NBC’s Townsend Bell highlights Justin Wilson’s great character, reputation (VIDEO)

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IndyCar driver Justin Wilson died Monday at the age of 37 from the severe head injury he suffered Sunday after being hit by debris from a wreck at Pocono Raceway. NBC Sports IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell joined NASCAR America earlier in the day to discuss Wilson’s great character and outstanding reputation.

Besides having raced on track together in parts of the same season dating to 2008 (various crossovers meant Bell was in IndyCar while Wilson was in Champ Car from 2002 through 2007), the two were also briefly teammates in 2011, at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. Bell filled in for two races for a then-injured Wilson, after Wilson’s back was hurt in an accident in practice at Mid-Ohio.

Bell explained what made Wilson such a beloved figure within the paddock.

“I think Justin is known as really the nicest guy in the IndyCar paddock,” Bell told NBCSN’s Dave Briggs. “Gracious and kind. A real gentle soul outside of the car and an absolute tiger inside the car. One of the most naturally gifted drivers, and somebody who has been largely underrated for most of his career… finally getting a first class opportunity, which he deserves, with Andretti Autosport.

“The incident couldn’t come at such a worse time for him, at a prime opportunity. The outpouring of support is a result of the person. But forget the racing driver, he’s somebody that anybody would step out to help in a time like this.”

Bell also expanded on his long-standing view IndyCar should eventually evolve to have closed cockpits, although he noted the implementation is something that will take time to perfect.

“It’s been discussed for a long time. We have been through… unfortunately incidents like this in the past,” Bell said. “Going back to Vegas in 2011 (with Dan Wheldon). Even prior to that, Ayrton Senna (in 1994 at Imola).

“I think the thing that drivers are always concerned about is head exposure. Because they’re not only open-wheel, but open cockpit cars. I’ve long advocated that’s my biggest concern, because the airplane industry stopped having open cockpit fighter planes in the 1920s or something. I think it’s time for us to evolve on the racing side.

“With the speed you go, with debris flying… you are at risk. But it’s easy to say that, knowing the implementation… it’s a very difficult thing and to test and develop the ideal solution.

“It’s been on everyone’s mind since 2011 in Las Vegas. We had an incident last year with James Hinchcliffe at the Indianapolis road course, where he took a projectile hit to the head and suffered a pretty severe concussion.

“It’s defnitely on everybody’s mind.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”