In case you missed it, here’s a full cut of the interview between NBCSN Verizon IndyCar Series analyst Paul Tracy and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves, who sits second in the 2017 standings.
Castroneves looked another potential winner in Toronto on Sunday with a dynamic pass for the lead into Turn 1 past the front row of Simon Pagenaud and Graham Rahal, but all three were caught out by an ill-timed caution when Tony Kanaan slid into the Turn 1 tire barrier.
With one win, two additional podiums and 185 points scored over five races, Josef Newgarden has been the master of street courses for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.
Traditionally, Newgarden had not been as strong on street courses as he had on permanent road courses and ovals over the previous five years of his career, but a switch to Team Penske from Ed Carpenter Racing has changed that dynamic for the 26-year-old out of Hendersonville, Tenn. native.
Newgarden scored his first career front row start (Long Beach, 2012) and first podium (Baltimore, 2013) with seconds at both races but wasn’t usually the strongest on the street courses.
Among IndyCar’s four current street courses at St. Petersburg, Long Beach, Detroit and Toronto, Newgarden only had two total top-fives on those four heading into 2017 (win at Toronto, 2015, fourth at Detroit race two, 2016) from 26 starts (5 St. Petersburg, 5 Long Beach, 9 Detroit, 7 Toronto). He’d done better at Baltimore and Sao Paulo, both of which dropped off the schedule after 2013.
After winning at Toronto on Sunday in the No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet, Newgarden admitted the stress that comes with street course racing, knowing the anxiety of strategy and when a yellow might fall. To his benefit, Team Penske president and Newgarden’s race strategist Tim Cindric made the right call Sunday that helped leapfrog Newgarden to the front.
“It’s a street course. Whenever you’re in the lead on a street course, it always feels stressful. It doesn’t feel easy. You’re in the lead, have a good gap, manage it and finish the race. I feel like a street course always brings a bit of stress with the walls and all the variables that you’re always dealing with,” he explained.
“Today there was a little more with the rain. I was concerned about that, how it would throw a wrench into the works. It starts raining when I’m on the wrong end of the track, that wouldn’t be very good.
“There were things that stressed me out for sure. But, you know, it was a fairly straightforward day. I think probably it felt a little bit easier than the first year when I had my first win here and the second win of my career. The more you do it, the more you drive the cars, the easier it all becomes.”
Newgarden’s points haul of 185 from the five races came courtesy of four top-five finishes. Beyond his Toronto win he scored his first Penske podium with third at Long Beach and added fourth and second-place results at Detroit. Only an eighth at St. Petersburg, his best finish there, was he outside the top-five on a street course this year.
Detroit double winner Graham Rahal was second in street course points this year, and probably would have been first had he not been caught out by the yellow in Toronto that jumbled the order. He looked the business at both Detroit and Toronto but had lackluster results of 17th at St. Petersburg and 10th at Long Beach. Neither looked that bad at the time but as the single-car Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing tries to fight for the title, they loom larger.
Scott Dixon was third in the street course standings with James Hinchcliffe fourth, the Long Beach winner also adding two podiums in Detroit and Toronto. Simon Pagenaud was consistent with a podium and four top-fives in the five street races, and ends fifth here.
That Helio Castroneves is as close to the overall championship lead as he is comes courtesy of his results elsewhere. Castroneves was unlucky not to score more in street races this year. He won the pole at Long Beach but had electrical gremlins and penalties drop him back there, while getting shafted from the pole in Detroit put his weekend off kilter there. He scored 126 points on street courses this year, 59 fewer than Newgarden.
Interestingly, street courses have been a major killer for Will Power this year. Outside of third in Detroit race two, Power’s results went for naught in these five races. He had a mechanical issue in St. Petersburg, contact with Charlie Kimball in Long Beach and contact with Dixon in Toronto. Power only scored the 14th most points in the field on street courses this year.
Sebastien Bourdais scored 93 points from just two races with first and second in St. Petersburg and Long Beach. This is more than nine drivers who raced in all five!
Honda won four of the five street course races and was only denied a clean sweep by Newgarden on Sunday in Toronto. But Honda banked 10 podiums on the street courses of a possible 15 – Pagenaud, Newgarden and Power scored Chevrolet’s five podiums this year for Team Penske.
Likable Colombian Sebastian Saavedra made what felt like an eighth different comeback to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend – he’s had more comebacks than Cher and he’s only 27 years old.
And for the second time in as many opportunities this year, with a second different team, manufacturer, aero kit and type of course, Saavedra did exactly what he needed to raise his stock for a more permanent return to the series.
