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Indy Lights trio buoyant after maiden IndyCar tests

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MONTEREY, Calif. – Three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers had their first day in an IndyCar on Thursday, at Sonoma Raceway, to continue to the run on Indy Lights drivers getting to test at the top level of North American open-wheel racing.

Zach Veach tested in Josef Newgarden’s usual No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, while Andre Negrao took over the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of James Hinchcliffe and Santiago Urrutia stepped aboard Mikhail Aleshin’s No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

That brought the number of 2016 Indy Lights drivers who’ve tested in IndyCar to 10 of the 19 drivers this year.

The three drivers tested and then made it down to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend for the Soul Red Finale, where the champions will be decided in all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

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Photo: IndyCar

Veach, 21, was seemingly over the moon with his maiden test in Newgarden’s car. The Stockdale, Ohio native is one of the most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, having competed full-time every year since 2010 (except 2015 owing to injury) between the three series.

Veach noted to NBC Sports how hard the car is to drive, but also said this was the culmination of nine years of work to attempt to get to this level. It’s doubtful he’d be back for a potential fourth season in Indy Lights, but he’s used the IndyCar test as a way to reveal himself and his ability to the paddock at large.

The mistake he made after completing his last Indy Lights season in 2014, he said, was targeting IndyCar and only IndyCar for 2015. Knowing if he can’t advance into IndyCar – much as he’d like to – he’s now smart enough and keen to explore other series as well for 2017.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

The Schmidt Peterson teammates, meanwhile, have very different approaches to IndyCar next year.

Urrutia is hoping to graduate into IndyCar next year if he can win this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship. The champion gets a guaranteed three races, including the 101st Indianapolis 500.

He had a tough day with a mechanical issue limiting his running, but it was still cool for the Uruguayan to get to work in an IndyCar.

“The test at Sonoma Raceway was good and it was a great opportunity for me for sure,” Urrutia said. “The IndyCar was great and I could definitely feel a big difference between the Indy Lights car and the IndyCar. I’ve never driven a car with that kind of downforce. I think the biggest difference is in the brakes on the fast corners. With the downforce an Indy car has, you can carry a lot more speed through those corners.

“It was a great day and it’s a dream come true. I really enjoyed it. I was waiting for this day and finally it came. I hope one day I can get more than just the morning session to run in the car but now we just focus on the Indy Lights championship at Mazda Raceway.”

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

Negrao, meanwhile, would be considered a title contender in 2017 in Indy Lights if he returns for a second season.

“First of all, I want to say thank you to my entire SPM team for today. I really enjoyed every second in the Indy car and it makes me want to come back and do it again as soon as possible,” he said.

“I think the team worked well together for today’s test and we accomplished a lot of the goals that we set for ourselves. Thank you especially to Sam [Schmidt], Ric [Peterson] and Piers [Phillips] for working with me to make this opportunity happen. I am focused now on driving more in this car in a few years!”

An IndyCar iRacing Challenge at Talladega? Drivers have discussed it

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If Dale Earnhardt Jr. is interested in an IndyCar iRacing event on an oval, he might like the latest idea being kicked around by NTT Series drivers.

“I personally would want to run at Talladega, but I don’t think that’s an option,” Arrow McLaren SP driver rookie Oliver Askew told NBCSports.com in a Friday interview about his simulation work for the second round of the IndyCar iRacing Challenge. “IndyCar drivers have a group chat with iRacing, and someone had the idea of running at Talladega, and I thought it was brilliant.”

It actually would be a throwback of sorts as a USAC-sanctioned race with Indy cars at Talladega nearly happened 40 years ago.

The IndyCar iRacing Challenge will be running its second consecutive road course Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN or streaming here).

Of the four remaining races in the six-race series, there’s a chance that three of them could be ovals: A Drivers’ Choice track April 11; a “Random Draw” April 18 and a non-IndyCar “Dream” track May 2 (the April 25 race will be at Circuit of the Americas).

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IndyCar drivers are voting on next week’s track, and the options include high-speed ovals such as Texas Motor Speedway and Michigan Speedway.

A multicar crash at Talladega last October. (Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Talladega apparently isn’t on the list for next week, but surely it could be considered for a future race if it meant having Earnhardt in the field. The 15-time NASCAR Most Popular Driver is a six-time winner at Talladega, and the NASCAR on NBC analyst’s family is synonymous with the 2.66-mile oval where his late seven-time champion father won a record 10 times.

“I hope he can make that happen,” Askew said of racing against Earnhardt. “I hope IndyCar can grant his wish on that.”

The addition of Earnhardt would fit well with an IndyCar iRacing Challenge that already features champions from NASCAR (Jimmie Johnson) and Supercars (Scott McLaughlin).

Will Power would like to see more of that.

“I think that would be great if we can get big-name drivers from other series,” Power said. “Getting a couple guys from Europe would be cool.”