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Championship Runs, Pocono’s Fate Up For IndyCar Grabs

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 18 2019
IndyCar’s run at Pocono Raceway may be coming to an end. (RacinToday photo by Martha Fairris)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

LONG POND, Pa. _ While 10 drivers remain mathematically eligible for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship, Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 will showcase open-wheel racing’s version of the Final Four.

And as an intriguing subplot, riddle yourself this: Will the seventh IndyCar Series race contested on Pocono Raceway’s unique triangular oval be the final event run under INDYCAR-sanction?

Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden prepped for Saturday’s originally scheduled opening practice and qualifying session around Pocono’s 2.5-mile layout with a 16-point lead over Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, the defending event winner. Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Simon Pagenaud, also of Team Penske, is 43 points out in third while five-time/reigning series champ Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing is fourth, 62 points behind the leader.

Steady rain washed-out the opening one-hour practice set for 9:30 a.m. (EDT) and eventually prompted INDYCAR officials to cancel the qualifying session set for 12:30 p.m. The starting field was set by entrant points _ meaning Newgarden, Rossi, Pagenaud and Dixon will comprise the first two rows on the 22-car grid. However, Newgarden will not earn the championship point awarded the pole-winner pursuant to the INDYCAR Rulebook. The revised schedule for Saturday subbed-in a two-hour practice once the track dried.

Josef Newgarden of Team Penske will start Pocono as points leader.

“We’re all starting in a good spot, the top five in points (including Team Penske’s Will Power) are next to each other,” said Newgarden, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet. “It could be worse. We could have qualified in a worse position. It would have been nice if we had a normal day and practice and qualified and the rest of it but we’ve dealt with the rain and the focus needs to be on getting everyone ready for the race.”

Dixon resurrected his season with a victory in the series’ most recent event at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, on July28. Dixie got considerable help from an over-aggressive Newgarden, who finished 14th after banging tires with Ryan Hunter-Reay of Andretti Autosport and going off-course on the 90th and final lap around the 2.258-mile/13-turn natural-terrain layout.

“It was good to have a couple of weeks off,” said Newgarden, the 2017 series champion. ”I took some time to reset and refocus as we head into the final stretch of the season.”

Sunday’s event is scheduled for 200-laps/500 miles and will be televised by NBC Sports Network beginning at 2 p.m. (EDT). Radio coverage will be available on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network, Sirius 98 and XM 209.

Scott Dixon is in the hunt for another IndyCar Series championship. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Green flag is set for 2:45 p.m. amid speculation this could be the last INDYCAR-sanctioned event contested in the Pocono Mountains under the current contract. INDYCAR returned open-wheel racing to Pocono in 2013 after a 24-year absence. But an industry source said the 2020 schedule will drop “The Tricky Triangle” _ abandoning the combined Philadelphia and New York City metro markets _ and add Richmond International Raceway’s 0.75-mile oval in Virginia.

However, an IndyCar Series source said negotiations are continuing this weekend between INDYCAR officials and the management of Pocono International Raceway, Inc.  Ideally, the 2020 schedule will be ready for release around Sept. 1, the source said.

Dixon, the longest-tenured driver at CGR, gave the facility his stamp of approval. “I love this track,” said Dixon, the winner here in 2013 and last year’s third-place finisher. “We haven’t probably had the best runs the last couple of years but that’s what makes it so good when you do get it right. It’s very difficult to get the combination with (Turns) 1 and 3 correct and feel comfortable with the circuit. So I hope we do come back.”

Before he won the 2018 Indianapolis 500, Power posted back-to-back wins at Pocono in 2016-17. Power also qualified on-pole here last year en route to a runnerup result to Rossi.

“I love the track. I love it,” said Power, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Chevrolet. “Obviously it’s always a proud moment when you win a race. When you win back-to-back 500-milers like here, it’s a big deal.  It’s a cool track. I feel the more ovals the better, so kind of be disappointing if it went away. Obviously, it has nothing to do with us, INDYCAR’s negotiating. So yeah, hopefully they’ll get another one (race date).”

