Uncertainty awaits INDYCAR championship contenders at Laguna Seca

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As one of only two races on the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule that pays double points, the season’s final race has often been referred to as a “Wild Card.” But in reality, the real “Wild Card” aspect of the September 22 race at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca is just five drivers have ever raced on the 11-turn 2.258-mile road course located a short drive from the Monterey Peninsula on the California coast.

Championship contender Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport has raced there before, but that was way back in the Skip Barber Racing days. Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Hunter-Reay have competed on the track in Indy cars during the CART/Champ Car Series days. Simon Pagenaud has raced sports cars at Laguna Seca from 2008-2010 including wins from the pole in 2009 and 2010 but has never raced an Indy car on this course.

This year’s championship race will wrap up on a track that is essentially the great unknown to many battling it out for the title.

“Obviously we’re going into next weekend with a lot of unknowns in the fact that most drivers haven’t raced at Laguna Seca before,” Rossi said Wednesday. “It’s been a long time since IndyCars were racing there. The test that we had in February was fairly inconclusive just due to weather and the time of year that we were there.

“It’s a blank slate for everyone. I think that’s exciting. It will definitely reward the team and the drivers that come to grips with everything the quickest. It will probably reward them in a championship.”

Team Penske driver and 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden has a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi with one race remaining. Pagenaud is just one point behind Rossi.

Dixon is 85 points out but would need a lot to happen for him to win his sixth career IndyCar Series championship.

When asked to pick out the passing zones around Laguna Seca, Rossi admitted he won’t know that until hitting the track next weekend.

There is a full day of testing next Thursday. Practice for the race will begin the following day with knockout qualifications set for Saturday, September 21 and the race on Sunday, September 22.

“I have no idea about passing zones because obviously in a test the main goal is to stay as far away from other cars as possible,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “In terms of the challenging parts of it, I think it’s a very low-grip surface. It’s one of those tracks where you’re going to see the cars sliding around a lot, guys working the wheel. There are dirt runoffs, drop wheels, throw dust on the track, that sort of thing. From that standpoint it’s pretty tricky.

“The race-ability of it, I couldn’t tell you. The obvious answer would probably be turn two, the braking zone there. But it’s a pretty narrow corner, so I don’t know unfortunately. I’ll let you know on Saturday.”

In the past, Laguna Seca has been a very difficult track for drivers in terms of passing. If that holds true next week, qualifications could be one of the most tense and pressure-packed sessions of the season.

“I think that’s a very fair statement,” Rossi admitted. “I’ve been saying for a while this championship very well could be decided in qualifying at Laguna. It’s no secret that we’re expecting it to be a challenging race to pass just because of its history.

“It’s 100 percent going to be a critical qualifying session that you’re going to have to be inch perfect and nail it through all three rounds. The guy that’s on pole, if he’s one of the guys that are in the championship fight, it’s going to make their job to win the thing a whole lot easier.”

Rossi admits he doesn’t have much experience actually racing at Laguna Seca, but it is the track where he fell in love with the sport. He used to attend races with his father, Pieter, when he was just a small child.

“That was my first introduction to motorsports when I was three years old,” Rossi said. “My father took me for seven consecutive years after that. That was kind of our father-son trip. It was only a three-and-a-half-hour commute from where I grew up.

“As much as Sonoma was claimed as my home track, it’s just because of its proximity to my hometown. Laguna is much more a place where I kind of cut my teeth in Skip Barber. I had my real first race experience in a race car there.

“I have a lot of laps there, albeit in a car that’s pretty incomparable to what I’ll be driving here in two weeks. Nonetheless, it’s going to be a huge weekend for me in terms of local support, family that comes out. It’s always really exciting. I’m fortunate to have two races in the state of California.”

Rossi admits, some of his memories as a 3- and 4-year-old are quite foggy, but the weekends with his father sparked his career path.

