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PREVIEW: ABC Supply 500

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Following a small “summer break” in which they took two weeks off, the Verizon IndyCar Series begins its stretch run to the championship this weekend, with four races spanning a five week period, including three in a row, beginning at this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Since returning to the IndyCar schedule in 2013, Pocono has seen four different pole sitters and winners. In 2013, Marco Andretti sat on the pole while Scott Dixon took the win. In 2014, Juan Pablo Montoya scored both the pole and the victory. In 2015, it was Helio Castroneves leading the field to the green flag, with Ryan Hunter-Reay ending up in Victory Lane. And last year, Mikhail Aleshin took his first career IndyCar pole, while Will Power captured the race win.

In short, no one driver or team has emerged as the predominant force at the three-turn 2.5-mile oval, meaning its recent history since returning to the schedule has been equally as unpredictable as the 2017 season.

Previous speedway races have indicated that Honda should have an advantage, but Honda and Chevrolet have actually split the wins at the big ovals this year. Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato won for Honda at the Indianapolis 500, while Team Penske’s Will Power won for Chevrolet at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway. And the rubber match on the big ovals is expected to be somewhat of a wildcard as IndyCar begins its stretch run to the championship.

2017 ABC Supply 500 – Talking Points

500-mile endurance test

The two other big ovals were more about survival than outright pace. Three Honda engines failed during the 101st Indianapolis 500, capping a month of worry that saw no fewer than ten engine failures during the month of May.

And both the Indy 500 and Rainguard Water Sealers 600 were mired by crashes. The two races combined for ten cautions due to accidents, highlight by Scott Dixon’s airborne incident at Indianapolis and a pileup at Texas that collected eight cars.

Outside of the 2015 race, which saw 12 cautions, Pocono has a tendency for long stretches of green-flag running with the other three races combining for only seven cautions between them (the 2016 race saw four cautions, the 2014 race saw one, and the 2013 race saw two). Still, while Sunday’s race is unlikely to be a crashfest, it will be a big test of engine reliability.

Points leader Josef Newgarden discussed such a topic in a media teleconference, revealing that he believes Chevrolet has the upper hand in this area. “I think the advantage to being with team Chevy is you feel comfortable in the reliability that we’ve had throughout many years at IndyCar, specifically the last couple years. I think we feel very comfortable with what Chevrolet brings from a reliability standpoint. We never have issues,” he asserted.

Josef Newgarden, on the back of three wins, leads the IndyCar championship entering Pocono. Photo: IndyCar

Still, this does not mean he is discounting the Honda, who reportedly found the issue that caused their slew of engine failures early in the year.

“There’s a lot of things that give us confidence, but at the same time, we can’t discount Honda,” Newgarden added. “You can’t turn an eye to them. You have to make sure you’re watching them at all points and respecting what they can bring to the table because they’re a very strong manufacturer and they’ve won races and they’ve won Indy 500s, and they’re very capable of taking it from you if you don’t watch that closely. They’re a challenge for us with Pocono being their biggest strength, but I feel confident with Chevy that we have a chance to win the championship.”

Honda’s big oval dominance? 

Speaking of Honda, the assumption is that Honda has a pace advantage over Chevrolet at the big ovals. And while that was true at Indianapolis, Texas was quite different, especially in that race-winner Will Power led 180 laps on his way to victory.

While the aerodynamic package at Texas may have played a factor in that, it nonetheless serves notice that Honda’s advantage on the big ovals is not as big as originally thought.

Last year at Pocono, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Mikhail Aleshin and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay somewhat dominated the race, but it was Power who went to Victory Lane for Team Penske and Chevrolet.

Like Texas, outside circumstances certainly played a role (Hunter-Reay had an odd electronics failure that saw his car lose power late in the race, though he ultimately rebounded to finish third), and the speed of Aleshin and Hunter-Reay that day indicated that Honda had an outright speed advantage.

Scott Dixon is a previous winner at Pocono. Photo: Getty Images

However, Pocono’s unique layout means that pure speed is not enough; the three different turns require a perfect setup balance that features a lot of compromise. Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon, the 2013 Pocono victor, discussed this aspect, highlighting that Pocono is a track not to be taken lightly.

