Martinsville Update: Jimmie Johnson strong again at ‘paperclip’

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Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson is once again pacing the field after taking the lead just before halfway at the STP 500.

Pole sitter Kyle Busch led the opening lap, but the first caution of the day began just one lap later when Parker Kligerman crashed in an accordion-effect incident that left several drivers such as Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier and Kasey Kahne with damage on their own cars.

The green returned at Lap 11, but six laps later on Lap 17, Kyle Busch was forced to give up the point to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Matt Kenseth, who quickly came up from sixth at the green flag. However, his time up front would not last as Johnson passed him for P1 on Lap 20.

Kenseth fell back multiple spots on the outside groove, while Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon (another eight-time winner at Martinsville) settled in the top two spots. Joey Logano would take second from Gordon, however, just before the competition caution at Lap 40.

Johnson would maintain the lead coming out of the pits, while Kahne, already in the back of the field, made slight contact with Brad Keselowski as he was coming into his box. Kurt Busch then clipped Keselowski’s car, leaving it with considerable front-end damage.

Eventually, it was decided that Keselowski needed to go to the garage and upon his return to action at Lap 77, he and Busch hounded each other repeatedly on the track.

While the former Cup champions tried to settle their dispute, Johnson maintained his grip on the race until Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel-hopped in Turn 1 and bounced off the wall, bringing out the caution at Lap 103.

Kenseth won the race off pit road and took the restart ahead of the field at Lap 109, but Logano took the lead from him shortly before the yellow emerged again on Lap 114. Travis Kvapil spun Michael Annett, who in turn got in the back of David Gilliland and turned him around. However, all three managed to avoid the wall.

Logano drove away on the restart at Lap 120, but was quickly reeled in by Johnson and on Lap 133, he passed Logano low to retake control of the race.

While holding the point, though, Greg Biffle began to make his presence felt and moved past Logano for second at Lap 151. Then on Lap 156, Biffle put the bumper to Johnson and pushed him out of the way in Turn 1 to take the lead.

Also impressing at this point were Marcos Ambrose and A.J. Allmendinger, who had moved into the Top 5. Ambrose (along with Aric Almirola) is looking to win for Richard Petty Motorsports, who are racing with heavy hearts after the passing of Lynda Petty earlier this week.

At Lap 170, Gilliland spun Casey Mears in Turn 1 to bring out another yellow, and in the ensuing pit stops, Ambrose was able to leapfrog Biffle for the lead. But Kenseth and Johnson once again showed their strength on the long run and on Lap 195, both of them were able to dust Ambrose for first and second respectively.

Five laps later, Dale Earnhardt Jr. got into the left rear of Jamie McMurray that caused him to lose his tire and spin hard into the Turn 2 wall to trigger the caution.

Kenseth kept the lead through pit stops, but Johnson promptly took it from him at Lap 213. On Lap 219, caution No. 7 ensued when rookie Alex Bowman spun and hit the wall in Turn 4.

Even with the short green run, the leaders returned to the pits for fresh tires while others such as Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch opted to stay out. Earnhardt wound up inheriting the lead, while Logano lined up fourth after winning the race out of the pits.

After going green again at Lap 226, debris slowed the field again at Lap 231 with Earnhardt, Allmendinger and Kurt Busch ahead of Johnson. But Johnson was quickly able to dispatch the trio to reclaim P1 at Lap 245.

With 200 IndyCar wins in the books, Penske looks for No. 201 at Indy

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The history of Team Penske at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a storied one that features 16 Indy 500 wins, including a pair of four-time winners in Al Unser and Rick Mears, and number of utterly dominant performances.

Yet, they’ll head to this year’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 looking to avenge a pair of relatively subpar performances in each of the last two years.

Power was the only Penske driver to finish in the Top 10 in 2016, with Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud finishing 11th and 19th after fuel strategy intervened late in the race. And last year, all the Penske cars were somewhat down on pace compared to other teams, notably the Honda cars.

Power was the only Penske driver to qualify for the Fast Nine Pole Shootout last year – he qualified ninth. Juan Pablo Montoya and Helio Castroneves were 18th and 19th in the grid, while Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud were 22nd and 23rd.

