And Then There Were Three: IndyCar Weekend at the Milwaukee Mile

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After two practice sessions yesterday, it seemed that James Hinchcliffe would be the man to beat at the Milwaukee Mile. But towards the end of practice #2, the back of his Honda-powered UFD-sponsored Andretti Autosport DW12 got away from him and backed him into the wall. This did not affect his spot at the top of the timing & scoring board however; Hinchcliffe ran the quickest laps in both the morning & the afternoon and did so within the first few handful of laps in each session. The cars seem to be sticking quickly in Milwaukee this weekend, but the weather plays a big part in that, which we saw in qualifying.

IMAG0750Mere minutes changed the track based on cloud cover or lack thereof. Set up and balance of the machines also played a big role for teams like Andretti Autosport. Their first two qualifiers, Championship contender, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Sunoco Rookie of the Year Candidate, Carlos Munoz found themselves side-by-side on Row 10 at the back of the pack. Hinchcliffe, with repairs completed in impressive time, ran 1 mph faster than the field best in practices, but it was only good enough for a P13 start in today’s ABC Supply 250. The best started in the Andretti camp, was the driver with the same name – Marco Andretti. He achieved a P9 for the starting grid, on the inside of Row 5 and the only member of his team starting in the Top 10.

I have yet to visit the Milwaukee Mile personally, but from everything I hear from the drivers, this is not an easy course to pass on. That being the case, Andretti Autosport has quite a fight ahead of them today – most of all Hunter-Reay, who needs every point he can possibly earn if he wants to stay in the fight for the Astor Cup later this month. Hopefully, the team was able to learn something about their car set-ups and the constantly changing conditions at the track, that will allow them to put together some higher finishing positions than the ones they will start from when the green waves this afternoon.

Two Penske, three Ganassi, and an SFH Racing car made up the first 3 rows by the end of qualifying. The polesitter is no stranger to leading the field – Will Power of Team Penske earned his third Verizon P1 Award of the 2014 season, yesterday in Wisconsin. The first two were earned at Barber Motorsports Park in April & at Texas Motor Speedway in June. Both of those races resulted in Top 5 finishes for Power and he will undoubtedly be pushing for his third win of the year today. The points leader is focused on wins and he is well aware of the fight for the Championship that he is in the midst of, regardless of his attempted cavalier attitude about points-earning since March. Power has been the bridesmaid in the IndyCar Championship multiple times and I promise you, he is going to battle hard all the way to the checkered in Fontana. He is nothing if not focused on success.

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Power’s teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya landed P3 for today’s start and he is still mathematically capable of winning the Championship as well. While most are only considering the Top 4 (Power, Castroneves, Hunter-Reay & Pagenaud) as legitimate contenders for the Cup, we cannot ignore the possibility of Montoya or even Scott Dixon having a break-through domination in these last three weeks and going from being the underdog, to being the leader. Stranger things have happened in racing and more unpredictable circumstances have existed in IndyCar – particularly this year!

The two top-qualifying Chip Ganassi Racing Team machines were driven to P2 & P4, by Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe, respectively. Today’s starting position ties Tony’s best starts this year at both St. Petersburg in the season kickoff, as well as in Iowa where he started on the front row & finished on the podium. Iowa is also where Briscoe had his last P4 start – and P4 also happens to be his best start of the season. In Iowa, it landed him in the Top 10 but he is certainly looking to finish stronger today. I don’t think this is a far-fetched goal given his practice results running up at the front of the pack in the morning session, only outdone by Hinchcliffe.

20140511_174513Charlie Kimball is the third Ganassi car in this group we are looking at and he starts from the outside of Row 3, his best start of the season. Kimball is coming off a strong weekend at Mid-Ohio where he climbed 13 positions to finish 7th at the hard-to-pass road course. This is incredibly impressive but not all that surprising if you’ve been paying attention. Kimball has made significant position gains in 8 of the 11 races he’s finished this season (He had a DNF in Long Beach, at the Indianapolis 500, and in Race 1 at Houston). His gains have ranged from 8 positions to 18! That high end was achieved at the inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis in May. His best finish was 3rd at Race 2 on Belle Isle as part of the Dual in Detroit. If Kimball can continue with his usual pack fighting today, there’s a chance we will see him on that podium again… maybe this time at the top of it.

IMAG1079_1The car starting next to Kimball is that of Josef Newgarden for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. The American driver who has really made a name for himself and demanded attention this season had a heart-breaking blow in Mid-Ohio, when he was dealt a drive-thru penalty for running over pit equipment. This all happened while he was making a fight for the lead. His disappointment was obvious after the helmet came off, but what was more obvious was his maturity, class and restraint. This “kid” might look young and be at the start of his career but his professionalism  supersede his age & experience – proving to me as well as many others that he has a solid and successful career ahead of him. He is not a hot-headed young driver, but rather, is capable of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. He respects the series, the rules and has the talent to back up his confidence. This is exactly the kind of driver that owners and teams want to work with. That is an important piece of the puzzle, since his current ride with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing has not yet been renewed and they will be merging with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2015 to form the brand new CFH Racing team. The hope is for Josef to stay on board with this new union and give him what he’s always wanted – a teammate to work with and group telemetry to make his teams runs the best they can possibly be.

Milwaukee IndyFest is in full swing and the crowned jewel of the weekend, the ABC Supply 250 race, goes green this afternoon. I will be covering the Verizon IndyCar Series event from a distance this weekend, so be sure to like my public page on Facebook, follow me on Twitter and join in the conversation by using the weekend’s official hashtags: #IndyCar & #IndyFest. Tune in to watch live on NBC Sports at 3pm EDT and make sure you also download the IndyCar 14 App to your Verizon Wireless tablet or smartphone – the app is available for iOS or Android devices through their respective app stores.

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