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Column: Could Alonso’s win at Le Mans be final check box before coming to IndyCar?

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By being part of the winning premier team in this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, Fernando Alonso not only made a statement, he also potentially ratcheted up predictions about his future.

His Le Mans win adds to two previous Formula One championships and two wins at Monaco. Sure, he competed in the 2017 Indianapolis 500, but fell short of taking the checkered flag.

And with so many rumors already in the web-o-sphere that Alonso and McLaren will be moving to the Verizon IndyCar Series next season, Sunday’s Le Mans triumph only furthered the likelihood that he will soon put places like Monaco, Melbourne, Shanghai, Singapore, Spa, Suzuka and Abu Dhabi in his rearview mirror for good.

Next likely destination in 2019: places like Indy (again), Texas, Sonoma, St. Petersburg, Long Beach and Toronto straight ahead for the soon-to-be (July 29) 37-year-old Spaniard.

If Alonso does make the move to IndyCar, it would not be for publicity or glory. Rather, it’d be about competition. After winning the F1 crown twice, and now having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, there’s not a whole lot new for Alonso to accomplish.

With the exception of within IndyCar, that is.

Coming up short at Indianapolis in last year’s 500 likely still gnaws at him. He also took part earlier this year in his first-ever Rolex 24 At Daytona.

What better way to do something he has never done than to win an IndyCar championship, as well as an Indy 500 victory and potentially adding a Rolex 24 to his triumph at Le Mans.

He’d also have the potential of joining a very elite class of drivers that have won both the F1 and IndyCar titles, including Nigel Mansell, Emerson Fittipaldi, Jacques Villeneuve and Mario Andretti.

Up until the time Alonso won Le Mans, it was anyone’s guess if he would come back to the U.S. to take on the best in the IndyCar Series.

But now, he has everything to gain and essentially nothing to lose. Officials with McLaren, the team he drives for in F1, have hinted just as strongly as Alonso has that it will also come to IndyCar in the near future, perhaps as early as 2019.

What’s more, McLaren’s boss, Zak Brown, founded the former Just Marketing Inc., one of the premier motorsports marketing firms (acquired in 2013 by Chime Communications Limited), that is still based in Indianapolis and has a number of IndyCar drivers and sponsors as clients.

Brown has just as much incentive to return to Indy and the IndyCar Series as Alonso. Brown is the money man and Alonso is the guy behind the wheel.

It’s a marriage that makes total sense for everyone involved.

And if it does happen, everyone also becomes a winner, including Brown, Alonso, IndyCar and particularly IndyCar fans. How many of the latter would love to see Alonso compete in IndyCar on a regular basis against the likes of defending Indy 500 winner Will Power, defending IndyCar champ Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Alexander Rossi, James Hinchcliffe and so many more of today’s stars in the sanctioning body.

Even though his F1 championships came in 2005 and 2006, Alonso showed last year in the 500 that he still has plenty of talent left in his gas tank. And, to a point, he may be more suited for IndyCar racing than he still is in F1.

You could also make an argument that after 298 races, 32 wins and 97 podium finishes, maybe Alonso has grown tired of the F1 grind. Why else would he want to try his hand at Indy last year, the Rolex in Daytona this year, as well as this past weekend’s first-ever effort at Le Mans?

He welcomes new things, things he has never done before. Ergo, IndyCar is right in his wheelhouse, so to speak.

Up to this point, Alonso has been rather coy about whether he would consider coming full-time to IndyCar. He’s alluded to when the time and timing MIGHT be right.

He’s also said he still has a commitment to McLaren in F1 – at least through the remainder of this season.

But that’s not a guarantee by any means.

Yet with the win at Le Mans, the needle may have finally moved a few notches closer for Alonso coming to IndyCar, Indy and the like. He may have checked off the final check box he needed to before making a career change.

Let’s put yourself in Alonso’s place and think about this: If you’ve done everything there is to be done, you’re racing for a F1 team that is a mediocre seventh and nearly 100 points out of first place in the standings still with nearly two-thirds of the season remaining, and you haven’t won an F1 race in more than five years (2013), wouldn’t you be primed for a change?

Do you stay the course and hope and pray that a miracle will turn things around (likely won’t happen this year), or do you finish the F1 season and move on to what could be a promising second career overseas?

The choice is fairly obvious.

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Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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