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Helio Castroneves has witnessed it all at Team Penske throughout his 17-year tenure with the top-notch organization. But the three-time Indianapolis 500 winner thinks nothing may match what is on the horizon for him in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Castroneves is coming off a 2016 season as the caboose of what was a Penske sweep of the top three in points, led by series champion Simon Pagenaud and runner-up Will Power. But that isn’t what has the 41-year-old Brazilian’s attention. The focus has already shifted to the upcoming season and the all-star lineup that includes team owner Roger Penske’s signing of Josef Newgarden.

The talented 25-year-old Tennessean was announced in October as the replacement in the No. 2 Chevrolet to two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who will remain with the team in a one-off as the fifth entry for the 101st Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil on May 28. Newgarden finished fourth in this year’s championship driving for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Castroneves, a 29-time Indy car race winner, got a firsthand look at his new teammate during offseason testing in October at Road America and Gateway Motorsports Park. In fact, it was Castroneves’ No. 3 Hitachi Chevrolet that Newgarden drove in the Gateway test.

“First of all, he’s a new generation (of driver),” Castroneves said. “Josef is American as well, which is something that, for Roger it doesn’t matter about the nationality, what he wants is actual results. Josef has been able to show – I wouldn’t say a small team but one not comparable to Team Penske – victories, potential and good results.

Castroneves, entering his 20th year of Indy car competition in 2017, added that there was a curiosity factor in wondering where Newgarden, who has three wins and eight podiums the past two seasons, found his speed. That made it all the more important to add him to the lineup.

“I feel that in some of the areas he was extremely fast and we want to know why, so let’s take Josef and put him in our group and hopefully make it happen,” Castroneves said.

“I feel the first test we had together, I was very surprised that he was able to adapt very quickly to the team, to the setups and to the cars. He was extremely fast. So, I feel that we’re going to have another young guy here pushing us, but at the end of the day it’s always good to have quality drivers around us because it helps to make us better as well.”

A lineup that has undoubtedly everybody’s attention heading into the season, the four-time championship runner-up was quick to joke that maybe the Indianapolis 500 should be renamed.

“I joked the other day, I said, ‘Who’s going to win the Penske 500?’ We have five cars, not only five cars, but we have a very good lineup for next year and it would be great to win another Indy 500 for Roger.”

Castroneves is suffering through a winless drought of more than two years himself, but he’s always one to watch at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Come May, his personal focus will again be on joining the trio of all-time legends who have had their likeness placed four times on the iconic Borg-Warner Trophy.

“Indy is our main goal,” he said, “to bring another victory for Roger and hopefully tie Rick Mears, Al Unser Sr. and the greatest, Mr. A.J. Foyt.”

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Now that Japan's Takuma Sato is a member of Andretti Autosport, it gives the team another fast driver to a lineup that already includes some of the top names in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Sato, signed last month, joins 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay, 100th Indianapolis 500 winner and Sunoco Rookie of the Year Alexander Rossi and two-time race winner Marco Andretti on the team owned by racing legend Michael Andretti.

In addition to the driver lineup, there are other business opportunities solidified by Sato's arrival since he brings strong connections with both Honda and Panasonic.

“It's obviously important from a number of aspects,” said Rob Edwards, Andretti Autosport’s chief operating officer. “First of all, part of being able to run a proper effort is to make sure it is properly supported. In many ways we've seen where the effort isn't properly supported, the expectations are higher and you don't have the proper tools to deliver.

Rob Edwards“I also think when you look at the Andretti portfolio across INDYCAR and all of the platforms we are involved in, it's about building on relationships with top companies like that. Obviously, over the last few years we have had a very successful relationship with Honda and continue to build on that. Panasonic is complementary to the INDYCAR program, but also a number of the other platforms we are involved in, too. That's an exciting relationship to add to the relationships we already have.”

Two companies specifically that can be bolstered by a business-to-business relationship with both Honda and Panasonic are hhgregg and DHL – two major sponsors at Andretti Autosport.

“I think hhgregg is interesting and I think DHL because they are a shipping company and Panasonic ships a lot of things around the world, so there are a lot of connections,” said Edwards (pictured at right). “Panasonic is involved in Formula E with another team and maybe there is potential there to be involved in some of our other series as well.

“It's an opportunity to know more about a top brand and what other synergies exist.”

Sato's business relationships bring opportunities to the team and the driver from Tokyo brings speed and experience to the racing team that has historically been one of the best in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Sato's move to Andretti became official Dec. 2, but was expected after his former employer, AJ Foyt Racing, named Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz as its 2017 drivers on Nov. 15.

“It was a matter of getting some of the behind-the-scenes pieces in place,” Edwards said of the delay in the Sato announcement. “We wanted to make sure the I's were dotted and the T's were crossed before we came out and made it official.

“We haven't worked with Takuma yet and we are going to find out a lot of things, but (hearing) from the people that have worked with him before, he is very strong technically. I think that will be a help to us and complement the other three drivers very well. We are looking forward to getting all four of them working together.”

