PREVIEW: Honda Indy 200

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The Verizon IndyCar Series’ final race before a two-week break – the closest thing to a summer break the series having had on-track activity either every week or every other week since Round 2 of the season at Long Beach on April 9 – occurs this weekend with the Honda Indy 200 from the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, CNBC with encore 7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Indeed the challenge of the weekend at the tricky, often temperature sensitive permanent road course is nailing qualifying and ensuring you’re not caught by an ill-timed caution flag.

Here’s what to look for ahead of this weekend’s race.

2017 Honda Indy 200 – Talking Points

Dixon’s proverbial happy hunting ground

Scott Dixon has the points lead, just, as he heads to a track that has always suited his style. With five Mid-Ohio wins (2007, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014), Dixon is the modern master of Mid-Ohio, but needs his second win of the season in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda to hold off the surge of Team Penske drivers this weekend. He’s up by three heading into Mid-Ohio over Helio Castroneves (423-420).

The surging six behind him

Three of the six trail Dixon by just 23 points or fewer, while fifth through seventh could make a move into title contention before the final run of four races in five weekends with a strong Mid-Ohio.

In the first group, Castroneves (420), defending Mid-Ohio winner Simon Pagenaud (404) and Toronto winner Josef Newgarden (400) have a degree of momentum all on their side. Castroneves has been on top of his game all year and seems to be driving for his future in IndyCar, depending on whether he gets moved to Penske’s new Acura sports car program. Pagenaud looked the most on form he has been all season at Toronto, and this race last year defined Pagenaud’s title push. Newgarden hasn’t been phased by his transition to Penske and is one of only three drivers with two wins this year. Any of them could overtake Dixon this weekend.

Further back, Will Power (359), Graham Rahal (359) and Takuma Sato (351) aren’t out of title contention but could be after the weekend. Power, surprisingly, has never won at Mid-Ohio while Rahal’s 2015 win was a popular one. Sato needs to stem the tide of bad results with 16th place or worse finishes in each of the last three races. He actually was on pace for a top-five here last year before getting nerfed by Sebastien Bourdais.

Rahal’s home race

No race is more important outside of Indianapolis to Graham Rahal and the No. 15 Steak ‘n Shake Honda entry for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing than this one at Mid-Ohio. Like James Hinchcliffe last race in Toronto, for Rahal, coming home to the track closest to Columbus is both a privilege and a duty to fulfill the desires of the home fans.

Tires and temperatures

Mid-Ohio’s surface is renowned for getting better and grippier as the day gets longer. Similar to Road America, expect Firestone’s red alternate tires to be the ticket for drivers and teams this weekend. And like for Honda, it’s pretty much a home race for Firestone, with the track not far from the Bridgestone Americas Technical Center in Akron.

Firestone Racing engineers are happy to be back at Mid-Ohio, a track just 70 miles away from our Bridgestone Americas Technical Center in Akron,” said Cara Adams, Chief Engineer, Bridgestone Americas Motorsports. “For this year’s Honda Indy 200, the Firestone Firehawk primary tires have the same construction and compound as this year’s Indy Grand Prix tire. This is the same compound that was run at Mid-Ohio last year. The red sidewall alternates also are the same tires that were used on the Indy road course, but the compound has a slight increase in grip and heat resistance over last year’s Mid-Ohio compound.”

On road courses and Honda-sponsored races…

Here’s the scorecard this year in terms of who’s won where on the previous three permanent road courses and two Honda-sponsored races:

  • Permanent road courses: Barber (Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet), Indy GP (Will Power, Chevrolet), Road America (Scott Dixon, Honda)
  • Honda-sponsored races: Barber (Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet), Toronto (Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet)

So the field of 13 Hondas will be looking to win once in a race it sponsors at another of the manufacturer’s home races. A plant in Maryville, Ohio isn’t too far from the track and this is always an event that sees a lot of Honda workers come to the race.

Newgarden and the rest of Team Penske, meanwhile, will look to rebound from that Road America near-miss the quartet had and keep Penske and Chevrolet’s streak intact of winning in Honda-sponsored races, which besides the two this year also includes Simon Pagenaud (Barber), Power (Toronto) and Pagenaud (Mid-Ohio) winning all three for Chevrolet in 2016. Rahal, at 2015 in Mid-Ohio, is the last Honda driver to win a race sponsored by Honda.

