IndyCar: Helio, Pagenaud see points deficits grow with 2 races left

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Down a mere five points to teammate Will Power in the Verizon IndyCar Series championship going into today’s ABC Supply Wisconsin 250, Helio Castroneves surely wanted to thrive.

Instead, on the tough old Milwaukee Mile, the three-time Indianapolis 500 champion could only survive.

Starting eighth on the grid, Castroneves rose as high as the Top 5 but handling problems on his No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet eventually had him fade to an 11th place finish.

And with Power coming through with a big win, Castroneves took a 34-point hit and fell 39 points behind his intra-team rival with two races to go.

“The Hitachi car was consistent, but unfortunately Turns 3 and 4 was where we had most of our problems,” the Brazilian told NBCSN. “If I finished without crashing today – it was a good day. Every time the car pushed, I couldn’t turn, and I was like, ‘Whoa, hold on, boy!’

“Turns 3 and 4 were very difficult for me. [Turns] 1 and 2 actually wasn’t bad but unfortunately, you have two more corners.”

Despite the setback, Castroneves recognized that with double points on offer for the season finale on Aug. 30 at Auto Club Speedway, his hopes of finally capturing a series championship were not extinguished.

It also bears noting that Castroneves is a past winner at Sonoma Raceway, where the IndyCars will set up shop next weekend for the penultimate race of the year – the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Next Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra).

“Remember, it’s 100 points [for the finale] and we’re 39 behind,” he said. “Still a lot of racing to go. Yes, [today] hurts a little bit. But we can come back.”

Also taking a hit today were the other title contenders, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud.

Hunter-Reay just about conceded the championship when an apparent suspension failure on his No. 28 Andretti Autosport Honda at Lap 168 knocked him out. He’s now fourth in the standings at 108 points back.

Pagenaud had better luck, jumping from 16th starting position to seventh at the checkered flag. However, Power’s victory did him no favors championship-wise; the Frenchman was down 65 points going in, but is leaving Milwaukee at 92 points back in third place.

But Pagenaud was still pleased with the afternoon, saying that a different approach taken with the set-up of his No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda paid off.

“I think we had a really good car, but it was just a matter of being up front, to be honest,” said Pagenaud, who was also saving fuel during his final stint of the race. “It took good pit stops – the guys were awesome in the pits – and we climbed our way forward.

“I’m really happy with this. I think we’ve done our hardest. I’m very confident with Sonoma and Fontana.”

Altogether, the top six drivers in the standings remain mathematically alive in the championship. That group also includes today’s runner-up, Juan Pablo Montoya (fifth, -114), and Target Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (sixth, -130).

Whether dinner or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

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Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).