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Commentary Open Wheel

EMBURY: Indy 500 Grid-a-tology, Second Edition

The purpose of Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology is to give an idea on who’s trending upward in the battle for being Firestone Fast Nine eligible. The first edition was published pre-Phoenix and can be found by clicking here.

The big question surrounding the second version of Indianapolis 500 Grid-a-tology was brought into focus at Phoenix International Raceway- is Chevrolet well ahead of Honda? Or will the Japanese marque once again find a way to reverse the trend?

For now, a few adjustments have been made, including J.R. Hildebrand joining the conversation for making the Firestone Fast Nine. A stout performance in the Diamond Desert Grand Prix, plus a quiet one from team boss Ed Carpenter has made the Californian as the best challenger for Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s semi-home team.

Spencer Pigot and Sebastian Saavedra have been added to the tote board, as their places with Juncos Racing are all but a lock. The second-year IndyCar driver re-unites with the same squad with which he won the 2015 Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires title. Saavedra also is back at the Brickyard with long-time supporter Gary Peterson.

Fernando Alonso was impressive in completing his rookie test, but how does that affect his value? For now, yours truly needs to see more to be convinced. Matt Embury’s first rule: One performance is never enough; it must be backed up.

NOTE: Drivers yet to be officially confirmed, are listed in parentheses.

 

FRONT ROW

Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing: The first Honda across the finish line at Phoenix. The effort more than validates the Iceman’s place as position number one heading to Indianapolis. He dominated time trials en route to securing the pole two years ago.

Josef Newgarden, Team Penske: He was only fourth among the Captain’s quartet at Phoenix, but due to a little bad luck late. Since that won’t influence qualifying, Jo Cool stays on the one line.

Helio Castroneves, Team Penske: Back-to-back front row efforts entering the Brickyard is a sign that the determination to succeed may be back for the four-time Indy pole king.

ROW 2

Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport: If Honda Performance Development (HPD) is playing possum again, RHR is capable of joining the top three. If not, it will be a tough fight to hold this placing.

James Hinchcliffe, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: The Mayor did well to reach top spot a year ago, but he also took advantage of Honda’s edge to get there. Certainly cannot do it solely on driving effort.

Will Power, Team Penske: The Aussie has been able to transfer strength in road course time trials to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Do not overlook that reality.

ROW 3

Alexander Rossi, Andretti Herta Autosport: If only he had gotten a second run in pre-qualifying last year. Year two should offer a more friendlier result.

Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske: The 2016 series champion made the front row two years ago and could match that if Chevrolet can equalize last year’s deficit to Honda.

Tony Kanaan, Chip Ganassi Racing: There’s a lot to like about TK in the Indianapolis 500-mile race, but not so much in qualifying since joining Ganassi. Will take some courage to break the current pattern.

ROW 4

Marco Andretti, Andretti Autosport: Will be teetering on the cut line concerning the shootout right up to the six-o’clock gun Saturday.

J.R. Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing: Makes a big jump based on Phoenix in part, but I also recall the Californian advancing to the final nine in 2014.

Mikhail Aleshin, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Nothing at PIR to help or hurt the Russian. For now, he stays puts in P12.

ROW 5:

Fernando Alonso, Andretti Autosport: The private test at IMS went well. While a 222 MPH lap is impressive, how will it stack up against the rest of the challengers? Work to do here.

Ed Carpenter, Ed Carpenter Racing: Never thought Hildebrand would be the primary source to qualifying success for ECR, but it sure seems that way after the boss’s lackluster run at Phoenix.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Team Penske: Qualifying has been kryptonite for the Colombian, he has been worst among the Captain’s runners in time trials each of the past three years.

ROW 6:

Takuma Sato, Andretti Autosport: After starting impressively at St. Petersburg, the near- 2012 Indy 500 upset winner returns to familiar territory from when he was with A.J. Foyt Racing. Does not appear able to take advantage of a good car for qualifications.

Sebastien Bourdais, Dale Coyne Racing: The comments made by Craig Hampson pre-Phoenix are putting doubt in DCR’s mind at the worst possible moment. Something good must happen during practice. or it could be a disaster.

Carlos Munoz, A.J. Foyt Racing: The aggressive veteran does not have the resources to threaten the top nine as he did with Andretti. Dramatic turnaround required before Munoz improves his placing.

ROW 7

Oriol Servia, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: RLLR is following ECR’s path. Their primary threat is being trumped by the other driver in the camp.

Charlie Kimball, Chip Ganassi Racing: Three top-ten finishes at the Indy 500, but has yet to make an impact in qualifying mode. Should top Chilton to be third in CGR stable, but not much more than that.

Sage Karam, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing: DRR’s focus has been more on the race than time trials; 2017 should be no different.

ROW 8

Jack Harvey, Andretti Autosport: If Alonso can make a move up the list, so can Harvey. Indy Lights veteran should have the same muscle that the Spaniard will have in his arsenal.

Graham Rahal, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing: Qualified seventh in his first try with the family-based organization, but has been nowhere near that zip code in the years since.

Max Chilton, Chip Ganassi Racing: Interesting to see how the Englishman fares this month after a Pole Day crash last year derailed the effort. Could see a surprise jump.

ROW 9

Gabby Chaves, Harding Racing: Could get closer to matching or exceeding the output from semi-teammate Karam in qualifications. Compliacted to say based on a new team, but Indy 500 experience is present in most categories.

