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Full-time entries deserve guaranteed starting positions in Indy 500, owners say

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Three of open-wheel racing’s most prominent and powerful team owners have recently made public comments in support of full-time entries receiving guaranteed starting positions in the Indianapolis 500.

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and Michael Andretti, the three major team owners in the series who own a combined nine full-time entries and have won eight of the last ten Indy 500s, have all recently come out in support of the idea, stating that they believe that if a team is willing to spend the money and resources to compete full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, then it should be guaranteed a position in the event.

“I think a full-time team that starts day one and runs the full season and commits with the same driver, I think they have to have it [ a guaranteed starting position],” Penske said.

“I remember back in the days at Daytona, they’d come in with cars, and if you didn’t qualify, you’re spending $10,000 to give some backmarker to give up a spot. To me, it’s a whole different world. We don’t have 45-50 cars coming. I don’t think it’s a vote of the teams. I think the people who manage the series have to understand the impact. Some of the same people they’re calling on to support the TV package and other things, next week, their car doesn’t make the Indy 500. It’s a ricochet that goes across the whole season. I hope they understand that.”

When asked by reporters at the Grand Prix of Long Beach last weekend, Chip Ganassi stated he agreed with Penske.

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“He knows what it’s like not to be in that race,” Ganassi said. “Thank God I don’t know what that’s like. But obviously I agree with him. When you’re making a commitment all year for the series, a commitment is just that.”

Unlike NASCAR, which uses a charter system that promises a starting position in all 36 Cup Series events to teams that own a charter and show up to each event, INDYCAR does not have any system in place that guarantees starting positions in any race. The series does offer the ‘Leader’s Circle’ program, which promises a set amount of prize money to full-time entries. However, the program offers no promise of a spot on the grid in any race, with teams expected to make their way in on time.

Though DNQs are very rare in IndyCar racing outside of its biggest race, the Indianapolis 500 features a unique qualifying system that has seen many big-name drivers and teams miss the race over the years.

Indy’s qualifying system has seen various changes in recent years, but one tradition has always remained the same: Bumping. Unlike other events, Indy 500 qualifying allows drivers and teams who did not initially make a qualifying run fast enough to make the race to go out again and try to post a faster four-lap average speed.

Should a team post a time faster than the 33rd and final car on the grid, the said driver/car combination is “bumped” from the starting grid, and unless the bumped car goes out again to make an even faster run to make the field again, the whole team will generally find themselves watching the 500 from the stands.

This unique qualifying system adds an element of drama to race qualifications, and has resulted in several big-name drivers and teams failing to qualify for the biggest race of the year. In 1993, then-defending CART champion Bobby Rahal failed to make the field. Two years later, the Team Penske duo of two-time Indy champ Emerson Fittipaldi and defending race winner Al Unser, Jr. failed to make the field. Just last year, 2016 Indy polesitter James Hinchcliffe was bumped from the field.

Though Hinchcliffe’s sponsor, Arrow Technologies, responded to the situation with grace, the possibility of not making the 500 certainly keeps teams and sponsors on edge.

Michael Andretti recently cited 2011 qualifying in an interview Thursday with the Indianapolis Star as an example of a potential doomsday situation for a team and sponsor.

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With Andretti Autosport driver Ryan Hunter-Reay and sponsor DHL bumped from the field, Andretti quickly scrambled together a deal with A.J. Foyt Racing to buy out and place Hunter-Reay into and DHL logos onto one of Foyt’s entries, stating that DHL “probably wouldn’t be in the sport today” had RHR and DHL not took the green flag in the 2011 race.

With the three most successful owners in the series lobbying for the change in rules, one has to wonder how INDYCAR will respond. NBC Sports recently reached out to INDYCAR management, who stated that no changes will be made for 2019 qualifying and that no further comments would be made at this time.

Hulman and Co. CEO Mark Miles spoke with the Indianapolis Star Thursday to offer his thoughts on the issue:

“Look, If I’m a car owner, a full-time car owner, I make a significant investment in racing in the IndyCar Series, and the most important event of the year is the Indianapolis 500. So I’d want to know I’m going to be able to race in it — just like I know I’m going to be able to race at Long Beach or any other IndyCar event if I should turn up, if I’m a Leaders Circle team. I understand that. It’s not illogical.

“One of the reasons this event is what it is, is because it has a brand. It has traditions. It has a tradition that means something to fans. And we believe a big part of qualifying is the drama around the possibility that a car isn’t going to get in. Whatever car. We try to consider all the points of view and decide what we ought to do.”

Though the Indy 500 will not have not have guaranteed entries in 2019, the idea could become a reality sometime within the next few years, and it would not be the first time it had happened.

In 1996 and ‘97, the then-new Indy Racing League, headed by then-Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George, created the “25/8 rule” to discourage competitors from the rival CART series from cherry picking the 500 and not running other IRL events. Widely disliked by fans, the 25/8 rule promised starting positions for the top 25 teams in the IRL points standings, with the remaining eight starting positions open to any other competitors. The rule was discontinued after the 1997 season.

Not many IndyCar drivers have publicly expressed their opinions on the matter, but 2016 Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi recently expressed his take on the issue, stating to IndyCar.com that he understood both sides of the argument.

“From a selfish perspective, you’d like that security,” Rossi said, “but from a purist’s standpoint, I think there’s validity to bump day and the fans being able to witness that. It should probably stay the way it is.”

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Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.