Thursday, June 21, 2018

Track Walk: Road America 2018

IndyCar is back on the rolling hills of Road America
The tenth round of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season and first round of summer takes place at Road America. IndyCar is back after its first off weekend since early May and the top ten in the championship feature seven Honda drivers and three Chevrolet drivers with the top three drivers in the championship representing three different teams. Six of ten full-time teams are represented in the top ten of the championship. Five different nationalities are represented in the top ten of the championship with five American drivers in the top ten; four in the top six and three American drivers have won a race this season. France has two drivers in the top ten. Only one rookie is in the top ten.

Time: Coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday June 24th with green flag scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET.
TV Channel: NBCSN
Announcers: Leigh Diffey, Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy will be in the booth. Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt, Marty Snider and Robin Miller will work pit lane.

IndyCar Weekend Schedule
First Practice: 12:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session)
Second Practice: 4:15 p.m. ET (45-minute session)
Third Practice: 12:00 p.m. ET (45-minute session)
Qualifying: 4:00 p.m. ET (NBCSN will have tape-delayed coverage at 6:30 p.m. ET)
Race: 1:05 p.m. ET (55 laps)

Who Can Have a Summer Spurt? 
A championship run either sprouts out of the heat of summer or burns out. Will Power is one driver who has put together championship assaults. 

Power's average finish in the first five races of the summer the last two seasons is fourth with the Australian picking up four victories, seven podium finishes and nine top ten finishes in those ten races. The only blemish is Power's retirement without completing a lap last year at Toronto. In 2016, Power went from seventh in the championship prior to summer to second after Pocono and heading into the final three races. However, last year did not see such a leap with Power entering summer in fifth and he was fifth entering the final three races of last season. Power is third in the championship and since becoming a full-time Team Penske driver in 2010 he has been in the top three of the championship at the start of summer six times. 

Scott Dixon is known for slow starts to seasons and strong finishes. Twenty-three of Dixon's 43 IndyCar victories have come during summer. This season is the first Dixon has won multiple times before the start of summer since 2015 and it is only the fifth time Dixon has won multiple times before summer with Dixon also achieving it in 2003, 2008 and 2009. Ironically, Dixon led the championship at the start of summer last year despite not winning until the first race of summer at Road America. He finished in the top ten of every race last summer but he did not pick up a top five finish in four consecutive races and Road America was his only victory last season. 

Ryan Hunter-Reay blossomed in spring. The American driver enters summer off the back of four consecutive top five finishes and seven top five finish through the first nine races. Hunter-Reay has already matched his career-high for top five finishes in a season. He has seven top five finishes in his championship season in 2012 and he did it again in 2013. Summer has been fickle to Hunter-Reay. While seven of his 12 victories in the DW12-era have come during summer he has not had more than three top five finishes during one summer since 2012. Bad finishes seem to bite him, especially in the final eight races. Since 2012, Hunter-Reay has finished outside the top ten in 21 of 48 races that made up the final eight races of a season. His average finish in the final eight races of a season since 2012 is a respectable 10.625.

Josef Newgarden will be looking to repeat his achievements of summer 2017. Last year, Newgarden entered summer with one victory, three podium finishes and seventh in the championship, 49 points out of the championship lead. He would go on to win three of the final eight races with three runner-up finishes and a sixth on his way to taking the championship. This year, Newgarden enters summer with double the victories but those two victories are his only top five finishes this season. While the Tennessean is two places better in the championship than he was at this point last season, Newgarden is 19 points further off the championship lead.

Third Times The Charm?
This is the third consecutive season IndyCar has been at Road America after the famed road course was not on the schedule for eight consecutive years. While a few drivers returned to the track after years and in some cases over a decade between starts, a few were contesting the circuit for the first time in the top level of North American open-wheel racing. A few drivers picked up where they left off the last time they competed at Road America, others took no time at all getting a hung of the four-mile ribbon of asphalt but some have not had success and will be hoping this year will be the year for a respectable finish.

