MRTI Notebook: Iowa

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda visited their first short oval of 2017 (and the only oval for USF2000). While USF2000 saw a return to normalcy of sorts, Indy Lights saw a bit of a championship shakeup.

Below are reports on both races.

INDY LIGHTS: LEIST GAINS GROUND ON KAISER WITH THIRD WIN OF 2017

Matheus Leist had to start tenth at Iowa Speedway, but immediately was on the charge and ran in the top three by lap 30.

He then made quick work of both Kyle Kaiser and Colton Herta, using an outside pass on the latter in turns three and four, to vault himself into the lead.

Leist ran unchallenged from there and led the final 69 laps to score a decisive victory, his third of 2017 and his second straight on an oval (he won the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May).

“I’m so happy. I think this was my best race this year,” an elated Leist said afterward. “Of course, the Freedom 100 was great but I led the whole race. Here, I needed to move forward and I did. I’m so happy for the team – we needed to make some points today.”

He added that the car’s strong handling allowed him to maintain his lead without abusing the tires. “The car was just so good so I was able to open a gap, save my tires and get the win. It is a very difficult championship since everything here is new to me so I am being realistic. We’re in a good position now so if we can keep winning, we can keep fighting,” he finished.

The win also sees Leist make a big dent in Kyle Kaiser’s championship lead. Kaiser, who had been running second to Leist in the second half of the race, began falling back as the finish drew closer. Both Santi Urrutia and Dalton Kellett passed him on lap 77, dropping Kaiser to fourth. Herta then mounted a charge and passed Kaiser with eight laps remaining, dropping Kaiser to fifth.

As a result, Leist has closed to within 12 points of Kaiser as the series heads to the Streets of Toronto next week.

Behind Leist, Urrutia managed to outduel Kellett for second, while Kellett came home third, which matches his best finish of the season (he finished third at the Freedom 100).

Herta finished fourth to keep himself in the championship picture, and he now trails Kaiser by 36 points.

USF2000: ASKEW’S DOMINATION RETURNS

Oliver Askew won from the pole at Iowa Speedway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

After having a tough outing at Road America, where he finished 17th and third, Oliver Askew regained his dominant form from earlier in the season to claim his sixth victory of the year at Iowa Speedway. In his first oval start, Askew started from pole and led all 60 laps on his way to victory.

Having never run on ovals before, Askew wasn’t entirely sure how things would go. “I had no experience on an oval at all coming into this year, so I don’t think anyone knew what to expect. The team told me it was halfway and I thought that should have been the race distance!” Askew quipped.

Askew credited his dominant run down to setup changes made by Cape Motorsports overnight. “We struggled a bit yesterday but we made a really good change last night and were quick today,” he explained. “It’s hard to pass here but we knew that if we got the pole and through the first couple of corners, we’d be set. It was awesome to be able to pull away.”

Title rival Rinus van Kalmthout came home second, nearly four seconds back of Askew, while Calvin Ming rounded out the podium in third.

With his win, Askew increases his championship lead over van Kalmthout to 32 points. Kaylen Frederick, who finished sixth, remains in third, but at a deficit of 89 points to Askew.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”