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Will Power: Mr. IndyCar Grand Prix

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INDIANAPOLIS – In 1970, famed innovator and marketing genius Andy Granatelli wrote a book entitled, “They Call Me, Mr. 500.” He was the genius behind the famed STP Turbine and prior to that, the thunderous Novi engine. Granatelli was the winning car owner for Mario Andretti when he won his only Indianapolis 500 in 1969.

Fifty years later, maybe they should call Team Penske’s Will Power “Mr. IndyCar Grand Prix.”

There are only two drivers who have won the 85-lap race on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Simon Pagenaud won the inaugural IndyCar Grand Prix in 2014 for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and again in 2016 with Team Penske. Power has won the IndyCar Grand Prix three times, including the past two years from the pole.

“I love the track,” Power told NBC Sports.com. “It’s probably my favorite road course in the whole series. It’s so fun. It’s very technical. It’s nice. It’s smooth. It’s fun, fun.

“I like it because of how smooth it is, and the style is very European. It’s a technical track where every complex rolls into the next. It’s right up my alley.”

Of his three wins in the IndyCar GP, Power said last year’s win was the most difficult because of fuel strategy. He had to save fuel while holding off a charging Scott Dixon.

“At that time, we were not getting very good fuel mileage, and I had to be very quick, hold off Scott Dixon and save a big, big number,” Power said. “I did both and was very exhausted after that race.

“That was tough.”

Watch the Indy 500 on May 26 on NBC

Starting on the pole in this particular race is important because the long front straight features a wide entrance to a tight, right-hand Turn 1. That turn becomes a funnel, and mayhem often ensues at the start of the IndyCar GP.

The pole winner can be ahead of the mayhem, and that can be the key to victory.

When it comes to keys to victory in the IndyCar GP, Power needs a very large key ring.

“You get those tracks that you just fall in love with since Day One,” Team Penske IndyCar general manager Kyle Moyer told NBCSports.com. “The second-best guy there is Simon Pagenaud, and they both drive for us.

“Everybody has a good track that they really love. Alexander Rossi has become the new ‘King of Long Beach’ where it used to be Al Unser, Jr. Will Power is the King of Indy GP. Scott Dixon was the King of Watkins Glen.

“It’s fallen where Will Power is the ‘King of the IndyCar Grand Prix.’ As long as it stays like that, he is comfortable there.”

There are many reasons why Power is so good at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. When he arrived at Team Penske, first as a fill-in for Helio Castroneves during his tax evasion trial in 2009 and then as a full-time driver beginning in 2010, Power has been IndyCar’s “King of the Road.”

Twenty-eight of Power’s 35 career IndyCar wins have come on road and street circuits.

Of those road courses, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course is his best.

INDYCAR Photo“He knows what he wants there typically, and it has worked for us in the past,” David Faustino, Power’s race engineer at Team Penske, told NBC Sports.com. “It is one of those tracks where he is certain where he thinks the car should be and the compromises that track holds. The fact it’s a short format weekend is good because he has usually been able to sort that out pretty quickly, especially last year with a new package.

“All of those things combined make it a track he has been successful at.”

With four wins in the five previous IndyCar GPs, combined with a record 17 wins in the Indianapolis 500, it’s fair to say that this is a “Penske track.”

“Last year as a team, we were pretty strong on the natural road courses, like Barber and the Indy Road Course,” Faustino said. “This year, it seems like everybody has caught up with us. The Honda teams have tested there, and the Chevy teams didn’t. It will be a lot more challenging this year.

“We need to keep our heads on straight and get there during qualifying.”

Because road courses are not as unpredictable as street courses, it’s harder to pass because drivers don’t make as many mistakes. That is one reason why on the natural terrain road courses, the driver who starts on the pole appears to have an advantage and can lead most of the laps.

“The car has a lower downforce level, so when you are in clean air, it’s easier to be fast and it is an equalizer in traffic,” Faustino explained. “The longer road courses, the leader doesn’t run into traffic as much. It is easier and that is what we hear on the longer tracks.

“The leader always has a target on their back, though. If you are the leader and have one or two guys that can hang on to you, you have a feeling you are not in as much control because the car behind you can save more fuel because they are sucked in hour two. You can’t make decisions based on who is behind you.”

In 2018, Power was both “Mr. IndyCar Grand Prix” and “Mr. Indy 500” as he became the first driver to win both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the same year.

“That was a great accomplishment, and it almost happened in 2015,” Power said. “I love superspeedways now. I love them, enjoy them and know what the car wants and feels. It’s a month I really look forward to.”

The only thing Power did not claim at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May was the pole for the Indy 500. That went to Ed Carpenter for the third time in his career.

Power started third and led 59 laps to win the Indy 500 for the first time in 11 starts.

“That was pretty amazing,” Faustino recalled. “It was a career highlight for him and for the whole team. We are going back there to do that again. It seems improbable, but we put the same effort into everything we do.

“If things pan out, it’s possible again. If Chevy brings the same power to the table, we can do it again.

“We’re going to go for it.”

The IndyCar Grand Prix is not the Indianapolis 500, but it’s still the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the “Month of May” and that makes it pretty cool.

Especially for Will Power.

“This month showcases what IndyCar is all about,” Power said. “It’s still very cool. I’m very glad this race is part of the ‘Month of May.’”

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.