Matt Embury is the IndyCar expert for Speedway Digest and the weekly Blog Talk Radio sports show "The Balance." A native of Mishawaka, Indiana, he has been a regular during the month of May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2005. Outside of print media, Mr. Embury is the overnight host for WZOC-FM in Mishawaka and the in-studio producer for WSBT-FM Sports and Notre Dame Sports Properties.
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After two unexpected winners to open the 2020 IndyCar IRacing Challenge, 31 drivers are expected to participate Saturday as the online exhibition circus heads to virtual Michigan International Speedway for the Chevrolet 275.
Unlike the opening two stanzas at the Watkins Glen and Barber Motorsports Park road course layouts, the two-mile, D-shaped oval should see a new set of challengers steal the headlines. How Sage Karam of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing and Team Penske's Scott McLaughiln deal with the new surroundings will be the primary focus. Prior to the selection of Watkins Glen as the opening venue, which was done via a fan vote, the Nazareth, Pennsylvania based Karambwas notable for not being keen about starting the series on an oval track. That feeling was shown in full force at the upstate New York venue where he won from the pole position and he seemed to be on the verge of happening again last Saturday in Alabama, until contact with Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist halted his progress. With Karam out of the picture, it was McLaughlin, the multi-time Australian SuperCars title holder who took over the point, via a cleverly planned pit stop strategy. Although seemingly home free after wresting the lead from Andretti Autosport's Scott Speed, the relative newcomer to IndyCar competition still had to hold a determined teammate in Will Power to score the triumph. Like Karam, the New Zealander is limited in high-speed oval action, but he has shown to be a fast learner in other IRacing formats.
If questions linger about what Karam and McLaughlin could achieve at Michigan, the scenarios could be tailor-made for Power, who two years ago broke through to win the Indianapolis 500. Although in literally a similar trench in terms of high speed ovals early in his IndyCar tenure, the Aussie has been one of the best on the left-hander only result earners over the past three seasons. While the chauffeur of the No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet is perhaps the leader of the old guard, he may not the lone veteran to fly the flag on Saturday. Arch-rival Scott Dixon made solid progress in his maiden IRacing voyage in Alabama last week and could be a step ahead of most, considering he is one of the few drivers to actually race an IndyCar at MIS in real-life. Two other hard chargers who also fit into this elite club are A.J. Foyt Racing's Tony Kanaan and owner-driver Ed Carpenter. The Brazilian is still learning the nuances of IRacing in general, but could be aided on a track type that he has excelled upon since joining SuperTex's organization in 2018. Carpenter, the native of Indianapolis, survived his trial by fire in online racing this past week, earning praise after a hotly contested test event at virtual Indianapolis Motor Speedway, running in the top-five until being collected in a late-race accident in turn four. A more focused attitude toward the IRacing Challenge compared to some could allow the three-time Indy 500 pole winner to enjoy a breakout effort after 275 miles.
Several drivers new to the virtual IndyCar world this week are Andretti Autosport's Ryan Hunter-Reay, who takes the wheel of his own No. 28 DHL Honda, after the team's Indy Lights Presented By Cooper Tires prospect Kyle Kirkwood flew the colors in the opening two efforts. RHR's teammate Marco Andretti also will make his 2020 IRacing debut at Michigan Saturday, after getting his feet wet in the same virtual Indy test race that featured the aforementioned Ed Carpenter. The No. 98 entry joins round three with some momentum after Scott Speed's solid top-five showing last week in Alabama.
However, the majority of race fans tuning into NBCSN's coverage of the event will be greatly interested in the progress of former NASCAR Cup star Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who will try his luck in an open-wheel car for the first time on Saturday. The two-time Daytona 500 champion takes over the stock car representation from Jimmie Johnson, who entered his No. 48 Chevrolet in both events at Watkins Glen and Alabama to open the virtual exhibition league.
While high speed action will be expected on Saturday, the aggressive nature of IndyCar IRacing action on the ovals in recent trial events not associated with the actual exhibition league, seem to tip the hand that cautions could dominate the proceedings. The 250-mile test race at the Brickyard was filled with extended pace truck action, as was a 500-kilometer at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis held a day after the Watkins Glen opener. If a similar story line takes hold at Michigan, track position and pit strategy could ultimately determine the winner, along with simply surviving the drama.
After a successful debut last Saturday at virtual Watkins Glen International, the NTT IndyCar Series' online circus heads to Barber Motorsports Park for its second of a planned six events as the world awaits clearance on the current Covid-19 pandemic. The first race, which drew a sizable viewing audience on YouTube, moves to mainstream on NBC Sports Network with a scheduled 2:30 p.m. eastern start time.
