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XFINITY

OBSERVATIONS: Johnsonville 180

Fans have been begging for more road courses and short tracks with Road America being one of those mentioned. Saturday’s Johnsonville 180 for the NASCAR XFINITY Series proved why.

Although the event was dry at parts with the field single-file, the battles for position that broke out in the second half were worth every single penny of admission. They were close, with drivers trying to out-smart each other through the 14-turn course en route to the checkered flag.

There may have been more battles than giving credit for, which perhaps would result in the event having a higher grade, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell watching NBCSN’s broadcast. The course may be four miles in length, but we need to rid of some of the commercials here. Furthermore, saying that they’re part of “NASCAR non-stop” does not make them less painful. Combined with Dave Burns and Dale Jarrett in the booth, and this was one of their poorest events. 

James Davison almost played the role of spoiler, closing on Justin Allgaier in the late stages. However, a mistake was costly and proved to be too much for him to overcome as the JR Motorsports driver cruised to his fourth win of the season. If there was any question about Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s organization and their strength after a quiet summer, those questions are now being erased as we near the playoffs.

The final couple of races before they begin will prove to be interesting between Allgaier and Christopher Bell, though, with only a mere five points separating them for the regular season championship. Bell entered Road America with the advantage, but contact from competitors on two occasions handed him a poor finish.

He was first knocked-off the road after contact with Allgaier, followed by being punted around by Matt Tifft. For the record, though, he still gets our accolade of the day for how he handled the first incident.

You can’t just let this event go without speaking of the special drivers whom entered the fray for a one-off. While Bill Elliott stole some of the headlines, Katherine Legge and Conor Daly left the lasting impression.

Legge ran up front in the top-five following a strategy play before fading back due to a spin; however, she managed to fight her way back to a top-15 which is commendable in her second career series start. Meanwhile, Daly ran as high as 10th in his first ever XFINITY race until getting caught up in an incident not of his making late. It’d be nice to see both of these drivers get more opportunities as they proved they can run right there with the best.

There’s also this one lasting thought to think about, too, especially if we’re getting more road courses.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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XFINITY

Conor Daly Ready for XFINITY Debut at Road America

TORONTO, Ontario — While he is best known for his experience in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Conor Daly will be switching gears in August as he will make his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut at Road America.

“I’m excited about it,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s a whole new deal, whole new opportunity, and I’m just thankful for that chance in Lilly Diabetes giving me the shot. It’s going to be a steep learning curve, but I’m excited for it.”

The opportunity comes about wanting to try something different while expanding his horizons and options at the same time.

“I think you’re always driven to want more and want to try more, and I think if you ask a lot of us here in this paddock in IndyCar, there’s a lot of guys who want to get out there at Road America, mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, stuff like that, because it is a very entertaining product,” Daly said. “They’re really good drivers, the series is really competitive, and it just looks like a really good racing environment, like a good, proper race.

“We have an incredible product in the IndyCar Series, obviously, but so do they, certainly, on the road course side. So I was just excited to have that opportunity. I mean, road courses are my cup of tea, and that’s what I’d love to at least check out first before anything else.”

Going into the event, Daly says the biggest challenge is going to be the “newness of everything,” as the first practice session will be his first ever laps in a stock car. 

Before heading there, though, he returned to the seat of a Verizon IndyCar Series, competing with Harding Racing at the Honda Indy Toronto. Daly was elected for the seat as the team tries out different drivers throughout the remaining of 2018 in trying to fill a second car at their organization next season. 

Throughout the event, Daly battled hard, ultimately crossing the finish line with a 13th-place finish.

“It was tough to get back into the car for a road course after not being in a car for so long,” he admitted. “I’m just thankful for the chance. We have a lot to do mechanically to figure out this car with heavy fuel loads. On low fuel, I think we were good, but at the end, I think we just needed to be better on heavy fuel loads, and needed to be a little bit better on the brakes.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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XFINITY

Conor Daly to Make NASCAR Debut at Road America

Verizon IndyCar Series competitor Conor Daly will make his NASCAR XFINITY Series debut, driving the No. 6 Lilly Diabetes Mustang for Roush Fenway Racing.

