Drivers already thinking 2019 will be IndyCar’s ‘best year’

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AUSTIN, Texas — IndyCar heads into 2019 with everything going in the right direction.

The series has a new long-term sponsor in Japanese communications giant NTT. Tire manufacturer Firestone has extended its supplier deal for five more years. A new broadcast deal with NBC is set to launch. Every race will be on the networks on NBC, including the Indianapolis 500. Fans also can sign up for NBC Sports Gold, which offers live practices, qualifying, Indy Lights and more

On the track, an already deep driver pool keeps adding veteran and rookie talent. And the series has added a new stop in Texas while bringing back an old favorite in California. IndyCar has even been exploring a return to Australia and possibly adding another international event to the American open-wheel series.

For longtime driver and 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan of A.J. Foyt Racing, all signs point to a spectacular season that will open with Scott Dixon defending his fifth championship.

“Since I’ve been around … this is the best year I’ve ever seen,” Kanaan said Monday. “By a long shot.”

The 17-race season starts March 10 in St. Petersburg, Florida, before making its debut two weeks later at the Circuit of the Americas. The series was in Austin, Texas, for its preseason media day Monday, and for two days of testing on the 3.4 mile (5.5 kilometer) road course that was built for Formula One and has been hosting that series’ U.S. Grand Prix since 2012.

The contract with NTT settles the title sponsorship after two years of trying to replace Verizon, which pulled out after a five-year partnership. The new broadcast rights deal moves the crown jewel of the season, the Indianapolis 500, away from ABC for the first time in 53 years and puts the entire series on one network with a promise of more consistent and broader exposure.

The new deal puts eight races on NBC and the other nine on its cable sports network, NBCSN.

“I was climbing the ladder when this thing was falling apart,” said 2012 champion Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport. “(Now) there’s so much momentum in this sport: the class of competition, the caliber of teams, the support of sponsors. It’s pretty awesome to see this sport where it should be.”

The new race in Texas and the return to Laguna Seca in Monterrey, California, for the season finale gives IndyCar a taste for new fans and old. The Texas track had long coveted hosting IndyCar but had been frozen out by a geographic exclusivity clause the series had for years with Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

Circuit of the Americas President Bobby Epstein has vowed that his track will make a splashy debut for the March 24 race and has said he wants it to have the second-largest purse behind the Indianapolis 500, including a $100,000 bonus if the pole winner also wins the race.

This year’s Indianapolis 500 will be the 50th anniversary of Mario Andretti’s sole victory there. And it will see former Formula One champion Fernando Alonso return in his quest to claim auto racing’s Triple Crown of winning the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indy 500. Alonso made a strong bid to win in 2017 before a late-race engine failure.

Andretti’s son, Michael, failed to win in Indy, and grandson Marco Andretti said Friday a victory this year would be the perfect way to mark the anniversary.

“I want to win any Indy 500, but if there was one to pick, it would be this one,” Marco Andretti said. “I would cry.

IndyCar has a handful of drivers with Formula One experience and is adding more. Sweden’s Marcus Ericsson, who lost his seat at his old F1 Sauber team, joined Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Ericsson is already eyeing his first start at the Indy 500.

“I spoke with Alonso about it. He said, `You will love it, it’s an amazing experience,”‘ Ericsson said.

Carlin’s Max Chilton, who made the switch from F1 in 2015, predicted Ericsson will be fine on the road courses but will have to adjust to the ovals.

“It’s very daunting. F1 cornering speed is quicker. IndyCar (on ovals) is crazy fast and the walls are right there,” Chilton said. “He’ll be fine.”

Notes: Reigning Indy Lights champion Patricio O’Ward of Mexico said he had left new team Harding-Steinbrenner Racing and will be looking for a new seat for 2019. O’Ward didn’t give a reason but said the team had agreed to let him out of his contract. Teammate Colton Herta said he didn’t know why O’Ward left.

“The news came as a bit of shock to me. It’s tough. We pushed each other,” Herta said. “He’s a good driver. He’ll find something else.”

Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”