“You have to put a lot of hard work into getting everything right on this track. Nothing is a given here,” Dixon said of the challenges of Pocono Raceway. “We’ve slipped to third in the championship with four to go here recently, but are only eight points out. This is the time to really start a string of strong finishes that will hopefully get you across the finish line in front of the other contenders.”

In total, Chevrolet leads Honda 7-6 in the win column in 2017, with Josef Newgarden’s victory at the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio giving the edge to the Chevrolet camp leading into Pocono.

David vs. Multiple Goliaths

The championship picture sees six drivers separated by 58 points with four races to go. Four of them (Josef Newgarden, Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power) are from the mighty Team Penske, and one (Scott Dixon) is from the equally mighty Chip Ganassi Racing.

The sixth is the famous one-car effort from Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the hands of driver Graham Rahal. Since 2015, this combination has been nipping at the heels of all the big teams, even making a championship run in 2015.

Graham Rahal has won twice in 2017. Photo: IndyCar.

In 2017, they’re poised to do it again. Though 58 points behind championship leader Newgarden, there remains time for Rahal to chip away, though he’ll need to finish ahead of his title rivals in each of the final four races if he is to capture this year’s championship.

But, with the experience of 2015 to build on, it’s a task he and the team are ready for.

“The team absolutely has momentum. I think we are the hottest team other than (Team) Penske right now, if you look at it across the board,” Rahal asserted ahead of this weekend’s race.

The younger Rahal’s confidence is very high leading into the weekend, especially because he feels the team’s package is more than enough to contend for a win.

“We’ve got some big races coming up clearly and Pocono is going to be a big one that should suit the Honda really well. Coming out of Indianapolis setup wise, we should have some good knowledge that we didn’t have going into the month that we found very late in the month. We had very fast race cars and ran up front there, so hopefully we can carry that forward and do the same at Pocono this weekend,” Graham added.

Graham and RLL will look to improve upon their best Pocono finish of 11th, which came last year.

Lingering questions

  • Dale Coyne Racing has been a surprisingly mighty force at the big ovals this year. Can they continue that form?
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay is on a winless streak that dates back to this race in 2015. Can you bring that drought to an end?
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Mikhail Aleshin have parted ways, with Sebastian Saavedra piloting the No. 7 SPM Honda entry at the next two races. Saavedra finished an impressive 11th with the team at Toronto; can he repeat that performance on a big oval?
  • Drivers like JR Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter, Tony Kanaan, Marco Andretti, and Alexander Rossi are running out of chances to win in 2017. Will one of them break through at Pocono?
  • Can Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing spring a third consecutive top-10 in their third start of the year? The young Colombian American and the new team has been one of the year’s pleasant surprises to date.

The final word

From last year’s Pocono winner, Will Power: “”I definitely had a great time off with (son) Beau and my wife, but am ready to get back on track. The No. 12 Verizon Chevy team put together a really awesome car at Mid-Ohio which produced a strong result. Now we’re going back to Pocono where we won last year. Another win there would be huge for us in the point standings, so we’re really going to give it our all. The team worked on the car a lot and we all feel it’s going to be another strong car.”

Here’s the IndyCar Weekend Schedule:

At-track schedule (all times local):

Saturday August 19

9:00 a.m. – 10:15 a.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com
1:00 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single-car format, two laps each), airs LIVE on NBCSN
5:00 p.m. – 5:30 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #2, Livestreamed on RaceControl.IndyCar.Com

Sunday August 20

1:10 p.m. – 1:25 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop practice
2:00 p.m.. – NBCSN on air
2:40 p.m. – ABC Supply 500 (200 laps/500 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s last year’s top 10

1. Will Power
2. Mikhail Aleshin
3. Ryan Hunter-Reay
4. Josef Newgarden
5. Sebastien Bourdais
6. Scott Dixon
7. Carlos Munoz
8. Juan Pablo Montoya
9. Tony Kanaan
10. James Hinchcliffe

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INDYCAR: What Drivers Are Saying about Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America

