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IndyCar teams turn attention to preparing for Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) IndyCar team owner Sam Schmidt started plotting Indianapolis 500 strategy even before Saturday’s race ended.

He certainly wasn’t alone.

With Will Power dominating practice, qualifying and the IndyCar Grand Prix for his first win of the season, just about everyone else in Gasoline Alley began looking ahead to Monday’s opening practice for the Indianapolis 500.

“Since we had such a crappy grand prix, I think (our focus) shifted 30 minutes ago,” Schmidt said shortly after the race ended. “Maybe even as much as an hour ago. We know we have good cars for the 500 and hopefully we can be as good as we were last year. Right now is when we start working on the cars for the 500.”

There’s no time to waste for anyone.

In less than 48 hours, speedway workers must convert the track from the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course into the traditional 2.5-mile oval.

Crew members will scramble to change the cars to perform on four distinct corners and at speeds nearing or topping 230 mph.

Strategists will plan when to run in qualifying trim, when to run in race trim and how weather could affect next week’s two qualification rounds and the May 28 race.

Drivers will have to contend with much more traffic, with 33 cars expected to fill the traditional 11-row, three-car starting grid.

And numbers crunchers will get ready for the data influx that comes only once a year.

It’s all part of the biggest month in racing.

“It’s definitely a different deal,” said Power, who is still looking for his first 500 win. “You (have to) get in a groove – you have plenty of time to get in that grove. You just run so many miles around this place that you know it too well, but you can’t get too comfortable.”

The Australian drives for powerhouse Team Penske, which has won the 500 a record 16 times, three of the four road races in Indy and two of the last three series titles.

But since Brazil’s Helio Castroneves became the first foreign-born three-time winner in 2009, Penske’s team has won one 500 – in 2015, when Colombia’s Juan Pablo Montoya captured his second win. Another win would put Castroneves in the four-win club, which only has three members: A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

The always-energetic Castroneves, now 41, couldn’t contain his excitement. Just 15 minutes after a fifth-place finish in the grand prix, he was already talking about his next mission – scaling Indy’s catch-fence one more time.

“They (the crew) will take about 12 hours to convert the car from road course to oval – they’re already going to start making some changes,” he said. “We’re going to take a little bit of time to focus, start setting the strategy for the week and hope for the best.”

Another major change for the IndyCar regulars: dealing with the number of one-off racers that will be on the track Monday, including the highly anticipated arrival of two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

After finishing 12th in Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix, the Indy rookie flew to the United States, where he will stay through race day.

Montoya made his season debut Saturday and will run in the 500.

Last season, Alexander Rossi proved that anyone – even an underdog rookie – can win the race. If he’s going to become the first American to win back-to-back 500s since 1970-71, he knows it’s time to get ready.

“The thing about the 500 is you don’t really have a plan, to be honest. It’s such a long race and it’s one of the few ones we don’t really necessarily go into with a set strategy, we just kind of play it by ear,” he said Saturday. “I guess (Sunday) is when it really begins.”

More AP racing: http://racing.ap.org

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”