Ed Jones, Dale Coyne Racing: Is in the same way Bourdais did at Phoenix. The situation is unlikely to improve this month.

Conor Daly, A.J. Foyt Racing: Topped Gateway speed chart, but may have only done so as pace may not have been the concern for most of his rivals.

ROW 10

Spencer Pigot, Juncos Racing: Reunion of the 2015 Indy Lights champions provides a thought-provoking pairing. Whether it equates to a satisfactory result in time trials and the race is unknown.

Zach Veach, A.J. Foyt Racing: Extra seat time at Barber could boost fortunes for the Ohio-based rookie. Could push Daly for second in the queue for Foyt behind Munoz.

(Sebastian Saavedra), Juncos Racing: Not a great track record at Indy for the Colombian, however Saavedra should be more competitive as opposed to original choice Kyle Kaiser.

ROW 11

Pippa Mann, Dale Coyne Racing: Expectations have lowered following the struggles of DCR at Phoenix last month. The veteran is deserving of better equipment.

Jay Howard, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports: Six-year layoff will prevent Howard from getting as much out of his car as Hinch and Aleshin will.

Buddy Lazier, Lazier Partners Racing: The Colorado-based group is always having to play catch-up, so topping anyone in qualifying would be a personal victory.

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 Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Phoenix

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Throughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

Is Simon Pagenaud returning to his role as the rabbit of the Verizon IndyCar Series? Following his first win of 2017 at Phoenix, the Frenchman is headed toward recasting a sequel. However, coming into the fourth round sixth in the driver rankings, it is impossible to move all the way to the top.

Looking ahead to the 101st Indianapolis 500, POPULAR SPEED has extended our IndyCar team rankings to reflect those who will make their lone appearance at the Brickyard.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (No Change)

Phoenix showed the remainder of the IndyCar grid what a five-car Team Penske could do when the transporters reach Gasoline Alley. Pagenaud won at Phoenix and any of his four teammates, including two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, are capable of adding their face to the Borg-Warner Trophy on May 28th.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (+1)

Honda’s failure to figure out Phoenix derailed Ganassi’s performance in Arizona; however, if the pace the Japanese manufacturer showed last year at Indy can be replicated, good finishes from Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and Charlie Kimball are possible. It is probably too early to add Max Chilton as a serious challenger though.

3. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1)

12th was the best SPM could manage from James Hinchcliffe; but, Mikhail Aleshin’s elimination on the lap puts a question mark on the table. It is tough to move them ahead of DCR based on last weekend, but on potential looking ahead to Indy, Schmidt in the words of former Price is Right host Bob Barker, “is the bigger bargain.”

4. Dale Coyne Racing (-1)

Craig Hampson was right – DCR is not a serious contender on the ovals. Sebastien Bourdais was another victim of the lap one pileup but struggled for pace in practice. Ed Jones also failed to feature, managing an 11th-place finish based on attrition. Not the news Indy 500-only pilot Pippa Mann was hoping to hear.

5. Andretti Autosport (No Change)

Another quadruple retirement for Andretti at Phoenix. The good news is with six cars track side at IMS at least one car should make the finish in the 500. How the rest of the six-pack handles the attention that Fernando Alonso is guaranteed to get this month will guide them to their climax.

6. Ed Carpenter Racing (+1)

Ed Carpenter never made the impact that was hoped for at Phoenix, although J.R. Hildebrand certainly did. A solid qualifying run, coupled with a clean showing in the race netted a third-place finish for the Californian. While it is premature to tag the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Chevrolet as an Indy 500 favorite, the car and its occupant should not be overlooked.

7. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (-1)

Confidence is dropping fast at RLLR, and Graham Rahal is not hiding that things look bleak. A good Indy 500 finish may depend on Oriol Servia at this point.

8. A.J. Foyt Racing (No Change)

The offseason signings Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly continue to be mired among the rear guard. The addition of Zach Veach at the Indy 500 should help, but just when Foyt could not fall any further down the list, here comes the Indy-only invaders.

9. Dreyer & Reinbold Racing (Unranked)

The combination of DRR and Sage Karam can cut it against the big boys. 31st to ninth in 2014 and a brief surge into the top-ten last year justifies their placement as the group most likely to rattle the full-timers club this month.

10. Harding Racing (Unranked)

Team boss Larry Curry is the perfect choice to lead a new operation, and you cannot do much better than hiring Gabby Chaves as the wheelman. Alliance with DRR means perhaps an equal level of performance.

Driver Rankings:

1. Scott Dixon (+1)

Four top-fives in four starts to open 2017. No doubt about it, the Iceman appears ready to challenge for a second Indianapolis 500 win.

2. Josef Newgarden (+1)

The Tennessee-native was not the best of the Penske bunch at Phoenix, but he should be effective when he sets foot at the corner of 16th and Georgetown in one week from now.

3. Sebastien Bourdais (-2)

Perhaps Dale Coyne Racing can salvage their month of May with a big push in the IndyCar Grand Prix. Once the scenery moves back to the 2.5-mile oval, the odds are not in the Frenchman’s favor.

4. Will Power (+1)

Power finally reached the finish of an 2017 IndyCar race without issue. A second-place finish behind Pagenaud was well earned and should make the Aussie a challenger in both May events.