Helio Castroneves leads the field early at last year's IndyCar race at Road America. Photo: IndyCar.
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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin (courtesy IndyCar Media Relations):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m not shy on saying that Road America is probably my favorite track. I really love racing there. It’s a fun road course with a lot of great INDYCAR fans, so what’s not to love? These cars with the new aero kit have been super exciting on road courses and this weekend will be no different. The entire No. 1 Verizon Chevy team and I are pumped to get on track there. I thought we were strong at Texas after not living up to our standards at Detroit, but we just ran out of luck. Myself and the entire team are ready to really come back strong to gain more points to continue our hunt for another championship.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Road America is a pretty cool track. It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my favorite track in the U.S. Last year, I had a great weekend there in Indy Lights, winning the first race as well as the pole position. Each time we work together as a team, we are developing the car and getting quicker. I think we might have a great car for this weekend and I’m looking forward to it.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Road America is one of the coolest tracks in North America. It’s the kind of track that lets you really stretch an Indy car’s legs and really push it. We had a solid test in the Arrow Electronics car there last week, but testing is one thing and racing a whole other, so I’m excited to get there and see what we’ve got.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. I think, in the last few races, we’ve shown our potential. We’ve shown that we’re quick. Now we need to try to get back on the podium. Road America is always a fun track, and it’s where I got my first taste of INDYCAR with SPM so I can’t wait to actually race the Lucas Oil car here.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously I’m happy with where the team has been running these past few weekends, but we’ve been there the whole season. We just haven’t shown the results for one reason or another. While most had the weekend off, we had the opportunity to compete again at Le Mans, which is a very special deal. So now we’re back, and after a few short days at home, it’s Road America. We had a great car here last year picking up the win for the No. 9 team, and I’m hoping we can do it again this weekend with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m really looking forward to Road America. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. It’s been a great last few races for the team, and it shows we have the speed in the cars we need in order to win and compete at the front. I hope we can keep up the momentum this weekend with the First Data car. It was nice having a weekend off in the schedule, and the team will be refreshed and ready to attack at Road America.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It was awesome to have some time off after the long stretch – especially to spend time with my wife and son on Father’s Day. It was really great for me and the rest of the team. It has been quite a whirlwind for everyone since Indianapolis, so it is nice to have the schedule calm down a bit. Texas was a tough one for myself and the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team. It was disappointing but we are ready to bounce back. Road courses are always so much fun and this is definitely one of the most beautiful tracks on the circuit. The fans at Road America are such great INDYCAR fans and I really enjoy meeting them when we’re there. I always look forward to this race and am ready to get back on track there.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “I love going to Road America for a number of reasons. It’s a very cool, fast and challenging track. The fan experience is one of the best in America and it’s the closest INDYCAR race to ABC Supply’s headquarters, so I’m expecting to have a lot of support during the weekend.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We tested at Road America and it went well in the end. We didn’t start off the best, but I do think we found a few things that can really help us as we go forward. I am excited for this aero package on a long track like Road America. I think the passing will be great, the cars will look awesome and will be fast! I have spent a ton of time at Road America in my lifetime and just find it to be the best track in this country. I am excited to join my dad and all of my family up there this weekend to enjoy the races just like we always have done growing up! I have always enjoyed the race there and I think that’s why I have had some success. Having said that, a win would mean a ton to me. I would love to get it for my GEHL team this weekend! With GEHL and Manitowoc being so close by, it’s a huge race weekend for us too. I have high hopes for the next eight races. We have had a solid start to the season but no wins. We need wins, we need podiums, and I hope we can make that happen here very soon.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite tracks on the schedule. I have great memories racing there as it’s where I won my first Indy Lights race last season and it’s a circuit I’ve always done well at. We’ve made some great progress so far this year, but have not yet had the chance to show it with a good result aboard our No. 19 Paysafe car. Hopefully, we can change that this weekend and give the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing crew the top result that they deserve.