Josef Newgarden’s run sparks more IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader talk

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CONCORD, N.C. – There are still many issues to resolve (namely, scheduling, track conditions, tire compounds are among myriad logistical challenges) about the viability of an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader race weekend.

But as Josef Newgarden’s Dallara-Chevrolet whizzed around the 17-turn, road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway under the watchful eyes of stars and executives from both NASCAR and IndyCar, there was no doubt about the infectious buzz for a marriage between the two biggest series in American motorsports.

That was evident from the smiles on the faces of Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney, who sent their Team Penske compatriot off from the pits and then greeted him in victory lane.

“We need to have a doubleheader, man!” Newgarden exclaimed to Blaney and Logano shortly before making the first laps in an Indy car at the track in more than 20 years. “And we need to do the ride swap.”

After watching his teammate turn six blazing laps, Logano was ready to trade in the keys from his No. 22 Ford for a test drive.

IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden talks with NASCAR teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney (photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images).

You’re grabbing another gear, we’re hitting the brakes your first lap on the frontstretch,” Logano told Newgarden with a bemused laugh.

“The NASCAR guys, I love they’re interested in us, and we’re interested in them,” Newgarden, who clinched his second NTT championship five days earlier, told NBCSN’s Rutledge Wood. “You can tell we’re just racers. They love our race cars. I love theirs. The only thing that would have made me more excited would have been if I would have been able to get in one of their cars today.

IndyCar president Jay Frye, who was on hand as an observer along with Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles, was highly encouraged by the enthusiasm.

“It was spectacular,” Frye said. “All the Cup guys were out watching the big board, obviously there’s interest from (the news media), from us. What’s next for all of us is something we’re working on, and it’s great we certainly felt welcome and wanted here. This is a great facility. So who knows? Lots of things are possible.”

Newgarden’s biggest concern was about how the tire compounds would mix (IndyCar uses Firestone; NASCAR is on Goodyear), but that turned out fine, as did the track’s banking and transitions that caused a “heavy” wheel because Indy cars have no power steering

“It was getting better each run,” Newgarden said. “It felt pretty good.”

He said his fast laps were in the 67-second range, or about 14 seconds faster than William Byron’s pole speed (80.9 seconds) 30 minutes earlier – which was exactly the spread that had been predicted by Team Penske simulation software (according to Blaney).

Mindful of Team Penske president Tim Cindric’s playful yet stern warnings (“I told Josef we’re not going to get a trophy for what happens today. That million dollars for winning the championship won’t go far in replacing this thing. Have fun, but it’s on you.”), Newgarden said he took it easy in the Dallara-Chevrolet that Simon Pagenaud finished fourth with last Sunday at Laguna Seca Raceway, leaving “another second or two” on the track.

With a setup optimized for qualifying, it’s conceivable that he could have lapped in the 1-minute range and left his Cup teammates fully in the dust – though showing up NASCAR was far from the goal for Newgarden, who bent over backward being magnanimous toward his stock-car counterparts.

The two-time IndyCar champion talked multiple times about his dream of running a Cup car (practically begging Cindric for the opportunity during a news conference) and effusively praised the reception he received from NASCAR fans, noting that it likely would have been different during the Cold War the series engaged in through much of the 1990s and 2000s.

“I think everyone was really supportive of what we’re doing,” Newgarden said. “There just seems to be a  lot more movement to racing fans being racing fans again. I love that because I’m a huge NASCAR fan myself.

“It doesn’t matter that I grew up racing open-wheel cars. I still appreciate top-level racing, and these guys are the best at what they do. They feel the same way about us. This whole discussion that’s emerging about trying to promote racing as a whole is a really great thing. I love it. I’m so interested in what they do all year, and I think it’s the same from their side, so the more we can do together in the future the better.”

How soon that will happen was the big question lingering over Friday’s exhibition, which Clint Bowyer referred to on NASCAR America as “the first test session for IndyCar on our Roval. Why wouldn’t we bring those guys to race with our sport? I think it’s a great idea.”

The chatter around an IndyCar-NASCAR doubleheader began to reach a fever pitch in May when NASCAR on NBC analyst Dale Earnhardt Jr., Newgarden and many others expressed interest (in an NBCSports.com story) about bringing the series together.

Executives from NBC Sports Group, which broadcasts the Indianapolis 500 and full IndyCar schedule and the final 20 races of NASCAR’s Cup season, also has expressed interest in the concept. NBC Sports recently cross-promoted the series in a humorous commercial with Roger Penske, Blaney and Pageanud.

