

Castroneves didn’t realize his climb in drive from 24th to second in Milwaukee

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Helio Castroneves nearly pulled off a last-to-first drive at the Milwaukee Mile on Sunday to pull off his third podium finish in the last four Verizon IndyCar Series races.

Ending second after starting 24th and last came as a bit of a surprise though, to say the least. He started from the rear after his team missed his spot in the qualifying line.

Castroneves made some headway in the opening stint, up to 17th by his first pit stop on Lap 48. His Team Penske crew gained him five spots after the sequence and he was quickly up to 12th behind teammate Will Power.

Still, Castroneves in the No. 3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet was stuck in the mid-teens for the middle stint of the race, and didn’t even crack the top 10 for the first time until Lap 191 of the 250-lap race. He was 10th, a lap down, in the midst of a pit cycle.

Castroneves vaulted to the top of the lapped cars as Sebastien Bourdais put the field a lap down and once the Frenchman pitted, and everyone got back on the same lap, Castroneves found himself in good position. He pitted for new tires late and got up to second, equaling his best finish at the track (1998, 2013).

Castroneves recapped the roller coaster afternoon.

“It was very frustrating unfortunately. It was a miscue on that situation,” he said of qualifying. “We were 10 minutes late on showing up to the line for the field.

“Certainly I think the weekend at Fontana somebody else had the same issue. Those are the rules that are really reinforced. Very disappointed because we know how tough it is over here to pass.

“But the point is, we never give up,” he added. “Honestly many times I didn’t know the position I was. They didn’t tell me. I was trying to drive as hard as I can. We knew we had plenty of tires because of not qualifying. It gave us an extra set. That could be an advantage for us. We knew putting new tires would be better.

“I didn’t know what position I was until lap 220. 218 was the yellow. I glanced in the pagoda, I saw my name up there. Oh, I am doing well!

“At one point in the race I was by myself. Actually, there was one car. I didn’t know where was everybody. I look in the mirror. Nobody front, nobody. What happened? I must be doing really bad or really good.

“When the yellow came, I thought, Now we got a chance to win because now we got good tires.

“The 11 [Bourdais] was just too quick.”

Castroneves’ thus far winless but consistent season – he has five podium finishes this year, tied for the most with Graham Rahal – has him tied for third in the points heading to Iowa next weekend. Coincidentally, he’s tied with Rahal on points, as well.

DiZinno: If 2015 was the end for Milwaukee, it went down smoothly

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MILWAUKEE – Attendance counting and hand wringing have become two of the most popular pastimes about IndyCar on ovals.

Yet for 250 laps on Sunday, I opted to focus more on edge-of-your-seat racing and badass driving.

There was an air of negativity and doubt lingering in the local air in the weeks and months leading up to Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250, regarding the future of the event. Even after the race, there still is.

However, the quality of the racing on display Sunday, for just less than two hours, briefly put the concerns about the next time, or if there is a next time, in the back seat.

From the grandstands for the opening half of the race, I remembered why I became a fan of North American open-wheel racing nearly 20 years ago.

The drivers were on the edge of adhesion through and through, and you could really see and witness the different styles and the drivers working every second, every single lap.

Some of the moves early on were great to watch. Traffic played its part. You had various comers and goers depending on track position; Josef Newgarden looked on rails and unbeatable early, then race winner Sebastien Bourdais came through and made Newgarden’s own “stomp the field” effort look pedestrian by comparison.

You had rookie Gabby Chaves racing past IndyCar champions Will Power and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Ryan Briscoe ran well before a bad pit stop and subsequent spin and crash.

Justin Wilson came back and looked like the “badass” he truly is on-track, while maintaining his usual gentleman status off-track. He stayed at least an hour after the checkered flag to ensure the kids who were still there could get an autograph, even though he’d just debriefed following a mechanical failure and spent a few minutes answering a couple of my questions.

The thing that is great about Milwaukee is it rewards both the drivers and engineers in a way few other ovals, bar Indianapolis perhaps, can. And with a condensed, primarily one-day schedule, unloading strong off the trailer was a big key to success.

Drivers like Newgarden, Bourdais and Graham Rahal noted how much their setups were good straightaway. Meanwhile, Team Penske had a rare mulligan weekend that included missing its scheduled time for Helio Castroneves to qualify and a lack of pure pace by comparison.

In the race, you really saw the drivers working the car, more so than it would appear at a race with a perceived “pack racing” bend, as Fontana had been two weeks earlier. Milwaukee is a much tougher race to handle from the cockpit, and it showed for the majority of the 24-car field.