5. Simon Pagenaud (+1)

Even without the yellow flag, Pagenaud was looming as a potential winner. Although a third IndyCar GP win in four tries is signficant; the 2016 IndyCar champion has made it clear that the Indy 500 is the one he wants the most.

6. James Hinchcliffe (-2)

Last year’s Indy 500 pole winner should bounce back to play a role in the drama on May 28; however, based on his Long Beach victory, his best shot at Brickyard glory could be in the IndyCar Grand Prix.

7. Helio Castroneves (+1)

Castroneves has been more effective in qualifying than on race day. The pressure to make history as a four-time Indy 500 champion exists, but expect the Brazilian to dig deep in his quest to get there.

8. Tony Kanaan (Unranked)

A quiet sixth-place last week sets the stage for TK’s best chances for victory this season. If Honda regains its muscle from 2016, watch out.

9. Alexander Rossi (-1)

Rossi and his Andretti teammates floundered at Phoenix, leaving their month of May prospects in doubt. Probably faces a higher mountain than any defending Indy 500 champion in history.

10. J.R. Hildebrand (Unranked)

Indy’s hard luck hero added his name to the contenders’ list with a podium finish at Phoenix. He was in the mix late in last year’s Indy 500 until he made contact with Helio Castroneves.

Dropped Out: Ryan Hunter-Reay (9th last week), Spencer Pigot (10th last week)

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

Team Penske Left Mark on Phoenix

AVONDALE, Ariz. – As reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud scored the victory, the crowd roared with excitement under the lights at Phoenix Raceway. After returning to the track last year after more than a decade, the open-wheel cars put together another spectacular run at the valley of the sun.

On Saturday night, the Arizona oval hosted its 63rd IndyCar race with the second running of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. The events not only ushered in larger audiences than the year before, but also rang the end of an era as the track prepares to make significant renovations. The revamp of the historic  facility is slated to be completed by November of next year.

“This track is old, in a sense, and even though there’s nothing wrong with the race track, the facility itself, to really to be able to continue to attract fans, you’ve got to really do more than just put on a show on the racetrack,” legendary IndyCar driver Lyn St. James said. “I think it’ll be great for Phoenix and great for the fans.”

Before it became a staple on the NASCAR circuit, PIR was opened in March of 1964 for open-wheel racing specifically. It’s inaugural event, a 100-mile United States Auto Club race with an average speed of 107mph, was won by A.J. Foyt. Due to this and his many other accomplishments in the sport, the winner on Saturday went home the A.J. Foyt Champions Trophy, a special award crafted with Grand Canyon Onyx and encrusted with a likeness of Foyt.

The competition for the victory was tense, but there was one team in particular which seemed unfazed: Team Penske.

The team’s success began early on in the weekend as Helio Castroneves won the pole on Friday night, winning the “Speed King” crown for the second year in a row at Phoenix. He was especially proud to reach this feat at a track he’s won at in the past.

“I wanted that crown so bad,” Castroneves said. “I’m not going to give up that crown, so I’m glad it’s still there. It was great, great teamwork.”

The entire Penske team was also able to make its permanent mark on the track on Friday night as all four of its drivers in the series were invited to sign a 30-foot steel beam that will make up part of the new grandstand.

As the race began Saturday evening, all of the Penske drivers managed to avoid getting caught up in the four-car collision on the very first lap of the race going into turn one.

The rest of the race ran relatively smoothly up until Lap 138 when Takuma Sato made contact with the SAFER Barrier in Turn 4.  The caution worked out in Pagenaud’s favor as he was able to solidify his place in the top spot and hold off the other competitors all the way through the last lap.

“The car was so strong at the beginning of the race that we were able to save a lot of fuel in traffic you know, following Will [Power] and Helio [Castroneves], so we were able to lift a lot at the end of the straight and saved a lot of fuel so we could go longer,” Pagenaud said. “It paid off with that lucky yellow, I’ve got to say. We’ve had our fair share of bad luck this year too, so it doesn’t hurt sometimes to have a little break for yourself.”

Team Penske managed to take home a one-two finish with Pagenaud and Will Power. The rest of the Captain’s quartet – Castroneves and Josef Newgarden – finished fourth and ninth. Their dominance on the night shines through in laps led, as the foursome led all 250 laps en route to the team’s 189th series victory.

The victory also marked Pagenaud’s 10th career win and put him in the lead in this season’s points standings, with all four drivers in the top-seven.

For Pagenaud, the win was especially surprising being his first ever win on an oval track.

“Oval is not my specialty, I grew up in Europe racing go-karts, and I learned about oval only when I was, I believe 26 years old, 25,” he explained. “I had to re-learn the technique, the skill that I didn’t know. It’s incredible, what a win. That was phenomenal.”

With so many changes being made to the track before IndyCar returns next year, Will Power says he’s unsure of how these modifications, including the relocation of the start/finish line to the dog leg, will affect the racing.

“I’m not sure how they can make it how you can pass easier,” he explained. “It’s so difficult, even when you’ve got a strong car. You push like you wouldn’t believe and you just can’t get people.”

Even with the difficulties that Power mentioned when running at Phoenix, Castroneves summarized the weekend for Team Penske best, saying, “We have the moment with the pole position but Team Penske won with Simon [Pagenaud] and congrats to him. Josef [Newgarden] was right there in it as well. We showed that, even Honda looking a little bit strong, we still have a good car and today was proof.”

