Pigot: ‘The important thing is people see the potential’

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Like many drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Spencer Pigot doesn’t have his 2018 plans sorted, and probably won’t for at least several more weeks.

Pigot matched his car number, 20, in terms of career starts his most recent outing in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course slightly more than a month ago.

Heading into this Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the two-time Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires champion has a point to prove results-wise as he looks to solidify his status in the series beyond being a perennial part-timer, sharing the car with his team boss.

“It’s not been the ideal situation, but the series schedule is somewhat compact that I’m racing fairly often,” Pigot told NBC Sports. “This has been biggest downtime, between Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen. Doing the long distance races with Mazda has kept me fresh as well. You just try to take advantage of all the sessions to get back into the swing of things.”

The Rising Star Racing-supported driver would like to continue with Ed Carpenter Racing and is working towards that retention. Carpenter’s team had a significant change this year with both Josef Newgarden and engineer Jeremy Milless moving on; JR Hildebrand and Justin Taylor came in on the No. 21 side, respectively. Pigot was retained for 2017.

“The next year is always in back of my mind, to try to continue in IndyCar. Finding a full-time ride and being there every weekend is the goal,” he said.

“I’m very happy with where I am. I want to stay with Ed Carpenter Racing. After Sonoma will be the time for talks.”

Pigot’s second season has been more cohesive than his first (all with Carpenter with the exception of the Indianapolis 500 for Juncos Racing), and he’s one of a handful of drivers on the grid where results have not showcased his performance in race weekends.

Just this year alone, Pigot has executed more than 50 on-track passes for position, but has been caught out by a myriad of unfortunate circumstances throughout the year. While running fifth in St. Petersburg, a brake rotor ignited; a misfire of the engine following a pit stop in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped him from sixth; and he had worked his way up to eighth at Road America when he had to make two lengthy pit stops for repairs to the front suspension. In Toronto, Pigot gained seven positions in the first 15 green flag laps but was relegated to the rear of the field following unscheduled pit stop after another competitor cut one of his tires.

“I think it’s a tough situation to be in. Our top-10s could have been top-fives. Or 11th or 12th places could have been top-10s,” said Pigot, who’s banked three top-10s this year but in those races at St. Pete, Indy, Road America and Toronto, he finished 20th, ninth, 12th and 18th.

“The important thing is people see the potential and some of the races that we’ve had have been pretty impressive. The amount of cars we passed or pace we ran was good. Even if the end result hasn’t shown it, we’ve shown we can be competitive. We’ve shown if we’re behind a car, we can get by.”

The Floridan is a bit perplexing in these two points: he’s shown that aforementioned excellent race craft and bravery on the PFC brakes, as witnessed by his overtaking numbers. But the fact he’s needed to do so has come from poor qualifying positions, still yet to make his first appearance out of Q1 in a road or street course qualifying session.

Pigot worked to explain this dichotomy when talking about his comfort level on the brakes, and how he feels he has improved in qualifying anyway (and the stats back that up – he has improved his qualifying position in all but one of his starts this year at tracks he raced at last year, although his best start is 13th) having had an extra session on Friday to run on Firestone’s red alternate tires, which was a new introduction this year.

“I would say they’re not quite as grabby, initially, as you don’t feel the braking power quite to the same extent as last year, but the consistency is there,” Pigot explained. “With the PFCs, through the second half of the braking zone, you can go in and trust the downforce. And you can go in quicker than you might want to.

“With the Friday red tire run, it’s a help. Qualifying will always be a bit different but now you know what to expect. The reds last year changed the balance of the car once you got to qualifying. With that kind of drastic difference now you can get some feeling with that, and get moving into qualifying.”

Pigot has worked decently well with Hildebrand this year although neither’s really had a genuine standout start-to-finish amazing weekend on a road or street course this year.

Either of the cool young Americans, who are facing uncertain futures in IndyCar, will look to pull a result out over these last two weekends. Pigot probably amplified his cool status when he sent out a tweet asking if he was the only person who hadn’t seen HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and got a widespread response including more than 300 “likes.”

“Probably my most popular tweet ever,” Pigot deadpanned.

But in all seriousness…

“We’ve had a lot of weekends that could have been a lot better. The results don’t show how well we’ve worked together and developed the car,” Pigot said.

“It’s been nice to have the continuity throughout the whole season. Having the same group of guys, seeing how they operate, helps us develop our race car.

“Last year I did a few races with Rahal and a handful with Ed, and the times I was doing those races, Graham (Rahal) and Josef (Newgarden) had largely developed the car for themselves.

“Now it’s a bit different. We’ve had more time to test and zero in on what I like this year. That’s showing in the pace we’ve shown in specific events, and hopefully the results to come.”

Jimmie Johnson open to racing Rolex 24 at Daytona in lower category to earn first watch

Jimmie Johnson Rolex 2023
Michael L. Levitt/LAT/USA/IMSA
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Jimmie Johnson could be making his last start in a prototype Saturday, but he still might be racing sports cars at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and Le Mans in 2023.

