Preview: MAVTV 500 in Fontana a test of survival, heat and tire management

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The three upcoming races for the Verizon IndyCar Series are all on ovals, but they couldn’t be more diverse.

Essentially, you’ve got provolone, cheddar and Swiss cheese all in a row. Are they all cheeses? Yes. Are they the same in any way, shape or fashion beyond the fact they’re cheeses? Nope.

The first in the “ovals as cheese” trifecta is this weekend’s MAVTV 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN), which has been done no favors in terms of scheduling since it came back on the schedule in 2012.

It was in mid-September in ungodly heat, moved to a more reasonable mid-October date the following year, then moved back up to end of August last year.

Its reward for 2015? A new track president, in the form of Dave Allen to replace the departed Gillian Zucker, and another new date – it’s now the end of June in a Saturday afternoon race.

Conditions might be miserable but the drivers will all have to make do. Here’s a decent explanation of what drivers will face, as outlined by Takuma Sato, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Co. Honda.

“Running the race during the heat of the day will be very tough,” Sato said. “You lose tons of downforce from the high ambient temperature and you lose significant mechanical grip due to the high track temperature, as tires are given a very hard time. So there will be not enough grip and the race will be a tough one to deal with as a driver.”

Sato – and the other 22 drivers competing in the MAVTV 500 – will look to survive the heat, tire wear and the seams that make Auto Club Speedway so treacherous. While there have been disconcerting rumors put out this could be the race’s finale, MAVTV did sign a two-year sponsorship extension at last year’s race through 2016.

As for this year, it would seem fairly likely the winner will come from Team Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. Is that a surprise? Hardly.

On the Penske side, Juan Pablo Montoya is a 500-mile master and looks to add an ACS win to his already stellar 500-mile resume, while Will Power’s arguably best ever oval race came here two years ago. Helio Castroneves will be motivated as ever to get his first win of the year, while Simon Pagenaud has what should be a much better wagon underneath him after a trying Fontana last year in his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports swansong.

It’s Ganassi that enters as defending race champions. Tony Kanaan finally earned his first win as a member of CGR last August, and Scott Dixon gave chase the rest of the night. Charlie Kimball is a sleeper and has been very solid the last two years at Fontana; Sage Karam returns to the site where he won his Indy Lights title two years ago after a one-race absence.

Of the other Chevrolet-powered teams, the KVSH Racing entry of Sebastien Bourdais and KV Racing Technology entry of Stefano Coletti both struggled at Texas, as did CFH Racing’s pair of Ed Carpenter and Josef Newgarden, somewhat surprisingly. On outright performance you’d expect both teams to find their form this weekend, and Newgarden told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week he expects CFHR to be on better terms than they were after a disastrous Texas.

Coming to the Honda teams, and it was Andretti Autosport’s pair of Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti, Schmidt Peterson’s Ryan Briscoe and James Jakes and Bryan Herta Autosport’s Gabby Chaves who all banked top-10 finishes in Texas. Briscoe and Andretti, of that quintet, you’d figure to do well in Fontana this weekend.

Of the other Honda runners, Andretti’s Ryan Hunter-Reay needs an exorcism or something similar to erase what’s been a brutal 10-race stretch from the start of the season. Fontana has good memories for him as it’s where he clinched his 2012 title.

The others – Graham Rahal of RLL, Coyne’s Pippa Mann and Tristan Vautier and Foyt’s Sato and Jack Hawksworth – all seek trouble-free runs and better finishes than they had at Texas.

On paper it’s likely Montoya or Dixon’s to lose. Of course with it being 500 miles, nearly anything is possible.

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”