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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.”

Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”