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Author: Mark W. Theisen
Photo Courtesy of Chevrolet
Photo Courtesy of Chevrolet
April 27th 2016 -      WEST BEND, WISCONSIN April 27, 2016:     Team Penske driver Simon Pagenaud is the hottest driver on the Verizon IndyCar circuit as the series heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the 3rd running of the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis on Saturday May 14, and the historic running of the 100th Indianapolis 500 on May29th.

     Since the season opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, won by Juan Pablo Montoya his Penske teammate, Pagenaud has had almost everything go his way and heads to Indianapolis with a 48 point lead over defending series champion, Scott Dixon.

      Dixon, drove his Target Ganassi Racing Dallara IR-12 Chevrolet to victory Saturday night April 2nd, as IndyCars returned to the Phoenix International Raceway by capturing the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix over Team Penske drivers Pagenaud and Will Power.

     The 250 mile contest was the first series race at the fabled desert track since March 19, 2005 and was highlighted by Dixon, a four-time series champion, winning for the first time on the track and in the process giving his car owner Chip Ganassi his first win at the track as well.

     Starting 6th Dixon was a non-factor in the race for the first 95 laps as Penske drivers Helio Castroneves, the pole winner for the race with a record qualifying lap of 192.324 miles per hour, and his teammate Juan Pablo Montoya the winner of the series opening event, March 13th at St. Petersburg Florida dominated the early going.

     When both Castroneves and Montoya suffered cut tire issues Dixon inherited the lead on lap 95 and was never overtaken enroute to his 39th career win.

     The race was slowed 6 times for cautions the first happening on lap 50 when Luca Filippi, making his first ever start on an oval race track,  was approached by Castroneves, who had just returned to the track on new tires after his cut tire woes.  Filippi tried to give the faster car room but moved too much and got outside the racing groove and into track debris and spun.  Filippi did not hit the wall nor did any driver hit his errant car but its till took 14 laps to clear the accident and get the track ready for a restart.

    The next caution appeared on lap 120 when Carlos Munoz made contact with the front straightaway wall ending his race for the day.

     Josef Newgarden and Charlie Kimball made contact with each other on lap 134 just after the restart from the Munoz incident for the 3rd caution of the race, both were able to continue on in the race.

     Sebastien Bourdais hi the wall in turn four on lap 146, Ed Carpenter did likewise on lap 196 and rookie Alexander Rossi completed the turn four trifecta on lap 248 for the final three cautions of the race.  Carpenter was unable to continue after his contact but the other two continued on.

     “It was tough,” said Dixon, who set an IndyCar record with a victory in each of first 12 seasons in the series, a mark the he had shared with Bobby Unser, Emerson Fittipaldi and Castroneves all of whom won in their first 11 years in the series.

     The race, which ended under caution after the Rossi accident was the first in any motorsports series for Dixon’s Target Ganassi team.

     “I’m just so happy for the team,” Dixon continued.  “We, I think, had the best car out there tonight.  We got a lot done on strategy and some of the pit stops, but the car was definitely fast all night and had #3 (Castroneves) and the #2 (Montoya) stayed in the hunt, we would definitely had something for them at the end.  As it is, I’m just happy for everyone concerned with our team.  It is an impressive way to begin the new season.

     Pagenaud, beginning his second year with Team Penske, finished second for the second race in a row and as a result took over the series point lead after two races.  “This second place is really for the crew members,” said Pagenaud.  “They put me up front in the clean air, and clean air is everything here.  I’m super proud of the guys; it’s a team sport.  This s not our strong suit, short ovals so if you can be second where you’re not supposed to be strong, it is good.”

     Power, returning to the track after missing St. Petersburg, with what was then diagnosed as slight concussion finished third.  “This was a difficult race for everyone,” said Power, “Our cars generate so much downforce here that it is nearly impossible to pass and if you are aggressive, then the tires go off and you’re finished.  It was a good strategy race for us and it was great to be back in the race car. ”

     Tony Kanaan finished fourth giving Chevrolet powered cars a sweep of the first four positions after taking the top 10 starting spots in qualifying yesterday.  Graham Rahal’s Honda was fifth and Ryan Hunter-Reay’s Honda was 10th, the only two Honda’s top finish in the top 10.

     Attendance was estimated at 20,000 for the first race back at the track in 10 years.  The presence of Desert Diamond West Valley Casino & Resort as a title sponsor helped boost ticket sales with their push and track management was impressed enough to indicate a return next year but the date may be in question as Phoenix will be hosting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four on this year’s race weekend next April so it is something the scheduling gurus will have to deal with.  This is a “must keep!” track to retain on IndyCar’s schedule.

