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Here’s What Drivers are Saying about this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway

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Here’s what drivers are saying about this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet): “Having a few weeks off before we really get going back into the championship hunt was great. I was able to visit the Hole in the Wall Camp with SeriousFun (Children’s Network) and had a lot of fun with some really great kids. I also spent time with family and friends as well, which was refreshing. But now, it’s time to shift gears back to focus on defending the championship for the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet. Pocono is a difficult track and, with a lot of really strong competition, it’s not an easy place to win. Team Penske tends to perform strong there and I know we have all the right people in place to give us the best car possible to make a run for the win. Every lap really counts between now and the end of the season. We need to be consistent and not make mistakes.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Very excited to be racing at Pocono Raceway this weekend. The test last week was very productive, but we still have some areas to improve. Such a different and tricky track to drive, but I like it. It will be a great weekend and I’m looking forward to meeting all of the ABC Supply family over there. Hopefully, we’re gonna have a great race and bring them a great result.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Well, the last 500-mile race we had (Indianapolis 500) didn’t go so well for us, so it can really only go up this weekend at Pocono. I kid, I kid. Obviously with what happened in May (not qualifying for the race), we’re keen to get to another 500-mile race and prove that that was a fluke, and we can run at the front. We had a productive test here last week with Robbie (Wickens). I’m anxious to get on track with the new kit here. Hopefully, we can put on a great show for the fans like we’ve managed to do for the last few years and try to get the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda into victory lane.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I’m really excited for Pocono. I think it’s going to be another brand-new experience. Everything I’ve learned on an oval so far this year is almost out the window because it’s not an oval, it’s a triangle! My mindset doesn’t change like it hasn’t for any other oval so far this year, so I’m hopeful we can be running competitively at the end and find ourselves somewhere inside the top 10. I think anytime we can leave an INDYCAR oval race with a top-10 finish is a pretty good day, so that’s going to be the goal for the Lucas Oil crew. We tested there last week, and it definitely helped me a lot. We learned a lot about the car, and hopefully, we can hit the ground running this weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Pocono is a great track and one I think everyone looks forward to on the INDYCAR schedule each year. It’s definitely the ‘Tricky Triangle’ with the level of difficulty. It takes a lot of compromise to get through Turns 1 and 3 the right way. I expect it to be pretty close to the style of racing we had last year. I was a big fan of the racing there and the really good cars stayed at the front and could work through traffic. A few years ago, I think it was too close to pack racing and almost anyone could win, but they really have the package nailed down right now, which should make for an exciting race. Hopefully, the PNC Bank car will be there at the end when it counts.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “This is one of the toughest oval-style tracks you’re ever going to encounter. It’s the ‘Tricky Triangle’ so that really sums it up. I think there’s going to be a lot of talk about balance this weekend. As far as how the race strategy plays out, it’s anyone’s guess right now – we’ll have to wait and see if yellows play a big part or if we’re clean and fast. Two off weekends seem like an eternity to be away from the track. I’m looking forward to going back for 500 miles on Sunday in the NTT DATA car.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I’m definitely ready to race this weekend at Pocono. It was awesome to spend time with my family this past weekend, but I’m ready to get back on track. We learned a few things at the Indianapolis tire test (on Aug. 6) and I’m really excited to apply those to the race at Pocono in the No. 12 Verizon Chevy. The last two times we’ve raced there, we’ve had a really strong performance, but with three very different turns, it’s always a challenge to race there. Everyone is hungry for wins at this point in the season. Being in the championship hunt, we need a really strong run there to keep running toward the championship and we’re ready to do just that.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “They don’t call it the “Tricky Triangle” for nothing. Pocono is a very unique oval with three corners instead of four and all of them are different from each other. I remember the first time I tested there when I looked down that wide frontstretch going into Turn 1, I thought, ‘That was crazy.’ And it is, but it’s also a crazy fun track to drive. There is always a bit of compromise when setting up the car because the turns are so different, but when you get it right, it’s a blast. We tested there last week focusing on the 500-mile race and I believe we still have some work to do when we start running on Saturday. I’m looking forward to it, especially because the title sponsor is ABC Supply and we’ll have a ton of supporters there. I’ve always run up front at Pocono but for some reason or other didn’t get the result I expected at the end. It is time to change that.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Bobby Rahal Automotive Group Honda ): “Our season has been pretty good in many ways. We’ve had a lot of top-10s and a lot of consistency, but clearly it hasn’t been a great season because we haven’t won, and we are disappointed in that, but we have four races left to get that done. I think we can be very strong in Pocono. We led there a bit last year, so I think we should be pretty decent. We came up short last year at Pocono last year, so we would like to do better this year. With the new aero kit, I think we found some things since Indy that will help improve our performance. We had a good race car at Indy, but I definitely think we have learned a lot from an aerodynamic standpoint. I expect to be more competitive. I expect to have a faster car. If you get the balance right, anyone can run well there. Hopefully, we will make that happen. Pocono is always a competitive race. With the long straightaways, there is always tons of passing. The restarts are absolutely nuts. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. This new car is going to accelerate really well in the draft. I’m excited to get there. It’s a beautiful part of the world; it’s a great racetrack and a great challenge for us. I think we will have a lot of fun. Five-hundred-mile races take a lot of patience. We’ve won one before. You have to understand how it all plays out. We will go there, work hard and make sure we have a good, solid day.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda ): “Pocono is a very unusual oval. It has some very unique characteristics, which is, of course, why it’s called the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ We have qualified the No. 18 SealMaster Honda pretty well on ovals this year. We also tested at Pocono last week. I had a little time in the car, but Pietro (Fittipaldi) did most of the work. Track conditions always change, so we won’t know for sure where we are until we get there. Hopefully, we will unload strong because we only have the one practice session before qualifying. It’s a 500-mile race, so qualifying is not as important as at some other tracks, but it is always better to be at the front of the grid. We are closing in on the end of the season and I know the whole team is working hard to finish the season strong.”

