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IndyCar takes quick breather after busy, news-heavy July

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The month of July was a hectic month for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Between three race weekends on tap (the Iowa Corn Indy 300, the Honda Indy Toronto, and the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio), the unveiling and initial testing of the 2018 aero kit, and the annual insanity that is “Silly Season,” the month of July had no shortage of news.

With a three-week break between last Sunday’s Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio and the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (August 20, NBCSN), IndyCar’s teams and drivers have a chance to catch their breath before a stretch of four races over five weeks to end the 2017 season.

A recap of a busy news month is below.

NEWGARDEN PLANTS HIMSELF AT THE FORE

Josef Newgarden has sprayed champagne as a race winner three times in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Expectations will always be high for a driver who signs with Team Penske, and Josef Newgarden was no different. A three-time race winner prior to joining the team, and the highest ranked non-Penske driver at the end of 2016 (he ended the season fourth in the championship for Ed Carpenter Racing), all things pointed to a strong first year with Penske.

However, it isn’t always as easy as some make it look (see Simon Pagenaud’s first season with the team in 2015), so there were some questions about how the 26-year-old Newgarden would adapt to the Penske outfit.

Simply put, he has answered every question emphatically.

With three wins to his name this season, a number that equals his career wins at the start of the year, Newgarden now leads the IndyCar championship and has quickly put his own stamp on the team. And Mid-Ohio serves evidence of his firm place as a big player within the Penske squad.

While his first two wins of the year saw luck on his side (Will Power cut a tire at Barber Motorsports Park and a caution fell perfectly for him at Toronto), nothing out of the ordinary intervened at Mid-Ohio. Newgarden made an authoritative pass on teammate Will Power in the early laps to seize control of the lead and he looked untouchable from there, only losing the lead briefly during exchanges of green-flag pit stops.

The importance of the victory was not lost on Newgarden at all. “I feel like no one can take anything away from this win,” he said after Sunday’s triumph. “With this team on the (No.) 2 car side, I feel like we really did a great job (at Mid-Ohio). There was no luck involved in that. We went out and won the race.”

As for his championship hopes, Newgarden’s confidence is sky high heading into the final four races. “We’ve just got to keep it up. No mistakes. If we don’t have any mistakes, we’ve got plenty enough to win this championship, so we’re going to keep giving what we got for the last four races,” he asserted.

Newgarden currently leads teammate Helio Castroneves by seven points (453-446), though the championship remains incredibly close, with 17 points separating the top four and 58 separating the top six.

HELIO…GOODBYE?

Helio Castroneves is every bit as strong in 2017 as he’s ever been. He’s captured three poles this year, and it would’ve been four if not for a penalty during qualifying for Detroit Race 1. He nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in a car that was damaged after he narrowly avoided Scott Dixon’s frightening airborne crash. And, he snapped a three-year winless streak at the Iowa Corn 300 on July 9.

With Newgarden the only driver so far to have scored more points than Castroneves, it seems that the affable Brazilian still has plenty of IndyCar life left in him, right? Maybe not…

Penske’s July confirmation of it’s Acura DPi program and rumored intentions to scale back to three cars leave Castroneves as possibly the odd man out in the IndyCar program. Rest assured, Castroneves will likely be driving something in 2018, but what it is and which team it will be with remains up in the air.

Helio Castroneves remains a stalwart at the front of the IndyCar field, despite an uncertain future. Photo: IndyCar

At 42 years old, his age indicates that Castroneves is in the twilight of his IndyCar career. Dario Franchitti was forced into a medically advised retirement at 40 years of age in 2013 after a vicious crash in Houston. Paul Tracy’s last IndyCar race came in 2011, when was 42, the same age as Castroneves. Gil de Ferran was a comparatively young 36 when he retired after the 2003 season. And Rick Mears, who has served as a mentor to Castroneves in his time at Penske, retired at 41 after the 1992 season.

Yet, aside from de Ferran, the aforementioned drivers all retired due to injuries or fledgling racing careers. Castroneves remains a regular front-runner and has avoided injury his entire IndyCar career.

When asked at Toronto about his future, Castroneves remained noncommittal and asserted that his sole focus at the moment is securing his first IndyCar championship. “(Penske) is going to make a sports car team, and we all here would love to drive. I mean, no question about it,” he explained. “But at the moment, there is no commitment, no official decision, and I’m just focused — in my case, I’m just focusing on doing my best (for the championship).”

His status for 2018 still uncertain, how he finishes the year off may be the most intriguing storyline to follow.

NOTHING BEATS THAT NEW CAR SMELL

The speedway aero kit for 2018. Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar unveiled its long awaited 2018 aero kit to much fanfare earlier this month. The car has been universally praised for a much sleeker, smoother appearance. Gone are the “Kardashians” (aka the rear bumper pods) and the abundance of winglets that currently adorn the Honda and Chevrolet aero kits on the Dallara DW12.

And praise did not stop at its appearance. Test drivers Oriol Servia (piloting a Honda car with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Juan Pablo Montoya (piloting a Chevrolet car with Team Penske) have both spoken very highly of the new aero package and even admit it has surpassed expectations in its early tests.

“From Lap 1, it just felt at home,” said Servia following a test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “The car felt great. I was flat on it out of the pits, which just says how good the car felt right away. I think it’s going to be a fast, good racer.”

The 2018 aero kit in road/street/short oval spec. Photo: IndyCar

Montoya also revealed after this week’s test at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course that the downforce levels of the car make it more difficult to drive, and that’s a good thing.

“I think you’re going to be able to see the (driver’s) hands moving a lot more on the steering wheel and I think you’re going to see the cars get out of shape a lot easier,” said Montoya. “The chances of mistakes are higher, so I think it’s going to bring better racing.”

Further tests at Iowa Speedway (Aug. 10) and Sebring International Raceway (Sept. 26) will complete initial development of the 2018 package, and soon there after Honda and Chevrolet will receive chassis for their teams to test, with the individual teams receiving their chassis later in the Fall. Individual team testing with the new aero package is scheduled to begin in January.

OH, NOW YOU’RE JUST BEING SILLY!

Does Helio Castroneves stay in IndyCar or will he move to Penske’s IMSA program? Does Andretti Autosport stick with Honda or move to Chevrolet? If they do, where does that leave Takuma Sato and Alexander Rossi? What about Tony Kanaan, who like Castroneves, faces an uncertain IndyCar future at 42 years of age? What about other drivers like James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Mikhail Aleshin, Carlos Munoz, Conor Daly, Ed Jones, Esteban Gutierrez, and Spencer Pigot?

And what new teams could be joining the fray? Juncos Racing? Carlin? Harding Racing? All of them?

Yes, the annual Silly Season madness that typically begins during the Mid-Ohio race weekend is upon us (although, Penske’s DPi announcement kicked the rumors into high gear a little earlier than normal this year).

Currently, only nine drivers are locked in or nearly locked in to their current teams heading into next year. That leaves over half of the grid with question marks about their future for 2018 and beyond. My MotorsportsTalk colleague Tony DiZinno offered a roundup of Silly Season rumors this week.

As always, there is much speculation about who will go where and which team will run which manufacturer, but nothing is set in stone as of writing and a lot can change between now and the end of the season, let alone between now and the start of next season.

Still, this year’s Silly Season offers plenty of intrigue, and if any, some, or all of the rumors come true, the off-track news will be just as fast-paced as the on-track news.

Kyle Lavigne.

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.”