The next time Team Penske visits Phoenix Raceway, it will be met with a whole new set of challenges as well as fans. But one thing is for certain: Phoenix is a special place for Penske Racing.

Vivian Meza is a POPULAR SPEED Development Journalist

EMAIL VIVIAN AT vivian.meza@popularspeed.com

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

Categories
Commentary Open Wheel

What We Learned: Phoenix International Raceway

The Big Picture:  The Verizon IndyCar Series oval races begin. Back in the olden days, the Indy Racing League (1995 – 2007) was all about ovals, at least at the start. Now, not so much.

Event: We call them fly in races. Arrive Friday, qualify and race Saturday. Except they changed qualifying to Friday. Woo Hoo. The crowds were sparse both days. Somebody lost money on this one, but it may take time to build this race as it only started running again in 2016.

Qualifying: Ever watched paint dry? Oval qualifying in the ICS is even less exciting. However, veteran Helio Castroneves took the number one spot and set a new track record. It appeared that Chevy was going to dominate the weekend.

Race:   After a horrible first lap crash that took out five cars, pole sitter Castroneves led the field through 50 odd laps of decent racing, followed by pit stop generated leads by Josef Newgarden and then Simon Pagenaud. It seemed we were going to see a Will Power win as the Australian headed the field for 59 circuits. But wait! Defending series champion Pagenaud took the lead on Lap 137 and never let go. There was relatively little passing for an oval race, with the notable exception of Hildebrand, who picked off cars like it was a spectator sport. Overall, not a bad contest of speed except for that nasty Aleshin wreck.

Biggest Surprise: J.R. Hildebrand’s astonishing comeback after a broken hand at Long Beach and missing Barber; he got a podium finish at Phoenix.

Biggest Disappointment: Without a doubt, the initial lap first turn spin by Mikhail Aleshin, causing a crash taking out himself, Graham Rahal, Marco Andretti, Max Chilton, and points leader Sebastien Bourdais.

Best Team:  The Penskes were once again awesome, taking pole and finishing first, second, fourth, and ninth, plus setting fastest lap of the race. No other team led during the event.

Worst Team:  Andretti Autosport failing to post a top-12.We can only hope it gets better as the series moves to Indianapolis for the month of May.

Sponsor of the Weekend: Menard’s, sponsor of Pagenaud’s #1 car.

What We Learned:  Races that start with crashes taking out a big part of the field are not as exciting as those which start cleanly. Frenchmen can learn to drive oval tracks in their mid-twenties.  Events with only two cautions and no penalties can go very quickly.

Say Goodbye, Part I: Motorcycle and Indy 500 racer Joe Leonard died at the age of 84 on April 27th, but we heard about it race day. Leonard won the pole at Indy in 1968, driving for Parnelli Jones. Among others, Leonard is survived by his 1968 teammates Mario Andretti and Al Unser.

Say Goodbye Part II: Allen Bestwick and Dr. Jerry Punch were unceremoniously dismissed by ESPN along with 97 other employees on Friday. Dr. Punch, a loyal employee for 30 years is also credited with saving the lives of racer Rusty Wallace and singer Vince Gill’s daughter. This follows an earlier dismissal by ESPN of print and internet journalist John Oreovicz.

Schedule:  In two weeks, many of the drivers get to drive one of their favorite races, the IndyCar Grand Prix, the road course at Indianapolis on May 13th.

Quotes of the Weekend:

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “I can’t explain how excited I am. Ovals are not my specialty. I grew up in Europe racing go-karts. I learned about ovals when I was 26 years old, so I had to learn the skill and the technique that I didn’t know. Man, this is incredible. What a win. The car was phenomenal and thanks to the Menards Chevrolet crew. On the pit stops these guys never make any mistakes – I can completely rely on them and the car was just incredible from the beginning to the end. The car was so strong at the beginning of the race; we were able to save fuel in traffic. And it paid off with that lucky yellow but we’ve had our fair share of bad luck too this year so it doesn’t hurt sometimes to have a little break.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda):“Certainly not the end result we were hoping for. For us, the race started pretty decently. Obviously, I felt bad to see Mikhail get caught up in a Turn 1 incident. From there we had a decent first stint. During the first round of stops, we realized we weren’t on the same program as everyone else. We ended up having to stop a whole lot earlier than the other cars, and we just weren’t getting the (fuel) mileage. Even though it got us the track position early on, ultimately having to stop five, six laps earlier than everyone over the course of a race adds up. There was no yellow that kind of came out at the right time to put us on the same page as everyone else, and at the end of the race, we had to come in for a splash and go which cost a couple spots. It’s too bad; I think we could have had a solid top-10 finish. The Arrow Electronics car was the strongest that we’ve had here between last year, the test and now; it was a really good car. Unfortunately, the mileage situation really deterred us today. Big credit to the Arrow boys – we rolled off the truck with a good car again. We’ll head into the Month of May and see what we can do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 United Rentals Honda): “I was told by my spotter ‘Go low, go low’ but Max (Chilton) was spinning in front of me to the bottom so I could not go low. My only choice was to go above him and when he released the brake pedal, his car came back up the banking. Where do you go?  There was no way to stop the car on the banking. It’s not his fault, that’s just the circumstances of racing. Unfortunately, we got pinched between Max and Marco (Andretti). We’re all innocent bystanders. I haven’t seen the replay yet but I heard Aleshin lost it. With all the smoke, you can’t see a thing. There are cars flying everywhere. I was just kind of hanging on. It’s a shame because we obviously wanted to get a good finish for United Rentals and all of our sponsors.”

