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,” Ross 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.”

Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”