TESTY THURSDAY

Team Penske Contenders

Team Penske Contenders. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Thursday was an open test day for all 22 of the Verizon IndyCar drivers at Sonoma Raceway. Yes, I said 22 drivers. Rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo, of Canada, has joined Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for the weekend in No.13 Paysafe Honda, adding one more car to the usual 21.

The weather was sunny and breezy, with mild temperatures. Fourteen drivers were on course in the morning session, with laps varying between four by three drivers to the 32 for Rookie DeMelo. Those who held back said they were waiting for the warmer afternoon temperatures which would be more ideal – more closely resemble the Saturday mid-afternoon Qualifying session or the mid-afternoon Sunday race. Among those who didn’t run in the morning session were four of the five Championship contenders Scott Dixon/No.9 NTT Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda; and three of the four Team Penske Chevrolet drivers, Josef Newgarden/No.2 Hum by Verizon, Simon Pagenaud/No.1 DXC Technology, and Helio Castroneves/No.3.

Four sets of tires were allotted to each driver for the six-hour test, and of these three must be returned to Firestone at the end of the day. One set can be carried over as scuffs for the rest of the weekend. For the weekend, the teams are given seven sets of tires,

The primary and alternative tires Firestone brought to Sonoma are the same as for this year’s Barber race, which Firestone Chief Engineer Cara Adams said is more durable than last year’s primary compound. The 2017 Sonoma alternative tire is similar to last year’s primary tire. The drivers often characterize Sonoma as an abrasive surface, tough on tire degradation.

Josef Newgarden carrying Will Power

Scott Dixon. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

The contenders joined the media for brief availability during the lunch break, with Dixon coming first, followed later by the Penske Posse.

Dixon said that the tire carryover rule was changed, which shortened the teams’ allotments even further. He waited out the morning, while his three teammates ran. Dixon said they would gather data, and prep during the lunch break, for the afternoon session. “Today is just about trying to understand the car as best as possible, try and get some data for the weekend. But, you know, as far as the race goes, it’s going to be more about trying to eliminate silly mistakes and situations that we can control.”

Castroneves said “We’re just waiting for the weather to be at least closer to what it will be in qualifying or tomorrow’s practice or race. As we all know, the track is very challenging, plus abrasive, which is difficult when you trying something with the tires after about five or six laps, already going to the next level. So you always got to keep that on mind. Right now I think not only ourselves but everyone, at least 10 other cars thinking the same way. As we going to go out, the track going to get better, even with the weather. It will be interesting to see this afternoon for sure. But it’s a lot of time.”

Pagenaud said “The goal is to go for the championship, especially with a great Team Penske that we’re all on. The goal is to come back and win another championship.”

Josef Newgarden carrying Will Power

Newgarden & Power. Photo by Pablo Matamoros.

It was variations on a theme when the four Penske drivers were asked about going for the win vs the championship. Basically go for the win and the championship will sort out, and it’s important that the Championship go to Team Penske. And Power and Newgarden proved they have each other’s back. Newgarden said “Oh, it’s business as usual. I think that’s the way Team Penske operates. It’s also what’s helped us have so much success this year, is that’s the way we operate. It seems to make us better every weekend. I think we’re going to need to work together if we want to be better than the field. It’s not going to be, in my opinion, straightforward or easy to be better than everyone this weekend.”

Despite only running four laps in the morning, Will Power/No.11 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet was the fastest in the test, at 109.922 mph/1:18. Seven drivers turned laps of 109+ mph.

By mid-afternoon, a couple of drivers went on course, and then the course went Red to rescue Alexander Rossi/No.98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Andretti Autosport Honda, who had stalled on course. It was 71 degrees F ambient and 108 F on track at 3pm, for the few drivers on course. More were waiting it out in pit lane, umbrellas and all. The second Red Flag was to tow in Charlie Kimball/No.83 Tresiba Chip Ganassi Racing Teams Honda.

In other news, JR Hildebrand/No.21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet and the team have confirmed that Hildebrand won’t be returning full time to the team next season, although he could run a third team car in the Indianapolis 500. Spencer Pigot will race the No.21 full-time next season.

Zach Veach was announced this week as the newest member of Andretti Autosport in No.26. His teammates will be Marco Andretti, Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Veach progressed up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder with Andretti Autosport and drove for AJ Foyt Racing at this year’s Indy 500, finishing 26th.

There are other seats in flux,

Also on track Thursday for testing were the young lions in the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear Series. Sixteen drivers – fifteen fellows and one sixteen-year old gal, mentored by Lyn St James, took to the track.

Everything starts in earnest Friday, with two IndyCar practices, and an IndyCar Pit Stop practice. Also running will be Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge, World Challenge, and Formula Car Challenge. The track will be busy non-stop from 8:15am to 6:10pm, ending with the two-seater IndyCar rides. The weather is forecast to be warmer.

SONOMA SNAPPLE

Marco Andretti

Marco Andretti. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

The fog soon lifted Saturday morning at Sonoma Raceway for Day Two of the Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend, featuring Verizon IndyCar Series, Pirelli World Challenge Series and the Formula Car Challenge presented by Goodyear Series. While the two support race groups had cooler grayer conditions, the sun was out for the late morning 45-minute practice for IndyCars.

Marco Andretti/No.27 Snapple Honda was the top IndyCar driver in Practice Three at 1:16.3052/112.522 mph. It was on his fifth of nine laps that he turned his fastest time. It was warm and sunny, blue, mostly cloudless skies, with the ambient temperature at 73 degrees F with almost no breeze.

