Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Juncos’ year ends on high with wins, shop opening ahead

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Considering its pedigree as one of the top teams in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, and discussed by many as a potential Verizon IndyCar Series entrant down the road, it was surprising that Juncos Racing more or less was not in realistic championship contention most of the 2016 season between its Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires programs.

Indeed, Ricardo Juncos’ Pro Mazda program – which debuted in 2009 and nearly won the championship from the off before Peter Dempsey, now one of that program’s race engineers, got speared by Joel Miller at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – almost went through its first winless season in the category, before Nicolas Dapero broke through this weekend to keep the streak alive.

The quartet of Garett Grist, Will Owen and rookies Dapero and Jake Parsons had flashes of success but rarely toppled both Team Pelfrey and Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, and Grist’s midseason departure from the team after the month of May left them down an experienced veteran in one of the four cars.

In a similar scenario, the Indy Lights program lost its most experienced driver as well, in the form of Spencer Pigot. The talented 22-year-old American captured both Pro Mazda and Indy Lights titles back-to-back for Juncos in 2014 and 2015 and properly advanced into the Verizon IndyCar Series this year.

Kyle Kaiser had a good second season in the championship and dominated at a couple events, including this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he secured his second win of the season.

Meanwhile Zachary Claman De Melo made the rather significant climb from karting into Indy Lights and spent the year learning and making his fair share of mistakes.

In spite of any challenges, Juncos has a lot going for him, and his team. The Argentine who came to the U.S. with hardly any money back in the day is finishing completion of his team’s new $3 million, 41,000-square-foot facility situated at the corner of Gilman Street and Allison Way in Speedway, with groundbreaking having occurred in mid-January. The new shop, which will mark the team’s relocation from Brownsburg, Ind., is scheduled to open in mid-October.

“Yes, it’s still on target. It’s like mid-October, I think October 15,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “There’s another month to go. We’re fine tuning the little things and we should be ready to move late October.”

And the Indy Lights team did still win races in a year when the competition level increased. Kaiser’s wins kept Juncos in the win column along with other teams including Belardi Auto Racing, Carlin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian and Andretti Autosport – only Team Pelfrey failed to win among the full-time teams in a field that featured as many as 16 cars.

Juncos reflected on the 2016 campaign, one that was tough but ended well with both Kaiser and Dapero scoring wins this weekend, and with the new shop opening in slightly over a month.

“Yeah, it’s been difficult. It’s been a little bit harder this year than last,” Juncos said. “There’s been more good quantity and quality of drivers. For us, it’s been pretty similar. We’ve done some development. You see how many winners and drivers in the championship there’s been.”

Juncos said both Indy Lights drivers he’s had this year have been solid.

“Kyle last season may have been a bit early to jump to Indy Lights. But having Kyle alongside Spencer was good, and you can see how much better he’s been this year with that experience.

“With Zach, it’s hard. He has no experience, coming from go-karts. He has speed that he’s shown in the championship but when there’s mistakes… that’s where he’s paying the price.”

Claman De Melo could return for a second season as part of a two-car or potentially three-car Indy Lights lineup next season.

The Pro Mazda season was tougher. Dapero won at Mazda Raceway and his three podiums this weekend gave him five for the year. Owen grabbed eight podiums, Grist had three before he left, and Parsons added two more.

Juncos hailed Dapero’s improvement over the course of the season.

“Nico Dapero coming from go-karts did a very good job,” Juncos said. “He was fast in Mid-Ohio and he’s been good here. He doesn’t fully know how to maximize qualifying yet… depending on how he uses the tires and faces a little bit of pressure in races. But that will come with time.

“I wish we could restart the championship this weekend! But it sort of took us the whole championship to learn how we worked as a group and how the new kids drove the car.”

For 2017, Juncos wants the Indy Lights team to get better and that, coupled with the shop move, may put a potential IndyCar program on the backburner.

At the same point, Juncos has taken a sense of pride with the success Pigot and Conor Daly have had in IndyCar this year.

“I’m happy. We try to focus on what we do every day, but yeah as you said, Conor Daly and Spencer Pigot are doing well and having come through our team at one point… and going back, we had Spencer in go-karts,” he said.

“Yes, we are where we are today and we never expected it like this, but we have to keep going and get better.”

Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”