IndyCar, NASCAR roar into May

NASCAR in the Pits

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — 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 nine 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, a Pagenaud and Keselowski sweep, and the anticipation carries into Tuesday when Indianapolis officially opens 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 two 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.