The title contenders were paced in practice by Dixon at 215.761 mph after 70 laps as runnerup overall to series veteran Tony Kanaan of A.J. Foyt Racing, who topped the chart at 216.354 mph. Rossi was fourth at 215.373 mph after 63 laps, with Pagenaud posting a best circuit of 215.368 mph after 65 laps. Newgarden wound up 17th at 214.174 mph after 70 laps.

Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi at Pocono. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Four races remain in the season. Teams will next compete on the 1.25-mile World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in Madison, Ill., on Saturday night, Aug. 24. Portland International Raceway’s 1.964-mile/12-turn street course will host the series on Sept. 1, the second year of INDYCAR’s return to the Pacific Northwest. The season-ender is booked for WeatherTech Raceway-Laguna Seca’s 2.258-mile/11-turn layout in Monterey, Calif., on Sept. 22.

“Look, four races to go with double points (at the season-finale), there’s over 260 points on the table _ it’s huge,” Newgarden said. “That’s a big swing that can happen and you see it throughout the year. It yo-yos all year. It’s going to change over these next four events one way or another. Maybe someone will rip a gap and it won’t be close or maybe it’ll stay tight. You don’t know what’s going to happen but you’ve got to maximize each weekend. Just get the most out of yourself each weekend, that’s our goal, and the points are going to shake-out how they’re going to shake out.”

Newgarden is leading the championship with four races to go for the second time in his eight-year series career and third with the team owned by Roger Penske. Newgarden also led the point table with four to go en route to the title in 2017.

“I prefer to be in front,” Newgarden said. “I think it’s always better to be in the lead more so than chasing. But it can change. I think history can rewrite itself pretty fast. Just because it worked out the way it did in ’17 doesn’t mean it’s gonna work out the same way this year.  If you were going to choose, I think you’d always choose to be the leader in the championship.”

Newgarden has led the championship after every round this season, with the exception of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 in May. Additionally, the 16 points separating Newgarden and Rossi is the fourth-closest margin since 2008. The average deficit with four races to go since 2008 is 35.8 points.

“As far as me as a driver, I think you should get better every year,” Newgarden said. “And I feel like I’ve been better every year I’ve done the sport. That’s why the veterans do so well, experience pays quite a bit. So I definitely feel like I’m a better driver than I was two years ago, I’m a better driver than I was five years ago. You always want to get better every single season.”

Since 2008, the driver leading the championship with four races to go has clinched the title six times _ Dixon (2008 and 2018), Dario Franchitti (2011), Hunter-Reay (2012), Pagenaud (2016) and Newgarden (2017).

Newgarden’s four victories have been bolstered by seven top-three, 10 top-five and 10 top-10 results in 13 races. He has led nine of those races for a total of 439 laps and been running at the finish in 12 of 13 events. His off-course/lap-down excursion at Mid-Ohio is the exception.

“Forty-eight hours and you’re about over it, that’s a good amount of time to leave me alone,” said Newgarden, whose four wins this season include the high-banked/1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway oval in Fort Worth and Iowa Speedway’s 0.875-mile oval in Newton. “It’s a sport with a lot emotions and a lot of care that goes into it. Ideally, you would like a race weekend directly afterwards (a mistake). That would be lovely. Or if you could race the next day, you’d love to do that. 

“We got to get it right. Last year we missed it (here) by a bit…we kind of ran out of time to just nail the setup. It’s a tight window and we were on defense all day last year, just trying to stay in the top five was really a struggle. I think it’ll come at some point, kind of like Texas where this year it fell into the perfect window. We got to keep staying close and one of these days we’re gonna win this race.”

Rossi’s two victories this season have been scored on the Streets of Long Beach, a 1.968-mile/11-turn temporary circuit, and Road America’s daunting 4.048-mile/14-turn natural-terrain layout in Elkhart Lake, Wis. Rossi also has logged a pair of runnerup results at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway and on TMS’ high-banked oval among his six top-three finishes.

“Both those (oval) races were circumstantial…we just were short at Indy and Texas,” said Rossi, driver of the No. 27 Honda. “Hopefully that’s not the case here and we can go one better.

Indinapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud is looking for a series championship. Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

“I knew that once we got through Toronto and Iowa we were back to our better places. You can have past success (at a track)…but things change. People get better, there’s different parameters you have to execute on regardless of your past results. We’re more confident on these upcoming tracks than we were during some of the tracks in the middle of the season.”

