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Familiar faces, fond farewells and bumping headline Indy 500 lineup

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The throwback month is in full swing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Danica Patrick started tuning up for her final race on the historic 2.5-mile oval more than a week ago. Helio Castroneves has been peppered with questions about becoming the fourth four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500.

The seemingly indestructible A.J. Foyt came back less than two months after surviving a second bout with killer bees. Even real, live bumping should be on the qualifying weekend docket.

For race organizers it’s a dream script: Familiar faces, fond farewells and a return to traditions with a whole new look.

“The story line of Danica, the story line of bumping not just for the fast nine but to get into the entire field, gives us an opportunity to talk about what we love so much, that’s the activity on the racetrack as we lead into the Indianapolis 500,” track president Doug Boles said.

Even this year’s new-look cars have an old-fashioned flavor. They’re sleek, speedy and have been all the rage around Gasoline Alley and other tracks around the country where passing has become the norm.

When testing began at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in late April, IndyCar president of competition and operations Jay Frye noted the 1,284 total passes through IndyCar’s first four races was nearly double last season’s pace. In Saturday’s IndyCar Grand Prix, there were 214 more passes – the highest total since the 225 passes in 2014.

There were also nine lead changes in the race and a record-tying seven drivers actually led laps.

Not enough?

Speeds could be higher when practice begins Tuesday, too. If the weather cooperates, qualifying will take place Saturday and next Sunday and the race will be run May 27.

Longtime fan favorite Tony Kanaan got the new cars topping 226 mph on the first day of testing.

And it’s not just numbers that have people buzzing.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull believes the retro appearance has made it easier to explain how these cars work even to casual observers.

It’s all part of a plan.

“We wanted to get our identity back, what an IndyCar is supposed to look like,” Frye said. “A lot of input from the fans, a lot of input from the paddock, all the teams. We came up with what we did. We’re really proud of where we’re at with the car.”

But fans also like talking big names and they’re back, too.

The second and final part of Patrick’s farewell tour drew dozens of reporters to testing. She’s driving for Ed Carpenter Racing in the neon green Go Daddy car that made her an Indy sensation as a rookie in 2005.

So, fittingly, she intends to end her racing career at the same track.

During testing, Patrick took time to reflect on her earliest days in the series and started asking photographers along pit lane whether they were around for her first race.

She has six career top-10 finishes in seven Indy starts. Adding another might be her toughest act yet after spending six seasons in NASCAR. But if she can turn back the clock and recapture one last memorable result, it could be the perfect finish.

“I remember watching the Indy 500 the first year I wasn’t in it and I missed it. I remember that feeling,” she said.

“As time wore on I missed that relevancy of being in the game and being someone like before the race of `Who do you think is going to win today?’ My name did not pop up in NASCAR. Then that first Daytona 500 when I was on the pole, and other than that most of the races weren’t like that. I missed being relevant, so I’m going to try to be that here this month.”

The only thing bigger than Patrick’s return might be if Castroneves can reach victory lane in his second and last scheduled start on the series this season.

Helio Castroneves looks to win his fourth Indianapolis 500 in 2018. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m back!” the Brazilian said after turning his first laps in Team Penske’s No. 3 Chevrolet. “I’m excited to go out there and put on a great show for the fans there.”

Add 35 confirmed driver-car combinations attempting to qualify for the traditional 33-car starting grid and it’s no surprise why tickets are selling at a brisker pace than 2017.

It’s a month that has the potential to be even better than the good, old days.

“I think from first to 20th, the 21st car ran 220,” Frye said, referring to the early testing at Indy. “Again, it’s a real good group. I think this year’s field will be as strong as it’s been in a long time.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”