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Drivers, Firestone get jump start on 2017 Indy 500 with IMS tire test

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This time of year is similar to summer school final exams for drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Several drivers have or will take part in a number of tests as the schedule moves into the final quarter of the season.

Last Thursday, numerous teams tested at Pocono Raceway. Thursday, more will test at Watkins Glen.

And Monday, several teams took part in a closed Firestone tire test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The test was to examine different compounds to potentially be used in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and compare them with the tires used in this year’s 500.

Among drivers that participated were Graham Rahal, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Juan Pablo Montoya, reigning Indianapolis 500 champ Alexander Rossi and Ed Carpenter.

“Kind of a typical tire test, really,” Dale Harrigle, chief engineer and manager of race tire development for Bridgestone Americas said during Monday’s test. “A couple right-side compounds, we have a couple construction options.”

Hunter-Reay and Carpenter were the primary drivers in Monday’s test, while the other participants also contributed their feedback, as well.

“We’re always developing our car and setups; they’re always developing their product,” Hunter-Reay said of Firestone. “It’s just great testing Firestone tires because I always have 100 percent confidence in them. There’s not going to be any big surprises out there. It’s just constant development, going faster and faster.”

Added Carpenter, “For me, I know I love doing this. … It’s always a great opportunity to work with Firestone and test tires. When we come to these tests, there’s a lot of controlled runs. Every run we do is the same amount of laps and they brought quite a few different types of tires here.

“Sometimes it will be one tire, sometimes it will be a couple tires that are different from the control tire which was the 2016 Indy 500 race tire. You work through those changes, jump back to a control (set), just give them feedback on what you’re feeling. I don’t really like to know necessarily what I’m testing, I just like to go out and feel what the car is doing and give them that honest, raw feedback.”

The day-long test started with short runs in the morning, followed by data examination, driver feedback and then long runs in the afternoon.

Admittedly, the mood Monday was somber, as drivers recalled one of their fallen competitors, Bryan Clauson, who died Sunday after being involved in a Midget car crash in Kansas Saturday night.

Clauson finished 23rd in this year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500, lived in suburban Indianapolis and was close to a number of drivers in the IndyCar series.

“It’s a difficult situation for everybody to go through but our job today is to focus on this car,” Rahal said. “We came back here to test to try to improve as much as we can. In light of everything else, this is what we’ve got to focus on right now.”

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Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”