IndyCar

IndyCar: Top 5 storylines to watch for in 2019

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The start of the 2019 Indy Car Series is just over two months away, but already there are some major storylines developing that could bring significant attention to the series even before the first green flag falls March 10th in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Here’s the five top stories you should watch for in the new year from the premier open-wheel series in the U.S.:

1. New entitlement sponsor. Rumors have picked up in frequency over the last few weeks that a new entitlement sponsor will be named soon, perhaps as quickly as the next few days.

Verizon’s five-year deal as the series’ entitlement sponsor expired December 31.

While it will no longer be the series’ main sponsor, the cell phone giant will still remain involved in the sport, particularly in sponsoring 2018 Indianapolis 500 winner Will Power.

So who will the new sponsor be? That’s the multi-million dollar question.

With the time needed for marketing activation and other elements, teams are eagerly anticipating such as updating photographs (with the new series sponsor’s logo, of course), sewing the new sponsor’s logo on firesuits, and putting the new logo on each Indy car.

So, IndyCar fans, who do you think the new sponsor will be?

2. Will The Iceman cometh again? Scott Dixon moved into rare air in IndyCar history in 2018, becoming only the second driver to ever win five championships (A.J. Foyt holds the record with seven titles).

And even though Dixon was given a good fight in the last few races by Alexander Rossi, the plucky New Zealander could not be stopped from his date with destiny.

So what does Dixon do for an encore in 2019? Win the title again, that’s what. If he does so, that would make it his sixth IndyCar crown overall and fourth since the 2013 season.

While Dixon will have a new teammate in 2019 (Ed Jones has departed in favor of Felix Rosenqvist), it’s hard to pick against the five-time champ. Unless he struggles, particularly later in the season, it’s a good bet that Dixon could indeed win two in a row and six overall.

But struggling is one thing Dixon – a.k.a. The Iceman because of his cool demeanor while under the heat of pressure – rarely does. If anything, when the odds go against him, it only makes him stronger, much to the dismay of his fellow competitors.

They don’t want to give him any kind of an edge because they know how dangerous he is when it comes to winning races (44 thus far in his IndyCar career, third most behind Foyt’s 67 wins and Mario Andretti’s 52 wins) and championships.

3. Robert Wickens’ recovery and rehab. The Canadian driver, who was seriously injured in a crash August 19 at Pocono Raceway, has been an outstanding example of positivity and inspiration despite suffering several injuries, including a spinal cord injury that left him as a paraplegic.

Despite the long recovery and rehab he faces, Wickens is bound and determined to walk again, which says a lot about his character and personality.

Especially noteworthy is how Wickens shares so much of his post-accident private life on social media. That includes the way he first announced he was a paraplegic, as well as humorous videos such as getting a Christmas tree, or “racing” teammate, fellow Canadian and best friend James Hinchcliffe in wheelchairs around the Colorado rehab facility Wickens is currently receiving treatment at.

Wickens has unquestionably become one of the biggest inspirations not just in IndyCar racing and sports, but life in general. If anyone will be able to fight through the adversity and recover, Wickens can through sheer grit, determination and even a little humor thrown in.

4. Fernandomania (and possibly more) returns to Indy. Even though he disappointed many fans by announcing he won’t run the full 2019 IndyCar season, now-former Formula One driver Fernando Alonso already has folks looking forward to his return for his second Indianapolis 500 in the last three years.

Alonso will spend the rest of the season competing in some WEC races and pretty much anything else that suits his racing fancy.

But don’t be surprised if he does do a full-time IndyCar campaign in 2020. McLaren looks like it wants to go all-in to the series that season, in addition to its existing F1 program.

And right at the front of the pack – both for McLaren and what it hopes for the future – will be Alonso.

One related item to keep an eye on: Alonso may not be the only former Indy 500 one-timer to return to the fold.

Now that he’s racing in NASCAR Cup for Chip Ganassi Racing, don’t be surprised if Kurt Busch doesn’t give Indy a go for a second time in his own career (he finished an impressive sixth in his initial IndyCar foray back in 2014 – and then went on to drive in NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 later the same night, finishing 40th due to engine issues).

And as Nate Ryan noted in his Wednesday MotorSportsTalk story about Robby Gordon, the latter thought hard about returning to Indy for the 2018 500, but ultimately decided against it. But that doesn’t mean he’s completely ruled out 2019.

If he does race again in the 500, it would be the first time since the now 50-year-old Gordon has done so since 2004.

5. Hello COTA and Laguna Seca. The IndyCar Series will feature one new track to its ranks in 2019, as well as a return to an old friend after a 15-year absence.

Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, one of the premier road course tracks in the world, will play host to IndyCar for the first time ever over the March 22-24 weekend.

And then the series will return to an old friend, WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, for the 2019 season-ending race on the weekend of September 20-22.

COTA and Laguna Seca replace ISM Raceway in Phoenix and Sonoma Raceway on the schedule.

It should be interesting to see how fans respond and turn out for both races. One thing is for certain: the racing action will be out of this world at both places.

AND DON’T FORGET: NBC Sports is your exclusive IndyCar connection. The season-opening St. Petersburg Grand Prix marks the start of NBC Sports Group televising every IndyCar race through at least the 2021 season.

And for the first time in more than a half-century, the marquee Indianapolis 500 will be televised on a network other than ABC when NBC airs the Greatest Spectacle In Racing live on Sunday, May 26.

We have lots in store and planned for this season when it comes to our IndyCar coverage (and don’t forget IMSA, Supercross and more), as well as our NASCAR coverage.

So when it comes to motorsports, get your motor running with NBC, NBCSN, NBC Gold and the entire NBC Sports Group family.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”