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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News Open Wheel

Pagenaud Dominates at Phoenix to Collect First Oval Win

AVONDALE, Arizona – In his eighth Indy car season and 105th race, Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud found victory lane on an oval.

By taking the checkered flag in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix Raceway, Pagenaud (No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) scored his 10th career Indy car win and the 189th in the illustrious history of Team Penske. Pagenaud’s teammate Will Power (No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet) followed the Frenchman across the line by 9.1028 seconds, with Ed Carpenter Racing’s JR Hildebrand (No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet) rounding out the podium.

“Those were the longest 50 laps of my life,” said Pagenaud of his final stint, in which he led after assuming the lead on Lap 137 of 250. “I have a button on my wheel that tells me how many laps were left. I kept pressing it. It was stressful.

“The car was phenomenal. It was an incredible day for the Menards Chevrolet. It’s been a fun day. This is incredible. This is my best win. You need to be so strategic to win on an oval and today was the perfect day. I couldn’t be any happier.”

DESERT DIAMOND WEST VALLEY PHOENIX GRAND PRIX: Box score

With the win, Pagenaud jumps into the Verizon IndyCar Series points lead after four of 17 races. He and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Dixon (No. 9 NTT Data Honda), who finished fifth in Saturday’s race and is now second in the title hunt, are the only two drivers to finish in the top five in each of the first four races.

Pagenaud’s win notched a pair of additional milestones for Team Penske. It was the team’s 450th race win in any motorsports form and the team’s 100th Indy car win on an oval.

For Hildebrand, it was his first top-three finish since he was second in the 2011 Indy 500 and his sixth career top-five.

“I was definitely anxious to make good on the speed that we had here in preseason testing,” said Hildebrand, who returned this weekend after missing the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama with a broken hand. “Team has a great short oval package. I know that from doing some testing last year.

“Excited to get the result for the team, for sure. The car was bitchin’. I mean, I think at the end of the race we had obviously one of the top three, but I think we might have had the best car on the track.”

The Verizon IndyCar Series now turns the page to the month of May in Indianapolis. The INDYCAR Grand Prix is next up, the fourth Indy car race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. May 13 on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Then it’s on to the 101st Indianapolis 500 on May 28, airing on at 11 a.m. ET on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.

 
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Commentary IndyCar Open Wheel

FANTASY HOT TIP: Phoenix

After a second straight disaster for yours truly at Barber Motorsports Park, my Firestone Fantasy Challenge team sees another revamp.

With the Verizon IndyCar Series heading to Phoenix International Raceway for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Grand Prix, it is time to start a rally. As scenery changing from road course to high-speed oval, new players come into the mix. Unfortunately, for small operations like Dale Coyne Racing, the scenarios which aided their rise in the first three races, may turn against them.

Although DCR does have an oval track win on their resume (Justin Wilson, Texas 2012), the oval tracks have been dominated by better-funded outfits. Last year, however, did provide an exception. Andretti-Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi won the Indianapolis 500, while Graham Rahal’s family-run squad edged out another small fry in Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe at Texas. The question now is focused on two trending factors.

One, will the smaller squads continue to threaten the tophalf of the field on ovals in 2017? Secondly, will Honda continue to thrive on its perceived horsepower advantage? Going by my four fantasy selections for Phoenix, my answers to those questions are NO. While Honda held serve on the fastest ovals last year, Chevrolet ruled on the short, tighter bull rings, such as Phoenix. The deck was stacked for GM in qualifying at least, as every Chevy-powered car outran the fastest Honda entrant. The Japanese manufacturer did bounce back some in the race itself, but not enough to challenge for victory.

Even if Chevrolet does not rule in terms of pace, Team Penske enters Arizona with momentum. The Captain’s quartet swept position one through three on the grid at Barber, and Josef Newgarden moved from seventh to victory lane. Each of the four pilots has had their moments on leftturn-only circuit; however. the salary cap prevents me from filling out my roster with all of them.

Despite that roadblock, I still have two good drivers from those four. Newgarden’s selection was a no-brainer as not only does he carry positive energy, he also won last year at Iowa Speedway. His teammate Helio Castroneves is known more for his success in the Indianapolis 500; however, he certainly is capable of a high placing likewise.

As for the other two spots, I went with oval track success as my focus. While Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan does not have many victories in his record book and lacks a Chevrolet engine, the eye-test recalls seeing the Brazilian in contention many times on ovals, making his inclusion worth it. The same gamble comes into play when assessing the potential of owner-driver Ed Carpenter, who makes his season debut at Phoenix. Like TK, the Indianapolis-native is a regular near the front at these types of tracks and with a surprisingly low fantasy value this week (15 dollars against a 100 cap), the risk does not exceed the reward.

For my sake, let’s hope the opening sentence for the next edition of Fantasy Hot Tip is a more positive one.