Sato, who will turn 40 on Jan. 28, has made 118 starts over seven seasons in the Verizon IndyCar Series, following seven years competing in Formula One. His strength is speed and aggression on the track. His weakness has been a tendency to crash.

“If you look over the last few years, you can clearly identify that as the issue to work on. We have some ideas,” Edwards admitted. “It will be interesting because this is a different environment than what Takuma has been in the last few years, in terms of size of the team and his teammates and the experience of his teammates. The ability to tap into (team owners and former drivers) Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta and some of those things will help to keep the speed but get the finishes the speed deserves as well.”

Sato took Foyt's team to victory lane with a win at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach in 2013 and led the Verizon IndyCar Series points entering the month of May that season. Edwards believes Sato could win one or two races in 2017.

“Absolutely,” Edwards said. “Looking at what we were going to do with the fourth car and who was going to be in the fourth car, winning was part of the conversation. There is no question about his speed. We have all seen that different times. The challenge is developing consistency and turning that into results. It's not about doing 95 percent of the job and then throwing it away.

“That's our challenge and we think we can all put our resource and energy into tackling that.”

Edwards also sees the benefit of having the Andretti Autosport lineups for both the Verizon IndyCar Series and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires efforts locked in heading into the new year.

“Everyone here deserves a lot of credit for that,” he said. “Some of the issues and challenge of putting all four-car programs together over the last couple of years has been clear for everyone to see. There has been a lot of hard work how we have grown as an operation commercially and the business side that has enabled us to get to this point.

“To have all four INDYCAR seats and all four Indy Lights seats all wrapped up by the beginning of December is like having Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one and getting it early. It's a huge, huge help with preparations for 2017."

 

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Texas Motor Speedway will undergo a complete repave, construction of an extensive drainage system and re-profiling of the 1.455-mile oval that has hosted Verizon IndyCar Series events since the track opened in 1997.

The renovation, beginning Monday, will add a new layer of asphalt over the existing pavement, an expansive French drainage system on the frontstretch and backstretch and a 4-degree reduction of banking in Turns 1 and 2. The project is expected to be completed in March. The Rainguard Water Sealers 600, the ninth of 17 races on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series calendar, is scheduled under the lights at TMS on Saturday, June 10.

The repaving and drainage system come as a result of issues the facility incurred in drying the racing surface, in particular this past year when the INDYCAR race and both NASCAR race weekends were affected by weather-related delays. The Firestone 600, originally scheduled for June 11 in 2016, was postponed until the following day by rain and wet track conditions and then halted by rain after 72 of its 248 laps. The race was completed Aug. 27, won by Graham Rahal in the closest finish in track history and fifth-closest in Indy car annals -- 0.0080 of a second over James Hinchcliffe.

"The fans are why we are doing this," track president Eddie Gossage said. "The old pavement no longer dried as quickly because, through the years of use and weather, the asphalt became porous, kind of like a sponge. Even if we only had a brief shower, it was taking us far too long to get the track dried in order to get on to the racing.

“We owe it to the fans to present the best possible racetrack so they will be assured of seeing NASCAR and INDYCAR races, even if we face some brief inclement weather. This will accomplish that goal."

The repave, conducted by experienced track paving company Lane Construction Corp., will feature an asphalt mix used in conjunction with the construction method to aid in the track's properties of an "aged" track. For installation of the French drainage system, trenches will be cut in numerous locations on the frontstretch and backstretch to provide multiple points for water to drain away from the facility more quickly and efficiently than the current system. A drainable mat installation that will tie into a continuous toe drain will aid in the drainage of the track as well.

The reconfiguration of Turns 1 and 2 will give the track a more unique layout from its current symmetrical 24-degree banking in all four turns. While Turns 3 and 4 will remain unchanged, the banking of Turns 1 and 2 will be decreased to 20 degrees with the racing surface width expanding from 60 feet to 80 feet in that section of the track.

"We looked at what would be the best way to create more exciting racing and to correct the water issues. We are excited to put these practices in place and create another great SMI race,” said Steve Swift, Speedway Motorsports, Inc. vice president of operations and development, who is coordinating the project.

The reduced banking will decrease lap speeds, potentially open additional passing opportunities in Turns 1 and 2 and provide TMS a new, distinctive layout that will be more challenging to the drivers.

"For years, I've heard the absurd comments about 1.5-mile tracks being tagged as 'cookie-cutter' tracks," Gossage said. "While nothing could be further from the truth – all 1.5-mile tracks are different – this assures once and for all that Texas Motor Speedway is unique, unlike any other track in the sport. That's the way we like it here in ‘No Limits, Texas.’"

This will be the second full repave since TMS opened 20 years ago. That project occurred in the summer of 2001 as the speedway’s surface was repaved with a granite-based asphalt compound from the original limestone-based asphalt.

 

         

 

 

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