IndyCar 2018 grid starting to become significantly clearer (VIDEO)

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SONOMA, Calif. – The rumors are starting to turn into releases about the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series grid, as the 2017 season draws to a conclusion this weekend at the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma.

With the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit coming to teams and with teams going to be testing over the fall, following the completion of INDYCAR-run testing at Sebring on Sept. 26, it’s become significantly more important for teams to finalize their programs earlier than ever.

Here’s a look at how the grid is shaping up, in a Sonoma update (post-Mid-Ohio update here):

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Graham Rahal
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

New here in the last few weeks or so have been the quartet of young Americans, with Rossi (just before Watkins Glen), Pigot and Veach (just before Sonoma) all locked up. That means of the 13 officially confirmed driver/team combinations, nine of them are American drivers. Another new inclusion is Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, who will also have at least three races in IndyCar thanks to the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at $1 million.

Additionally, both Andretti Autosport and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have re-upped with Honda for multi-year agreements. The Andretti new contract with Honda put a stop to any potential other engine movement dominos.

On Friday at Sonoma, Honda Performance Development President Art St. Cyr confirmed as much when he said all five of its teams from 2017 are under contract for 2018. Contracts are staggered, he said, that all five teams will not be up for renewal simultaneously.

PROGRESSING, CLOSE, OR ALL BUT OFFICIALLY CONFIRMED 

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (1, Honda): James Hinchcliffe
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (1, Honda): Takuma Sato
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (1, Chevrolet), Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Ed Jones
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet), Gabby Chaves

Based on reports primarily from RACER and Motorsport.com as well as our own investigating over the last few weeks since our post-Mid-Ohio update, these entries seem close-ish if not outright official yet.

The plan has appeared to shift for Castroneves from his potential sports car shift for Penske’s Acura ARX-05 DPi program to a fourth Team Penske IndyCar after all (first reported from Motorsport.com here). While no formal announcement about his future will be made until after this weekend, Castroneves in a Penske IndyCar now seems a more viable possibility than it did for most of the summer – and may mean this won’t be his final bow as a full-time driver after all.

Hinchcliffe’s options to move away from SPM have seemed to close in recent weeks, and he realistically has nowhere else at a similar caliber top team he can go. As of mid-week no contract had yet been signed, but all signs point to a return here.

Meanwhile Sato will be jumping ship from Andretti to RLL – even though neither party can confirm it until after Sonoma – and Kanaan’s four-year run at Ganassi ends so he is set to become the veteran with Foyt, after their year with a pair of young guns.

Jones appears close to a renewal with Dale Coyne Racing and Coyne told NBC Sports in the paddock today that he is hoping to finalize the second car “within a couple weeks.” The Dubai-based Brit is known to have some funding, but will need to find enough to offset the loss of the Indy Lights championship scholarship, valued at $1 million from Mazda, he brought this year.

While Chaves and Harding are all-but-a-lock, there’s always a tinge of doubt with new programs. The team could theoretically add a second driver with budget as the team has two cars.

QUESTION MARKS 

  • Chip Ganassi Racing (seats 2 and/or 3)
  • Carlin (seats 1 and/or 2)
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (seat 2)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (seat 2)
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (seat 2, road/street courses)
  • Juncos Racing (seat 1)

Ganassi’s non-Dixon trio of Max Chilton, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball has been anticipated to leave over the last couple months. While RACER linked Porsche LMP1 driver Brendon Hartley to Ganassi’s second seat, eRacing365 reported on the same day that Hartley said he was looking at a Formula E seat. If the latter scenario developed, it’d leave Hartley in the same spot as Felix Rosenqvist, locked into a Formula E contract.

Chilton is expected to head to Carlin, the Trevor Carlin-run team which is owned by Chilton’s father Grahame. The identity of his teammate, provided Carlin enters into the series with two cars, is less clear. Kimball makes sense although his degree of budget with longtime partner Novo Nordisk could be reduced. Carlin could be in the frame for an Indianapolis shop if it steps up; the team’s Indy Lights operation is based in Delray Beach, Fla. And with Ed Carpenter Racing confirming it will be moving shops at year’s end, this provides a potential entry point for Carlin into Speedway if a deal is struck.

SPM co-owner Sam Schmidt has told multiple outlets a “short list” of some “28 drivers” are under consideration for his second seat. All the while, the team delivered a rather random third car announcement for next year’s Indianapolis 500, for French sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy with the Calmels Sport team. Drivers ranging from sports car veterans to Hinchcliffe’s Canadian countryman Robert Wickens to SPM’s 2016 Indy Lights driver, Santiago Urrutia, are among the contenders for the highly coveted seat.

Foyt is known to be evaluating both Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz for the second seat there, alongside at least one or two other young guns with recent IndyCar experience.

Quite who lands in Carpenter’s second seat for road and street course races is less clear. A reflective JR Hildebrand won’t be a candidate following Pigot’s promotion into the full-time No. 21 car.

Ricardo Juncos is set for anywhere from three to five races at the least as he steps up further beyond his pair of MRTI programs. Graduating with Kaiser would be a natural, but that’s not to say Kaiser might not be looking elsewhere – he is here at Sonoma and making the rounds this weekend.

DRIVERS LOOKING TO FIND A SEAT 

The list of 2017 drivers without a ride confirmed yet includes those already mentioned in the first few categories: Hildebrand, Daly, Munoz, Chilton, Kimball, and Jones.

Jack Harvey joined Veach in the “Indy Lights graduates making limited 2017 starts” club and worked to push through some issues that hampered his weekends. He’s known to be looking at a couple different team situations.

Then there’s Esteban Gutierrez and Sebastian Saavedra to consider. Gutierrez’s budget amount seems to vary depending on who you talk to, but if the series adds a Mexico City round, Gutierrez is a must-have for the field, certainly for that race and preferably the full season. Talk though that he might be with one of the top teams has cooled, and with Michael Andretti now unlikely to run a fifth car full-season beyond the Indianapolis 500, he may not wind up there as was possible.  Saavedra was his usual serviceable self in a handful of races with Juncos and SPM that put his name back on the map.

Recent veteran drivers that raced once or twice in 2017 include Oriol Servia, Sage Karam, Tristan Vautier and James Davison, but none seems to be on the real radar of a full-time seat. Servia’s development savvy – particularly given his work on the 2018 Dallara universal aero kit – and guidance to a young gun is once again being overlooked.

We ran through the Indy Lights contenders a week or so ago, with Urrutia and Zachary Claman DeMelo both making the most noise about their desire to graduate. Claman DeMelo makes his IndyCar debut at Sonoma in RLL Racing’s second car and wants to step up in 2018, although wouldn’t rule out an Indy Lights return. Meanwhile Urrutia and Matheus Leist are among the young guns here this weekend in a visiting role.

RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham have had the unfortunate distinction of impressing in limited 2016 starts but failing to secure a follow-up opportunity this year, although both have made sporadic appearances at races throughout the year, including Enerson here at Sonoma this weekend.

NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. Courtney Force; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Robert Hight; 6. Jack Beckman; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 8. Cruz Pedregon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jonnie Lindberg; 12. Shawn Langdon; 13. Jim Campbell; 14. Matt Hagan; 15. John Force; 16. Jeff Diehl.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

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