While several unknown scenarios were on the minds of most entering action in the Empire State, the focus at the Birmingham, Alabama facility will be centered on who can compete with the IRacing Challenge's current rabbit, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Sage Karam. The Pennsylvania-native controlled the proceedings in the opening stanza, winning the pole position and taking the fight to the remainder of the grid from the word go, leading 43 of the event's 45 laps. Only an honest chase from Chip Ganassi Racing's Felix Rosenqvist and a near-miss of a spinning Kyle Kirkwood kept the final outcome in doubt.
The Swedish second-year wheelman however, is not alone in the pursuit of the No. 24 WIX Filters Chevrolet. Third-place finisher at the Glen Will Power and his Team Penske teammate Scott McLaughlin, who placed fourth last Saturday should also influence the action upfront this weekend, while the event could signal redemption for both Andretti Autosport's Scott Speed and Dale Coyne Racing's Santino Ferrucci. Speed, the former Formula One ace with Scuderia Toro Rosso was among the top-five for most of the first 25 laps last weekend, only to drop from contention after a spin into the barriers exiting The Boot. Ferrucci, the reigning IndyCar Rookie of the Year, failed to post a qualifying time and had to fight through traffic and carnage from start to finish, eventually settling for an eighth-place result.
While each of the 24 runners at Watkins Glen are all expected to return at Barber, the apple cart could also be influenced by five newcomers. Meyer-Shank Racing's Jack Harvey and a recuperating Robert Wickens should be ready to go to battle this weekend, after a lack of equipment kept both pilots out of action for round one. Internet connection trouble also prevented Andretti Autosport's James Hinchcliffe from taking the green flag in New York, but the popular veteran will be ready to pounce likewise at Barber. Two late additions to the lineup are five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon and three-time Indy 500 pole winner Ed Carpenter. Dixon impressed in Thursday testing and could be right upfront with Ganassi teammate Rosenqvist. Carpenter joins ECR teammate Conor Daly in the field, but will need to shake off the rust of not having competed on a road course in seven years.
Although the online debut act in New York was a limited challenge for most, the difficulty is expected to ramp up in Alabama. Despite having several quick sections like Watkins Glen, Barber Motorsports Park also throws several technical sections into play that allow little to zero margin of error. Expect a large chunk of the drama in terms of overtaking to occur at the end of the pit straight and on the run into the Charlotte's Web hairpin. Getting off the final corner flat-out or close to it is key to setting up a chance to gain ground entering turn one. The downhill, banked left-hander provides extra road to bail out those who overcook the entry, but will definitely encourage aggression from the drop of the green flag. As for the hairpin, named for the large spider statue beyond the outer barriers of the complex, a solid exit out of the right turn at number two will allow for a shot to move up in the standings and perhaps offer the last realistic chance to pass over the course of a full lap. The rest of the venue provides the aforementioned technical savvy of the course, where passing may only be possible if the lead driver makes a major mistake.
With passing at a premium in Alabama, earning a high starting position on the grid is essential to creating the path to a good result. However, even the front row starters are not out of the woods in principle. While having a fast car is a plus, being able to handle lapped traffic in a safe and patient manner could ultimately determine the outright winner on Saturday.
As America continues to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed back the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500-mile race to August 23, the NTT Data IndyCar Series has taken a page from the other major circuits and will take its show into cyberspace. Like NASCAR, Formula One, IMSA, and the World of Outlaws who have each hosted their initial forays into online racing as a Plan B option over the past week, Saturday's IndyCar IRacing Challenge looks to break similar ground for the 50 States' top open-wheel division.
Although Saturday's event (track unknown at the time Speedway Digest went to press) will be absent of three former Indy 500 title holders (Scott Dixon, Takuma Sato, and Ryan Hunter-Reay), the current 25 expected participants feature a good mix of both IndyCar's old guard and a glimpse into the future. All real-life IndyCar teams, except DragonSpeed, are expected to make an appearance on the YouTube-featured broadcast, with an equal car setup mandate likely to allow whoever comes to grips with the IRacing rules of the road the fastest the opportunity to enjoy the most success in the 90-minute main event.
Chief among the expected runners is the presence of reigning series champion Josef Newgarden, who will carry the No. 1 plate into Saturday's online battle at either the Michigan International Speedway oval or the Watkins Glen International road course. Regardless of the outcome of the fan vote that will lock the destination, the Tennessee-native has proven effective on both road courses and ovals respectively assuming the top step of the podium in each scenario. Included within the opposition are three members of the same Team Penske squad, which will feature the debut of two-time Australian Supercars titlist Scott McLaughlin, who enters the IRacing Challenge on the strength of positive outputs in on-track tests at both Sebring, Florida and Texas Motor Speedway. Former Indy 500 winners Will Power and Simon Pagenaud are both relatively new to the IRacing format, but could also challenge Newgarden for top honors.