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve been on the simulator twice now learning Road America, which was good as I learned what way everything goes. It looks like it might be quite a tough circuit. There are a couple of blind corners that will be difficult and also some elevation changes. Those always add another element of difficulty into the mix as you have to judge your distance by things other than being able to see where you’re going. It will be nice to get back on a road course after a bumpy street course. Overall, I’m looking forward to Road America. It should be a good challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Road America is always a track I look forward to going to. It’s one of the best venues on our schedule, for sure! I’ve always enjoyed it, ever since I started racing there in Skip Barber, and it’s a great place to drive an Indy car around. It’s the hometown race for our partner Direct Supply and we’re really excited to have them on board. Hopefully, we can get a good finish for them and the whole ECR team.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a nice little break but now I’m fully focused and ready to head to Road America. After having a really great finish at Texas, the entire No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team and I are pumped to go to Road America. It’s one of the most beautiful tracks we get to visit and the racing is also great. I just love road courses. It’s also always great to see so many of our friends from Menards up there, so I’m looking forward to saying hello to a lot of folks. The fans at Road America are some of the best, and I know we’re going to put on a great show there.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “It’s great to come back fully recharged and ready to get after it at the KOHLER Grand Prix. We had a couple of good results earlier this month, and I’m feeling really confident in how this Carlin team is progressing in its maiden Verizon IndyCar Series season. I’ve always enjoyed Road America, since my days in Formula Ford – from the challenges of the course to the camping and fan support, it’s just a classic event on our schedule. I’ve come away with a couple of top-10s here since INDYCAR’s return to the track, and I have full faith in the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet team that we’ll be racing up front on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Road America is a track that has been good to me in the past. My last time there was in 2016 in an Indy Lights car. We set a track record, won the first race and finished third in Race 2. I’m hoping that speed helps us out in the Indy car this weekend. The last two weekends have been good for us, as far as progress as a rookie. We were super competitive at Detroit and ran in the top three at one point in Texas. Hopefully, we can capitalize on that momentum and have a strong finish at Road America to start the second half of the season off strong.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses in the world. I am very excited to be heading there this week as it is also the one track on the schedule that I have a huge amount of history and track time at. We have always had strong pace in Elkhart Lake, but never really gotten a result, so we will be looking to change that this weekend and hopefully close up the gap to the top of the points.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “Road America has always been one of my favorite tracks on the INDYCAR schedule. The DHL team had a strong race here last year, so I’m looking forward to building on that and the momentum we’ve had as a team through the last several races.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We tested at Road America last week and I think the test went well. It was a little confusing as there were two specs of tires and the difference of each was more than expected, but we were able to cover multiple setups and found a good direction.  There were not enough teams to directly compare at the test but we made a good progress, so I believe we should be competitive at Road America. I enjoy driving there so much but I don’t have a strong history at the track. I had a good race in 2016, but an electrical problem blew our race. Road America has a couple of ultra-high-speed corners like the carousel, kink and unsighted Billy Mitchell Bend. They are definitely some of the most challenging corners. The track flows so well and has a combination of a tight bend with a long straight followed by big braking areas that makes a great overtaking opportunity, so the racing is always an exciting one there. That’s one of my favorite parts and the fans are so enthusiastic!  Driving this fast track is just huge fun. Road America is a beautiful, great race course.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “I am very excited for my first Verizon IndyCar Series race this weekend at Road America. We had a great test there last week. I was able to learn a lot about the car and the strong Chevy engine. I am looking forward to getting back in the car on Friday and seeing what we can do this weekend.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “After a much-needed break, I can’t wait to get back to Road America. It’s a track I’ve felt very comfortable with since I started in INDYCAR in 2016 and my results the last two years have shown it with two seventh-place qualifying runs and a top-10 finish last season. The whole Carlin team is really starting to gel and our results just keep improving every race weekend, so I’m hoping we can put together a good run this weekend for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet in Road America and get both cars into the top 10 for both qualifying and the race.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a track I love racing at. I’ve had many race wins in other series there and it is one of my all-time favorite tracks. I’m really looking forward to getting to race there in an Indy car with Harding Racing and hope to have our best result of the year.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “Road America is one of my favorite road courses to drive. The fans there are great and it helps make for one of the greatest settings of the year. Each year, we have a team cookout with my crew where we can just relax after a busy month and a half and reset ourselves for the rest of the season. It would be great to walk out of this weekend with a podium finish for the U.S. Concrete team and continue our forward momentum.”