Rossi has recorded 10 top-five and 12 top-finishes and led 182 laps this season. He has been running at the finish of all 13 races, and is eager to defend his victory here from last summer.

“You’ve got to have it all working for you here because there’s a lot more lifting here than there is at Indy,” said Rossi, who has re-upped with Michael Andretti’s organization for 2020 and beyond. “It’s one of my favorite tracks to go back to each year _ and obviously we had a good race last year. We’re getting into a critical point of the championship and we need to win races. Pocono is a great place for us to hopefully do that.”

Dixon stands third on domestic open-wheel’s all-time victory list with 46, trailing only icons A.J. Foyt Jr. with 67 and Mario Andretti with 52. Two of those wins have come this season _ on the 2.35-mile/14-turn Streets of Detroit at Belle Isle Park and at Mid-Ohio. Dixon has eight top-three, nine top-five and nine top-10 finishes, led seven races and 171 laps. He has been running at the finish of 11 of 13 races.

Dixon said the cancellation of qualifying simplified the weekend. “Definitely, everybody’s looking at race-running,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 Honda. “There’s changes with the tires and the aero package a little bit, too. We came here with a different kind of outlook and approach than we had last year. For us, it’s probably better without qualifying so we can concentrate on making a better race car.”

An already tedious Saturday got longer for Pagenaud, as he sat on pit road for approximately the first 35-minutes of the practice because of an electrical gremlin. Pagenaud’s three wins this season have been highlighted by a sweep of the Month of May at IMS, where he captured the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the track’s 2.439-mile/14-turn road-course and the 2.5-mile rectangular oval. The Frenchman has three top-three, four top-five and 11 top-10 results along with 203 laps-led in four races. He has been running at the finish of all 13 events.

“In the end we got some good runs in and it was a great session for the No. 22 Penske Chevrolet. It felt very strong out there,” Pagenaud said. “We will fine-tune it tonight, but quite frankly I think we’re in really good shape. It should be an exciting race with all of the contenders starting up front, but I feel very confident and it’s time to be aggressive.”

Pocono’s turns are each modeled after a different track _ Turn 1 after Trenton (N.J.) Speedway, Turn 2 after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Turn 3 after The Milwaukee Mile in West Allis, Wis. Dating to the first Indy car race here in 1971, the winning driver has gone on to claim the championship six times _ Joe Leonard (1972), Foyt (1975 and 1979), Tom Sneva (1977), Rick Mears (1982) and Dixon (2013).

Here are the 10 drivers mathematically eligible for the championship, assuming all compete in the last four races _ Newgarden, Rossi, Pagenaud, Dixon, Power, Hunter-Reay, Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Felix Rosenqvist of Chip Ganassi Racing and James Hinchcliffe of Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Any driver who trails the leader by 213 points or more following this race will be eliminated.

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Amid all the championship banter, series veteran Tony Kanaan surprisingly emerged atop the speed chart at 216.354 mph after 55 laps. That result gave team-owner, open-wheel icon and native Texan A.J. Foyt Jr., who is not present this weekend due to a medical condition, something to brag on.

A.J. Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan got off to a fast start in Pocono. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Martha Fairris)

“Decent day. Obviously not being able to qualify hurt us a bit but we can’t control the weather so I think we have a pretty decent car,” said Kanaan, driver of the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet. “Our biggest challenge is that we will be starting in the back (19th via entrant points) and this track is not an easy track to overtake on, especially in traffic. I’m excited, it was a good day, the boys are happy. We needed that today. 

“I was pretty confident coming in here that we had a competitive car because we were pretty competitive at the (Indy) 500 and it’s a pretty similar setup so I’m happy. I think we have a good possibility of having our best finish of the year.”

Kanaan’s ninth-place/lead-lap finish in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26 remains his best result of 2019 and one of only two top-10s. The 2013 Indy 500 champion and 2007 series champ has failed to lead a lap this season, much less add to his career total of 15 poles and 17 victories.

“There’s no mystery how much we’ve been struggling,” said Kanaan, who will start his 314th consecutive race Sunday. “It’s hard to keep people motivated and believing ‘it’s not us.’ But I’m not the type of person that I give up very easy.”