Alexander Rossi has been quick both years he has been at Road America but something has always seemed to get in his way. An untimely red flag during qualifying in 2016 kept him from advancing from round one and Rossi had to start 16th. In the race, he got into the top ten early but spent most of the race on the outside looking in and an extra pit stop for a front wing change meant all he could salvage was 15th. He started 15th last year and had a four-stop strategy working with a possible top five finish but a spin by Takuma Sato cancelled out his run to the front but a top ten finish seem certain. However, front wing damage after contact with Tony Kanaan and he slid down the order to a 13th place finish.

James Hinchcliffe brought out a red flag in qualifying for the 2016 Road America race and he started 22nd out of 22 cars. Despite all his efforts all he could manage was a 14th place finish. Last year, Hinchcliffe started ninth and spent a fair amount of the race in the top ten but contact with Will Power entering turn three broke his left front suspension. He made a pit stop for repairs and returned to the circuit but was two laps down and finished 20th.

For the third consecutive year Takuma Sato heads to Road America coming off a top ten finish in the race prior. His first two trips to dairy country have not been kind to the 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner. He started 15th in 2016 but was running in the top ten until a pit lane speeding penalty dropped him to a 17th place finish. Last year, Sato entered the weekend with a stiff neck and it hampered his entire weekend. He started 20th and his spin in the race put him a lap down with his final result being 19th.

Who is Desperate?
At this point of the season drivers are going to start to get desperate to get results but desperation comes in many different forms.

While being closer to the top than the bottom the most desperate driver of all at the start of the second half of the season could be Simon Pagenaud. The Frenchman has had far from a terrible start to 2018 but this year has been uncharacteristic for him. Prior to his second place finish at Texas his best finish was sixth in the Indianapolis 500. Eight races without a top five finish is the longest drought of his IndyCar career. The good news for Pagenaud is he sits eighth in the championship on 229 points but 128 points out of the championship lead. His championship hopes need victories to stay alive and of the remaining eight tracks on the schedule, Pagenaud has only won at two of them, Mid-Ohio and Sonoma and the only other track he has a podium finish at is Gateway.

Pagenaud's fellow countryman Sébastien Bourdais is in the same boat. Bourdais has fallen to ninth in the championship; 11 points behind Pagenaud and Bourdais started the season with three top five fishes in the first five races and was third in the championship entering Indianapolis 500 practice. Entering summer he has one top ten finish in his last four starts and like Pagenaud any hopes of a championship ride on Bourdais picking up multiple victories. The back half of the season poises to be more favorable for Bourdais than Pagenaud. Bourdais has won at three of the final eight tracks but much of his success came in Champ Car.

Spencer Pigot and the entire Ed Carpenter Racing organization have to be desperate. It has not had a top ten finish on a permanent road course since Pigot finished ninth in last year's Grand Prix of Indianapolis. The team has not had a top five finish on a permanent road course since Josef Newgarden finished second at Watkins Glen in 2016. Pigot's first season as a full-time driver has been disappointing to say the least with the California-born, Florida-raised driver having only two lead lap finishes from he first nine races of the season. Jordan King has shown pace but he has found the barriers on a more consistent basis and he is still looking for his first top ten finish in IndyCar.

Gabby Chaves has been his consistent and clean self with the Colombian being one of seven drivers running at the finish of every race the season. The only problem for Chaves is he is the lowest of the seven in the championship and has the worst average starting position and worst average finishing position of that group. Chaves has never finish in the top ten on a permanent road course with his best finish being 12th at Mid-Ohio in 2015. Only once has Chaves made it out of round one of road/street course qualifying and that was at St. Petersburg in March.

Matheus Leist had been on a tear prior to his fire at Texas ended his night after five laps. The Brazilian had six consecutive lead lap finishes entering that race but despite that hot streak he has still yet to finish in the top ten in his IndyCar career and despite starting third at the season opener at St. Petersburg, Leist has started 14th or worse in the other five road and street course races this season. Last year, Leist ran at Road America in Indy Lights and he won the first race from pole position and finished fourth in the second race of the weekend.