Other notes

  • Strategy has jumbled the finishing order the last few years. In 2016, Carlos Munoz, Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot and Takuma Sato used off-sequence moves to come from 15th or lower to the top-10. Similarly in 2015, Scott Dixon was the only top-five starter to finish in the top-10; the other nine started anywhere from seventh to 24th and last. And in 2014, Dixon won from 22nd and last on the grid, with three others starting 17th or worse also making it in the top-10. The caution-free 2013 race, won by Charlie Kimball, featured eight of the top-10 finishers having started in the top-10.
  • As of Wednesday, Mikhail Aleshin was listed to drive the No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda this weekend, but the team hadn’t confirmed it yet.

The final word

From Tony Kanaan, driver of the No. 10 NTT Data Honda, who hasn’t won this year but describes how fun Mid-Ohio is: “I love racing at Mid-Ohio with the massive, loyal fan base we’ve created there over the years. It’s just always so fun to come to this track and put on a good show for the fans, who have so much passion for what we do on the road course. I believe I have around 15 starts at Mid-Ohio, so I definitely have some history out there and would love to add a win this year. We had a rough race in Toronto, so I think it was a good thing for us to take the weekend and regroup before heading into Mid-Ohio this weekend. Obviously, Scott (Dixon) has proven how strong he is at Mid-Ohio, so we’ll just try to get as much data as we can from him and hopefully snag a much-needed podium-finish for the No. 10 NTT Data Honda.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, July 28
10 – 10:45 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, RaceControl.IndyCar.com(Live)

Saturday, July 29
9:55 – 10:40 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #3, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
2:05 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (three rounds of knockout qualifying), NBCSN (Live)

Sunday, July 30
11:15 – 11:45 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series warmup, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
3 p.m. – Driver introductions
3:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
3:47 p.m. – The Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (90 laps/203.22 miles), CNBC (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10:

1. Simon Pagenaud (pole)
2. Will Power
3. Carlos Munoz
4. Graham Rahal
5. James Hinchcliffe
6. Conor Daly
7. Spencer Pigot
8. Charlie Kimball
9. Takuma Sato
10. Josef Newgarden

Here’s last year’s Firestone Fast Six:

1. Simon Pagenaud
2. Will Power
3. Josef Newgarden
4. Ryan Hunter-Reay
5. Charlie Kimball
6. Graham Rahal

2016 Knoxville Nationals champ Jason Johnson succumbs to injuries from sprint car crash

Photo courtesy Jason Johnson Racing official Facebook page
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Former Knoxville Nationals champion sprint car driver Jason Johnson has died from injuries suffered in a crash Saturday night in a World of Outlaws race at Beaver Dam (Wisconsin) Raceway).

Known as the “Ragin’ Cajun” for his aggressive style of racing, Johnson, 41, passed away this morning, according to an announcement by WoO. He was one of the most respected and well-liked drivers on the circuit by both fellow competitors and fans.

According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Johnson, a Eunice, Louisiana resident, was racing for the lead in the main event on the one-third-mile clay track with eventual race winner Daryn Pitman, when Johnson crashed on Lap 18 shortly after a restart.

Johnson’s car left the track surface in Turn 3 and flew through at least one billboard adjacent to the racetrack, according to media and witness reports.

It took rescue workers several minutes to extricate Johnson, who was taken by ambulance to a local hospital before being airlifted to Aurora Summit Hospital in Summit, Wisconsin, according to the Journal Sentinel report.

How many will remember Johnson:

Johnson, who won the 2016 Knoxville Nationals – the sport’s biggest race – in Iowa in storybook fashion, had been a primarily part-time racer on various sprint car circuits from 1998 until he went full-time on the Outlaws series, capturing Rookie of the Year honors in 2015.

MORE: Knoxville win should be big boost to Jason Johnson’s season, career

Johnson had 12 wins on the Outlaws circuit, including two victories this season.

The Journal Sentinel also posted a statement from SLS Promotions, which promoted Saturday’s race:

“Everyone at SLS Promotions offers our deepest, most sincere thoughts, prayers and condolences to Bobbi Johnson (Jason’s wife), Jaxx Johnson (the couple’s son) and the entire Johnson family and JJR Racing team.

“Jason was a great competitor and true ambassador for the sport. It was an honor and a privilege to work with him during his time on the World of Outlaws Craftsman Sprint Car Series trail. Jason will never be forgotten”

Other notables also commented on his death on social media:

According to the Journal Sentinel, Johnson is the second driver in four years to die at the small track northwest of Milwaukee. In September 2014, Scott Semmelann, 47, was killed there while practicing for an Interstate Racing Association event.

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