Attrition was still high, as it was in Fontana, but higher than expected temperatures contributed.

As for the other weekend elements, and there were several, it all added up to a weekend that felt like a successful pilot episode of a show but is one that isn’t fully set to be picked up for wider production.

The biggest weekend element was the, as mentioned, primarily one-day show of second practice, qualifying, and the race all in one day, culminating with a 4:30 p.m. CT and local start time. IndyCar shared the weekend with the Harry Miller Vintage club earlier in the week, and the flood of cars from the past running around the Mile was an added bonus on Friday and Saturday.

But the pressure to succeed for the IndyCar contingent was intense.

“I think everybody got into qualifying thinking, I want to start at the front, but I want to start, period,” Bourdais said. “It’s tough enough I think with these two-day events. Don’t give you a lot of time to turn around and get your stuff figured out. When it turns into a 24-hour thing, it’s challenging for sure.”

Newgarden’s first career pole perhaps wasn’t properly feted given he had all of three hours to celebrate it before the race.

But judging from the amount of infield activity – and fans were streaming in in decent numbers from about 11 a.m. or so, a full five-plus hours before the race – it seemed there was enough on-track activity and infield activity to draw fans for a longer margins.

The crowd is another talking point. Some estimates put the crowd number in the 12,000 range; I estimated higher, closer to 16,000.

The weird thing about that is, that’s not a terrible number by 2015 IndyCar crowd standards. Yet it seems only oval attendance draws the fetal pig level of dissection, unlike road and street course races, which largely escape scot-free despite fewer grandstands. Toronto, for example, stands out as a once-great event that is largely a shadow of itself in 2015.

TV is another point of note. Say what you will about the obscure 4:30 and 5:30 ET green flag times in Fontana and Milwaukee, but they’ve produced two races on NBCSN that have witnessed higher ratings year-on-year, despite the date change (both over 400,000 viewers). This is despite the counterpoint of likely worse on-site attendance year-on-year. TV numbers are what the sponsors view as important, and ratings increases in the final portion of the season will be key to any sustained growth for the series as a whole.

So if you look at Milwaukee, it, like Fontana, was a microcosm of IndyCar on the whole for 2015.

Great racing. Field parity. OK crowd. A salvageable TV number. A historic track. And questions about the future.

Bottom line was IndyCar and Indy Lights put on one of the year’s better shows in a primarily one-day event that made it feel like there was still a product and event worth saving. And to Andretti Sports Marketing’s credit, this was an event that was dead four years ago, and they already have saved it for that long a time period.

If the numbers add up for them, for title sponsor ABC Supply Co. on what would need to be a new contract after their current two-year one ended, and for INDYCAR as a sanctioning body, then Milwaukee won’t hear “last call.”

But if this was the end for Milwaukee, it went down smooth like a nice cold one.

Chaves a whisker away from top-10 after competitive, roller-coaster race in Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE – One of the under-the-radar stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series season to this point has been rookie Gabby Chaves with Bryan Herta Autosport.

Chaves had arguably one of his best races this year on Sunday in the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, even though the simple stat line of starting 12th, finishing 11th doesn’t scream at you.

But Chaves went from 12th to sixth on the first lap in the No. 98 Bowers & Wilkins/Curb Honda, then steadily fell back, but enjoyed a first half dice with past series champions and Milwaukee winners Ryan Hunter-Reay and Will Power at various points of the first 100-plus laps.

A video of the start is below:

Chaves’ roller-coaster ride continued and he got as high as fifth in the second half of the race. The final caution flag negated several drivers’ fuel concerns, and Chaves lost a fair bit of track position.

All told though, 11th followed a ninth in Detroit race two and 10th in Texas as his best finish of his freshman season.

“I probably experienced so many things in that race,” Chaves told MotorSportsTalk post-race. “I experienced probably the best start I’ve had, I went 12th to sixth in the first corner. Then I experienced one of the scariest moments going from sixth to like 12th in the next corner, trying to push myself!

“I had a lot of moments out there. I fought hard to make positions, keep my positions. We got a little bit unlucky there with the [last] caution. We were good on fuel. Four weren’t and got lucky. We could have had a top-six, top-seven. We’ll take this and move forward.”

Chaves, who raced at the track twice in Indy Lights, said the IndyCar style of racing at the venerable Milwaukee Mile oval wasn’t too different.

“It was very similar but harder, when you experience the same characteristics behind other cars,” Chaves explained. “Tire degradation is the same feeling. It’s way harder. When you’re behind another car in Indy Lights, you can manage it. It was so rough out there. It was hard to get within three or four car lengths and not feel the suspension is broke. But I enjoyed it. The team pushed itself.”

