Andretti’s 200th, Newgarden’s 100th IndyCar starts set at Sonoma

Andretti (27) and Newgarden (2) have milestone starts this weekend. Photo: Getty Images
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Two American drivers who are only separated by three-plus years in age but 100 starts and six years of experience hit some important career milestones in the Verizon IndyCar Series 2017 season finale this weekend, the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (Sunday, 6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Marco Andretti will start his 200th race in a career that dates back to 2006 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, when he’d only just turned 19 years old.

Meanwhile Josef Newgarden will start his 100th race in a career that also began at a young age, 21 years old, on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. in 2012.

Andretti is 30 and Newgarden 26 (turns 27 in December), and it’s easy to forget how young Andretti still is given this will be the end of his 12th season. At 26 though, Newgarden only seems to be entering the prime of his career, after overachieving with Sarah Fisher, Wink Hartman and Ed Carpenter in his first five years and now looking to secure his first career championship in his first year with Team Penske.

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 27: Marco Andretti (C), driver of the #26 Andretti Green Racing NYSE Dallara Honda celebrates his first IndyCar race win with father Michael (L) and grandfather Mario (R) at the IRL IndyCar Series Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma August 27, 2006 at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Of course at one point, Andretti was the hot young American prospect in IndyCar. He almost won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie, losing right off the final turn of the final lap to Sam Hornish Jr., at age 19. He eventually did win his first race of his career at Sonoma Raceway later that season.

Andretti has always been solid and perhaps misunderstood; there’s a perception that he doesn’t really seem to care, but in actuality, he cares so much that he often presses or fails to deliver in crunch time. Qualifying poorly after practicing well has been his issue this year. His last name is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability; his results largely have not lived up to the hype or hope of being the next great Andretti, the third generation driver in the iconic family legacy.

All told, Andretti has two wins from his first 199 starts – his last came at Iowa in 2011 – with 18 other podium finishes, and his most recent of those came at Fontana in 2015, 37 races ago. Andretti finished between fifth and ninth in the points in eight of his first 10 seasons but slipped to 16th last year, and is only 13th this year heading into this weekend’s finale at Sonoma.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 19: Josef Newgarden the driver of the Sarah Fisher Hartman/Dollar General car prepares for his qualifying run for the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Newgarden’s ascendance was gradual in his first three years. A tough rookie season revealed a lot of promise but an equal high number of mistakes, and without a top-10 finish, he was only 23rd in points. Podiums followed each of the next two years along with improved qualifying pace, with 14th and 13th place finishes the correct step forward.

Once he finally won his first two races in 2015, Newgarden was on the doorstep of the ascendancy in IndyCar and banked his first top-10 points finish of seventh. He improved to fourth last year, and won widespread praise in the paddock for his quick recovery from a savage looking accident at Texas Motor Speedway that left him with a fractured right clavicle and fractured right hand. That led to his signing with Team Penske for this year, where he’s won a series-high four races and leads the points by three heading into the Sonoma finale. In his first 99 starts, Newgarden has seven wins, and 11 other podiums.

Both have now become part of the IndyCar fabric over their tenures. Andretti has done decently well at Sonoma in the past beyond his win with several other top-10 finishes. Newgarden will almost certainly need to improve upon his best Sonoma finish of sixth if he is to capture his first title.

Roger Penske vows new downtown Detroit GP will be bigger than the Super Bowl for city

Roger Penske Detroit
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DETROIT – He helped spearhead bringing the town a Super Bowl 17 years ago, but Roger Penske believes the reimagined Chevrolet Detroit GP is his greatest gift to the Motor City.

“It’s bigger than the Super Bowl from an impact within the city,” Penske told NBC Sports. “Maybe not with the sponsors and TV, but for the city of Detroit, it’s bigger than the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got to give back individually and collectively, and I think we as a company in Michigan and in Detroit, it’s something we know how to do. It shows we’re committed. Someone needs to take that flag and run it down through town. And that’s what we’re trying to do as a company. We’re trying to give back to the city.”