Saavedra was announced under cloudy circumstances for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda entry this weekend, as the team wouldn’t elaborate at first on Mikhail Aleshin’s absence.
But reports emerged over the weekend that this appears likely to be just a one-race sit down for the Russian, not a permanent replacement. Aleshin was on site at the weekend and still posting photos to social media with the team, which one doesn’t do if they’re to be let go.
Alas, for Saavedra, he faced a challenging situation regardless of Aleshin’s circumstances. He hadn’t driven on a street course in two years and the Toronto he last drove, in 2015, was a different circuit compared to the one he did this weekend. With the pit lane side swap and additional circuit changes, including new paving and other elements, it was always going to be a tough mountain to climb despite Saavedra’s parts of seven years and 60-plus starts in IndyCar.
Plus, compared to Indianapolis where there is a week of practice before qualifying – 30 hours – Saavedra would only have a pair of 45-minute practice sessions on Friday and then a further 45-minute one Saturday morning before qualifying.
Understandably, Saavedra was a bit off pace to start the weekend but he did nothing but improve from there. He was 2.8 seconds off P1 in first practice, and 2.1 down on teammate James Hinchcliffe, but those gaps dropped from there to 1.8 and 0.6 (second practice), 0.8 and 0.4 (third practice) and 1.0 and 0.6 (qualifying) respectively. His fastest race lap was only two tenths off Hinchcliffe, good for 15th.
In the race, from 20th on the grid, Saavedra was always likely to go off sequence and was among those who caught a break by the timing of the Lap 23 yellow. He’d pitted before the yellow and then leapfrogged into the top-10 following that caution when those who hadn’t pitted made their first visit to the pits.
Saavedra could have dropped back from there but didn’t, instead scrapping and fighting to hang onto a top-10 spot, which was always going to be an excellent result given the circumstances this weekend. He ran as high as seventh, matching his car number for the weekend.
Although he fell behind Graham Rahal and Scott Dixon in the final stages, 11th was still a very solid result for him to cap off the weekend.
“I feel like that is a very successful weekend in the books,” he reflected after the race. “I’m very appreciative of the whole Schmidt Peterson Motorsports organization for taking me in and just making me feel like I’m home.
“I felt the same throughout the race and had a pretty solid car. We kept clean for the first stint, just tried to stay away from trouble, and when I started pushing, the car was there for me. Great strategy from the SPM guys and getting me out of those reds [Firestone alternate tires] and getting me some free time for me to do my thing.
“It played off perfectly with those yellows, and we managed to get in with the guys up front which changed the speed of the race for us. We had the car to do it. We’re proud of the pit stops, proud of the strategy and of course having a good car makes my life as a driver a lot easier.”
Saavedra adds SPM to a list of teams he’s driven for since 2010 that also includes Bryan Herta Autosport, Conquest Racing, Andretti Autosport, Dragon Racing, KV Racing Technology, Chip Ganassi Racing and Juncos Racing. Most have come in partnership with his longtime supporter Gary Peterson of Automatic Fire Sprinklers, Inc. (AFS), and the AFS signage was present on the red and black No. 7 car this weekend.
Peterson told the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Dave Furst during the weekend that “sometimes I feel like a pimp” in trying to make opportunities happen for both himself and Saavedra.
But given how well Saavedra’s done in tough jump-in circumstances this year – at Juncos in the team’s IndyCar debut at the Indianapolis 500 when he drove well from 31st to 15th and now with SPM in this abnormal one-off drive, coming from 20th to 11th – he’s provided two glimpses at his potential as he looks to return on a more regular basis.
An accordion effect between Graham Rahal, Scott Dixon and Will Power saw Dixon and Power sustain the heaviest collision on the run down to Turn 3 on the opening lap. While Rahal emerged unscathed, Dixon and Power collided, with Power poking his nose to the outside of Dixon on the run into Turn 3. He’d be out of the race as a result.
“I went down the outside, and someone went down the inside of me,” Power told NBCSN’s Robin Miller. “It surprised me. I should have known better than to take any sort of risk on the first lap. Just not worth it.
“It really makes it tough in the championship. All the guys I’m fighting are at the front. I just feel bad for my guys. Didn’t even complete the first lap.”
Dixon’s race went belly-up, as well. He needed to pit for a flat left rear tire, then after the race restarted, received a drive-through penalty for performing more than required work in a closed pit (126.96.36.199.3.5).