“That was a lot of fun and a lot of great response to it, and that’s things we couldn’t have done in the past,” NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood said last Friday in a news conference at Laguna Seca Raceway. “I think that’s part of us leaning in at NBC in trying to grow all of motorsports, and it’s important that every form of racing gets attention, and that’s what we’re pushing.”

IndyCar CEO Mark Miles has vacillated publicly on the idea. Asked by NBC Sports last week if IndyCar was moving toward a doubleheader weekend, Miles said it was unlikely before 2022.

“It was said that there was momentum in May. In my view there was more discussion in May, more talk about it, more smoke than fire. So I think the folks at NASCAR know that we think it’s a good idea. I think as far as I can tell, they think it’s a good idea.

“So we’ll see if it can be pulled together. But it’s something that we think, if it gets more people watching motorsports, it’s well worth working on.”

However, at least one person with direct knowledge of the talks but not authorized to discuss them publicly told NBCSports.com that a 2021 doubleheader hadn’t been ruled out.

Friday’s exhibition run was described by Newgarden as a “gift” from sponsor ShellPennzoil (“the coolest thing all week” during his championship celebration), which also has a strong business relationship with Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Track general manager Greg Walter described his contact with IndyCar officials about a race as preliminary, “first date”-level conversations. Walter was encouraged by Newgarden’s results.

There probably would need to be changes made with Indy cars (such as removing the “turtle” curbs that cause massive damage to Cup cars as a penalty for veering off course), but Walter said Charlotte is exploring IndyCar and other series (such as IMSA, support sports cars circuits and Formula E) for its Roval layout.

“We’re open to any form of racing if it makes sense,” Walter told NBCSports.com. “So if it physically and financially makes sense, and from a fan following if it makes sense, we’re open to it. NASCAR has been our focus and continues to be our focus, but we always ask is there something else out there that fits as well.”

Frye, who has boundless contacts in NASCAR from many years as a team and sponsor executive, said Newgarden’s car “looked very natural out there, looked good. The lap times were within reason of what everyone thought it would be. So, who knows?

“There really aren’t any hurdles (to a doubleheader), necessarily. It’s just schedules. Timing, how that all works. Obviously our season ended last week. That’s something we could look at down the road, how it could fit.”

Frye also stressed that the Roval wouldn’t be the only option for a doubleheader.

Richmond, Texas and Indianapolis are other tracks that are raced by both IndyCar and NASCAR, and Newgarden certainly seems open to trying any of them.

“I think it would be really cool for the fans without a doubt,” Newgarden said. “Why would you not want to have that doubled up on a weekend? They’re just both great championships.

“I respect these guys so much, and I love keeping in touch with what they’re doing, so having a little closer access to them and vice versa for us, I think it would be a win-win for everybody.”

Scott Dixon assesses INDYCAR’s return to Richmond Raceway

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
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RICHMOND, Virginia – Scott Dixon won the first time he ever raced at Richmond Raceway way back in 2003. He started on the pole and led all 206 laps in the race.

Dixon also won the last time he ever raced at the 0.750-mile short oval back in 2009. He started second, led 161 laps and won a 300-lap contest.

When reminded that he was a two-time Richmond Raceway winner at Tuesday’s Firestone Tire Test for the NTT IndyCar Series, Dixon quipped, “That was a while ago.”

Eleven years, in fact. The cars and engines back then were different and the racing on the short ovals frankly wasn’t as competitive as it was today. The last time the NTT IndyCar Series was there in 2009, there were only three lead changes among three drivers.

From the first NTT IndyCar Series race at Richmond in 2001 through the last time Indy cars were there in 2009, there were only 24 lead changes. That’s not for one race, that’s a decade’s worth of races combined.

Times have changed and thankfully, for the better.

With a different racing package today, that features more horsepower and less downforce, along with tire constructions from Firestone that allow the tires to dramatically lose grip over the course of a fuel run, the racing on short ovals has become some of the best race in the series.

Iowa Speedway was patterned after Richmond Raceway and staged its first IndyCar Series race in 2007. Since that time, INDYCAR has staged some of the most spectacular races of each season. There were 16 leads changes in the 2010 race and seven lead changes in Josef Newgarden’s victory at Iowa in July.

Dixon and Newgarden returned to Richmond Raceway on Tuesday, October 15 for a Firestone Tire Test at the three-quarter-mile short oval. It was also another opportunity to test INDYCAR’s “Aeroscreen” that greatly improves driver protection inside of the cockpit.