The opportunity comes through a cross-promotion partnership that will see Lilly Diabetes sponsor Daly’s NASCAR effort, as well as his Indianapolis 500 entry. The sponsorship fits perfectly with him, as he was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at the age of 14. 

“I’m very excited for this opportunity to be partnered again with Lilly Diabetes and to be able to drive a Jack Roush Ford,” said Daly. “I’ve raced at Road America almost every year since I was 16 and have won there. I have driven almost every form of car, but this will be my first stock car experience. I’ve been an avid follower of NASCAR and have been friends with Ryan for a long time and been to many races to support him.”

In 39 career Verizon IndyCar Series races, Daly has a career-best runner-up in Detroit for Dale Coyne Racing in 2016. Prior to that, he scored three podiums in six Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires starts. 

“I think you’re always driven to want more and want to try more, and I think if you ask a lot of us here in this paddock in IndyCar, there’s a lot of guys who want to get out there at Road America, mid-Ohio, Watkins Glen, stuff like that, because it is a very entertaining product,” Daly added. “They’re really good drivers, the series is really competitive, and it just looks like a really good racing environment, like a good, proper race. We have an incredible product in the IndyCar Series, obviously, but so do they, certainly, on the road course side. So I was just excited to have that opportunity. I mean, road courses are my cup of tea, and that’s what I’d love to at least check out first before anything else.”

Lilly Diabetes is not new to Roush Fenway Racing, having supported Type 1 Diabetic Ryan Reed over the past five years. Reed, Daly, and their teammate Ty Majeski will all be carrying the red and white of Lilly Diabetes that weekend.

“Lilly Diabetes has done so much for me and I’m excited to have them represented in full force at Road America,” said Reed. “Conor and I have been friends for a while and this is awesome that we’ll get to compete together as teammates. I can’t wait to see him behind the wheel of one of our Xfinity cars.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: IndyCar GP

The strategy for this week’s IndyCar Grand Prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway is simple stick with those who have won.

In its three-year history, only two drivers have found victory lane on the road course, and yours truly has drafted both of them for this week’s Firestone Fantasy Challenge.

Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud has a pair of wins in the first leg of the Brickyard doubleheader and enters with momentum following a victory at Phoenix International Raceway. Three years ago, the Frenchman used superior fuel strategy to win the inaugural event and last year called on pace to get around Conor Daly during the final round of pit stops.

Despite leading the Verizon IndyCar Series championship standings, Pagenaud is performing worse than he did a year ago. Four events into 2016, he placed no worse than second; this year, he has finished fifth or better in all action to date. While a harsh comparison, it shows when the driver of the No. 1 Menards Chevrolet has had to bounce back from a bad starting spot, strong results are present.

The second choice is a risky one, if ever taking Will Power was considered a questionable move. The Australian went flag-to-flag to win the IndyCar Grand Prix in 2015, but last year’s race was a challenge. Off-course excursions and mechanical headaches left him with a 19th-place finish. The opening three road races of 2017 have seen adversities hold him to a season-best outing of 13th at Long Beach. Of course, when the No. 12 Verizon Chevy is bulletproof, the skill of its pilot is the best IndyCar can offer.

Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot also knows the taste of misfortune in 2017. Two technical breakdowns have denied the 2015 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion from big points hauls in 2017. However, an eighth-place effort at Long Beach showed what the 23-year old could achieve when the roadblocks are not in the way. With Pigot’s fantasy value at only $15 this week, it is worth the risk to give him another chance.

The fourth seat was a problem for me. I had hoped to add Juan Pablo Montoya, who is driving a fifth car for Roger Penske. Unfortunately, with a big $25 price tag, a Plan B option was necessary. I think I have acquired a good alternative in Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. His NAPA Auto Parts crew has shown the ability to create a result with strategy at Alabama and before stalling out at Long Beach, he hinted at having the speed needed to run up front.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

FANTASY PICK BREAKDOWN: St. Petersburg

For several years now, the Verizon IndyCar Series website has offered a fantasy league, similar to those provided by NASCAR and several other sports, allowing fans to compete for cash and prizes. As the first green flag of the season is fast approaching at Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, yours truly has taken a head-first dive right into the fun.      

