Life aboard the ‘Death Star’ is just fine for IndyCar points leader

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MONTEREY, Calif. – As a fan of “Star Wars,” Josef Newgarden naturally gets a kick out of how many detractors and haters in the NTT IndyCar fan base view his team.

“I don’t know how you turn down (car owner) Roger (Penske) and the opportunity with Team Penske, but it’s so interesting: These guys are like the Death Star,” Newgarden said with a laugh ahead of today’s season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “I’ve heard people call us that, too. They’re like too good that people hate us. You get another side of that, too, there’s a lot of people that love Team Penske for all the right reasons. But I kind of like that. It’s lonely at the top.”

With a record 18 Indianapolis 500 victories, 15 series championships and more than 200 victories, it’s no wonder that Penske is viewed as the New England Patriots or New York Yankees of the IndyCar circuit.

TODAY: IndyCar season finale at Laguna Seca, 2:30 p.m. ET, NBC

There’s a 50 percent chance that “The Captain” will add to his title total in today’s 2019 season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. Newgarden (who will start fourth today in pursuit of his second championship) has a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi, and Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud also is title eligible (along with Scott Dixon).

So if the Darth Vader jokes begin anew, Newgarden is ready to laugh along with them – especially given that his venerable team owner is viewed with reverence across several racing series (Penske also owns teams in the NASCAR, IMSA and Supercars).

“I say it as a joke, because I’ve heard fans call us that,” he said so that’s why I say the joke. I don’t feel like we’re the Death Star. “I think what everyone has for Team Penske is a deep amount of respect, which is across the board. I think everyone respects Roger and his organization tremendously and rightfully so. He’s such a tremendous person and he’s done so much for so many communities and done so much within the sport, and you hear all these stories about who he is as a person, and it’s understandable why.

“They race with a lot of dignity and do things the right way, so I think everyone respects the team, but I just see a lot of people hate them because they’ve won so much and in so many series. Specifically, IndyCar, they’ve dominated so much over the years that I don’t think people like them. But that’s also sport. You want to see the titans fall. You want to see the underdogs win.”

Will Power, who has driven at Penske for more than a decade and won the 2018 Indy 500 and the 2014 championship, said he hardly notices the flak from fans.

“Yeah, I guess if I was looking at it from the outside, ‘Screw those guys, man!’” Power said with a laugh. “(They have) too big of a budget. Get them out of here.

“You know when you are truthful in the media, you get called out on Twitter. People hate the truth these days. You got to be truthful.”

So is Team Penske more akin to the Patriots or the Yankees?

“Probably both,” Newgarden said. “I secretly respect those type of organizations. I really respect the greatness from the Patriots or the Yankees when on top. I just see the achievement of it. It’s not easy to do what people do at the top level of sports, whether it’s racing or baseball or football. It’s really difficult. You’ve got the best people in the world doing this full time to beat the other best people.”

F1 tests: Mercedes innovates with wheel adjustment system

Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images
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MONTMELÓ, Spain — Veteran Kimi Raikkonen set the fastest time on the second day of Formula One preseason testing on Thursday, but Mercedes still garnered more attention by introducing an innovative wheel adjustment system.

On-board footage showed defending champion Lewis Hamilton pulling the steering wheel back and forth on the front straight to apparently change the angle of the front wheels on his Mercedes car.

The team stayed tight-lipped about the car’s new feature but guaranteed it was “safe” and “legal.”

“I probably won’t shed a great deal more light than what you saw on the TV but yeah we have a system in the car, it’s a novel idea,” team technical director James Allison told F1 TV. ”We’ve got a name for it, it’s called DAS, if you’re interested, and it just introduces an extra dimension for the steering, for the driver, which we hope will be useful during the year. But precisely how we use it and why we use it, that’s something we will keep to ourselves.”

Allison said governing body FIA knew in advance that the team was introducing the new system.

“It’s something we’ve been talking to them (about) for some time,” he said. “The rules are pretty clear about what’s permitted on steering systems and we’re pretty confident that it matches those requirements. I’m pleased we got it on the car, it seems to be useful, and we’ll see over the coming days how it benefits us.”

Hamilton said he was still trying to get used to the system, but praised the team for coming up with the innovation.

“I’ve only had one morning on (it, so) I don’t really have a lot to talk about with it. We’re trying to get on top of it, understand it, but safety-wise no problem today and the FIA are OK with the project.

“For me it’s really encouraging to see that my team is continuing to innovate and stay ahead of the game, and I think that’s down to the great minds in the team and so hopefully that’ll work to our benefit.”

Hamilton led the time charts on Wednesday but was only ninth-fastest on Thursday.

MORE: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas fastest in Day 1 of F1 practice
MORE: Sergio Perez fastest early on Day 2 of F1 Practice

The 40-year-old Raikkonen, who has a chance this season to break the record for most race starts in F1, was fastest with a time of 1 minute, 17.091 seconds in his Alfa Romea. He was 0.2 seconds quicker than Sergio Pérez with Racing Point. Daniel Ricciardo of Renault was third.

Raikkonen caused a red flag near the end of the afternoon session when his car stopped on the track with an apparent mechanical issue. The Finnish driver had spun earlier in the session, as did Valtteri Bottas of Mercedes, Romain Grosjean of Haas and Pierre Gasly of Alpha Tauri, formerly known as Toro Rosso.

Grosjean had the most laps among the 13 drivers who went to the track on Thursday, with 158.

Bottas was the slowest driver of the day, while Sebastian Vettel was sixth-fastest with Ferrari.

Pérez had set the quickest time in the morning session. The Mexican driver had been third fastest on Wednesday, behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Drivers will be back on the track on Friday to close out the first week of testing. Teams will have another three days to test next week.

Preseason testing has been reduced from eight to six days to help compensate for the record 22 races on the calendar, including a new Vietnam Grand Prix and the return of the Dutch GP. Midseason testing also has been eliminated.

The season opens on March 15 at the Australian GP.

The Barcelona-Catalunya track will host the Spanish GP on May 10.