PIETRO FITTIPALDI (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “I had the opportunity to test at Pocono Raceway last week and it went really well. It was my first full day driving on a superspeedway. It’s definitely a different experience compared to a short oval. You’re doing much higher speeds down the straight and it’s a different aero package as well, so it was a new experience for me. It was also a fun track to drive on, but I now understand why they call it the ‘Tricky Triangle.’ It’s definitely tricky! Every corner is different, the banking is different, the turning angle. It’s very hard to find the perfect balance. I’ve always loved superspeedway racing so I’m looking forward to the race weekend in my No. 19 Paysafe car.”

ED CARPENTER (No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I am always excited to get back to Pocono. It is such a unique track which makes for a fun challenge. The fact that it is a 500-mile race is something that I look forward to as well!”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “I’ve never driven at Pocono before, so it’ll be important to hit the ground running and have a good first practice session. Luckily, I have a very experienced team and teammate to help me prepare for the weekend. The ECR cars were really fast at Indy so hopefully, some of what we learned there can carry over to this 2.5-mile oval as well.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Shell/Chevrolet-Marketplace Team Penske Chevrolet):“We had a bit of a summer break, so I went to France and saw my family, which was great. I trained by riding my bike with my physical trainer on some beautiful roads around my hometown. I feel very energized going into the race weekend at Pocono. I am very proud and excited to be carrying some new colors for this race. Look for the white and gold No. 22 Shell/Chevrolet-Marketplace car this weekend. The team has been hard at work and preparing a strong car for this weekend. They aren’t kidding when they call it the ‘Tricky Triangle,’ since all three corners have a very different radius and banking. The last four races are going to be intense.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Even though I’m sure we all enjoyed the break and the time to recharge, two weekends away from the racetrack feels like an eternity! Luckily, we have 500 miles to look forward to this Sunday at Pocono Raceway. It definitely lives up to its nickname. It can be tricky, but I’ve also had a lot of great moments here. It will be a challenge coming into the race weekend without any prior testing, but I have full confidence that the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet will be quick right out of the gate. Pocono is always a special race for both myself and my partner, Novo Nordisk, with their headquarters only a few hours away, and this year is no different as we celebrate the 10th year of our program together. I’m looking forward to making a stop at their headquarters before the weekend starts and hopefully putting on a great show for the many Novo Nordisk employees coming out to support on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group 1001 Honda): “After a really strong test at Pocono Raceway last Thursday, I’m really excited for the race weekend to get here. We’ve had great speed on the ovals this season and I feel like we can put together a good weekend in the Group 1001 car. It’s a 500-mile race, so patience is going to be important.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We are coming off of a strong weekend at Mid-Ohio and feel that we’ve got a bit of our momentum back. With that being said, every race is a critical situation for us in terms of needing big results. We welcome the challenge in Pocono this weekend – one of my absolute favorite tracks. I cannot wait to get back at it.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We’re all really looking forward to getting back to Pocono. The DHL team has consistently had a strong car here – running at the front and winning in 2015 – so as a team we’re quite optimistic. Hopefully, we can get this (No.) 28 Honda in victory lane for the second time this year.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “(About winning pole in 2017:) “I knew we could be competitive, but it was a little hard to know how much I could commit as I just saw my sister car (Ryan Hunter-Reay) lose control and hit a wall heavily just before my run. So, we adjusted the wings accordingly and went out. It was then a little too conservative in terms of balance and I had to run wide at the exit of Turn 1 but I kept on power and got on pole. That was a really great feeling and big satisfaction. With the universal aero kit, we can achieve a similar downforce level in superspeedway trim as we saw at the Indy 500, so we can have similar handling. But to go fast, we need to reduce the drag and that means we will lose a huge amount of downforce. So, it will be quite challenging, but I expect we will be competitive. In the Indy 500, we experienced it is extremely tough to follow or get close to the car in front, so Pocono will be more challenging than previous years. The tow effect seems big and it is a long fast straight at Pocono, so it could be interesting. Sure, it helps in any circumstances to have experience. A 500-mile race is a long one, so your physical and mental condition has to be strong and it’s important to work with your team very closely as there are so many pit stops as well. I am ready to compete competitively at another 500-mile race so I’m really looking forward to the weekend. However, it’s a great feeling that our speed and competitiveness is getting better and stronger in the second half of the season, so we just need to concentrate on our job and keep positive about what we are heading to and we just need to perform well. The results will come.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It’s been great for both myself and the whole Carlin team to have a couple of weekends off to refocus after how tough our Mid-Ohio race weekend ended, but now I’m ready to get the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet back on track at Pocono Raceway. I enjoy racing at Pocono and how challenging the track can be with every corner being so different. It’s usually a very busy race and you’re constantly adjusting your tools to get the car to where you need it to be as the race progresses. Obviously, it’s always good to start up front, but at a race like Pocono it’s more about race tactics and being confident so that you can make the passes you need to make when you need to make them. Even though we haven’t tested as a new team at Pocono, I’m feeling good heading into this race weekend.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I’m looking forward to the home race at Pocono. It should be a wild one with the restarts, so the fans will be in for a good show. It will be interesting to see how the new aero (kit) is here. This weekend is definitely a big one for us – the U.S. Concrete team has a lot of my hometown support.”

Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

NHRA: How this weekend’s championship battles shape up

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After nine months and 23 races, the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season all comes down to this: one race for the championship.

This weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, California will crown champions in a number of classes, most notably the four professional ranks of Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

This weekend’s race is one of only two – the other is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend – that offers drivers 1.5 times as many points as they earn in the season’s other 22 races.

To give you a better idea of how valuable those extra points are, here’s how they break down for all four classes: Winner (150 points), runner-up (120 points), third-round loser (90), second-round loser (60) and first-round loser (30 points).

Drivers also earn qualifying points: 10 for first, 9 for second, 8 for third, 7 for fourth, 6 for fifth and sixth, 5 for seventh and eighth, 4 for ninth through 12th and 3 for 13th through 16th.

In addition, every driver that qualifies earns 15 points each. Plus, performance bonus points are awarded for each qualifying session for: low elapsed time of each session (4 points), second-quickest (3 points), third-quickest (2 points) and fourth-quickest (1 point).

Here’s a quick breakdown of what – and more importantly, who – to watch for in those four pro categories:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence is going for his second consecutive championship. But the route to this year’s title has not been nearly as easy as it was last year, when Torrence became the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

Torrence has still had a very strong season, but his championship hopes are anything but secure. He leads 2017 champion Brittany Force, who has come on strong late in the season, by a mere 16 points coming into this weekend.

And don’t count out third-ranked Doug Kalitta, who at 55 points behind Torrence is less than two rounds of points away from taking the top spot if Torrence is upset. Kalitta is seeking his first career Top Fuel championship.

Mathematically at 86 points behind, even fourth-ranked Billy Torrence – Steve’s father – is still in contention, although it would take a complete first- or second-round meltdown in Sunday’s four final rounds of eliminations by his son, Force and Kalitta for dear old dad to rally to win the championship.

Still, that’s the beauty of NHRA racing: anything can happen.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight is aiming for his third championship but has some of the best in the class all still within striking distance heading into this weekend.

Robert Hight (Photo: NHRA)

Hight, who is president of John Force Racing when he isn’t hurtling down a drag strip in his AAA Auto Club Chevrolet Camaro, leads a pair of Don Schumacher Racing drivers, Jack Beckman (46 points behind Hight) and Matt Hagan (-56).

And don’t rule out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who is 72 points behind his teammate. Force needs to win the race, as well as have Hight, Beckman and Hagan all lose in the first two rounds, to potentially earn his 17th championship.

Still in it mathematically is Bob Tasca III, but at 104 points behind Hight, he would likely have to be No. 1 qualifier, set both ends of the speed and elapsed time national records, and have the four drivers in front of him all be eliminated in the first or second rounds.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders has a very healthy lead in her quest for a third Pro Stock championship.

Erica Enders (Photo: NHRA)

Enders leads teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 92 points heading into this weekend.

Three other drivers are mathematically still in the running, but if Enders gets past the second round, they’ll be eliminated unless they potentially go on to victory.

Those three drivers – who are separated by just five points – are 2017 champion Bo Butner (113 points behind Enders), Jason Line (-116) and Matt Hartford (-118).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: About the only way Andrew Hines fails to clinch his sixth career PSM championship is if he fails to qualify for Sunday’s finals, is kidnapped by one of his rivals or simply doesn’t show up.

Andrew Hines (Photo: NHRA)

Fat chance of any of those things happening.

Hines has a commanding 115-point lead over 2016 champion Jerry Savoie.

Right behind is three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-116 points), leads last year’s PSM champion, Matt Smith, by 117 points and has a 124-point edge over Karen Stoffer.

Follow @JerryBonkowski