Preseason over, it’s time for Newgarden’s actual Penske race debut

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Both of the two major offseason story lines in the Verizon IndyCar Series parlayed themselves into an actual race weekend story line this weekend at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

And after all the talk about them and the thousands of words written about them, it’s time for Chip Ganassi Racing to actually race with Honda and Josef Newgarden to actually race with Team Penske. Ganassi got two of its Hondas in the Firestone Fast Six on Saturday and Newgarden qualified fourth.

Newgarden’s switch to Penske is the highest profile driver change in the series in several years. The 26-year-old from Hendersville, Tenn. made waves in his first five years in the championship. Although he’s only won three races, he’s made year-to-year jumps in the championship (23rd, 14th, 13th, seventh and last year, a career-best fourth) and quickly established himself as the series’ marquee star of the future thanks to his outgoing personality, great relationship with the media and speed and improved race craft on track. His return to action just two weeks after a devastating accident in Texas last year was remarkable and then he promptly went out and dominated at Iowa barely a month after the wreck.

Alas, Newgarden’s answered all the buildup of questions and is more than ready to go tomorrow in the 110-lap season opener in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. He starts fourth and teammate Will Power secured his seventh pole in the last eight races at St. Petersburg, the 45th of his career.

“When you change teams… you don’t want an offseason. We’ve had a long time. I’m excited we’re finally here and through our first qualifying session,” Newgarden said. “It’s been exciting. It’s been a blast working with Will. We have a great unit, great group. I can see why they have been such a great team. It’s a privilege. I’m excited to get through Round 1 and then go to the rest of the calendar year.”

Newgarden thought an appearance in the Firestone Fast Six was possible, if a pole was slightly out of reach. Newgarden’s not had the best of results in St. Petersburg to date – his best start prior to today is 10th in 2015 and his best finish here is ninth in 2014.

“I think for us we thought this was feasible. We felt very good about our race cars,” Newgarden explained. “The other guys were happy, too. We thought Fast Six was possible, but pole was more questionable. We didn’t think we’d have enough for pole. Will did an awesome job. He maximized the most of it.”

On the line for Newgarden is a chance to extend the streak of the No. 2 Chevrolet to win at St. Petersburg. Juan Pablo Montoya, confirmed earlier Saturday by team boss Roger Penske to also race a fifth car at the IndyCar Grand Prix in Indianapolis in May, has won here the last two seasons.

And another streak on the line is that of drivers who’ve started fourth at St. Petersburg have all gone on to win four years in a row. That’s where Montoya rolled off those two years, where Power started in 2014 in the only year since 2009 he hasn’t been on pole, and where James Hinchcliffe, who starts next to Newgarden on row two tomorrow in third, won from in 2013.

“So I’ve been told all this,” Newgarden deadpanned. “Hopefully the odds favor us this weekend. This car has been victorious twice the last two years. No pressure.

“It’s the best I’ve started around St. Pete. I feel I didn’t maximize that Fast Six as much as I could have. But Will put an awesome lap together. Our race cars off the truck have been pretty good. We’ve stayed inside of our window. The next thing for me is to learn the race car, and perform over a tire stint. We’ll try to do a great job with the Verizon 2 car.”

Penske, who’s added Newgarden in place of Montoya alongside Power, defending series champion Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves, said earlier Saturday Newgarden is a driver the team can build around for the long-term.

“For us, it was key that we hired an American… but he’s a young man, he’s articulate, and he shows up when he’s on the race track,” Penske told a small group of assembled reporters earlier Saturday. “He’s a tremendous team player with our other drivers. He’s represented us with our sponsors. He’s exactly what we want to help build our team.”

Asked if Newgarden’s usual propensity for fun on social media could continue, Penske brought some humor of his own to the answer.

“I just tell them to wear white shirts and black pants… other than that, they can do whatever the hell they want!” Penske laughed.

The race will not only see Newgarden’s debut with the team but also his first race working with Team Penske president Tim Cindric as his race strategist, Cindric having moved off the box from Power’s No. 12 team where he’d been since the middle of 2011. Jon “Myron” Bouslog shifts to Power’s car and starts from the pole position. Penske explained the rationale behind the change.

“We wanted to give him more support since he’s moving,” Penske said. “Dave (Faustino) is one of the best engineers on Will’s car, and that hasn’t changed. It worked out well. When you go to four cars, you choose from a talent pool, it’s one of those things. So from the 12 car, Tim will move over.”

The Penske/Newgarden relationship is one of the key story lines to watch this season, starting tomorrow. IndyCar returns to NBCSN on April 9 with Round 2 from Long Beach.

Supercross reveals 2023 Daytona track designed by Ricky Carmichael for 16th time

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For the 16th consecutive year, Ricky Carmichael has designed a signature course for the Daytona Supercross race, which will be March 4, 2023.

Eli Tomac took advantage of a last lap mistake by Cooper Webb last year to win a record setting sixth Daytona race – and with that win, he broke out of a tie Carmichael.

Construction on the course will begin two days after the completion of the 65th running of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 when haulers start to unload 7,200 tons of dirt onto the grassy infield in order to create a course 3,300 feet long.

“Ricky has designed yet another incredible course for this year’s Daytona Supercross,” said Daytona International Speedway President Frank Kelleher in a press release. “We’re thrilled to unveil it to the fans, and we can’t wait for them to come out to the track and see it in person.”

MORE: Designs for SuperMotocross finals at zMax Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway

Carmichael’s Daytona course will take center stage for Round 8 of the 17-race Supercross season and the 31-race SuperMotocross season.

The Supercross race coincides with Daytona’s Bike Week, which runs from March 3-12 and includes races from the American Flat Track series and the legendary Daytona 200 speedway race that is contested on the infield road course.

Last year’s course was reported to have 57 obstacles including the return of an over-under bridge. For 2023 the number of obstacles listed in 42, but that will not keep this from being one of the toughest tracks on which the Monster Energy Supercross series will race.

Many of the same elements from last year will be present including sharp turns, vaulted jumps, sand sections and a finish line that aligns with the oval tracks’ start/finish line.

“This year’s Daytona Supercross design is one of the best,” Carmichael said. “It races great for the riders – it’s safe yet challenging and it’s very similar to last year with the split lanes. Daytona is the toughest, gnarliest race on the Supercross circuit, but it’s the most special to win.

“This track is going to produce great racing and I think the riders are going to put on a fantastic display for all our fans.”

While Tomac has dominated this race during his career, Daytona has also been the site of some other dramatic victories. In 2021 Aaron Plessinger scored his first career Supercross podium in 35 starts with a win there and reversed a three-year streak of bad luck on the track.

The Daytona Supercross race is the first of two the series will contest on speedway infield courses. A little more than one month later, Atlanta Motor Speedway will enter their third season as a supercross venue. These two courses will serve as an early test for the SuperMotocross three-race finale that begins September 9, 2023 at zMax Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina. The three playoff races will each be held on courses that contain elements of Supercross and Motocross, much like Daytona and Atlanta.