For fun this weekend and to try to break a recent string of tough luck, several BHA team members – including their eponymous team owner Bryan Herta himself – sported mustaches or other facial hair at the track.

Chaves, only 22 and unable to grow much himself, stuck a joke mustache on his face during the weekend to join in the festivities.

The facial hair was the comedic high point of a fun, and competitive, weekend for one of IndyCar’s two full-season single-car teams.

After first pole, Josef Newgarden happy to be disappointed with fifth in Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE – When fifth place is a disappointment, it’s a good day.

And thus, that was the story of Josef Newgarden’s ending to a Sunday, and a weekend, which held so much promise after sweeping the preliminary sessions at the ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers.

Newgarden led both first and second practice in the No. 67 Direct Supply CFH Racing Chevrolet, and then backed it up in warmer temperatures for his first career Verizon IndyCar Series pole Sunday afternoon at the Milwaukee Mile.

In the race, he looked dominant when in the lead. Newgarden led the opening 54 laps and again from Lap 60 to 100, so for 94 of the opening 100 circuits, as was good in clean air.

But after the second round of pit stops, Newgarden lost a spot to Scott Dixon, and the ensuing first caution flag after James Jakes had a mechanical issue meant a flurry of caution flag stops. The jumbled order left Newgarden in 11th.

From there, he rebounded to fifth, and led 14 more laps for a total of 109 in the race – a career-high.

“Probably when we got behind Dixon that didn’t help,” Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk post-race. “Then when we followed him in we lost track position, and Bourdais had track position.

“That was what it was all about. You had to have track position. Even if he had newer scuffed tires, Bourdais could hold him off because he had track position. I think we had the fastest car in clean air. In dirty air we weren’t the best. We didn’t have it all day.”

Newgarden’s fifth place finish was his first top-five of the year that wasn’t a win, after winning the Barber and Toronto rounds earlier this summer.

“You finish fifth and you’re not happy about it, that’s a good thing,” he said. “We needed better track position. But it was still a great effort and a good team run.”

Newgarden ranks ninth in points going into Iowa Speedway, where he finished second last year.

Mixed 250th start for Dixon: up in points, down to P7 at finish in Milwaukee

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MILWAUKEE – If the Verizon IndyCar Series championship battle for 2015 comes down to Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon – and after Sunday’s ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers, it looks like it will – then the final 25 laps on the historic half mile could make all the difference in the final numbers.

Dixon started 10th in the No. 9 Cottonelle Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, but excellent pit work from his crew got him up to second after the first pit stop sequence, and into the lead after the second stop by Lap 103.

He was in podium position the rest of the day from there, before restarting in sixth place on Lap 232 after race winner Sebastien Bourdais, Montoya and Ed Carpenter stayed out on the final yellow period.

Dixon had fresher tires and got behind Montoya by Lap 237, and sought to get around the Colombian. However, on Lap 245, Dixon’s car washed out behind Montoya, got in the gray and fell back three positions. He dropped three positions to eighth, but gained a spot on the final lap in getting around Marco Andretti.

Speaking to MotorSportsTalk after the race, Dixon said it was hard racing but he was frustrated with the way things went down between he and Montoya.

“He just, I think, was racing more in his mirrors, which you’re going to do at that point,” Dixon told MotorSportsTalk.

“I wasn’t sure if his spotter was telling him where I was. I tried the low side in 3 and 4, then he did low side, then he did high side in 1 and 2, then he moved up. It caught me off guard. I got up in the gray and lost three spots.”

Montoya, who finished fourth, saw the exchange differently.

“The 9 car came and his tires were off, he couldn’t pass me,” Montoya told MotorSportsTalk.

Dixon fell out of the lead after the first yellow flag period of the race, with the different strategies moving him back to sixth at that time. That wasn’t what cost him a good result, he said.

“I got pushed out on one of the restarts on the high side and got trounced by a few,” Dixon said. “Then the strategy that the 11 [Bourdais] and the 3 [Helio Castroneves] and those guys were on ultimately worked out, because they had clear track. Same for the 2 [Montoya].

“If you had clear track you could run as fast as you needed to, even against guys who were on better tires. As long as you placed the car in front of the car behind you, they wouldn’t be able to pass you, and that’s what happened between me and Montoya in Turn 1.”

Dixon lost only five points to Montoya on the day, and actually moved into second in points following Will Power’s accident past the halfway mark. He trails JPM by 54 points with four races to go.

But it still was a less than satisfying result for Dixon in his 250th career North American start.