Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Toronto preview

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After only the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires was in action at Iowa Speedway, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda once again join Indy Lights to have all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy represented on the streets of Toronto.

Last year saw weekend sweeps in Indy Lights and USF2000 – Pro Mazda was not a part of the bill that weekend – as Kyle Kaiser put a stranglehold on the Indy Lights championship by winning both races that weekend, while Canada’s Parker Thompson thrilled the Canadian fans by winning both USF2000 races.

Indy Lights enters the weekend with the main title combatants separated by only eight points, while Pro Mazda sees 46 points between its top two drivers, and USF2000 has a whopping 94-point gap between first and second in their championship.

As such, Pro Mazda and USF2000 could see their championship leaders get closer to clinching before the season ends, while Indy Lights appears set to go down to the wire.

Talking points for all three series ahead of Toronto are below.

Indy Lights

  • Pato O’Ward’s pole and victory at Iowa Speedway, combined with leading the most laps, saw him cut Colton Herta’s lead to eight points. More importantly, it swung momentum back in his favor after Herta got on a hot streak – in the five races between May and June, Herta won four in a row (both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, the Freedom 100, and Race 1 at Road America) and finished second in the other (Race 2 at Road America). O’Ward is now even on wins with Herta – they have four apiece – and have distanced themselves from the rest of the field. The Indy Lights champion will likely be one of these two, and they both could end up in the Verizon IndyCar Series next year. The Andretti Autosport stablemates (O’Ward competes under the Andretti Autosport umbrella, while Herta is with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) are the prohibitive favorites entering Toronto.
  • Belardi Auto Racing’s Santi Urrutia and Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni rank third and fourth in the championship. While Urrutia may have expected to battle for an Indy Lights crown in 2018, he instead finds himself 49 points out of the lead and trying to fight off Franzoni for third. Franzoni, despite struggling at Iowa Speedway, has gotten stronger as the year has progressed, which culminated in his first career Indy Lights win in Race 2 at Road America. And while Urrutia had a strong run at Iowa – he finished third after battling with Herta the entire way for second, a battle that Herta eventually won – he has struggled at times since his win in Race 2 at St. Petersburg. Urrutia typically kicks things into gear in the second half of the season, and he’ll need to do so if he is to remain in the top three.
  • Last year, Canadian Zachary Claman De Melo finished second and third in the Toronto races, putting a Canadian driver on the podium in each one. This year, Andretti Autosport’s Dalton Kellett, a native of Stoufville, Ontario and the lone Canadian driver on the grid, will look to replicate that feat. Kellett has a podium this year (third, in the Freedom 100), and a podium at his home race is certainly doable.
  • Note: Indy Lights Race 2 will air on Sunday at 6:00 p.m. ET.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson leads Rinus VeeKay by 46 points entering Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson enters Toronto with a sizeable 46-point lead over Juncos Racing’s Rinus VeeKay. And what’s even more daunting is that Thompson increased his margin during what was an “off” weekend at Road America at the end of June – Thompson dropped as low as sixth in Race 1, and was even outside the top 10 in Race 2 (he made contact on Lap 1 with RP Motorsport’s Raul Guzman). But, he rebounded to finish fourth in each race, even finishing ahead of VeeKay and his Juncos teammate Carlos Cunha in each race. Certainly, VeeKay and Cunha are not out of the running, but they must (emphasis on the word “must”) start gaining ground on Thompson at Toronto. Otherwise, this will become Thompson’s championship to lose.
  • David Malukas enjoyed a breakthrough weekend at Road America, sweeping the weekend to take his first two Pro Mazda victories. And, even though he might be a little too far back to mount a serious title challenge (he trails Thompson by 58 points and would need a mistake from Thompson to gain significant ground), he is only 12 points behind VeeKay for second. Malukas could well get on a hot streak that could see him vault all the way to the runnerup spot, and if Thompson were to have trouble, the door would be open for Malukas to mount a possible challenge.
  • There were four race winners in USF2000 last year, and they all moved up to Pro Mazda in 2018. Two of them are Thompson and VeeKay, and they have had strong seasons obviously. The other two, however, could use a trip to victory lane. Oliver Askew carries the soul red livery as last year’s USF2000 champion, but a second place in Race 1 on the IMS Road Course is his only podium. And Robert Megennis, who opened the 2017 season by winning Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg, has only two podiums to his name in 2018 (a pair of third place efforts in Race 1 at St. Pete and at Lucas Oil Raceway). Victories and/or podiums in Toronto would do a lot to help them right the ship.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood is running away with the USF2000 championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With a staggering 94-point lead over Alex Baron, the USF2000 championship is Kyle Kirkwood’s to lose. He has five wins in total, including four in a row entering Toronto, and his worst finish is fifth in Race 2 at St. Pete, and the 94-point lead equates to over three races worth of points – he could literally sit out the weekend in Toronto and the first race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and still be in the championship lead. The former Team USA Scholarship winner is well on his way to securing another scholarship as the USF2000 champ, a Mazda driver development scholarship that would move him up to the Pro Mazda ranks next year. Rest assured, it would take something genuinely bizarre for Kirkwood to fall out of the championship lead in the final six races at this point.
  • Behind Kirkwood, the battle for second features a close battle between Swan-RJB Motorsports’ Alex Baron and the fast-charging Kaylen Frederick, of Pabst Racing Services. Baron started out strong, winning two of the first three races of 2018, but has since cooled – his last three finishes are 21st, seventh, and seventh. Conversely, Frederick has three straight second place finishes and is showing the impressive form he displayed last year. Both might need Kirkwood to falter if they are to challenge for a win, but if that happens, either of them could emerge as victors in Toronto…and a win would be a nice boon for them as they battle for second.

A full weekend schedule can be viewed here. Practice and qualifying begin on Friday, and each series races on Saturday (Race 1 for all three) and Sunday (Race 2 for all three).

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IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

IndyCar
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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things need to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Follow @JerryBonkowski