     Which weekend will be scheduled next year it will be up to series officials to put on a more exciting show or the fan base, that they started to re-grow this weekend, will quickly disappear as in the past.  As Will Power alluded to, the best possible strategy was to preserve your tires as passing was next to impossible.

     Race winner Dixon said, “I think we can make this a better show in the future.”  He went to cite the fact that not a lot of testing was done before this race and that data from this event will be incorporated into what is run next year.

     “It may not have looked exciting tonight,” Dixon continued, “but it was very mentally challenging as you’re going into turn one at 200 miles-per-hour with not enough room for error.  It was a tough race, no doubt about it.”

     The series moved on to Long Beach, California for Toyota Grand Pix of Long Beach on April 17 in an event that finished with some controversy as Pagenaud edged Dixon for the win after emerging from his final pit stop, not staying blow the blend line long enough in an effort to thwart off Dixon.

     Race steward’s decided to only give Pagenaud a warming, which did not require a stop and go visit to pit road and this allowed him to say in front of Dixon and claim the victory.

     Naturally Dixon and his Target team were upset by the call and had to settle for a runner up finish.  Castroneves finished third to give Chevrolet its second sweep of the top three positions in the first three races.  Montoya finished fourth.  Takuma Sato, in an A.J. Foyt Racing Honda was the highest finishing Honda in 5th and James Hinchcliffe was the lone other Honda in the top 10 with an 8th place finish.

     Race number four this season was Sunday in Birmingham, Alabama and again it was Pagenaud in control leading 84 of the 90 laps with yet another controversial finish in this race as well.  Graham Rahal, in his Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda finished second after the pair trade bumps late in the race.  Rahal took the lead with a bold move on lap 82 only to receive the return favor from Pagenaud on lap 86 and then the later was able to hold on to the lead the rest of the way.

     The second place finish by Rahal was the highest finishing positon for Honda, this season.  Josef Newgarden brought his Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet home in third with Penske Chevrolets of Power and Montoya in fourth and fifth.  Again Honda only placed two cars in the top ten.

     With the dominance by Chevrolet powered cars fresh on their minds after the April 2nd Phoenix race, 15 cars took to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on April 6th to test the various aerodynamic packages available to both Chevrolet and Honda Powered teams.

     IndyCar president Jay Frye, vowed that all data from the sessions will be examined to see where the discrepancies are, and he said it will be clear if Chevrolet drivers are holding back in an effort to hold their advantage.

     More than 500 laps were turned buy the 15 drivers despite intermittent rain and windy conditions.  Honda driver, Marco Andretti, posted the fastest lap of the day at 223.427.

     Rahal, echoed all Honda drivers, when he said “All is ask for is a chance, just to have a shot at it.”

     But that chance may be a pipe dream.  Chevrolet has swept the first four races of the season.  Team Penske, Pagenaud, has been nearly unstoppable and Dixon’s win in Phoenix helped break up the Penske juggernaut that many feared might happen last year but is looking more and more like it this year.

     The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 is less than two months away and track management has stated that the race is nearly a sell-out, ticket wise, so it behooves them to have a competitive and exciting race in order to draw some of those fans attending the century race for the first time to return for future 500’s in the years to come.

     The entries for the 500 grew by three since last writing as JR Hildebrand was announced as the third driver for Ed Carpenter Racing.  This is the 16th of 17 Chevrolet powered entries for the race and Andretti Autosports confirmed a fifth car for Indy 500 veteran Townsend Bell.  Andretti is a Honda Team and now that manufacturer has 15 of its 17 engines spoken for.

     Earlier today it was announced that Stefan Wilson, the younger brother of Justin, who died in an IndyCar race at Pocono Raceway last August will compete in this year’s 500 in a third car from KVSH racing, joining series regular Sebastien Bourdais and rookie Matthew Brabham for the 500.  This is the 17th and final Chevrolet engine deal for the 500. 

     Wilson’s entry was made possible by an arrangement with the Indiana Donor Network.  Justin Wilson was a donor and his organs helped five people.  Stefan is a donor himself and it is hoped that the exposure for the 500 will get as many as 2,500 people signed in the country to register and donate organs through the organization. 

     We now have 32 confirmed entries for the race.

     Two Honda slots  remain open it will be an interesting next few weeks to see who can come up with sponsors and get one of the remaining engine deals.

     33 cars will start the race and if all 34 engine deals are consummated, than it will be an excruciatingly painful qualifying session to watch as one of the 34 will not make it into the 100th running of the 500.

     Stay tuned.