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Race Preview: IndyCar Iowa Corn 300

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Following a week off, the Verizon IndyCar Series picks back up with races on back-to-back weekends in July, beginning with the Iowa Corn Indy 300 (July 9, 5:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN). The visit to the .875-mile oval is the second and final stop at a short oval this year, following April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.

If April’s outing at Phoenix is any indication, Chevrolet teams should have the advantage. However, in a season defined by unpredictability, Iowa certainly has the potential for a few surprises.

2017 Iowa Corn Indy 300 Talking Points

Championship Battle

To say that the 2017 championship picture is tight would be an understatement, with 72 points covering the top seven in the standings.

Scott Dixon sports a seemingly healthy 34-point lead over Simon Pagenaud. But, mathematically, it is possible for Pagenaud and his Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves (37 points behind) to leapfrog Dixon, especially if Dixon encounters early trouble (e.g. Juan Pablo Montoya at Iowa in 2015, when he crashed out within the first ten laps).

Further, the tight points gaps mean that even the slightest fluctuation in finishing positions could have drastic implications. For example, Tony Kanaan dominated this race in 2014, leading 247 laps, and appeared destined for victory before a late-race caution. That opened the door for drivers like Ryan Hunter-Reay and Josef Newgarden to pit for fresh tires, which helped them rocket through the field when the race restarted. Hunter-Reay and Newgarden finished first and second that year, pushing Kanaan down to third in the final laps.

A third-place finish is strong on paper, but in the case of Kanaan, it saw him leave 15 points on the table. With the championship as tight as it is, such a loss is hardly insignificant.

Assuming 21 cars will start Sunday evening’s race, the maximum point-swing possible is 45 points. And while Takuma Sato, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, and Graham Rahal cannot mathematically leave Iowa with the championship lead, they remain well-positioned to gain ground.

Chevrolet short oval dominance

The balance of power among the manufacturers has been considerably more equal in 2017, with Honda possibly having the edge in the engine department and currently holding an advantage in race wins (6-4). However, Chevrolet continues to be the dominant force on short ovals.

April’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix was evidence of this. The five fastest qualifying times came from Chevrolets, with Castroneves taking the pole, and the top four finishers were all from Chevrolet teams, with Pagenaud taking victory.

As a result, one can expect the Penske quartet of Simon Pagenaud, Helio Castroneves, Josef Newgarden, and Will Power to be major players this weekend. However, even though Team Penske is Chevrolet’s most dominant team, one cannot simply give this weekend’s win to someone in the Penske camp.

Ed Carpenter Racing sports a short oval program as stout as anyone’s, and both JR Hildebrand and Ed Carpenter kept the Penskes honest at Phoenix, with Hildebrand finishing third.

What’s more, Ed Carpenter Racing is the defending champion at Iowa, with then ECR driver Newgarden offering a performance unlike any we’ve seen in recent memory, leading 282 laps and nearly lapping the field during the first 109 circuits.

While Chevrolet may have the upperhand, the “David vs. Goliath” battle between Team Penske and Ed Carpenter Racing offers plenty of intra-manufacturer intrigue.

Andretti Autosport looking to regain Iowa form

In looking at the history of the Verizon IndyCar Series at Iowa Speedway, Andretti Autosport surfaces as the track’s main protagonist, with the organization scoring seven victories, including a string of six in a row between 2010 and 2015.

However, last year’s Iowa Corn Indy 300 was somewhat of a disaster for the Michael Andretti-led outfit. While Alexander Rossi managed to finish a respectable sixth, teammates Carlos Munoz and Marco Andretti finished outside the top ten in 12th and 14th, while Ryan Hunter-Reay, a three-time winner at Iowa, suffered an engine failure a little over 100 laps in.

Ryan Hunter-Reay suffered a very tough race at Iowa in 2016 and ultimately dropped out with an engine failure. Photo: IndyCar

What’s more, they inexplicably lacked pace all weekend. Munoz was their best qualifier, and a lowly 15th at that, while Rossi started in 17th, Andretti in 19th, and Hunter-Reay in 20th.

The 2017 season has seen Andretti Autosport improve its pace significantly, however luck has alluded them at several events this year. While Sato (fourth) and Rossi (ninth) sit in the top ten in the championship, Andretti and Hunter-Reay languish down in 13th and 15th.

If luck is on their side, their history at Iowa Speedway suggests this could be the venue for Andretti Autosport to right the ship.

Ninth different winner in the cards?

Eight different winners have graced Victory Lane so far in 2017, yet a number of heavy hitters remain winless. Most obviously, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan top the list, but Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, JR Hildebrand, and Ed Carpenter all represent possible winners as well.

With seven races remaining, it seems likely that the 2017 season will see double digit winners, and it’s very possible the series could cross that threshold this weekend.

Lingering questions

  • Can Josef Newgarden repeat last year’s performance with a new team?
  • Will the Honda teams be as disadvantaged as we think?
  • Dale Coyne Racing brings a pair of rookies to Iowa in Ed Jones and Esteban Gutierrez. Jones has quietly impressed thus far in 2017, and has two Iowa podiums in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, while Gutierrez makes his oval track debut this weekend. What will the Iowa oval have in store for them?

The final word

From last year’s Iowa winner, Josef Newgarden: “I’m really pumped for the race at Iowa. For starters, I won last year, which was huge for me and my career. Secondly, we’re racing again in the No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevy in which I won earlier this season in at Barber. And on top of that, we’re coming off a solid finish at Road America. We’ve been working on our oval program since Texas and have a lot of things we want to try out that we think will give us a really strong car. The whole team is really excited to head to that race and see what we can do.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Saturday, July 8
10:00 a.m.- 11:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
2:00 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), airs LIVE on NBCSN
6:15 p.m. – 6:45 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Sunday, July 9
3:10 p.m. –  3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
4:00 p.m.. – NBCSN on air
4:44 p.m. – Iowa Corn 300 (300 laps/268.2 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10

1. Josef Newgarden
2. Will Power
3. Scott Dixon
4. Simon Pagenaud
5. Mikhail Aleshin
6. Alexander Rossi
7. Tony Kanaan
8. Sebastien Bourdais
9. James Hinchcliffe
10. Charlie Kimball

 

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Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

Arrow McLaren Racing SP Photo
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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500