It put Dixon off the boil on strategy and despite rebounding from 20th to run as high as fourth, he was left to finish in 10th. After six top-five finishes in the first seven races – his only miss that infamous 32nd in the Indianapolis 500 after his aerial accident – he’s now finished outside the top-five in four of the last five races, albeit still in the top-10 in all of them. It’s just that suddenly sixth, eighth, ninth and 10th are off, slightly, by comparison to wins and podiums wracked up by Team Penske.
“It was a rough day in the NTT Data car. I had a good start in Turn 1, and it looked like (Graham) Rahal decided to shift lanes and I had to avoid him. Then (Will) Power and I got together and ended up cutting down our tire and doing some damage to the suspension on the car. Then we had to fix the car and INDYCAR gave us a drive-through penalty, which was kind of odd. And then that kind of hosed our best efforts for the day and we ended up 10th,” Dixon said.
With two of the best drivers in the current generation sidelined for the day, the next key moment came when Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, nosed in at Turn 1 at Lap 23 and brought out a full-course caution.
This cost three more championship contenders, in Graham Rahal, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud, a potential podium lockout. The three fastest drivers and cars of the weekend were, like Dixon and Pagenaud in this race last year, caught out by the yellow timing by being at the front of the field. None was satisfied and Pagenaud (fifth), Castroneves (eighth) and Rahal (ninth) were all unlucky to finish lower than they probably deserved.
“We played it right but we got unlucky. But the three best cars didn’t win the race,” Rahal surmised to NBCSN. “It’s a shame. Sometimes luck plays a role in this things. You could see in the first stint, Helio, Simon and myself were taking off. Congrats to Newgarden, but we should have gained a lot of points on Dixon, Newgarden and more. The way the officials decide to close the pits these days, luck plays a factor in these things.”
All the while the one championship contender who benefited the most was Josef Newgarden – who courtesy of Team Penske president and his race strategist Tim Cindric managed to pit just before the yellow – promptly leapfrogged the field by pitting right before the yellow came out.
Newgarden admittedly got lucky but did have to bring it home from there, which he did on a banner day of closing down the gap in the championship. Newgarden was 56 back of Dixon seven days ago in the cornfields of Iowa. He’s now just 23 back of him after winning in the land of “Timbits” and poutine in Toronto on Sunday.
On the same day, Newgarden gained 21 (Pagenaud), 28 (Castroneves), 31 (Rahal) and 44 (Power) points over four other title contenders.
At 23 points back, Newgarden pinpointed the one race where he lost the most points – the double points Indianapolis 500 – as a place where his championship has been affected the most.
“The big thing for us is we can’t get into many more incidents like we have the first half of the year. I think month of May is really what killed us in the points championship,” he said. “We had a bad GP with a pit lane speed limiter issue, and a bad Indy 500 wrecking out with 20 to go, getting caught up in something. We’ve had some races that we’ve had to pick up from a deficit, and I think if those weren’t there, we’d probably be leading the championship.
“But other guys can say the same thing. They’ll say, We had races like this, too. It kind of yo-yos back and forth for everybody. Everyone is going to have good races and bad races. We have to prioritize having solid finishes from here to the end. I think if we’re the most consistent, we absolutely can win the championship. It’s going to be the guy who does that the best.”
Newgarden’s words there about consistency provide an interesting setup to the final five races of the year, and how the championship in this year where it seems anyone can win it, consistency over this stretch will come into play.
The five races left feature one short oval (Gateway), one big oval (Pocono), and three permanent road courses (Mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, Sonoma). Even so, there’s been no rhyme or reason to who’s won at the earlier portion of those tracks this year.
Road courses? We’ve had Newgarden (Penske Chevrolet, Barber), Power (Penske Chevrolet, Indy GP) and Dixon (Ganassi Honda, Road America) win the three permanent road course races. One could argue Power should have won Barber and Newgarden – or any Penske member – should have won at Road America, but they didn’t after getting usurped. Alas, Team Penske has 10 top-fives out of a possible 13 top-fives in those three races, so it’s hard to bet against any of their quartet in those races.
The short oval also should feature Penske dominance – it’s been Pagenaud (Phoenix) and Castroneves (Iowa) who’ve won there this year. But, again, there’s a question mark. Gateway will be repaved before its August 26 race with a test to come next month, so while the field did test there in May, it’ll be a completely new track to everyone, and that in theory levels the playing field. Dixon is good on tracks that are new or added, and he, Castroneves and a couple others do have some past Gateway race experience from many years ago.
Pocono though? That could be – probably should be – a Honda track. Yet Power won there last year and Pagenaud crashed out. Takuma Sato, who remains on the fringe of title contention but having fallen back in the last month with four tough results, of course has the year’s biggest 500-mile win on his resume and could well spoil the Penske and Ganassi party there for Andretti Autosport.