“It’s been very positive, the return to Richmond, everybody is pumped,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com. “Going back to the heritage of IndyCar racing, short ovals are much loved not only by the fans, but also from the drivers and everybody that is part of it. You have to work on the combination to put it back. Definitely, the cars we have had lately on short ovals like Iowa and St. Louis have provided some fantastic racing. That is what we have to try and accomplish.”

In order to achieve that goal, INDYCAR teams and drivers have eight months to work and develop a competitive racing package for the popular short oval in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Fans have wanted the IndyCar Series to return to Richmond as did drivers and other team members. INDYCAR officials heard those calls and were able to return the Virginia short oval to the schedule after an 11-year break.

“I was here a few months ago with the return of Richmond on the schedule, but it’s a lot more fun to be back in the car here,” Dixon said. “I’m excited to be back here, back on track. It’s a little different look here with the Aeroscreen. I was at Indianapolis in the test and now back here. It seems that everything is going very well with all the testing for the Aeroscreen. They tested last week in Alabama as well.

“It’s cool to be back here. It’s a difficult track; one that is quite low grip with the current configuration of the Indy car right now. It’s a bit of a handful, but that is what makes it fun and difficult.

“Today, though, has been about the tire test.”

Firestone Racing engineers brought 15 sets of tires per driver to test with various constructions and compounds.

“I didn’t realize there were that many tire options, to be honest,” Dixon admitted. “I think we went through 15 sets where you are normally doing six or eight. They brought a pretty big range of compounds and constructions and even staggers. This afternoon will be a combination of those. The long runs will be difficult because a full-tank run will be 80 or 100 laps. That’s going to take some time.

“They want to make sure everything runs smoothly, and we don’t have failures. Firestone is very good on the safety side. That is box No. 1. Then, performance and degradation.

“They have to be careful about not bringing too good of a tire here because you do want the fall off and the raceability and for people to struggle. The last time here, the tire was so good, nobody had much falloff and they couldn’t pass.

“What we have seen the past few years with oval racing, degradation has been a key.”

Both Dixon and Newgarden are confident Firestone will bring a tire back to the race on June 27, 2020 that will degrade over the course of a run, allowing the opportunity for more passing at Richmond than in the past.

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo

“It’s different than 2009 in the fact the grip is lower, which may be the tire or the track aging as well,” Dixon explained. “But that opens up a lot better racing because the degradation and the falloff of the tire is greatly increased. From a 10-lap period, you are losing one-second a lap. That’s big for us. Typically, we are losing a few tenths. That will equate to some really good racing. When we come back for the Open Test, trying to run the alternate lines and the high lines are something that is going to be very useful.

“You are trying to be consistent as possible to go through the tires. We went through 10 or 12 different compounds and constructions on Tuesday morning and a few more sets in the afternoon. Those 10-lap runs, you are trying to do exactly the same thing. Once you start running a line and there are no other cars experimenting in a test, it’s easy to get off-line and make a mistake.

“We need to get that compromise so we can run different lines. With the tire degradation we are seeing, that can definitely be an option.”

INDYCAR has strict limits regarding testing during a season. When Dixon arrived in the series in 2003, teams could test close to 60 days a season. This year, it’s less than six.

With speeds in the 180 to 190 mile per hour range on a track that is three-quarters of a mile in length and 24 to 25 cars on the track at the same time, that sounds crazy.

“Always,” Dixon said with a smile. “I would say there are a good 20-plus crazies out there, which is part of the fun. The last couple of years have been fantastic with the racing we have had and the restarts. There is a big variation of experience where people have come from, so you see a difference in style, how they drive and how they restart. That has created some fantastic racing.

“Yes, it gets tough. These tracks, it happens so quickly. This is very similar to what we have at Iowa, but this is a bit shorter, so it is happening that much quicker as well.”

The team’s notes from 2009 are fairly obsolete, according to Dixon. That that time, the evolution of the cars, weight distribution, engine performance, tires and how the car is constructed has dramatically changed.

But the style of racing that it takes to get around the track comes back quickly to the two-time Richmond winner.

“When you come to an oval, there are really only two corners,” Dixon explained. “That makes it simpler than a road course. But they all have their subtle differences, whether it’s the entry to Turn 3, the car is very light, and you come over a crest in the exit of Turn 2 where it flattens off very quickly, it’s very easy to spin the car.

“Those things come back immediately to where I have either crashed or almost crashed. You don’t forget those scenarios.”