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 Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Alabama

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Throughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

If the Honda had an advantage over Chevrolet. it was refuted this weekend as Team Penske dominated the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. After taking the top three places in qualifying, their domination continued on Sunday. Although Will Power finished 14th after suffering a flat tire, his teammate Josef Newgarden was able to take the victory. The case supporting Team Penske is further solidified as Simon Pagenaud and Helio Castroneves finished third and fourth, respectively.

While Team Penske retains the top spot for a second straight race, Sebastien Bourdais and Scott Dixon maintain their placings in the Driver Rankings. Bourdais salvaged a difficult day in Alabama by finishing eighth, while Dixon chased Power and Newgarden from start to finish, to place second.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (No Change)

After some doubts were raised after Long Beach, the Captain’s quartet was strong at Barber Motorsports Park. If Chevrolet continues to make progress in closing the edge shown by Honda in rounds one and two, a repeat of 2016 could be possible.

2. Chip Ganassi Racing (+1)

Scott Dixon was unable to keep Newgarden behind him after gaining track position following the final round of pit stops. Despite the shortcoming, the Iceman moves closer Bourdais in the championship standings. Decent showing from Tony Kanaan nets the Brazilian a topten, while Max Chilton finished 12th. Questionable decision to stay out under the final caution did not payoff for Charlie Kimball, who had to pit under green and settled for 15th.

3. Dale Coyne Racing (-1)

Both Sebastien Bourdais and Ed Jones advanced out of the first phase of qualifying on Saturday, but things went south afterward. Bourdais never got the strategy breaks required to move up from 12th and settled for an eighth-place finish. Jones did not show signs of a good run after the first round of pit stops and finished 16th. Comments from Craig Hampson looking ahead to Phoenix did not show confidence, either.

4. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (No Change)

Hinchcliffe was unable to keep pace with the Penske and Ganassi runners upfront and then lost out to a clever strategy play by Alexander Rossi. Still, a sixth-place finish does not cause much damage to the Mayor’s hopes to contend for a high placing in the championship. Mikhail Aleshin enjoyed his best run of the season to date with a tenth-place finish, albeit earned with an aggressive final lap pass of Ryan Hunter-Reay at the Charlotte’s Web hairpin.

5. Andretti Autosport (No Change)

Sunday started badly when Marco Andretti suffered mechanical woes before the start and finished 21st. Alexander Rossi was able to make the finish as opposed to Long Beach, coming home in fifth-place. Quiet runs from Takuma Sato and Ryan Hunter-Reay netted ninth and eleventh-place finishes respectively. Not the disaster that Long Beach turned out to be, but still behind their fellow Honda runners.

6. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (No Change)

13th-place is all Graham Rahal could manage at Barber this past weekend. Interesting comments from the second-generation driver claiming in an interview with motorsport.com that his team cannot compete with the multi-car entrants. This view comes despite Rahal winning races in each of the past two seasons without the aid of teammates.

7. Ed Carpenter Racing (No Change)

Bad luck prevented Spencer Pigot from earning his second consecutive top-ten finish at Alabama. Zach Veach stayed out of trouble and despite finishing only 19th in his IndyCar debut, he should be better from it looking ahead to the 101st Indianapolis 500 next month.

8. A.J. Foyt Racing (No Change)

Any momentum gained from Carlos Munoz’s top-ten effort at Long Beach, did not follow F0yt’s boys to Alabama. Neither the Colombian nor Conor Daly ran among the top half of the field, finishing 17th and 18th respectively.

Driver Rankings:

1. Sebastien Bourdais (No Change)

Alabama was a case of creating something out of nothing for the Frenchman. Unable to move up via pit strategy, Bourdais fought hard to secure an eighth-place finish. Not spectacular, but enough to remain on top.

2. Scott Dixon (+1)

A runner-up finish in Alabama is enough to jump the New Zealander ahead of Hinchcliffe this week. Not quite enough though to pass Bourdais. Phoenix could change that however.

3. Josef Newgarden (+3)

A removal of pressure after the Long Beach podium was evidenced at Barber Motorsports Park on Sunday. Big charge from seventh to second in the first stint put him in contention and the Tenneseee-based pilot was present to take advantage of Will Power’s misfortune late. Third in the points standings and third in the power rankings heading to Phoenix.

4. James Hinchcliffe (-2)

Hinch started sixth and finished sixth. Considering the muscle shown by Team Penske, that’s not as bad as it sounds. Still, a drop in the rankings is needed.

5. Will Power (No Change)

Power did nothing wrong at Alabama and still suffered a flat tire, costing him a sure victory. The performance before the problem makes it impossible for me to move him further down the list.

6. Simon Pagenaud (-2)

Dropped two places after finishing third?!? I don’t agree with it either, however Pagenaud was unable to hold off Newgarden and never challenged for the lead from start to finish. So reluctantly, the defending series champion falls two spots.

7. Helio Castroneves (+1)

Spider-Man couldn’t match the pace he showed in qualifying, however a fourth-place finish is not means for condemnation. Therefore, he moves up one place in the rankings.

8. Alexander Rossi (Not Ranked)

Karma rewarded him Sunday after issues not of his own doing plagued him at Long Beach. Defending Indianapolis 500 champion joins the topten, as the Brickyard draws closer.

9. Ryan Hunter-Reay (-2)

Nothing special from the Andretti Autosport driver this weekend. 11th-place finish drops him two notches this week.