Max Chilton has yet to score a top ten finish this season and he is the worst of the full-time drivers in the championship with the Brit 21st in the championship, seven points behind Ed Carpenter, who has only started three races this season. While Chilton has qualified ahead of his teammate Charlie Kimball in six of nine races and in five of six road/street course races, Kimball has scored the better finish in seven of nine races. The good news for Chilton he has been getting the car to the end of races, completing the tenth most laps through nine races and his lone retirement was an electrical issue at Barber. Chilton has started seventh in both his Road America starts and while running out of fuel cost him a good result in 2016, last year Chilton finished ninth.

Alfonso Celis, Jr. makes his debut this weekend in the #32 Chevrolet for Juncos Racing and while most debutant are just looking to have a respectable showing, Celis, Jr. might want to be a little more eager. The Mexican driver is the third to drive for Juncos Racing this season. He competed last year in Formula V8 3.5 World Series and he finished third in the championship with one victory. René Binder, who has made four starts with Juncos and will return for Toronto and Mid-Ohio, finished three points behind Celis, Jr. in the Formula V8 3.5 World Series last year despite the Austrian winning four races. Binder has been off the pace and did not break 105% of the fastest time in Friday practice at Belle Isle nor the fastest time in qualifying for the Saturday race. Celis, Jr. made two Indy Lights starts at Barber in April and he finished seventh and eighth in those races.

Road to Indy
After a month off, all three Mazda Road to Indy series are back n action at Road Amierca.

With ten races remaining in the Indy Lights season, Colton Herta holds the championship lead with 189 points, six points ahead of Andretti Autosport teammate Pato O'Ward. Herta won three consecutive races at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with two on the road course and then the Freedom 100 on Carb Day. Herta has five consecutive podium finishes and six podium finishes from eighth races. While O'Ward also has three victories, he is only other podium finish was second in the Freedom 100.

Santiago Urrutia sits third in the championship, 21 points behind Herta. he won the second race of the season at St. Petersburg and he has finished in the top five of every race this season. Urrutia won at Road America in 2016 and he finished second last year. Victor Franzoni is a distant fourth in the championship, 50 points behind Herta. He won race one last year at Road America in Pro Mazda and he finished second in the second race. Franzoni was the fastest driver at the Road America test over a week ago. Ryan Norman rounds out the top five on 128 points. Norman has finished fifth three consecutive races. Dalton Kellett finished third in the Freedom 100 for a third consecutive year and he has 122 points, one ahead of Wisconsinite Aaron Telitz

The first Indy Lights race will be at noon ET on Saturday June 23rd. The second race will be at 9:50 a..m. ET on June 24th.

Canadian Parker Thompson is pulling away with the Pro Mazda championship with nine races remaining. Thompson has won three of seven races this season and his worst finish is fifth. He made four starts at Road America in U.S. F2000 with a third place finish and three fifth-place finishes. Carlos Cunha sits 40 points behind Thompson. Cunha has yet to win a race in 19 Pro Mazda starts but he has ten podium finishes in his career including four this season and two consecutive runner-up finishes. Cunha's Juncos Racing teammate Rinus VeeKay swept the St. Petersburg weekend but he trails the Brazilian by a point in the championship with only one podium finish in the last five races.

After winning consecutive races at Barber and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Harrison Scott has finished 12th in the last two races and he is fourth in the championship on 130 points. Reigning U.S. F2000 champion Oliver Askew is five points behind Scott and the Floridian is looking for his first Pro Mazda victory. He did not win either of the U.S. F2000 races at Road America last year as VeeKay swept the weekend. David Malukas is another five points behind Askew with Sting Ray Robb on 114 points in seventh. Robert Megennis rounds out the top eight on 102 points. Malukas topped the Pro Mazda test last week.