Andretti Autosport will enter four of its real-world regulars in the special event Saturday, led by 2016 Indy 500 king Alexander Rossi. Third-year IndyCar veteran Zach Veach and impressive sophomore Colton Herta should also factor in the outcome among the top half of the order, but a greater chunk of the attention for most will be centered upon the return of James Hinchcliffe to the Andretti squad for the first time since 2014. The remaining two seats Saturday are filled by intriguing replacements. Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires regular Kyle Kirkwood moves up to drive the No. 28 entry normally wheeled by Ryan Hunter Reay, while Marco Andretti's No. 98 machine will be handled by former Formula One and NASCAR Cup entrant Scott Speed.
Despite the absence of the five-time Astor Cup winner Scott Dixon, Chip Ganassi Racing should still make an impact with second-year wheelmen Felix Rosenqvist and Marcus Ericsson. AJ Foyt Racing meanwhile, will feature a three-car assault, led by Tony Kanaan who begins his "Last Lap" tour in the online race, alongside teammates Sebastien Bourdais and newcomer Dalton Kellett.
However, the biggest dark horse candidates for the win on Saturday may come from the IRacing aces, who could have a leg up on the first time players. Among them is Ed Carpenter Racing's lone representative this weekend in Conor Daly. The Indiana-native is a regular on the online racing scene and even has his own channel on the Twitch website, a showplace for the world's best video game players. Also no stranger to online action is Dreyer & Reinbold Racing's Sage Karam, as well as defending IndyCar Rookie of the Year Santino Ferrucci who represents Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser-Sullivan.
Saturday's schedule will open at 4 p.m. eastern time, with a 10-minute open qualifying session that will set the starting order for the main event. Unlike normal IndyCar rounds, which feature a preset lap distance, Saturday's main course will feature a 90-minute clock that will begin at the drop of the green flag, a protocol similar to the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. The IndyCar IRacing Challenge is the first of six planned events that will through May 2. While there will not be a recognized overall champion, INDYCAR will donate proceeds to a charity of its choice.
So how does the NTT Data IndyCar Series field shape up for the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg? In the first 2020 edition of my team and driver power rankings, I look back at who finished 2019 strong, who needs to improve, and who just might make a move up or down the queue during the new year.
Based on the above disclaimer, let's look at my team rankings heading into the opening event..
1.) Team Penske
There is a reason the term "Super Team" is often linked to Roger Penske's group. The organization is loaded in every facet and even without "The Captain" in the role of race strategist, the leadership is lacking nothing with longtime associate Tim Cindric at the helm. Driver-wise, Josef Newgarden leads the current trio, which could see a boost in performance from his compatriots Will Power and Simon Pagenaud, as the presence of Australian SuperCars ace Scott McLaughlin looms large in terms of a full-time IndyCar seat for 2021. Safe to say, it will take a herculean effort elsewhere to bump the current aces off the mountain top in 2020.
2.) Andretti Autosport
Michael Andretti certainly has the strength in numbers with five full-time mounts for the new year, but is that in reality too much of a good thing? While Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta are the top dogs on the rostrum entering round number one, question marks hang over each of the remaining full-time pilots. Ryan Hunter-Reay has regressed in recent years over the course of a full schedule, while Marco Andretti and Zach Veach have each been in an extended slump. If the two main cogs deliver and one of the other members steps forward, the squad should be solid in the "Best of the Rest" category.
3.) Chip Ganassi Racing
The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-native is still going strong as his operation enters its 30th anniversary campaign. Scott Dixon continues to be a regular championship contender, but will his eventual regression begin soon (he turns 40 this July)? Felix Rosenqvist had a strong rookie year in 2019, but he needs to improve his output on oval tracks if he is to trend closer in the title hunt. Marcus Ericsson had his moments with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2019, but can he fully take advantage of a better car in 2020? More consistent talent from top to bottom when compared with Andretti, but not quite enough to place them directly behind Penske at this point.
4.) Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing
The Buckeye State combatants have piled up the top-ten efforts over the last few campaigns, but have been unable to break in among the so-called "Big Three." Although his over-aggression has gotten the best of him recently, Takuma Sato has used that weapon to garner several big results, including a top-five at last year's Indianapolis 500. Graham Rahal is a consistent points scorer, but has not won an IndyCar race since sweeping both halves of the Duel in Detroit in 2017.
5.) Dale Coyne Racing
The loss of Sebastien Bourdais in the cockpit and head engineer Craig Hampson will hurt the Windy City boys in the short term, but a breakthrough from either second-year wheelman Santino Ferrucci or intriguing freshman Alex Palou could allow them to factor in several rounds, although wins could be a tough ask.