10. Spencer Pigot (-1)

Pigot is number two on the “Bad Luck Suffered” list behind Will Power. He was as running in the top-ten on Sunday when his Fuzzy’s Chevrolet stalled on the track, relegating him to a 20th-place finish. Effort has been there, luck has not.

Dropped Out: Ed Jones (No. 10 Post-Long Beach)

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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 Power Rankings

POWER RANKINGS: Long Beach

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Throughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

Following James Hinchcliffe’s win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, there are noticeable ranking changes. It is time to say adios to Team Penske’s Will Power at number two, following a second bad finish. It is also farewell to Scott Dixon’s placement on top of the rankings after St. Petersburg last month.

Rarely has a power rankings list ever placed a Dale Coyne Racing pilot on top, but there is a first for everything.

Team Rankings:

1. Team Penske (+1)

The efforts from both Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud are just enough to keep them ahead of an ever-improving Dale Coyne Racing. However, the inability for Helio Castroneves to back up his pace from qualifying, coupled with a second consecutive bad finish from Will Power, means the storyline is far from flawless.

2. Dale Coyne Racing (+2)

Bourdais now has two podiums to open his second foray with DCR, and Ed Jones managed to earn a top ten result after fading in the second half of last month’s season opener. Alabama should continue the trend upward; however, Phoenix remains the final exam in terms of whether this team permanently cements itself as a regular front runner.

3. Chip Ganassi Racing (-2)

Scott Dixon continues to provide the good vibes for Ganassi, but problems rest with the remainder of CGR’s foursome. Kanaan and Chilton were relatively quiet on Sunday, and Kimball suffered from another early race incident. Remember, one driver carrying a team is not always enough concerning their ranking.

4. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (+1)

Hinchcliffe was handcuffed by the full course caution at St. Pete. So essentially, he picked right off from that point and came away with a victory at Long Beach. Can’t quite move them ahead of Ganassi based on Mikhail Aleshin’s 12th-place finish though.

5. Andretti Autosport (-2)

Sunday was painful for Andretti. It was not that its team was severely outclassed as mechanical woes were to blame for the lack of results. With nightmares looming from a difficult 2016 season, they need to bounce back at Barber.

6. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (No Change)

A top ten earned by Graham Rahal was alright. but lackluster. Barber was the start of their big surge in 2016, so not a bad place to start another rally.

7. Ed Carpenter Racing (No Change)

Eighth-place deserved from Spencer Pigot, however late exit for J.R. Hildebrand keeps ECR behind Rahal. This is a team that maybe wishes Phoenix was next, rather than Barber.

8. A.J. Foyt Racing (No Change)

Carlos Munoz was mid-pack for most of Sunday and took advantage of the late shuffling to finish seventh. Now for Conor Daly, still scratching head regarding sub-par results so far. While Munoz was the clearly forecasted higher for 2017, the gap between them should not be this large.

Driver Rankings:

1. Sebastien Bourdais (+2)

No kidding here friends, a DCR driver has reached the pinnacle of IndyCar driver rankings, and not by default either. The Frenchman overcame qualifying shortcomings for podium finishes in the opening two events. Bourdais sits on top of the points table and it is time to reward an early performance.

2. James Hinchcliffe (+2)

As previously mentioned, what happened after the controversial St. Pete caution flag can be omitted. The Long Beach victory simply backed up his opening round performance.

3. Scott Dixon (-2)

A pair of topfives is nice, but when compared to what Bourdais and Hinch have offered, no justification to keep Dixon in the top two. The Iceman could ultimately become a top driver, but not at this point.

4. Simon Pagenaud (+1)

Pagenaud sneaked up to secure another top-five on Sunday. Of course, one can imagine what he could have done with a better qualifying result. That part of the equation is still not adding up.

5. Will Power (-3)

Power is on the verge of joining the “Missing Drivers Club.” A 13th-place finish is an unusual territory for this road racing ace. Perhaps Phoenix could jump start his season.

6. Josef Newgarden (+2)

The podium finish may remove a heavy burden off of Newgarden’s shoulders. The next challenge is simple: when will victory number one with Penske occur?

7. Ryan Hunter-Reay (-1)

A second win at Long Beach appeared possible, until bad luck struck the Andretti Autosport driver.

8. Helio Castroneves (-2)

Spider-Man did well to take pole position, but could not back up the effort on Sunday. Still, a ninth-place result merits his ranking.

9. Spencer Pigot (Not Ranked)

Pigot may not have a ride for next month’s Indianapolis 500, yet he continues to show muscle in his road racing-only schedule for Ed Carpenter Racing. The top-ten at Long Beach merits his move onto the list.

10. Ed Jones (Not Ranked)

The defending Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires champion has taken to IndyCar competition well. Back-to-back top-ten’s are enough for his inclusion after Long Beach.

Dropped Out: Takuma Sato (No. 7 post- St. Petersburg), Tony Kanaan (No.8)

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 CHALLENGE BREAKDOWN: Long Beach

With the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach less than a week away, the focus for Firestone Fantasy Challenge players has changed.

In direct variance to St. Petersburg, Florida, a case for having Andretti Autosport’s Takuma Sato as one of the drivers has improved. Although the jury is out on whether or not the Japanese veteran can manage to keep his nose out of trouble, his fifth-place finish earned him followers for Long Beach. According to IndyCar.com, Sato is currently a member of more fantasy teams than any other driver.

