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Professional

Strong start to biggest month in racing

IndyCar driver Simon Pagenaud celebrates after winning the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma and the IndyCar Championship on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016 at Sonoma raceway in Sonoma, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group/TNS)
IndyCar driver Simon Pagenaud celebrates after winning the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma and the IndyCar Championship on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2016 at Sonoma raceway in Sonoma, Calif. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

The most prolific month in motorsports arrived with two strong races, with IndyCar and NASCAR both opening May with momentum-grabbing entertaining events that should carry the series through their Memorial Day showcases.

Simon Pagenaud, his future with Team Penske shaky because of a 21-race losing streak, stalked five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon in the rain around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the closing laps of its road course race. Then the Frenchman completed a phenomenal late pass to win the Grand Prix and prove he’s fighting hard for his job.

Hours later at Kansas Speedway, Brad Keselowski closed out one of the more entertaining NASCAR races of the season with an overtime victory that gave team owner Roger Penske a sweep of the day. More specifically, six different Penske drivers tallied five victories in four series spanning 9 days to open May – The Captain’s favorite time of the year.

Penske, a 17-time winner of the Indianapolis 500, this year celebrates the 50th anniversary of his first Indy entry.

This is a celebratory month for motorsports, a time for series to shine leading into the Sunday before Memorial Day, considered the biggest single day of racing in the world. Formula One will scream through the streets of Monaco early May 26, then IndyCar and “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” take the stage at IMS. NASCAR closes the day with the Coca-Cola 600, a grueling race of attrition and one of the few remaining crown-jewel events on the schedule.

The stage is set for IndyCar and NASCAR to dazzle a new audience, make new fans, and prove racing isn’t a dying sport.

Both series got strong starts with last Saturday’s doubleheader, and the anticipation carried into Tuesday when Indianapolis officially opened for the 500. IndyCar is enjoying a resurgence and slow, steady growth in both the series and its spotlight event.

McLaren is entering the 500 as an independent entry – the first McLaren at Indy since 1976 – and Fernando Alonso, the popular retired Formula One champion, is back for a second attempt at winning the “Triple Crown.” Oriol Servia was expected to become the 36th entrant, which means real bumping in this weekend’s qualifying. Three drivers won’t make the 500, and Penske has joined Michael Andretti and Chip Ganassi among the heavyweight owners wondering if IndyCar’s full-time teams should be exempt from bumping.

A new qualifying format will make for a tense Sunday session, all played out live as NBC rehearses for the 500 and its first broadcast of one of sports television’s true iconic properties.

NASCAR, meanwhile, has its $1 million All-Star event Saturday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and with it comes a chance for the series to string together consecutive competitive events. A snoozer of a race 2 weeks ago at Dover created the feeling a driver mutiny was looming over a rules package that has so far failed to meet expectations.

NASCAR this season introduced the new package in an effort to improve the racing, but many drivers warned it wasn’t going to work. The package hasn’t been awful, and many of this year’s races have been watchable, which is an improvement from last season. But the package has not lived up to the hype, and drivers have voiced their frustration.

Many drivers spent last week complaining NASCAR will not listen to their input and the lousy Dover race is the just result. But then came Saturday night at Kansas Speedway, in cooler temperatures, and the package finally delivered a compelling race. The race went to overtime, and the 23 lead changes were one short of the total combined lead changes in both Kansas Cup races last year.

That gives hope for the All-Star race, which last year was a de facto test of the new rules package. The race was created as a no-holds-barred Saturday night shootout for a cool $1 million payday, and for two decades it delivered. But the luster has worn off – partly because the racing just hasn’t been very good – and Charlotte track president Marcus Smith is considering moving the event to Nashville next season if Speedway Motorsports Inc. can get that property up and running.

Smith still believes Saturday night at Charlotte will be a show unlike any other on the NASCAR calendar, and another opportunity for the series to shine during this important month. He’s a huge supporter of NASCAR using the event to test new rules and ideas, as well as opening up research and development to teams in what could be a showcase of the greatest minds in the sport.

“You can’t test racing in practice because you’re not actually racing if you’re not racing for money, and I think [that R&D element] is an important part from a competition standpoint of the All-Star race,” Smith said. “But from a fan and a driver standpoint, it is very similar to what happens in the NBA with the All-Star Game, or Major League Baseball during its All-Star week – it is a change of pace, a marker in the season that people can kind of let their hair down a little bit, have fun and do something different.”

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