Like most leagues, there is no fee to enter, all that is required is basic information and a contact number if you are indeed a winner at the end of the year. All finished? Okay, let’s get to the fun stuff.

For each of the 17 races on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, you must pick the four drivers who you believe will achieve the best result when the race is over. However, in this game, there is a catch. You are limited to a budget to only 100 fantasy dollars, and with every driver set at a certain value, which can fluctuate up or down during the season based on performance, you are forced to strategize on which legal quartet of drivers will garner the most points. Now for the St. Pete road course, filling your roster with those pilots that can handle left and right turns swiftly is a good place to start and here’s how I have my current roster setup to tackle the combination of public roads and airport runways.

Based on their performances driving for Team Penske in 2016, the lead driver for my team was going to be either 2016 IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud or 2014 series champion Will Power. With the Frenchman valued at 36 fantasy dollars and the Australian at just 30 for the season opener, I went with the latter to secure a little more room to take on a higher-valued driver. With my second pick, I used 22 dollars on my remaining budget to add Dale Coyne Racing’s newest driver Sebastien Bourdais.

I have to admit, I am intrigued by what a bolstered DCR squad and the multi-time ChampCar World Series title holder can offer in 2017, and at a reduced value, I felt he was worth the risk. The same strategy play was also behind my selection of A.J. Foyt Racing’s Conor Daly. Daly is not known as a strong qualifier on the IndyCar circuit; however, last year he showed that he can play the off-sequence pit strategy exceptionally well, meaning a poor effort in Saturday qualifying could be wiped clean by the finish on Sunday.

With those three drivers taken, I had 30 fantasy dollars left in my 100 dollar maximum budget, enough to add a second Team Penske driver to my team in the form of Josef Newgarden. While joining a top team can be a daunting task for some, the early returns from preseason testing at Sebring seems to indicate that the Tennessee-native is up for the challenge.

Stay tuned to PopularSpeed.com every race weekend, for my team selections and if you are interested in challenging yours truly, join for free now at IndyCar.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

AJ Foyt Racing Makes Switch to Chevrolet

Going into the 2017 season, it looks as though everything will be new at A.J. Foyt Racing. In addition to their pair of new drivers behind the wheel, the Texas-based organization announced on Tuesday that they will switch from Honda to Chevrolet for the 2017 season.

“I am looking forward to what will be a new chapter for us that involves returning to an old friend in Chevrolet,” said Team President Larry Foyt. “There are a lot of changes happening within our team this off season and I won’t minimize the challenges, but I see a lot of potential with our plan.”

Chevrolet isn’t new to A.J. Foyt Racing, as A.J. Foyt IV drove a Chevrolet powered entry in 2005. A.J. Foyt also spent drove a Chevrolet powered entry during his career, including his final IndyCar race as a driver, the 1992 Indianapolis 500.

“We are pleased to welcome AJ Foyt Racing to the Chevrolet IndyCar program,” stated Mark Kent, Director Chevrolet Motorsports Competition.  “Chevrolet and Foyt both have long histories in IndyCar racing, including prior opportunities to work together.  We look forward to renewing the partnership and a strong start to the 2017 season.”

As previously announced, Carlos Munoz makes the move from Andretti Autosport to drive the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet, while Conor Daly makes the move from Dale Coyne Racing to drive the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet.

“I’m glad to be back with Chevy,” said A.J. Foyt, team owner and first four-time winner of the Indy 500. “I’ve had a lot of success with them in the past and I’m looking forward to more success in the future.”

The team expects to conduct its first test in the ABC Supply Chevrolets at Sebring International Raceway later this month.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: Can Coyne Challenge The Big Boys?