The St.Pete result is not the only reason to like Sato. His lone Verizon IndyCar Series victory came four years ago at Long Beach. He also finished fifth last year in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach with a A.J. Foyt Racing team that on paper is lower in potential output than Andretti Autosport can provide. Finally, when you consider his current value of twenty dollars, represents only one-fifth of a maximum team budget, even yours truly has officially joined the bandwagon.

With Sato, my fantasy roster remains largely unchanged since St. Pete. The top spot once again goes to Team Penske’s Will Power, perhaps the best road racer in IndyCar since 2008. The Australian is deserving of a second chance after suffering mechanical issues.

Although teammate Simon Pagenaud seems to be a better fantasy option following his second-place effort at St. Pete and Long Beach win last year, the lower price tag for Power provides me more flexibility. That wiggle room allowed me to call upon St. Pete winner Sebastien Bourdais for the second straight event. While the fantasy price for the Dale Coyne Racing pilot has been upped to $27, he must gain a better place on the starting grid. Although a Firestone Fast Six advancement may not be required, Bourdais cannot solely rely on lucky breaks to secure victories as he did last month.

Rounding out this week is Ed Carpenter Racing’s Spencer Pigot, who was the most aggressive driver in the opening laps in March. He could have challenged for a top-ten result, if not for a fluke suspension failure suffered during his first pit stop. If Pigot can make the finish in the top half at Long Beach, chances are that his fantasy value will increase from $17. 

Stay tuned every IndyCar race week at PopularSpeed.com for my Firestone Fantasy Challenge picks.

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 Power Rankings

IndyCar Power Rankings — St. Petersburg

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Throughout the season, POPULAR SPEED will rank the top-10 drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series following each event. Feel free to comment on the story at the POPULAR SPEED Facebook page.

With the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg officially in the record books, it is time to update the team rankings from this past week. Recall, before the season, the rankings were released based on last year and off-season changes. Click here to refresh your memory.

It is also a chance to debut the top ten drivers on the circuit. Keep in mind, the rankings you will see here do not necessarily follow finishing positions from Sunday.

So buckle up folks, here are the results!

Team Rankings:

1. Chip Ganassi Racing (+1)
2. Team Penske (-1)
3. Andretti Autosport (No Change)
4. Dale Coyne Racing (+3)
5. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (-1)
6. Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (-1)
7. Ed Carpenter Racing (-1)
8. A.J. Foyt Racing (No Change)

Dale Coyne Racing is no surprise the biggest mover, jumping from No. 7 to No. 4 in the run up to the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske swap places at the top as CGR went beyond where they were expected to be in its return to the Honda engine and aerodynamic options. Team Penske and Andretti Autosport were a push this past weekend, so they line up in positions two and three.

The early elimination of Graham Rahal and the bad luck with the second full course caution hampering early race leader James Hinchcliffe means both Rahal and Schmidt drop a place on the list. And while Spencer Pigot made noise early in the race for ECR, they fall to No. 7 following the opening round. Foyt rounds out the list after disappointing outputs from both Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly.

Driver Rankings:

1. Scott Dixon

Following my views on the teams’ list, Scott Dixon moves to the top with his solid third-place effort at St. Petersburg, a performance hurt by the debris caution that shuffled the running order. The Iceman’s performance also puts the 2008 Indy 500 champion as my early favorite for the 101st edition of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, as he has shown impressive oval savvy in recent runnings.

2. Will Power

St. Pete was a throwaway race for Power, who also was negatively affected by the caution and then sidelined by mechanical failure late. Before his eventual elimination, Power showed enough in both qualifying and the race to merit the number two spot ahead of race winner Sebastien Bourdais.

3. Sebastien Bourdais

While DCR showed the potential to be a consistent frontrunner on at least the road courses, a back-up of its first showing at Long Beach is necessary before Bourdais challenges for the top two spots.

4. James Hinchcliffe

The Mayor of Hinchtown also deserves a second chance at Long Beach after a solid effort to make the Firestone Fast Six and two strong early race moves to vault from the second row at the start to the early lead. Hinch could also be primed for a further jump after the Toyota GP if Honda continues to show superiority over Chevrolet in the power and handling department.

5. Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud did well to salvage his weekend with a runner-up finish; however, the yellow flag aid, plus a lackluster qualifying performance drop him to fifth in the rankings.

6. Ryan Hunter-Reay

Andretti Autosport had a decent opening act for 2017 as Hunter-Reay finished best for the team with a fourth-place result.

7. Takuma Sato

Sato finished fifth in his debut with AA. He also qualified fifth — solid first day at the office for the Japanese racer.

8. Josef Newgarden

Newgarden’s much-anticipated first race with Penske wasn’t spectacular, but not terrible either. He finished eighth after starting the race fourth.

9. Tony Kanaan

Kanaan opened the 2017 campaign with a 12th-place result after qualifying sixth.

10.Helio Castroneves

Castroneves started 16th and picked up 10 positions in the 110-lap event to end up sixth on the day.

I also give honorable mention honors to Spencer Pigot, who before his suspension failure entering the pit lane, was perhaps the most aggressive driver with the eye test. If he can make the checkered flag at Long Beach, Pigot could join the top ten after two events.

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.