And only Castroneves was in winning contention in the final laps as he battled eventual winner Takuma Sato – Montoya was sixth, while Pagenaud was 14th and the only other Penske running at the end. Both Newgarden and Power crashed out on Lap 183.

This year, however, could see a return to the dominant form we’re used to seeing from the Penske outfit. All four cars entered – Pagenaud, Power, Newgarden, and Castroneves – qualified inside the top nine, with Pagenaud and Power on the front row.

They have all been near the front of the time sheets, especially in laps without a tow from another car, and the indication is that the Penske cars may be the fastest ones in the field.

All told, it leads to very high expectations for a team that already expects highly of itself.

Leading the way for Penske is current points leader and defending IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden. Newgarden’s best Indy 500 finish is third in 2016, but he only has one other Top 10 there – ninth in 2015.

But, with an IndyCar title now under his belt, Newgarden has his eyes set on an Indy 500 win.

Josef Newgarden looks to add an Indy 500 crown to his 2017 championship. Photo: IndyCar

“I think Indianapolis…is certainly next on the list for me,” he detailed in a press conference ahead of qualifying. “It’s not next on the list for the team, they’ve won it many times. The good thing is we have four great opportunities, especially having Helio back. I think we have one of the best opportunities in the entire field to win this race.”

Pagenaud, like Newgarden, is also looking for his first Indy triumph, though his record there isn’t quite as good. He has been fast at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but only has two Top 10s to show for it – eighth in 2013 with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and tenth in 2015 in his first year with Penske.

And a Pagenaud win would be somewhat historic – it would be only the fourth time a French driver has won the “500,” and the first since 1920 (Gaston Chevrolet).

Pagenaud explained that this race always holds a place as a top priority, and that success at Indy is all about preparation.

Simon Pagenaud looks to become only the first French driver to win an Indy 500 since Gaston Chevrolet in 1920. Photo: IndyCar

“It really is our number one goal. In Roger and Tim’s heart, it’s the most important one,” Pagenaud declared. “We prepare really hard. The team does a fantastic job at just understanding every bit and component of this new aero kit, trying to extract the best out of the equipment.”

Pagenaud added, “On the driver side, there’s a lot you can do obviously to review the past races, try to focus yourself, try to put yourself into the race before it happens, try to just improve. That’s what we try to do every day. That’s the goal. That’s why this group is so good. We push each other so hard that you always try to push the limits away.”

Power, the man who delivered Penske his 200th IndyCar win, is no stranger to success at IMS, having won the Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course three times. But, he is yet to find Victory Lane on the oval, and that leaves a void in an otherwise stellar career.

Will Power has won the INDYCAR Grand Prix three times, and looks for his first win at the “500” this weekend. Photo: IndyCar

Power spotlighted the opportunity in front of him, and detailed that running in traffic has been a strength thus far through practice.

“It’s fantastic to have that opportunity. Obviously very focused on (trying to win),” he revealed. “I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win this year. I mean, I think Chevrolet has brought a really good engine. I feel like we’re really fast. Running in traffic and such, I felt like we’ve been pretty strong, especially when you get to the front.”

Castroneves is the only Penske driver with Indy 500 wins on his resume. But, with three wins to his name, Castroneves is more than familiar with IMS glory.

Now a part-time IndyCar driver who races full-time in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship with the Acura Team Penske outfit, Castroneves’ sole focus is on getting that elusive fourth win.

Helio Castroneves looks to join the four-time winners club at the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

And he has momentum on his side too, coming off a debut IMSA win for the Acura Penske outfit at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A fourth Indy 500 win would put an exclamation point on the month for Castroneves.

“I think about it every day,” he said when asked about how often he ponders getting that fourth win. “It was one of those incredible ones, I have phenomenal car, the Pennzoil car was really strong last year. Obviously coming back here, first of all, I want to thank Roger and (team president Tim Cindric) for giving me the opportunity to be back at the Indy 500. It’s such a special place for so many people. Just to be back and able to continue our goal and pursue for the number four, it’s incredible.”

Pagenaud and Power will flank pole sitter Ed Carpenter on the front, starting second and third respectively. Newgarden starts fourth, while Castroneves will start eighth.

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