Pro Mazda will race at 2:20 p.m. ET on Friday June 22nd and 2:05 p.m. ET on Saturday June 23rd.

Kyle Kirkwood of Cape Motorsport has a healthy championship lead in U.S. F2000 with three victories, a runner-up finish and a fifth from the first five races of the season. He has 154 points and a 59-point lead over Alexander Baron, who has won the other two races this season. Cape Motorsport has won 66 of 117 U.S. F2000 race held since the revival of the series in 2010 and seven consecutive U.S. F2000 champions have driven for Cape Motorsport. Baron has also retired from twice this season. José Sierra is five points behind Baron with two podium finishes and four top ten finishes.

Five points cover fourth through seventh. Igor Fraga sits on 76 points but has only one podium finish, a second in the second race from St. Petersburg. Rasmus Lindh finished third in the last two races and he is tied with Pabst Racing teammate Lucas Kohl on 74 points with Newman Wachs Racing's Darren Keane on 71 points. Calvin Ming has not stood on the podium this season but has 67 points with Kaylen Frederick on 62 points after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis Raceway Park. Frederick was the fastest driver at the Road America test held last week.

U.S. F2000 will race at 1:10 p.m. ET on Saturday June 23rd and 8:00 a.m. ET on Sunday June 24th.

Pirelli World Challenge
For the final time this season Pirelli World Challenge and the Verizon IndyCar Series share a weekend and Pirelli World Challenge will revert to a familiar format with the GT and GTS divisions competing simultaneously in two races this weekend. Forty cars are entered for this weekend's two races with 14 GT cars, 25 GTS cars and one GT Cup car.

Scott Hargrove swept the St. Petersburg weekend and despite having not won since March he leads the overall PWC GT championship and the sprint championship with 188 points and 104 points in the two respective championships. The driver of the #96 Pfaff Motorsports Porsche has not finished on a sprint race podium since St. Petersburg. Toni Vilander swept the Austin Sprint-X weekend in the #61 R. Ferri Motorsport Ferrari with Miguel Molina and the Finn trails Hargrove by six points and eight points in the overall and sprint championships respectively. Daniel Morad won at Mosport last month but the driver of the #2 CRP Racing Mercedes-AMG trails his fellow Canadian Hargrove by 33 points in the overall championship but he is only 12 points back in the sprint championship.

Michael Christensen is fresh off winning the GTE-Pro class at Le Mans and he will be in the #24 Alegra Motorsports Porsche. Rodrigo Baptista rounds out the top five in the #3 Bentley and he won at  Virginia International Raceway in Sprint-X and finished second to teammate Álvaro Parente in the most recent race at Mosport. Bentley won last year at Road America with Adderly Fong. Daniel Mancinelli is back in the #31 TR3 Racing Ferrari for his third round this season. He won at Long Beach.

In GT-A, Martin Fuentes leads the championship by 14 points over Yuki Harata. Parker Chase has four consecutive podium finishes and he won the first race at Mosport.

James Sofronas leads the overall GTS championship by 11 points over Lawson Aschenbach but Aschenbach leads the GTS sprint championship by 26 points over Sofronas as Aschenbach has won all four sprint races this season while Sofronas has won two Sprint-X races. Jade Buford is third in the overall GTS championship with a victory at Austin in Sprint-X and he was on the podium for both Mosport races. Shane Lewis is third in the GTS sprint championship and fourth overall despite his only podium finish being third in the first Mosport race.

Last year, Ian James swept the Road America weekend for Panoz. The British driver has not won yet this season and his best finish was fourth at St. Petersburg.

In GTSA, Drew Staveley has won three of four races and holds an 11-point lead over Tony Gaples. James Courtney and Mike Hedlund are 14 points behind Staveley. Preston Calvert rounds out the top five, 27 points behind Staveley. Mark Klenin is the only other race winner in GTSA this season.