A lot of INDYCAR experts (myself included) raised eyebrows this off-season when four-time ChampCar World Series champion Sebastien Bourdais announced he was joining Dale Coyne Racing for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

And why not? Bourdais and his former employer KV Racing had posted a victory the previous year at Detroit and had collected ten top 10 finishes in 16 events. Once the evidence of an iffy situation at KV was revealed, as mentioned previously on Embury’s Outlook, it appeared the Frenchman was moving quickly to simply secure a full-time seat for the future. The evidence behind Bourdais’ reasoning was then further divulged in a recent interview with Popular Speed’s Ashley McCubbin.

However, now with everything on the table, perhaps the questions are being erased. After all, the off-season has witnessed the Chicago-based operation loosen the purse strings a little bit to bring in top line personnel. Craig Hampson, who was Bourdais’ engineer at Newman-Haas Racing during his four-year championship run has been added to brain trust, while Bourdais’ engineer at KV last year Olivier Boisson, has also been hired. The moves have given the veteran wheelman the belief a team known more for simply perservering in both CART and INDYCAR is now capable of mixing it up with the best of the bunch on the North American open-wheel racing tour.

In this edition of Embury’s Outlook, we will look at what it will take for Bourdais and his new teammate Ed Jones, the reigning Cooper Tires Indy Lights Champion, to become contenders not solely for race wins, but to have an outside chance to win the 2017 championship.

If there is one thing from last year adding to the optimism, it is the fact Coyne’s squad certainly made some steps forward on the road courses, especially in the case of Conor Daly’s efforts. The second-generation driver was within a quicker pit stop away from possibly pulling off an upset win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, settling for sixth at the finish. The Indiana-native then finished second to Bourdais in the first leg of the Chevrolet Duel in Detroit and placed sixth in the second leg the following day. Daly went on to post two more top six results before taking his services to A.J. Foyt Racing for 2017.

While the road and street circuit half of the equation appear stout, the team must improve its efforts on ovals to become a full-fledged title contender. While Honda’s two 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series wins came on the high-speed circuits, DCR placed no better than 14th in any oval track round this past season.

The team must also qualify higher up on the starting grid. While Daly did post results, a majority of those efforts had to be gained through aggressive driving or clever strategy to make up for lackluster efforts in time trials.

Of course, the other barrier Coyne must clear is a plethora of strong teams that are part of the Honda engine camp. Not only does the addition of Chip Ganassi Racing make the situation more difficult, but when you consider the resumes of Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, you will witness four operations which all have shown few weaknesses despite the limited number of victories a year ago.

So while it may be tough to jump from worst to first in one season, a 2017 campaign that sees either Bourdais, Jones, or both pilots reach the top ten on the final points table, should be considered a victory for this operation. After all, they’ve been able to tough it out and continue to battle, while other more successful operations have either regressed or left the sport entirely.

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @MattEmbury

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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IndyCar Open Wheel

Daly and Munoz Make Up Youthful Line-Up at A.J. Foyt Racing

While A.J. Foyt shows poise and age, his driver line-up is full of youth and promise.

“Both of our drivers are very young, and they’ve got their whole future ahead of them,” team owner A.J. Foyt. “I’m looking forward to being a part of that future.”

A.J. Foyt Racing announced on Tuesday that Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly would drive for the organization in 2017.

“It’s been a busy offseason, which to me is a great thing,” Team President Larry Foyt said. “There are many moving parts as we grow and continue to strengthen our weaknesses as a team. It’s wonderful to continue our relationship with ABC Supply and adding two young, and fast drivers is exciting for our program. I can’t remember a time when the Verizon IndyCar Series has been this competitive from top to bottom, so we know we have to work around the clock this winter to meet our goals before the season starts. We’ve had a great deal of changes in a short amount of time, but the team is committed, and the group as a whole is moving in the same direction. I’m looking for this positive momentum to translate to on-track results.”

Munoz will replace Takuma Sato, who has been rumored to join Andretti Autosport, in the No. 41 entry. The 24-year-old is coming off a 10th place finish in the year-end points standings last year with Andretti Autosport in his fourth full season of competition, following a runner-up in the Indianapolis 500. In 53 IndyCar starts, the Key Biscayne, Fla. resident has scored one victory (Detroit), one pole (Texas), and 23 top-10s.

For Munoz, this season will mark the first year he has driven for a team other than Andretti Autosport, which is a change he calls a big step forward in his career.

