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.

Meyer Shank Racing wins Petit Le Mans to take final DPi championship in dramatic finale

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Meyer Shank Racing outdueled Wayne Taylor Racing to win the Petit Le Mans and clinch the championship in a thrilling final race for the DPi division.

Tom Blomqvist, who started from the pole position, drove the No. 60 Acura ARX-05 to a 4.369-second victory over Pipo Derani in the No. 31 Action Express Cadillac.

“That was incredible,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports’ Matt Yocum. “I’ve never dug so deep in my life. The adrenaline. I did that for the guys. I was so motivated to win this thing this weekend. But I’ve got to thank everyone on the whole team.”

With co-drivers Oliver Jarvis and Helio Castroneves, Blomqvist helped MSR bookend its season-opening victory in the Rolex 24 at Daytona by winning Saturday’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale at Michelin Road Atlanta.

In between those two victories, the No. 60 earned five runner-up finishes to stay in the thick of the championship hunt and trail WTR’s No. 10 Acura by 14 points entering Saturday’s race.

WTR’s Filipe Albuquerque had a lead of more than 10 seconds over Blomqvist with less than 50 minutes remaining in the 10-hour race.

But a Turn 1 crash between the Chip Ganassi Racing Cadillacs brought out a yellow that sent both Acuras into the pits from the top two positions.

Though he entered in second, Blomqvist barely beat Albuquerque out of the pits, and he held the lead for the final 45 minutes.

Blomqvist said he gained the lead because of a shorter fuel fill after he had worked on being efficient in the second-to-last stint.

“The team asked a big job of me with the fuel; I had a big fuel number to hit,” Blomqvist said. “We knew that was probably our only chance. The yellow came at the right time and obviously we had a bit less fuel to fill up, so I was able to jump him and then it was just a matter of going gung-ho and not leaving anything on the line. And obviously, the opposition had to try too hard to make it work. I’m so thankful.”

Albuquerque closed within a few car lengths of Blomqvist with 14 minutes remaining, but he damaged his suspension because of contact with a GT car in Turn 1.

It’s the first prototype championship for Meyer Shank Racing, which also won the 2021 Indy 500 with Castroneves.

“We’ve had in the last four years, three championships for Acura, the Indy 500 win and the Rolex 24, it doesn’t get any better,” team co-owner Mike Shank told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee.

It’s the third consecutive runner-up finish in the points standings for Wayne Taylor Racing, which won the first Daytona Prototype international championship in 2017. The premier category will be rebranded as the Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class with the LMDh cars that will establish a bridge to racing in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Kamui Kobayashi finished third in the No. 48 Cadillac of Action Express that also includes Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The podium showing marked Johnson’s last scheduled race in IMSA’s top prototype division. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion has raced in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac lineup as the Action Express entry has run the Endurance Cup races.

Johnson said a lack of inventory will preclude him having a 2023 ride in the top category. But he still is hopeful of racing the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro in next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and possibly running in a lower class for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

“I’d love to be at Le Mans next year,” Johnson told NBC Sports’ Dillon Welch after his final stint Saturday. “I’d love to be at the Rolex 24. The series is going through a shake-up with the reconfiguration of the rules and classes, so I don’t have anything locked down yet, but I’m so thankful for this experience with Action. The support Ally has given us, Mr. Hendrick, Chad Knaus, all of Hendrick Motorsports. It’s been a fun two years, and I certainly hope I’m on the grid again next year.”