The first PWC race will take place at 5:35 p.m. ET on Saturday June 23rd with the second race scheduled for 3:45 p.m. ET on Sunday June 24th.

Fast Facts
This will be the 11th IndyCar race to take place on June 24th and first since 2007 when Paul Tracy won at Cleveland, his 31st and final career victory and Dario Franchitti won at Iowa, the first race held at the 7/8-mile oval.

Five different teams have won the first race of summer the last six years. Those teams are Andretti Autosport, Dale Coyne Racing, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing.

Seven different drivers have won the first race of summer the last seven years. Those drivers are Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe, Carlos Huertas, Graham Rahal, Will Power and Scott Dixon.

The last driver to win the first race of summer in consecutive seasons was Greg Ray in 1999 and 2000.

Scott Dixon is attempting to win at the same track in successive seasons for the first time since 2011 and 2012.

Scott Dixon has won in successive seasons at five different tracks. Those tracks are Watkins Glen (2005-07), Nashville (2005-07), Kansas (2009-10), Mid-Ohio (2011-12) and Sonoma (2014-15).

Scott Dixon is attempting to have three victories within the first ten races of a season for the fourth time in his career. He did it in 2003, 2008 and 2009.

Scott Dixon has five consecutive top five finishes. A top five in this race will give him his longest streak since 2011-12 when he ended the 2011 season with six top five finishes and started 2012 with two top five finishes.

Of the eight races that finished under green flag conditions this season, the closest finish was 1.2413 seconds at Long Beach between Alexander Rossi and Will Power. The average margin of victory this season is 4.6344 seconds with a median of 3.07745 seconds.

The closest making of victory in a Road America race is 0.3300 seconds with Emerson Fittipaldi winning over Mario Andretti in 1986.

Five of the last six Road America races have been decided by less than a second.

Seven different drivers have won the last seven Road America races (Cristiano da Matta, Bruno Junqueira, Alex Tagliani, A.J. Allmendinger, Sébastien Bourdais, Will Power, Scott Dixon).

Six different nationalities have won the last six Road America races (Brazilian, Canadian, American, French, Australian, New Zealander).

Five different teams have won the last five Road America races (Rocketsports, Forsythe Racing, Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing).

Zachary Claman De Melo won last year at Road America in Indy Lights. The only driver to win in Indy Lights and IndyCar at Road America is Paul Tracy. Zach Veach won in Indy Lights at Road America in 2015.

The last two Road America races have had 17 cars finish on the lead lap, tied for the most in event history.

Last year, Josef Newgarden set the record for fastest race lap at Road America with a time of 1:43.4651.

The average starting position for a Road America winner is 3.667 with a median of three.

Only once has a Road America winner started outside the top ten. Alex Tagliani won in 2004 from 13th on the grid.

The average number of lead changes in a Road America race is 4.153 with a median of four.

The average number of cautions in a Road America race is 2.192 with a median of two. The average number of caution laps is 7.038 with a median of 5.5.

The last two Road America races have had three caution laps.

Possible Milestones:
Scott Dixon is one podium finish away from having the third most podium finishes in IndyCar history.

Sébastien Bourdais is one top five finish away from 75 career top five finishes.

Ryan Hunter-Reay needs to lead eight laps to surpass Tomas Scheckter for 30th all-time in laps led.

Takuma Sato needs to lead 23 laps to reach the 500 laps led milestone.

Graham Rahal needs to lead 21 laps to reach the 400 laps led milestone.

Charlie Kimball needs to lead 38 laps to reach the 200 laps led milestone.

Simon Pagenaud wins the race, Team Penske has two cars finish in the top three and Scott Dixon retains the championship lead. One driver will start outside the top ten and finish at least eight positions better than where he started. There will not be an accident at the kink. At least three Americans start 15th or worse. At least three Americans finish seventh or better. Robert Wickens qualifies and finishes ahead of his teammate and at least six positions ahead of the next best rookie. Sleeper: Max Chilton.