Meanwhile, Woodbury, Conn., native son Santino Ferrucci was the fastest of four rookies, third overall at 215.377 mph in the No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda fielded by Dale Coyne Racing.

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Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud recently capped a week of celebrating his life-changing Indianapolis 500 victory in his native France during a public party in his hometown of Montmorillon. The town of 6,500 residents is located in central France.

Pagenaud shared the spotlight with the Borg-Warner Trophy, which made only its second tour outside North America. The other occasion came in 2017, when Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato took the coveted hardware home to Japan.

Pagenaud saw his likeness on the Borg-Warner Trophy unveiled in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower serving as the backdrop to a rooftop event. Pagenaud made a series of visits to French media outlets accompanied by INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles before an emotional return to Montmorillon.

“Getting the recognition in France is phenomenal for me,” Pagenaud said. “It allows (me) to reflect on what I have accomplished by traveling the world with this win.”

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Graham Rahal says there’s plenty of explaining to do concerning the single-source hybrid system sanctioning body INDYCAR and engine partners Chevrolet and Honda will introduce for the 2022 NTT IndyCar Series schedule. 

The hybrid power train will mark the first time series vehicles will depart from traditional, manual hand-held electric starters to a hybrid component that can be activated by the driver from the cockpit. The hybrid system will work in parallel with the internal combustion engines provided by OEM rivals Chevrolet and Honda, combining emerging hybrid technology with traditional power plants to produce in excess of 900 horsepower.

The hybrid technology will consist of a multi-phase motor, inverter and electric storage device that will create energy recovery from the car’s braking system.

“People have a misconception that it’s a hybrid power train. It’s a hybrid assist,” said Rahal, who drives a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. “It’s a hybrid boost, meaning the push-to-pass button, effectively will be a hybrid assist _ an electric assist _ that would give you more power. The engine is still a combustion engine, it still runs 100-percent combustion which is great.

“You know, the car is going to have a lot of power. People want that. I think there still is a high demand for combustion and I think people are excited to see that. But 900 horsepower is the same as it was back in my dad’s (1986 Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal) day and I think everybody’s excited. I mean, with power comes noise, you know? So it’s going to sound nice and healthy.”

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Conor Daly will return to Andretti Autosport for the season-ender at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca on Sept. 22. Daly qualified 11th and finished 10th for the team in the Indianapolis 500, his best start/finish around Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Backed by sponsorship U.S. Air Force, Daly will drive the No. 25 Honda in Monterey, Calif., as a fifth entry for Michael Andretti’s organization.

Driving the No. 59 Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet at Pocono this weekend, Daly will start 22nd and last in the field based upon entrant points.

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Starting lineup for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 NTT IndyCar Series race around Pocono Raceway’s 2.5-mile triangular layout with starting position, car number in parenthesis, driver, entrant and engine. All cars compete with the Dallara IR-18 chassis and Firestone tires. Starting lineup based upon entrant point standings via the INDYCAR Rulebook after qualifications were rained-out:

1. (2) Josef Newgarden, Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet

2. (27) Alexander Rossi, MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda 

3. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Penske Truck Rental Team Penske Chevrolet

4. (9) Scott Dixon, PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

 5. (12) Will Power, Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet

 6. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, DHL Honda

 7. (30) Takuma Sato, Mi-Jack/Panasonic Honda

 8. (15) Graham Rahal, TOTAL Honda

 9. (10) Felix Rosenqvist-(R), NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda

 10. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

 11. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, SealMaster Honda

 12. (21) Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

 13. (19) Santino Ferrucci-(R), Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda

 14. (88) Colton Herta-(R), Capstone Turbine Honda

 15. (20) Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet

 16. (7) Marcus Ericsson-(R), Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

 17. (98) Marco Andretti, U.S. Concrete/Curb Honda

 18. (26) Zach Veach, Gainbridge Honda

 19. (14) Tony Kanaan, ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet

 20. (4) Matheus Leist, ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Chevrolet

 21. (23) Charlie Kimball, Tresiba Carlin Chevrolet

 22. (59) Conor Daly, Gallagher Carlin Chevrolet

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, August 18 2019
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