“I was there when Alex Zanardi’s pass happened,” Rossi said of 1996 when he passed race-leader Bryan Herta down the hill out of the “Corkscrew” heading to the checkered flag. “I don’t think I remember it as a three- or four-year-old. What stands out is that’s where I fell in love with just auto racing and cars. The sound and the smell, I mean, back then, they were running methanol fuel obviously. There was a very distinct smell to that. Being a kid, being able to walk through the paddock and everything. I had hats in my room for a really long time that were signed by Chip Ganassi and Max Papis.

“It’s cool that it’s kind of come full circle. It’s my introduction to racing, what really made me fall in love with the sport. It’s a place where I’m coming back to 20 plus years later, kind of racing in the same series that introduced me to the sport.

“There are a lot of neat parallels there.”

Rossi has gained fame by putting his racing machine in areas other drivers fear to tread. He can make passes in areas that previously were “no passing zones.”

One way or another, though, at Laguna Seca, Rossi will probably put on one heck of a show.

“That’s the plan,” he said. “Josef has had a sensational year. Unfortunately, that’s been a little bit better than ours. However, we have the full intention of taking that away from him in the last race, just like old Scott did to JPM (Juan Pablo Montoya) in 2015.”

Australia SuperCar Champion gets IndyCar Test at Team Penske

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Scott McLaughlin’s latest reward for winning the 2019 Virgin Australia SuperCar championship is an INDYCAR test at Team Penske.

“Scott has been incredibly successful for DJR Team Penske over the last three seasons and he has become a true champion of our sport,” said team owner Roger Penske, who will become the owner of INDYCAR, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indianapolis 500 in early January. “He certainly embraces new challenges and we think this is a great opportunity to utilize the IndyCar Series rookie testing program so Scott can experience what it is like to get behind the wheel of one of our Indy cars.”

McLaughlin, who has scored back-to-back Virgin Australia Supercars Champion for DJR Team Penske (DJRTP), will participate in an INDYCAR Rookie Evaluation test at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. on Monday, January 13.

“I am always open to new challenges and I’m thankful to Team Penske for providing this opportunity to test an Indy car,” said McLaughlin, who established a new Supercars single season record with 18 victories this past season. “We had an amazing year in 2019 and I’m looking forward to defending our Supercars championship next season. I’m also excited to grow as a driver and being with Team Penske creates cool opportunities to try something new. Although I have spent a few hours in a simulator earlier this year, it’s going to be a blast to see what one really feels like at a place like Sebring.”

McLaughlin joined DJR Team Penske in 2017 as one of the brightest stars in Supercars. He has produced 35 victories and 44 pole positions over the last three seasons while helping DJRTP claim team championships in 2017 and 2019, the driver’s title each of the last two seasons and the legendary Bathurst 1000 race in October, along with co-driver Alex Premat.

McLaughlin will defend his Supercars title for DJRTP in 2020 in the No. 17 Shell V-Power Ford Mustang.  He will build on his already successful racing career by driving a full-sized open-wheel car for the first time.

Team Penske enjoyed another successful IndyCar Series season in 2019. The team earned its record 18th Indianapolis 500 victory as Simon Pagenaud captured the checkered flag in May, while Josef Newgarden won his second series title in three years and the team’s 16th INDYCAR Championship. Team Penske will once again compete with three full-season entries in 2020, featuring series champion drivers Newgarden, Pagenaud and Will Power.

Team Penske is one of the most successful teams in the history of professional sports. Cars owned and prepared by Team Penske have produced more than 540 major race wins, over 620 pole positions and 37 Championships across open-wheel, stock car and sports car racing competition. Over the course of its 53-year history, the team has also earned 18 Indianapolis 500 victories, two Daytona 500 Championships, a Formula 1 win, overall victories in the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring along with a win in Australia’s legendary Bathurst 1000 race. Team Penske currently competes in the IndyCar Series, the NASCAR Cup Series, the NASCAR Xfinity Series and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The team also races in the Virgin Australia SuperCars Championship, in a partnership with Dick Johnson Racing, as DJR Team Penske.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500