After 30 years of being run on Belle Isle, the race course has been moved to a new nine-turn, 1.7-mile downtown layout that will be the centerpiece of an event weekend that is designed to promote a festival and community atmosphere.

There will be concerts in the adjacent Hart Plaza. Local businesses from Detroit’s seven districts have been invited to hawk their wares to new clientele. Boys and Girls Clubs from the city have designed murals that will line the track’s walls with images of diversity, inclusion and what Detroit means through the eyes of youth.

And in the biggest show of altruism, more than half the circuit will be open for free admission. The track is building 4-foot viewing platforms that can hold 150 people for watching the long Jefferson Avenue straightaway and other sections of the track.

Detroit GP chairman Bud Denker, a longtime key lieutenant across Penske’s various companies, has overseen more than $20 million invested in infrastructure.

The race is essentially Penske’s love letter to the city where he made much of his fame as one of Detroit’s most famous automotive icons, both as a captain of industry with a global dealership network and as a racing magnate (who just won his record 19th Indy 500 with Josef Newgarden breaking through for his first victory on the Brickyard oval).

During six decades in racing, Penske, 86, also has run many racetracks (most notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway but also speedways in Michigan, California and Pennsylvania), and much of that expertise has been applied in Detroit.

“And then the ability for us to reach out to our sponsor base, and then the business community, which Bud is tied in with the key executives in the city of Detroit, bringing them all together,” Penske said. “It makes a big difference.

“The Super Bowl is really about the people that fly in for the Super Bowl. It’s a big corporate event, and the tickets are expensive. And the TV is obviously the best in the world. What we’ve done is taken that same playbook but made it important to everyone in Detroit. Anyone that wants to can come to the race for free, can stand on a platform or they can buy a ticket and sit in the grandstands or be in a suite. It’s really multiple choice, but it is giving it to the city of Detroit. I think it’s important when you think of these big cities across the country today that are having a lot of these issues.”

Denker said the Detroit Grand Prix is hoping for “an amazingly attended event” but is unsure of crowd estimates with much of the track offering free viewing. The race easily could handle a crowd of at least 50,000 daily (which is what the Movement Music Festival draws in Hart Plaza) and probably tens of thousands more in a sprawling track footprint along the city’s riverwalk.

Penske is hoping for a larger crowd than Belle Isle, which was limited to about 30,000 fans daily because of off-site parking and restricted fan access at a track that was located in a public park.

The downtown course will have some unique features, including a “split” pit lane on an all-new concrete (part of $15 million spent on resurfaced roads, new barriers and catchfencing … as well as 252 manhole covers that were welded down).

A $5 million, 80,000-square-foot hospitality chalet will be located adjacent to the paddock and pit area. The two-story structure, which was imported from the 16th hole of the Waste Management Open in Phoenix, will offer 70 chalets (up from 23 suites at Belle Isle last year). It was built by InProduction, the same company that installed the popular HyVee-branded grandstands and suites at Iowa Speedway last year.

Penske said the state, city, county and General Motors each owned parts of the track, and their cooperation was needed to move streetlights and in changing apexes of corners. Denker has spent the past 18 months meeting with city council members who represent Detroit’s seven districts, along with Mayor Mike Duggan. Penske said the local support could include an appearance by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Witmer.

Denker and Detroit GP  president Michael Montri were inspired to move the Detroit course downtown after attending the inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee.

“We saw what an impact it made on that city in August of 2021 and we came back from there and said boy could it ever work to bring it downtown in Detroit again,” Denker said. “We’ve really involved the whole community of Detroit, and the idea of bringing our city together is what the mayor and city council and our governor are so excited about. The dream we have is now coming to fruition.

“When you see the infrastructure downtown and the bridges over the roads we’ve built and the graphics, and everything is centered around the Renaissance Center as your backdrop, it’s just amazing.”