6.) Ed Carpenter Racing
The jury is out as to whether the additions of Conor Daly and Rinus VeeKay will boost ECR's stock on road and street courses in 2020. Until proven otherwise, expect the majority of impact to remain in the oval events as it has been since the team boss's pole position at the 2013 Indianapolis 500.
7.) Arrow McLaren SP
McLaren plans to make a major splash in its first full year on the circuit, but it is certainly asking a lot of two relatively inexperienced hands in Oliver Askew and Pato O'Ward to carry the load. The addition of Craig Hampson in the technical department will be a step forward, but it may not be enough to make this group a legitimate podium challenger this season.
8.) AJ Foyt Enterprises
Super Tex's organization is essentially starting from scratch in 2020, the final competitive run for the popular IndyCar pilot Tony Kanaan. While the Brazilian is on the shelf till the month of May, smart money says Sebastien Bourdais will play a major role in the early headlines. Charlie Kimball's addition was another smart move, while Eric Cowdin's inclusion is a plus in the technical development. Still a ways to go to join the main contenders, but progress in winter testing seems to have been made.
9.) Meyer-Shank Racing
Jack Harvey has certainly stolen some thunder from the main part of the grid over the past two seasons, but now MSR joins the IndyCar circus for all 17 races in 2020. Expect several strong efforts, but a lack of experience on oval tracks could be a stumbling block in terms of the new season hopes.
After a brutal month of May where three of their entries failed to qualify for the Indy 500 and also shooting down rumors of ceasing their program, Trevor Carlin is back for redemption in 2020. Mainstay Max Chilton will feature in 12 of the 17 races, with Conor Daly taking over in the other rounds. The second car could go among several pilots, with veteran sports car driver Felipe Nasr getting the call for St. Petersburg. A long shot for success, but expect a positive turnaround in some form.
REST OF THE BUNCH:
Dreyer & Reinbold Racing will contest four races with Sage Karam, including this weekend's season opener. If the Pennsylvanian can control his aggression, a top half finish is within range. Elton Julian's DragonSpeed squad got a late start on its 2020 program only receiving its new aero screen days before a recent test at Sebring. Ben Hanley gets the wheel for St. Pete and it will be interesting to see if year two for the squad shows any steps forward.
So with the teams ranked.. let's shift the focus to the ten best drivers entering the Firestone Grand Prix at St. Petersburg..
1.) Josef Newgarden: Champion gets the benefit of the doubt and entering as the defending St. Petersburg winner does not hurt either.
2.) Will Power: Two victories on his resume at St. Pete, but also several iffy results that are tough to ignore. Should factor in the outcome regardless of placement.
3.) Alexander Rossi: A pair of top-five efforts in past two editions in Florida. Remains the most likely threat to the Penske runners this weekend.
4.) Scott Dixon: Has finished seventh or better in all but two efforts at St. Pete since 2011. Should stay true to form in 2020.
5.) Simon Pagenaud: An uncertain future could return the Frenchman to the pace he showed in back-to-back runner-up postings in the season openers of 2016 and 2017.
6.) Felix Rosenqvist: A bad strategy call cost him a shot to win in his debut race in Florida 12 months ago. If he's on pace heading into qualifying on Saturday, we could be talking about a first-time winner Sunday.
7.) Takuma Sato: If he can avoid the potential first turn chaos that's common at St. Pete, the 2017 Indy 500 champ could threaten to at least match his 5th place showing here in 2017.
8.) Colton Herta: The 2020 sophomore kept his nose clean in his debut effort to take eighth a year ago. With more experience under his belt and perhaps a faster car, a move up the scoring pylon is a reachable target.
9.) Ryan Hunter-Reay: 2014 Indy 500 champ started off 2019 with a DNF in Florida, but ignore that, and he's fared no worse than 7th every year at St. Pete since 2014.
10.) Graham Rahal: St. Pete has been downright evil to this second-generation pilot since his history making triumph in 2008. Of course, he did finish second here in 2018 however.
UNDER THE RADAR:
Newcomer Alex Palou has the potential to steal the show in his maiden IndyCar voyage, as could reigning Indy Lights Presented Cooper Tires champ Oliver Askew. Conor Daly and two-time St. Pete king Sebastien Bourdais are also live long shots, but are the cars they are piloting capable of challenging for the podium?
Stay tuned to Speedway Digest for further updates on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the NTT Data IndyCar Series.
NOTE: Thoughts and opinions mentioned in this article are those of the writer and may not reflect the opinions of others on staff at Speedway Digest.