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Penske Quartet Tunes Up At Sonoma

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 8 2017

Josef Newgarden has a tenuous points lead as the IndyCar season heads to it finale. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Verizon IndyCar Series championship-leader Josef Newgarden and Team Penske teammates Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Will Power completed a one-day test session at Sonoma Raceway on Thursday in preparation for the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma set for Sept. 15-17.

The Penske foursome _ and four-time series champion Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing _ are among seven drivers who remain in title contention heading into the winner-take-all event scheduled for 85 laps/202.7-miles around the 2.385-mile/12-turn road-course in Northern California.

Newgarden, with 560 points, leads the standings by three points over Dixon following last Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International. Castroneves (538 points), reigning series champion Pagenaud (526) and 2014 series champ Power (492) also are within reach of the championship.

“We’re in a good position with the points lead, but it’s not anything secure,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “We’ve got to have a good weekend here and I think having a test day like today is always helpful. What we learned today we want to apply to the race weekend. Team Penske has always been strong here, so we’ve got to execute on that.”

Despite wet conditions on Thursday morning, the drivers were able to get on-track at noon and complete approximately five hours of testing during the afternoon. 

“It was a little bit misty this morning and a little bit cooler, so we didn’t start right away,” said Castroneves, driver of the No. 3 Team Penske Chevrolet and the 2008 Sonoma winner. “But at the end of the day the entire Team Penske got a little taste of what it’s going to be like next week and were able to try some interesting things. So, right now, we feel more prepared than ever, but things can always change.”

Newgarden opened the door for his rivals with an unforced error that resulted in an 18th-place finish around WGI’s 3.37-mile/11-turn natural-terrain layout. Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport scored his second career series win at The Glen in his No. 98 Honda, with Dixon placing second in the No. 9 Honda. Dixon’s podium finish coupled with a cold-weather mistake and crash by Newgarden exiting pit road on Lap 46 of the 60-lapper allowed Dixon to chop 28 points off the 31-point lead Newgarden had carried into the event.

The Sonoma finale will offer 100 points to the winner, 80 for second place, 70 for third and down from there. NBC Sports Network will air live Friday’s second practice session at 5 p.m. (EDT), as well as qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 16, at 6:30 p.m.  Live race coverage is set for 6:30 p.m. (EDT) on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network on Sunday, Sept. 17.

Newgarden was in the lead on Lap 45 at The Glen when he pitted under green. Power, whose pit stall was directly in front of Newgarden’s, barely beat his teammate out of his box in the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet and onto the narrow, curving, downhill exit lane.

Newgarden locked his brakes avoiding Power and slid into the guardrail separating the pit exit from the track in Turn 1. Sebastien Bourdais, also leaving the pits in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, whacked Newgarden from behind. Newgarden continued but sustained front wing and right rear tire ramp damage that required several stops to repair.

Newgarden took over the championship lead for the first time in his six-year career following a victory at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on July 30. The Verizon IndyCar Series champion has been determined in the season’s final race every year dating to 2006, a scenario that would seem to favor the seasoned Dixon. A fifth championship would leave the 37-year-old New Zealander behind only A.J. Foyt Jr. (with seven titles) on the all-time list.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, the 2012 series champion, placed third at WGI to give Andretti Autosport two podium finishers. Castroneves placed fourth and retained third in the championship, 22 points behind Newgarden.

Defending Sonoma event champion Pagenaud, fourth in the standings, is 34 points behind Newgarden after a ninth-place finish at WGI. Power is 68 points out after finishing sixth at The Glen; Rossi sits sixth in the standings and 84 points out after his win while Graham Rahal is seventh and 94 points out after a fifth-place finish in the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda.

With a win, the 26-year-old Newgarden would celebrate a championship in his first year of driving for Hall of Fame owner Roger Penske. However, the four drivers trailing Newgarden in the standings each has posted at least one win at Sonoma.

“You can only control so much within the championship,” said Newgarden, who has posted a best finish of sixth in Sonoma during his career. “The only thing we can really do is try to focus on winning the race and do the best job we can with that. If we win the race, we win the championship and for us that’s the best thing, that we control our own destiny.”

Meanwhile, INDYCAR has announced that the full field of Verizon IndyCar® Series drivers are scheduled to participate in a series-sanctioned open test at Sonoma Raceway on Thursday, Sept. 14, the day before GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma activities begin.

The six-hour session will be open to ticket-holders for the event and spectators who purchase a race ticket at the gate. Verizon IndyCar Series teams are slated to be on track from 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 6 p.m.; the Formula Car Challenge also will hit the track that day. Fans can watch the test from open seating areas, stroll through the paddock and attend the lunchtime press conference with select drivers. The Raceway Café also will be open.

Tickets remain available for the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, including the Total Access Package, which includes a reserved-seat ticket and a garage/pit/pre-race pass for $99. Kids 12-and-under are admitted free and parking is free all weekend. For more information, visit sonomaraceway.com/indycar or call 800-870-7223.

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Canadian Zachary Claman DeMelo will make his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Paysafe Honda during the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma next weekend in Northern California.

DeMelo, 19, was the third-highest point-scorer in INDYCAR’s official feeder series, Indy Lights, throughout the second half of the championship. During the final eight races, DeMelo earned one win, four podium finishes, and was the lone driver to place in the top six or better eight consecutive times.

DeMelo is no stranger to the Verizon IndyCar Series, having served as a test-driver for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Indy car program over the past two seasons. DeMelo is the highest-ranked Canadian rookie currently eligible to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

DeMelo began his competing in motorsports in 2006 at age 8, when he was discovered by a group of professional drivers at a local go-karting track. At 12, DeMelo earned his first Canadian National Karting Championship. By 2015 DeMelo had claimed two additional Canadian National Championships and made the jump to open-wheel racing in Europe’s Formula 3 MSV Cup, where he posted an undefeated record while only competing part-time.

DeMelo landed his first fulltime open-wheel drive in Indy Lights in 2016 with Juncos Racing, the 2015 defending champions. In 2017, DeMelo drew the attention of Carlin Motorsports, the 2016 defending champions. After signing with Carlin for his sophomore season in Indy Lights, DeMelo earned his first series win, set three fastest laps and delivered seven top-five and 13 top-10 finishes.

“I am extremely proud to have the Paysafe logo on my uniform and car as my dream of driving in the Verizon IndyCar Series becomes a reality,” DeMelo said in a statement.

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| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 8 2017
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