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At Long Beach, ECR looks to recapture glory of first street course win

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One of the more unexpected results in recent Verizon IndyCar Series history occurred in 2014 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, when Will Power and Simon Pagenaud made contact, briefly hit a rough patch in their longtime friendship and Mike Conway won the race for Ed Carpenter Racing.

That surprise finish was the second win in the team’s history and first on a street course. This week at Long Beach (Sunday, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the team will look to bounce back from a challenging season opener at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with its pair of talented young Americans, Spencer Pigot and JR Hildebrand.

Team owner/driver Ed Carpenter hailed the team’s test last week at Sebring International Raceway.

“I thought it was better than the last one we did there a month ago,” Carpenter told NBC Sports. “There’s still some things we need to improve on, to get to where we’re contending for wins. The most encouraging thing is that JR and Spencer are working well together. They’re on the same page. We’re working on things to make them better. That was one of the biggest unknowns we had. So far they’re off to a good start, helping one another.”

Carpenter also said Pigot’s performance at St. Petersburg in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet was the sign of his confidence continuing to develop in his second season, but first where he wasn’t interrupted mid-year.

“It was important for him to come out strong like that,” Carpenter explained. “But more so than what he did there, but now he’s at a different level all of our testing. Now that he has the experience of working with the team and being a little more comfortable in the environment and the cars, and working with the Chevy engineers. He just came in having a better idea of the offseason, versus what he needed to prepare for last year. He’s gotten better, and if St. Pete is any indication, it should be a very good year for him.”

The Long Beach win in 2014 was aided in part by strategy by the team, and as Carpenter explained, a case where his team came out the right side of the coin the way the cautions fell.

“With Conway’s win at Long Beach, we got him out front on strategy, and Mike being Mike, he didn’t give up the lead easily,” Carpenter reflected.

“Yellow (inversion) is part of it. It’s hard to not be mad when it happens! But a window like St. Pete happened. We knew people were pitting. If you do catch a yellow wrong, you take that risk.

“I don’t necessarily get mad about it when it happens. That’s the way the breaks fall. It’s not like INDYCAR throws a yellow with the intention of flipping the field. The debris warranted it; that gave people a chance. It’s a tough situation for them. If they don’t go yellow, someone hits the debris, we see what that could do – Hinch’s accident at the GP (in 2014). Race Control thinks about a lot more things than thinking about, ‘Hey, are we gonna affect this person’s race.’ Over the course of the season you hit some and miss some. Yeah if you miss it that’s the potential.”

Coming into Long Beach, the motivation for success is high. It’s a place Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet, has scored two top-fives before, fifth in both 2012 and 2013 with Panther Racing, and where Pigot finished third in his only Indy Lights start there in 2015.

“(With JR), we’re all expecting to be patient a little bit. It’d been a while since he’d been in that environment,” Carpenter said. “The important thing is to see progression, see him get comfortable with the flow of the weekend and with his engineer. From the testing we’ve done at St. Pete to the test yesterday, we’re seeing good progression. Hopefully it’s a quicker start at Long Beach. We’ll do better with better starting positions.

“On the whole, for our team, it’s been rewarding. It’s why we compete – trying to win races and championships, and do some things over five and six years. It’s something we’re all proud of as a team.

“We want to keep getting better. When you have won at places, it gives a bit of an edge to go back. We all have fond memories of winning Long Beach; that was our first street course win, big as a team. We’re looking to go back and add some history.

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

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Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500