Rossi caps dream weekend in Watkins Glen with first win of the year (VIDEO)

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Alexander Rossi took the biggest bite possible out of the Big Apple this weekend in the picturesque, Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, at Watkins Glen International.

On Friday, he announced a new contract with Andretti Autosport.

On Saturday, he scored his first Verizon IndyCar Series pole.

On Sunday, he led the most laps, controlled the pace of the race, rebounded from a changed fuel hose, saved fuel, yet still pushed hard, and defended against Scott Dixon to win his first race of the season. Ryan Hunter-Reay finished third.

The driver of the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda continued his late-season surge – he’s now finished between first and sixth in each of the last five races – as he rolled to a key victory.

Meanwhile the IndyCar championship has turned on its head, following contact leaving pit road between Josef Newgarden and Sebastien Bourdais. Newgarden locked up the brakes exiting pit road and bounced of the armco, with Bourdais hitting the back of Newgarden’s car and leaving the championship leader in big trouble in the final 20 laps of the race.

Newgarden struggled to even make the flag, following repairs exerted by the Team Penske team get his No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet to the finish. He finished 18th, off the lead lap, for his worst finish since Texas (13th after an accident), and snapped a streak of finishing first, second or sixth in each of the last six races.

Although Newgarden still leads the championship, this now gives teammates Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud a realistic shot, along with Dixon, who now trails Newgarden unofficially by three points, in pursuit of his fifth title. The four drivers are unofficially covered by less than 40 points, Castroneves 22 back and Pagenaud 34 back, heading to the double points season finale in Sonoma in two weeks.

The race started with the field on Firestone’s wet weather tires but the threat of rain, which came earlier for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race, never materialized. Instead it featured a mad dash of drivers peeling into the pits after the race start to change onto dry weather slicks, most of whom went onto Firestone’s red alternate tires but with Rossi and Hunter-Reay going onto the black primary tires.

Castroneves emerged at the head of the queue after those pit stops, but Rossi got back in front after the next round, caused when teammate Takuma Sato slowed entering the Boot. Five drivers (Spencer Pigot, JR Hildebrand, Max Chilton, Marco Andretti and Jack Harvey) had pitted prior to the caution so moved forward to the front.

In this stanza, Rossi’s team encountered an issue as it needed to change its fuel probe, which was malfunctioning. And because Rossi hadn’t got all the fuel on board on his last stop, it forced him into an earlier next stop, which occurred on Lap 24.

This forced Rossi off sequence and dropped him down the order, but a minor miracle occurred a couple laps later thanks to his soon-to-be-departed teammate, Sato, again. Sato spun and resumed but INDYCAR called a full-course caution on Lap 27, which then forced the rest of the field back into the pits and helped Rossi, Chilton, and the Ed Carpenter Racing pair of Pigot and Hildebrand, who were also off sequence.

Rossi and Chilton were able to push deep enough into this stint to where they could make it home on one final stop while the Carpenter twins could not, both pitting before the scheduled “get home” lap of Lap 42.

The Newgarden incident then followed which put the race under another full course caution, and set up a final dash to the finish.

But Rossi beat Dixon in a straight fight to secure the victory.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Rossi’s win is the obvious, and along with Ryan Hunter-Reay it put two Andretti Autosport cars on the podium – a first for the team since the 2016 Indianapolis 500, also won by Rossi. … Graham Rahal and Will Power recovered from 10th and eighth starting spots to end fifth and sixth. … After tough seasons, two more Chip Ganassi Racing drivers in Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton banked top-10s in seventh and eighth, Chilton having defended well against Simon Pagenaud for eighth. … Carlos Munoz completed the top-10 for Foyt. … Jack Harvey finished 14th for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in his first road course race.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Newgarden leads this group, and 18th is his second worst finish of the year aside of 19th in the Indianapolis 500. … Sato brought out two cautions in a tough afternoon, with wastegate issues and a spin. … James Hinchcliffe brought out the first caution of the race with major gearbox issues, and ended 21st and last behind Tony Kanaan, caught up in the Newgarden/Bourdais contact.

