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PREVIEW: Honda Indy Toronto

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The lone event outside the U.S. for the Verizon IndyCar Series takes place this weekend with the annual Honda Indy Toronto, the fifth and final street race of the 2017 season (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC).

A tight championship and the tight confines of the Exhibition Place street course are the headlines ahead of Round 12 of the season.

Here’s some of the talking points heading into the weekend.

2017 Honda Indy Toronto – Talking Points

Honda goes for street course season sweep

This isn’t something that was forecast at the start of the season but now is something that can occur this weekend: Honda looks for a five-for-five sweep of the street course races this season.

With Sebastien Bourdais (Dale Coyne Racing, St. Petersburg), James Hinchcliffe (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Long Beach) and Graham Rahal (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Detroit doubleheader) having won the first four, Honda’s 13 drivers from its five teams will look to complete the sweep this weekend in the second of three Honda-sponsored races this year.

Fittingly in the races where a manufacturer has sponsored the race, it’s been the other manufacturer that’s actually won. Josef Newgarden (Chevrolet) won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama while Rahal (Honda) swept the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix Presented by Lear.

Points battle intensifies

Helio Castroneves’ win in Iowa last week means the championship gap between he and leader Scott Dixon is just eight points (403-395).

Simon Pagenaud (372), Will Power (350) and Josef Newgarden (347) have a bit of work to do heading into the weekend but all can afford to be confident. Power (2016) and Newgarden (2015) are the two most recent winners in Toronto, and both Pagenaud and Dixon looked on course for the win last year before being caught out by an ill-timed caution flag, that played to Power (won) and Castroneves’ (finished second) benefit.

Graham Rahal and Takuma Sato are tied for sixth on 337 points but need a big weekend in Toronto to avoid falling too much further out of play, at more than a full race distance behind.

A tenth different winner?

Castroneves was also the ninth winner in 11 races this year, meaning IndyCar is only one away from double digits this year (10) and two away from tying the all-time mark of 11 set in 2000 and 2001 in CART.

With Castroneves breaking through, each of the top seven drivers in points has won, plus Hinchcliffe (12th) and Bourdais (22nd).

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi are the only other drivers with top-fives on street courses this year without a win, but both looked potential winners at Long Beach before mechanical issues intervened. Either would make a nice round 10th winner of the season, and Hunter-Reay (2012) is a past Toronto winner.

Additionally in eighth, 10th and 11th in points, Tony Kanaan, Max Chilton or Ed Jones could break through this weekend. Toronto isn’t just a pace race but often comes down to strategy, and it wouldn’t surprise to see the Ganassi and/or Dale Coyne teams throw a strategic spanner in the works. Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot was a winner here in Indy Lights, and has had good street course races without a major result of note yet this year.

Toronto another strategy special

Toronto has not been a particularly straightforward weekend over the last few years, with Scott Dixon’s doubleheader domination in 2013 about the only races that went to plan. Rain pushed the 2014 doubleheader into a shortened pair of same-day races won by Bourdais and Mike Conway, with Newgarden winning a rain-affected race in 2015 and Power capitalizing on a caution – caused by Newgarden – to leapfrog to the win last year.

As such, timing pit stops to perfection before potential cautions emerge is key. In the last four years since that first doubleheader, Toronto has had 4, 3 (2013), 2, 7 (2014), 2 (2015) and 5 (2016) cautions, so it’s usually one of the busier races for the yellow flag to fly.

The Mayor turns 101 on home soil

After his 100th race start last weekend in Iowa, James Hinchcliffe heads to his home race in Toronto this weekend after ending 10th on the bullring last weekend. Toronto’s never been particularly kind to Hinchcliffe but he finally scored a home race podium here last year.

Given street courses have been where he and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team have excelled most this year – the Long Beach win was huge, he recovered to a podium at Detroit and he was on course to win at St. Petersburg before being caught by a yellow – this is an important weekend for him as he enters 12th in points.

The final word

From points leader Dixon, who will look to keep Honda’s street course win streak alive and win here for the first time since 2013: “Toronto is one of the longest-running street courses around and it’s always a challenging layout to master. It’s similar to Detroit, in that you have a number of surface changes and areas that you really need the car balanced in order to manage the rough downtown roads and streets. We know what it takes to win there and hope to get a quick start and be a contender at race’s end when it counts.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 14
10:40 – 11:25 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 – 3 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:05 – 3:20 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice

Saturday, July 15
10 – 10:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:15 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live); NBCSN (Same-day delay, 6:30 p.m. ET)

Sunday, July 16
11:30 – Noon – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3:02 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
3:47 p.m. – Honda Indy Toronto (85 laps/151.81 miles), CNBC/SportsNet 360 (Live)

 

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Will Power
2. Helio Castroneves
3. James Hinchcliffe
4. Tony Kanaan
5. Takuma Sato
6. Mikhail Aleshin
7. Sebastien Bourdais
8. Scott Dixon (pole)
9. Simon Pagenaud
10. Marco Andretti

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Scott Dixon
2. Helio Castroneves
3. Simon Pagenaud
4. Will Power
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. James Hinchcliffe

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”