Second was Juan Pablo Montoya/No.2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, who only ran eight laps. Ryan Hunter-Ready/No.28 DHL Honda was third, with 12 laps.

Juan Pablo Montoya

Ryan Hunter-Reay

Carlos Munoz

Juan Pablo Montoya/No.2 Chevrolet; Ryan Hunter-Reay/No.28 Honda; and Carlos Munoz/No.26 hhgregg Honda. Photos by Pablo Matamoros.

Fourth through sixth were Will Power/No.12 Verizon Team Penske; Carlos Munoz/No.26 hhgregg Honda; and Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet. Top Rookie, Alexander Rossi/No.98 Castrol Edge/Curb Honda, finished seventh overall.

Ten cars went faster Saturday morning than the fastest time set Saturday afternoon by Helio Castroneves/No.3 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet. While nearly all drivers turned double digit laps, but none more than 19. Except for Castroneves, all drivers were faster Saturday than Friday.

The IndyCar session was interrupted by a seven plus minute Red Flag when Josef Newgarden/No.21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka/ECR Chevrolet nose his car into the uphill 2, and then again for James Hinchcliffe/No.5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports two minutes from the end of the finish. The teams were given one more lap after the session went green. Both drivers are unhurt.

Josef Newgarden

Josef Newgarden. Photo by Pablo Matamoros

Newgarden was scrubbing off speed when he hit left front into the tires, so the damage didn’t appear to be as serious as it could have been. But there is only a three hour break before qualifying, so his team will have to hustle. Newgarden drew Group One for Qualifying, eighth car of eleven.

Hinch Crash

Hinch crash closeup

Hinch running

Hinchliffe’s accident photos by Pablo Matamoros.

With Hinchcliffe’s accident, the damage appeared to be more serious, as he hit the concrete wall hard exiting the apex of Turn Eleven. The car just seemed to snap, so it’s not known what happened there. The damage was to the left front wing. Suspension damage or injury to the left rear has yet to be assessed, so his crew will also be beavering away during lunch. At least the Mayor of Hinchtown drew Group Two for Qualifying, eighth of eleven cars. That should buy his crew a bit more time.

Penske Menard Pagenaud Interview

Roger Penske, John Menard & Simon Pagenaud

Team Penske announced that Penske driver, Simon Pagenaud/No.22 Chevrolet will be sponsored by Menards for ten races next season, including the 101th running of the Indianapolis 500. This is an expansion of the 2016 sponsorship which originally was to be for three races including the two May Indianapolis races, once of which Pagenaud won (again) – the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on the road course. That evolved to five races for 2016. Roger Penske said “The 2017 partnership is for ten races as Team Penske has other commitments with Hewlett Packard and PPG, but other sponsors will be associates, so we try to tie it together as one unit.”

Penske noted that the (bright yellow) Menards color scheme “certainly will help the other drivers know where Simon is.”

John Menard, who has sponsored many drivers American and foreign, said “This has been a fairy-tale year. It’s more pleasurable and enjoyable to be part of Roger’s team rather than trying to beat him. Winning my first race with Penske and Pagenaud at Indy certainly was great. You can’t make this up. Simon is a legend in his own time.”

It’s been ten years since Menards was in IndyCar, and he’s glad to be back. “I think IndyCar is on an upward trend now, for sure. I think that they are to be commended, the people that are running it right now, because I think they’re doing a great job.”

Menard is owner of 300 Menards home improvement stores in 14 Midwestern states. Menard said “We’re going to try to make a store connection. I don’t know if he’s going to go for the bobblehead idea very much, but we’re working on it. Some pretty fertile brains working on some fun promotions.” Maybe Menards will start carrying kitchen equipment so Pagenaud can do in-store cooking demonstrations.

Simon Pagenaud

Simon Pagenaud

Pagenaud said “The Menards livery is special, has been around for many years, and worn by many famous drivers. That car was always fast I’m honored to be the driver, and getting our first win was important. We hit it off right away – dream relationship.”

When questioned about his choice of a foreign driver rather than an American, Menard said “We sponsored Tony Stewart – he’s almost too American. He’s triple. Gone through a couple, okay? We’ve had other American drivers. Certainly Gary Bettenhausen comes to mind as being on par with Tony. Robby Gordon. Let’s face it, there’s a lot of very talented people in Europe, as there is in Brazil, as there is in America. I think it’s great that the Indy Racing League has a variety of drivers. I think it makes it a much more interesting sport because they do.”

Regarding what number Pagenaud would run, should he win the championship, Menard said “Picking the number one would be great, but seeing it in victory circle is great.”

Penske certainly is pleased with the 2016 racing season in general, celebrating his fiftieth year in racing. In IndyCars he has drivers going for the Championship, and two of his four drivers will finish 1-2, with a third poised to finish third in the standings. Over in NASCAR, he has two cars in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Chase for the Championship – Joey Logano/No.22 Ford and Brad Keselowski/No.2 Ford.

“This is a special year, no question about it. It’s hard to think that we’re sitting here with the championship really with Team Penske. We’re trying to determine is it Simon or Will. I never realized we’d get in that position. It’s an amazing feat. It just shows you the strength and depth of the team. Helio has a chance to potentially finish third if he has a good run. He looked strong yesterday, at least in the practice session.

“You put these together. 50 years is a number. Last year we didn’t really think about it. All of a sudden we’ve had a lot of notoriety. We appreciate the support of the media during our 50th year.”

As for how he wants this weekend to end, Penske smiled. “Back in my mind I know what should happen with this Championship, but I’m not going to say.”

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