Now that he’s done racing full time in the NTT IndyCar Series, Johnson said this week that his top three priorities for 2023 are 1) racing the Indy 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day (commonly known as “The Double”); 2) the 24 Hours of Le Mans and 3) the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Winning a Rolex 24 long has been a goal for Johnson, who has three overall runner-up finishes over nine starts in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

IMSA SEASON FINALE: Details for watching the Petit Le Mans

All of those were in the premier category, but with IMSA overhauling and rebranding the class (from DPi to GTP) next season, it seems there won’t be room for Johnson to return in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac. Johnson will be teamed with Kamui Kobayashi and Mike Rockenfeller in Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale, wrapping the second season of endurance races for the Action Express entry.

“I know the landscape with the new prototype class that’s come out, and frankly there’s just not enough cars or open seats available,” the seven-time Cup Series champion said during a Zoom news conference Tuesday. “So I don’t seen an opportunity in the premier division, but I am open to the other divisions on track and would love to finally earn one of those watches.”

That could mean Johnson (who bought an engraved Rolex after winning the 2006 Daytona 500 but wants to earn a signature trophy of sports car racing) entering in an LMP2 or LMP3 or perhaps a GT car for the first time at Daytona next year. He will have Carvana’s primary sponsorship in tow next year that he presumably could bring to a team.

The rest of the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion’s 2023 schedule also remains to be solidified. But it seems Johnson is nearly a lock for a 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in the lineup of the Garage 56 Next Gen Camaro, which will be fielded jointly by Hendrick Motorsports and NASCAR.

“The rest of it is just early,” he said. “In the coming weeks on all fronts, conversations will continue forward. I still feel I’m on a short list for the Garage 56 program in Le Mans next year and hope to get some clarity on that in the coming weeks or months. So I wish I had more to report at this point. It’s really about not returning full time to IndyCar, and now that I’ve made that decision and letting that news be known, I really feel like I’ll get some traction here and be able to solidify my schedule for ’23.”

Depending on the interest he draws, his options should be wide open. After racing a Honda the past two years and a Chevrolet for his 20-plus years in NASCAR, Johnson isn’t under contract to any manufacturer or team next year.

Here’s what else Johnson has said about what he wants to do in ’23:

IndyCar: Though his IndyCar track record was much stronger on ovals, Johnson seems open to any part-time schedule.

“I’m running out of specific events that are bucket list races (in IndyCar), and truthfully, that’s kind of what led to my decision to not come back full time,” Johnson said. “But I still am open to tracks that are important to me, races that are important to me and doing it with people and teams that are important to me, so if something develops with Chip (Ganassi) that’s a mixed bag of road and street courses and some ovals, I’m open to it. I’m open to just ‘the Double’ or the Indy 500 alone. I really do have a clean sheet of paper and eager to see what meaningful opportunities develop and make sense.”

Though he is free to talk with other teams, Johnson said returning with Chip Ganassi Racing would be his first choice after racing with the team since 2021.

“I’ve really only spoken to Chip,” he said. “I truly feel like I’m part of the family at CGR. If I’m in IndyCar, that’s really where I want to be. I know that team. I know the inner workings of it. I do feel like we’re working hard to continue the relationship together, so that would really be my intentions if I was able to put something together and come back in IndyCar, I’d love for it to be there.”

NASCAR: Johnson mentioned again that being a past winner of The Clash and All-Star Race previously granted him long-term eligibility for those events (NASCAR since has changed its criteria), so the exhibitions in Los Angeles and North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, are on his radar.

“I do have a few years left on my eligibility for the Clash and for the All-Star Race, so I’m surprised no one has really asked or pushed hard to this point yet,” he said. “I guess I’ve been busy in IndyCar, and people assume my schedule is tied up. But looking forward, those would be easy opportunities to come back, but honestly I’ve not had an in-depth serious conversation with anyone yet on any of those fronts.

“I’d love to go to Wilkesboro. I’ve never driven on that racetrack. Lowe’s corporate offices were just down the street, so I’ve driven by it many times. I went on a long bike ride with Matt Kenseth and some friends a few years ago and actually rode my bicycle around the track. So I’d love to go back in a proper race car and event someday and hopefully that opportunity can develop.”

Trackhouse Racing’s Project 91 (which put Kimi Raikkonen in the Cup race at Watkins Glen International) would provide an avenue for Johnson’s re-entry to stock cars.

“Justin’s been a longtime friend and someone I stay in touch with, and he’s certainly made it known that the Project 91 car is available if I have interest,” Johnson said. “So I would need to continue those conversations forward.”

–“The Double”: In trying to become the first driver since Kurt Busch in 2014 to race 1,100 miles at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway in the same day, Johnson believes the logistics should be easier. Namely, he won’t have a full-time commitment in either IndyCar and NASCAR, and the reduced Cup schedule for practice and qualifying should free up more time.

“When drivers did it in the past, we had a lot more on-track activity for both series, certainly on the NASCAR side,” Johnson said. “I think how the NASCAR format works now, there’s less of an ask in time. So I do feel like the potential to apply myself and have physically enough time to pull it off is there. I do think the reduced schedule and not running the full IndyCar schedule will give me the time I need before and after to seriously focus and dedicate everything I can and would need to give my best performance in both races.”