IndyCar has two races, two weeks more of glory in a fascinating 2015 season

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It’s been a roller coaster season for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

And there’s two more final weeks of twists and turns to come.

What seemed unfathomable at the start of the year, that you’d have five drivers in realistic title contention with two races to go including the single-car effort of Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in his much-discussed career year, is now fully in play heading into 500 miles at Pocono and the sinewy, twisty turns of Sonoma.

Oddly, it’s Sonoma, the season finale, and not Pocono, the 500-miler, which sees double points in play. It’s a variable that could definitely swing the championship and has kept more drivers in play.

The potential storylines then, to follow, out of the next two weeks:

MONTOYA, PENSKE’S LOOSENING GRIP ON THE TITLE

Just two races ago at Milwaukee, Juan Pablo Montoya led Scott Dixon by 54 points, and Graham Rahal was tied for third, some 69 points back.

Two races later, Rahal has cut 60 of those 69 points back.

Montoya – and for that matter Team Penske – has not been delivering the results needed the last couple months.

Montoya has not finished on the podium since his thrilling win at this year’s Indianapolis 500, some eight races ago. His best finish is fourth on three occasions.

On the whole, Team Penske has only five podium finishes in the last eight races. A good number for most teams, but consider this is a four-car Chevrolet-powered mega lineup and out of a combined 32 races the only podium results are one second place by Helio Castroneves and four thirds – split two apiece between Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – and Penske is far from the Penske Perfect it needs to be at this point in the season. Contrast that to the nine podiums the team achieved in the first six races and it’s clear the early season advantage is long gone.

In recent years, Penske’s title drought from 2007 through 2013 was the storyline at this time of year. It does not want to lose another title in a year where it has already captured the Daytona and Indianapolis 500s, and is also well-positioned ahead of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup.

CAN RAHAL, RLL, HONDA REALLY PULL IT OFF?

Anyone who bet Rahal and RLL would be in IndyCar title contention at this stage of the year, at the beginning of the year, is likely a very rich man or woman at the moment.

Odds were low that after 18th and 19th place finishes in the standings the last two years, Rahal would even win a race this year, let alone head into the last two races with a shot at the championship.

But you know the story by now. The latest reorganization of the team and Bobby Rahal’s stepping back, letting Ricardo Nault run the program and the collective gelling between Graham and the trio of Eddie Jones, Martin Pare and Mike Talbott has produced incredible results.

The No. 15 Honda-powered team is on a hot streak, with five top-four finishes in the last seven races, to propel Graham from fifth at Detroit race one, 81 points back of Montoya, to only nine back now.

source: Getty ImagesTEN OR ELEVEN RACE WINNERS?

Ryan Hunter-Reay took the season up to nine winners with his win at Iowa. A tenth different winner in either of the next two races keeps IndyCar’s streak of double-digit race winners alive and increases it to three years. A tenth and eleventh different winner in the next two ties the record set on three different occasions (2000, 2001, 2014). Potential new winners are linked here.

OTHER POINTS JOCKEYING

Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Will Power still have outside title hopes but are more likely to shuffle between third and fifth, currently separated by 25 points. Dixon has a streak of finishing in the top three points for nine straight years, from 2006 through 2014, and looks to extend that to 10 years straight.

The gap from sixth-placed Sebastien Bourdais to ninth-placed Tony Kanaan is also only 25 points, with Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden sandwiched in-between.

It’s likely to come down to Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Carlos Munoz for the 10th and final place in the top-10 in the year-end standings.

OFF-TRACK LOOMING ISSUES

There remain a number of off-track items to sort as well. More to follow in the next couple weeks – hopefully this doesn’t cloud the on-track agendas the next two weeks – but these are all items to pay attention to:

  • 2016 schedule talk
  • Derrick Walker’s potential replacement(s)
  • Driver and/or manufacturer silly season movement
  • Honda’s ongoing extension talks

All told, plenty to play for the next two weeks at Pocono and Sonoma.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500