NOTABLE: This win by Rossi snapped Team Penske and Chevrolet’s five-race win streak, in Chevrolet’s 100th race. … This was Honda’s first win since Road America (Dixon) and its first podium sweep since Detroit race one, when Rahal beat home Dixon and Hinchcliffe. … Dixon banks his sixth podium at Watkins Glen.

QUOTABLE: Rossi, on the win: “We had an issue in the beginning with some fuel, the fuel thing, but whatever. It doesn’t matter, the team recovered. We had the pace to do it, but it’s pretty amazing. It’s a huge team effort. I’ve talked about so much how much we’ve improved, I’m so happy we’re finally able to win.”

RESULTS

WATKINS GLEN, New York – Results Sunday of the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 3.37-mile Watkins Glen International, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, chassis-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (1) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 60, Running
2. (2) Scott Dixon, Honda, 60, Running
3. (7) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 60, Running
4. (6) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 60, Running
5. (10) Graham Rahal, Honda, 60, Running
6. (8) Will Power, Chevrolet, 60, Running
7. (5) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 60, Running
8. (19) Max Chilton, Honda, 60, Running
9. (12) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 60, Running
10. (11) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 60, Running
11. (14) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 60, Running
12. (13) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 60, Running
13. (15) Ed Jones, Honda, 60, Running
14. (18) Jack Harvey, Honda, 60, Running
15. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 60, Running
16. (20) Marco Andretti, Honda, 60, Running
17. (9) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 60, Running
18. (3) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 58, Running
19. (4) Takuma Sato, Honda, 56, Running
20. (17) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 46, Contact
21. (16) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 5, Mechanical

Race Statistics:
Winner’s average speed: 118.865 mph
Time of Race: 1:42:03.9024
Margin of victory: 0.9514 of a second
Cautions: 4 for 9 laps
Lead changes: 8 among 6 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Rossi 1
Castroneves 2-14
Pigot 15-22
Rossi 23
Hunter-Reay 24-27
Rossi 28-42
Dixon 43-44
Newgarden 45
Rossi 46-60

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Newgarden 560, Dixon 557, Castroneves 538, Pagenaud 526, Power 492, Rossi 476, Rahal 466, Sato 421, Kanaan 375, Hunter-Reay 373.

Whether dinner or driving, Montoya and Cameron fast friends at Penske

Courtesy of IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Dane Cameron’s reaction to being told he’d be paired with Juan Pablo Montoya on Team Penske’s DPI Acura didn’t signal the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

“I sign my contract with (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric, and he says, ‘We’re going to put you with Montoya,’ ” Cameron told NBCSports.com, pausing to laugh. “I’m thinking ‘Did I do something wrong? Is he mad at me? Why is he giving me that guy? This is going to be a lot of work.’

“At first I wasn’t really sure what I was in for because (Montoya) definitely has a bit of a reputation. I was like, ‘Oh man, how is this going to go?’ ”

Actually, it’s gone really well.

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Entering this weekend’s season-opening Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona, Cameron and Montoya are the reigning champions of IMSA’s premier division. In their second year together, the No. 6 duo scored victories last season at Mid-Ohio, Detroit and Laguna Seca while finishing on the podium in seven consecutive events.

But it’s easy to understand why Cameron initially might have had reservations about a working relationship with Montoya.

Over a Hall of Fame career spanning more than two decades, the outspoken Colombian famous for his cutthroat indifference and swashbuckling sizzle has been embroiled in controversial rivalries with many of the world’s greatest drivers while blazing a winning trail in IndyCar, NASCAR and Formula One.

Cameron, meanwhile, is a low-key native of Sonoma, California, who is the first three-time champion of the WeatherTech Series (since the IMSA merger of 2014) but whose professional driving experience is limited nearly exclusively to sports cars.

