Varying goals for four Indy 500 rookies

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Final preparations are in the books for the quartet of rookies who will be making their Indianapolis 500 debuts this Sunday.

Only one of the four is contesting the full IZOD IndyCar Series season, Schmidt Peterson’s Tristan Vautier. Team Penske’s AJ Allmendinger is in the midst of his IndyCar return from a seven-year NASCAR sojourn, while Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly have had polar opposite IndyCar series debuts throughout the month of May.

Munoz starts second for the 500 after a whirlwind month of doing double duty for Andretti Autosport. His Firestone Indy Lights commitment for the month ended Friday when he led 27 laps in the Firestone Freedom 100, but fell from first to fourth on the last lap when Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves and Sage Karam all passed him.

Still, Munoz will be able to take what he learned into his IndyCar debut Sunday.

“I learned, really, that I can’t be leading going into the last lap. It’s like the death penalty,” Munoz joked during the post-race press conference.

For Allmendinger, who starts fifth in the No. 2 IZOD Chevrolet, a 500 debut is like a homecoming after his open-wheel hiatus.

“I’ve thought a lot about that. Honestly, maybe it’s my background and where I came from,” he said. “Daytona is special and believe me, I’d love to win the Daytona 500 one day. But we haven’t even gotten to Sunday yet and walking in this place, walking through Gasoline Alley and taking it all in – there’s nothing that comes close to it. It’s so special.”

Vautier starts 28th after a wicked qualifying run, where he was on the edge of adhesion and the limit of grip, hanging on for dear life. His pace was stunted by hitting the hard rev limiter on two of his four laps. It’s a far cry from when he made qualifying look easy in his first two races, at St. Petersburg and Barber, when he qualified in the Firestone Fast Six.

“We expected a tough qualifying because of the Long Beach engine change, so we couldn’t put a fresh engine in,” he said. “We had to make the most of it and maximize everything on the chassis. Considering that, it wasn’t so bad.”

Meanwhile, Daly – who spent Media Day with a check for all of $0.31 to equal his 31stt starting position – will have the thrill of a lifetime spending race day at Indianapolis on the grid, rather than a spectator, for the first time in his 21 years. A lifelong Hoosier, Daly is the son of Derek Daly, an ex-Formula One and IndyCar driver, and a six-time Indy 500 starter. Daly is balancing this race with a full season of GP3 in Europe.

“I know how much my heart races as a fan. So it will be pretty cool,” he said. “Now I’m part of this deal. Slowly walk around and see who I can see. Now I have my own program, and I’m ready to start race myself.”

Josef Newgarden dominates from pole to win KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

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There’s a reason why Josef Newgarden calls Road America his favorite racetrack – and he showed why Sunday, dominating to victory in the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

Newgarden led all but two laps from the pole and was in a class of his own throughout the 55-lap caution-free race on the 4.048-mile, 14-turn road course in central Wisconsin, defeating runner-up Ryan Hunter-Reay by 3.3759 seconds.

“(I wanted this one) really bad,” Newgarden told NBCSN in victory lane. “I wanted to win here since last year. This car has been a rocket all weekend. It wasn’t easy. Ryan was very quick and I knew Dixon was right behind him, so we were working for it the entire race.

“I kind of knew what I had to do, but it was a lot of work. Ryan was really pushing me. It’s good to get a win. It doesn’t matter what car, as long as it’s Team Penske.”

It was Newgarden’s series-leading third win of the season in the first 10 races (also won at ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama), pushing him past Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Will Power and Scott Dixon, who both have two wins in the 2018 campaign.

“I was hoping to make it more interesting for the fans here at Road American and on TV,” Hunter-Reay said. “The last two stints, when he put on used red and I had blacks, he was really hooked up. … I was pushing 110 percent, that’s for sure.

“Unfortunately, I just couldn’t catch up to Josef. I was able to close up the gap a little bit here and there, but not like I was early in the race. He found his own way for sure. Definitely, the clean air out front helps, but hats off to him: he had a great race and deserves the win.”

Dixon finished third, followed by Takuma Sato, Robert Wickens, Graham Rahal, Simon Pagenaud, Spencer Pigot (his best finish of the season), Ed Jones and James Hinchcliffe.

Dixon (393 points) maintains the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead, Hunter-Reay (348) moved up two spots to second place, Alexander Rossi (tied with Hunter-Reay for second at 348) dropped one spot to third, Newgarden (343) climbed one spot to fourth and Will Power (328) dropped two spots to fifth in the standings.

“It’s so tight … so tough,” Dixon said. “The Verizon IndyCar Series, right now, the competition is through the roof. To get a podium these days is tough enough, yet to get a win. But we’ll keep pushing and see what we get.”

There was action right from the opening lap, including misfortune for Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power, who suffered engine issues that sent him to the pits after the opening lap.

After trying to work on his car in the pits, Power’s team pushed it back to the paddock to attempt further repairs, but those efforts failed and the car was retired.

Power was third in the IndyCar points standings coming into the race, 36 points behind series leader Scott Dixon. He finished last (23rd) in Sunday’s race and will likely drop to fifth in the standings.

“They replaced the exhaust, and it just blew straight back out,” Power told NBCSN’s Marty Snider. “So, there’s obviously something going on in there that’s gone wrong.

“I feel bad for all the guys. It’s just one of those things, you know – you’ll get that every now and then at some point. No good, but we’ll move on to the next one.”

Also, 2016 Indy 500 winner Alexander Rossi had an issue with what appeared to be brakes- or suspension-related that resulted in a lengthy pit stop after 38 laps. Rossi finished 16th in the 23-car field.

“Hugely disappointing,” Rossi told NBCSN. “It was good enough for fourth … but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

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