“I’m glad to join this team,” he said. “It’s been for a long time in IndyCar, and also A.J. is Indy 500 champion. I really honored to be a part of his team. I think it’s a new challenge to my career. It’s also nice to be teammates with Conor Daly. It’s good to have two young, really fast drivers in the team. We want to drive really good; we want to win races. We’re going to work really well together.”

Part of the reason for a change in Munoz was the fact he was tired of bringing money to the table like he did at Andretti in contributing funds from his family, but rather get paid his dues behind the wheel. He said the confidence he could make it work came from the success he was able to put together to date.

“I say, ‘Enough is enough. That was my personal choice,'” Munoz said. “We can do really good stuff. We put all the package together really good. I think we can show results, right? We have a really good example with Ed Carpenter. Five years ago no one was saying anything about this team. Now everyone wants to go to that team, right, because they did a really good job with Josef (Newgarden), with the engineers and everything. I think we have a good example.

“So, you know, finally I see the light in the tunnel. Like I said, I have improved. It’s not like I’m done, completely done. I still have to push a lot to stay in the light of the tunnel. I have to push. I still pushing really hard, to show the teams that I really deserve the position I am right now.”

Daly will replace Jack Hawksworth behind the wheel of the second entry, which will have a noticeable number change, with the No. 41 switched to No. 4 for Daly next season. The number change pays homage to Daly’s step-father Doug Boles, who was a founding partner and co-owner of Panther Racing which previously fielded the No. 4 car. Boles is now president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Notably, the team will be based in Indianapolis while No. 14 team remains in Texas.

“I mean, it’s really cool when Larry told me that we were going to be based in Indianapolis. Obviously, that helps me quite a lot because that’s my hometown. Pretty excited about that,” Daly said. “Then I actually didn’t know we’d be the No. 4 until probably like just a few days ago. That was even cooler just because of the history that we have there with my stepdad Doug, when he was running with Panther Racing, involved there. I grew up watching those guys, Scott Goodyear, Sam Hornish, Tomas Scheckter, as well, then Dan Wheldon.

“It was just a cool number that meant a lot to my family. It was cool to carry on. I have plenty of Pennzoil hats with No. 4 on them from when I was a kid. It’s just going to be cool. It’s just a great relationship, a great opportunity, and then I just can’t wait to get started.”

While it’s odd to have two teams and base them out of two different shops, Daly notes he isn’t worried about a breakdown of conversation due to the level of technology out there to allow for communication, such as a live video conference.

Daly previously drove for Foyt in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 in his IndyCar debut. The 24-year-old is coming off his first full season of IndyCar competition with Dale Coyne Racing, which featured some strong runs highlighted by a second in Detroit. In 22 starts, he has six Top-10 finishes and has led 68 laps.

Daly now looks to take what he learned, and continue to improve as a driver behind the wheel. He notes he’s ready to apply what he learned and do some things differently.

“Last year, the tracks that I had been to before, like Detroit and Toronto, you know, we had two of our best — well, Toronto qualifying and Detroit would have been good qualifying had we not got a penalty. We obviously had a great race weekend in Detroit,” he said. “I want to use that experience at every track that we go to. So just trying to build on it, build on it, and continue to get better. More podiums is obviously the goal.”

The organization also announced long-time sponsor ABC Supply had renewed their contract, marking the 13th consecutive season they’ve sponsored Foyt.

“As we celebrate our 35th anniversary at ABC Supply, we are very happy to be continuing our relationship with AJ Foyt Racing,” said Keith Rozolis, ABC Supply Co. Inc. president and chief executive officer. “They’ve been part of the ABC team since 2005, and our associates and customers look forward to watching Carlos and Conor compete and win in 2017.”

Daly noted he was excited to have the brand onboard with their signature colors, and the fact they have a passion for racing.

“There needs to be more companies like that in the world,” he said. “I’m excited about it. The car is red, white and blue. I bleed red, white and blue. I try to be the most American dude around. I’m excited to kind of use that and just strengthen the relationship. It’s going to be awesome.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.