Justin Marks busy in Nashville, presenting pole award; racing TA2 with Daniel Suarez

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NASHVILLE – Justin Marks’ extremely busy summer continued Saturday at the Music City Grand Prix, where the NASCAR Trackhouse Racing owner raced in the TA2 Series race with Daniel Suarez and presented the NTT IndyCar Series pole award.

Marks, who purchased Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR team June 30 and made more news this week in hiring Ross Chastain to drive its No. 1 Chevrolet next year, also is part of the ownership group for the Music City GP. He was joined in the Trans-Am TA2 race by  Suarez, who was tuning up on the 11-turn, 2.17-mile street course before driving his No. 99 Chevrolet for Trackhouse in Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International.

The presentation of the Bryan Clauson Pole Trophy was special for Marks, who scored his first (and only) NASCAR Xfinity Series victory five days after Clauson was killed in a USAC Midget race. Marks was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, which also fielded Xfinity cars for Clauson.

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“Bryan was a friend of mine, and when the Grand Prix made the commitment to honor his memory with the pole trophy for the NTT INDYCAR Series race, I saw it as an opportunity to further the legacy that he’s had in racing and run a tribute car for him,” Marks said in a release. “It’s been a number of years since Bryan’s been gone, but his legacy remains alive and well. But, personally, it’s a big moment for me. He’s a big part of my story, and I have just so much respect for him and his family, and his father Tim, and everything they’ve done and continue to do in dirt racing. So it’s just a special, personal thing.”

“Bryan’s one of those guys who never really met a stranger. And from a racing standpoint, I have a tremendous amount of respect for multi-disciplinary drivers – guys who can jump in anything and can race and be fast in anything, and they just want to race and compete no matter what it is, and Bryan was that to a tee.

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“He raced in the Indy 500 and, when the race was over, he jumped in his car and ran a 410 Winged Sprint car that night. They don’t make drivers quite like that anymore, so he was a throwback, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for his talent and his ability, and he was a great human being. He always had time for everybody, really appreciated the opportunity that he had in his life, and that was reflected in his support of the organ donor program and trying to give back and realizing that he had a platform to make a positive difference, and he did so.”

In the Trans-Am TA2, Marks raced the No. 99 BC Forever/M1 Racecars/Fields Racing Chevrolet Camaro for Team SLR, which is owned by the father-son duo of Scott Lagasse and Scott Lagasse Jr.

Marks finished an impressive fourth after qualifying third. Suarez finished 26 laps down in 26th after an incident.

It marked the first Trans-Am street race since the 2019 Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle Park, and it’s addition to the Nashville race weekend made it a no-brainer to enter for Marks.

“I’ve been a big believer of this event in totality since the first day I heard about it,” Marks said. “It’s going to be the first year of an event that I think is going to be very special and successful for a long time. It was easy for me to make the commitment to get involved from an ownership standpoint. And personally, driving in the event – I’ve raced basically full time for 20 years but, when I retired, it didn’t necessarily mean that I was going to stop driving. I still love driving from time to time when I have the opportunity to do so, and I love the Trans Am Series. Early on, when there were discussions about Trans Am being a support event to the Grand Prix, I had it circled on my calendar as it was one that I really wanted to participate in because I only live 20 miles away, and it was a great way to totally immerse myself in an investment.”

He also gets an opportunity to race for Suarez, who is in a multiyear deal with Trackhouse.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun on that new track,” Suarez said about Nashville in a release. “I am excited for it. Racing is cool and racing something new is really cool,” said Suárez, who qualified 13th. “I have wanted to run Trans Am with Justin for a long time and we finally get to do it this weekend in Nashville. Justin is really good as are a lot of the drivers in this race.”

Said Marks, who has discussed moving Trackhouse to Nashville: “Every advantage we can give Daniel in this era of no (Cup) practice, no qualifying is worth it. By getting him a ride in the Music City GP, he’ll be able to take the flag at Watkins Glen coming right out of two days of competitive road racing in a similar vehicle. And it’ll be fun for us to race together finally.”

Marks, who also has won the 2010 ARCA race at Palm Beach International Raceway, has road-course experience in Trans-Am but was making his TA2 debut.

“I just think it’s a great format for racing,” he said. “I like hung-body road-race cars, lots of horsepower, and the race formats are great. It’s a sprint race, but it’s just long enough to have an endurance element to it. I think it’s a great series, great racecars and a great format.”

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”