Yet since their first conversation – Montoya called Cameron while he was driving home from signing that first contract with Penske – their rapport has been strong, and as simpatico as they are behind the wheel, they also get along famously off the track.

“We have such a good relationship,” Montoya told NBCSports.com. “It’s amazing how well we bonded. We really created a friendship. We have massive amounts of trust in each other. Whether he makes a mistake or I make a mistake, there’s no judgment. We always seem to be there for each other, and we complement each other really well.

“I like going to dinner with this guy, put it that way. That doesn’t happen often.”

Cameron said his teammate’s loose and playful style immediately was a welcome relief. During one of his first media appearances with Team Penske’s IMSA driver lineup, Cameron was nervous about maintaining the team’s well-coiffed image of professionalism.

But as Montoya and teammate Helio Castroneves traded barbs about turning gray or graining weight, Cameron suddenly felt at ease.

“Juan’s a good guy to break the ice when it’s getting a little stuffy in the room to have a little joke or make fun of Helio coloring his hair just to lighten the mood,” Cameron said of Montoya. “If things are tense, he’s good. It’s silly and childish but fun. That helped me get more comfortable for sure

“He’s probably a little more brash than I am and likes to pick on people and have some fun, but I like to enjoy myself, too. If everything’s really serious, and you’re miserable, it’s tougher to perform in the car. If you’re enjoying yourself and surrounding yourself with the right people in a good environment, then things come together a lot easier.”

Cameron and Montoya never met before joining Team Penske’s relaunched sports car program two years ago. The team used the same formula for filling each of its Acuras: Pairing an IMSA champion with an IndyCar star.

Ricky Taylor and Castroneves were aligned in the No. 7, and Montoya was teamed with Cameron, who had won the 2016 DP title with Action Express Racing.

The No. 6 Acura in testing for the Rolex 24. Juan Pablo Montoya, Dane Cameron and Simon Pagenaud will share the car this weekend at Daytona (courtesy of IMSA).

“With (Cameron) winning the championship, we knew Montoya would have respect for him,” Cindric said. “We saw pretty quickly that (Montoya) could learn from (Cameron) in this form of racing. It’s been healthy. We’ve never had any problems with them.

“It’s good to see them have success and Montoya get another championship. He was so close to the IndyCar (title) with us, it was good to get one with him.”

Montoya, a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, and Cameron will be paired with another Indy 500 champion at Daytona as Simon Pagenaud joins their Rolex 24 entry for the second consecutive season. Montoya and Cameron still are seeking their first endurance victory, and Pagenaud bring the resume of a former American Le Mans Series champion.

The trio will split the driving over 24 hours while also compromising on myriad details, such as the positioning of the seat and pedals. Hitting a setup that can suit each driver’s style with optimized speed is among the biggest challenges in sports car racing.

“You have to find the right balance between standing up for what you really want and what you really need so you can perform and then maybe give up here and there on certain things that aren’t bothering you,” Cameron said. “When you find the right partnership and the right guy to be with, it really can push the program to the next level.”

Said Montoya: “It’s crazy that we always want the same things out of the car. We keep helping each other. And it’s funny because when I’m really happy with the car, he struggles a bit. And when he’s really happy with the car, I struggle a bit. And we kind of found that middle ground where we know it’s good. I can make it work here, and he can make it work there.”

Each has their own track-specific strengths, too. Montoya is a three-time Rolex 24 winner who excels on the Daytona road course, where Cameron still is seeking his first win. It’s the opposite at Sebring International Raceway, where Montoya says, “I know I suck, and Dane’s freaking unbelievable.”

Such brutal honesty is part of what makes Montoya a good teammate.

“He just wants to have fun and drive race cars and really isn’t into drama,” Cameron said. “Sometimes he can’t bite his tongue, but that makes everyone love him at the same time. We just found a really great way to have fun at the racetrack and become closer friends away from the track.

“He’s just the right guy.”

Juan Pablo Montoya (left) and Dane Cameron celebrated after winning at Laguna Seca last year (courtesy of IMSA).