With five races to go, it’s going to be between those seven drivers for the title, with four in more realistic contention down the stretch. Dixon (423) has to hold off the first three of the Penske quartet of Castroneves (420), Pagenaud (404) and Newgarden (400), all close. Power and Rahal (359) and Sato (351) are also close-ish, still within a 72-point margin, but right on the border of falling out.
It’s a barnburner of a finish since no one has more than two wins yet this year, but as ever, the combination of wins and consistency will deliver this year’s IndyCar title.
It seemed only a matter of time before Andretti Autosport could bank a result worthy of their drivers’ improved performances this year, and it came Sunday in the Honda Indy Toronto with a bit of luck and a bit of pace.
Alexander Rossi was unlucky to roll off eighth in his No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda – he and Takuma Sato were both caught out when the qualifying session restarted and it knocked them out of the Firestone Fast Six. Meanwhile from 11th and 16th, Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay needed some help to make it up the order on Sunday.
Luckily it came in the form of a Lap 23 caution Sunday in the race. Once Tony Kanaan nosed into the Turn 1 wall, it brought out the yellow after a handful of the Andretti contingent had been into the pits for their first scheduled stops.
Sato was among those caught out by the yellow in fifth as he hadn’t pitted, but Rossi (10th), Andretti (13th) and Hunter-Reay (15th) had and suddenly found themselves poised to capitalize as a result of the jumbled sequence that would follow.
Rossi rebounded to a net second after the restart, behind leader and eventual race winner Josef Newgarden with Ed Jones and Charlie Kimball ahead but needing to stop, with Andretti and Hunter-Reay also into the top-10 following the shuffle.
They were able to stay there the rest of the race. Rossi wasn’t able to close enough on Newgarden to make a proper passing attempt, but was pleased with his first podium finish in IndyCar that wasn’t, well, that one at Indianapolis last May. Rossi hadn’t finished better than fifth in an IndyCar race outside of last year’s Indianapolis 500 so second was a needed result for him and the team.
“It’s been a long time coming. Now we can go to chase more wins,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt post-race. “I’m relieved we got the monkey off our back. To get this car where it needed to be was a huge effort. Very proud of Honda for their effort, and a huge shoutout to the fans.”
Rossi expanded on how many changes the team made from Friday to Saturday to even get the team in a good position.
“We were really at the bottom of the barrel, staring into the bottom of the barrel, I guess, Friday afternoon. We were really lost. We were the slowest, Andretti Autosport cars. Here is a tough place to be coming from to start off strong,” he explained.
“We had a lot of soul searching Friday night. We stayed quite a bit later at the in a long time. We just really analyzed everything that we could, and made some pretty solid changes overnight that suited me really well Saturday.
“If you look at where we were last year, the last four cars in qualifying, to having three cars in the top 10, really having something to fight for today, it’s a testament not only to this weekend and the strength the team has shown, but also this off-season and how much better 2017 has been for us, has been for Honda.”
Andretti admitted a bit of luck in ending fourth, but couldn’t express how much it was needed for both himself and the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda team, led by strategist Bryan Herta.
“It’s refreshing for sure. A trophy would have been fun. But I had fun today,” Andretti told NBCSN’s Anders Krohn. “The UFD car was great. It’s starting to put the fun back in this sport for me. Next goal for me is more hardware in the trophy case. He gave me the old go faster and save fuel, Bryan has put some fun back into it. It’s time to make this a regular occurrence going forward.”
Hunter-Reay enjoyed a combative bout with polesitter Simon Pagenaud in the final stages, Pagenaud finally making the pass in the final few laps for fifth place. The driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda then held off a bunch of others in the final couple laps as his car and tires fell off.
Speaking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Hunter-Reay said about the battle, “Yeah he gave me a nudge, I got back by him, I was loose in Turn 6, and I got in there pretty deep, he got by me. He was quite a bit quicker than me. But all in all, a good day. 2-4-6. Considering we started 16th, it was a good day.
“Some of the worst pickup I’ve ever experience with marbles It took four laps to get rubber off the car. It wounding turn! All in all I’m thankful to bring it home P6.”
Takuma Sato, who fell to 16th on Sunday, still is the best of the Andretti quartet in the championship, but has all but lost any title hopes after a rough patch of four races where he’s not finished better than 10th.
He sits seventh in points, 72 back of points leader Scott Dixon. Rossi is eighth, Hunter-Reay 13th and Andretti 14th.