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Race Teams Enjoy Their Labors During Labor Weekend

Labor Day Weekend. For many of us, it’s the last long weekend of the summer and the last three-day weekend until Thanksgiving. It’s a time to chill, enjoy family and friends and hopefully keep the sweatshirts and jeans in the closet for one more weekend.

It’s also one of the busiest, most substantial race weekends of the year. All three major series that compete at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway – the Verizon IndyCar Series, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series and Red Bull Air Race World Championship – are in action.

So strap in, hang on and enjoy the fruits of the labor of some of the finest motorsports athletes on Earth this weekend. Let’s take a look at what’s happening.

IndyCar: The stretch run of the Verizon IndyCar Series season continues Sunday at Watkins Glen International, located in the picturesque Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, with the IndyCar Grand Prix at the Glen.

The pressure cooker is turned to maximum heat this weekend at one of the most iconic natural road courses in the world, for two reasons.

One, this is the second-to-last race of the season. Only the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17 at Sonoma Raceway remains after this race.

Two, The Pass changed everything.

If you follow IndyCar or watched the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 last Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park, you know all about The Pass.

Josef Newgarden passed Team Penske teammate Simon Pagenaud for the lead with a daring move with less than 30 laps remaining, bumping wheels with Pagenaud. Newgarden drove away to his fourth victory of the season and a 31-point lead over Scott Dixon in the series standings. Pagenaud fell to third in the race results behind Dixon and was fuming after the race at what he saw were rough-and-tumble tactics by Newgarden, who was unapologetic for his move.

The two protagonists in this drama apparently have talked through this situation, and defending series champion Pagenaud admitted in the buildup to the race this weekend at Watkins Glen that his emotions got the better of him at Gateway.

Still, does anyone think this incident will be permanently erased from the hard drives spinning in both drivers’ brains if they’re running close to each other at The Glen? Does anyone think Pagenaud will leave as much room for Newgarden – or any other rival – in tight quarters for the last two races?

And most importantly, does anyone think that move didn’t signal that Newgarden is willing to do fight with bare knuckles to win a series championship in his first season with Team Penske?

Lost in the shuffle of this kerfuffle is the fact that Watkins Glen Track President Michael Printup should just get it over with and hand the key to the hilltop facility overlooking Seneca Lake to Dixon. He owns the joint, after all.

Dixon has won four of the seven IndyCar races contested at Watkins Glen between 2005-16, including from the pole last year. So Newgarden will need to remain sabre-sharp this weekend to maintain his gap in the points over Dixon, if history is any indication.

While the spotlight will shine on the Verizon IndyCar Series title fight this weekend at The Glen, spare some wattage for Kyle Kaiser. He only needs to run in one practice session this weekend at Watkins Glen to clinch his first Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season championship and the handy $1 million prize from Mazda that will go a long way toward helping him land a seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series next season.

There’s also one more juicy story – still in the rumor mill stage – that will swirl even more this weekend at The Glen. Two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso, who impressed everyone in May with his Indianapolis 500 debut, insisted again this week at Monza he only wants to drive a winning car next season.

That won’t come with his current team, McLaren. It won’t come with Williams or Renault, either, even though both teams are rumored destinations for the Spaniard next season in F1. There are only three teams in F1 capable of winning right now, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. It’s unlikely that hegemony will change much in 2018.

So rumors are gaining steam that Alonso could head Stateside in 2018 for a full season in the Verizon IndyCar Series. A slot apparently opened this week with his Month of May team, Andretti Autosport, after team owner Michael Andretti told The Indianapolis Star that 2017 Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato has a deal to move to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next year.

Hmm … this could get fun.

The IndyCar Grand Prix at the Glen will be televised at 1 p.m. (ET) Sunday on NBCSN.

NASCAR: While IndyCar has just two races left in its entire season, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series has two races remaining in its regular season before the 10-race postseason playoffs start.

The second-to-last race, this Sunday evening, is a NASCAR icon – the Bojangles’ Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. It’s the oldest race at the oldest track in NASCAR.

Some of the top names in the sport from every generation still are on the outside looking in to the 16-driver playoff field and need to win either Sunday night or next Saturday at Richmond International Raceway to grab a playoff spot.

Drivers on that list include Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne and the biggest name in the sport – Dale Earnhardt Jr.

2010 Brickyard 400 winner Jamie McMurray also can’t feel very comfortable right now, either.

Jamie Mac holds a 58-point lead over Bowyer for the 16th and final spot in the playoffs, a pretty safe cushion. But McMurray is winless in 2017. So if a first-time winner this season emerges at Darlington or Richmond, McMurray will be left without a chair when the regular-season music stops.

Darlington’s egg-shaped oval is one of the trickiest circuits in NASCAR, every bit worthy of its nicknames, “The Lady in Black” or “The Track Too Tough to Tame.” So elite, championship-worthy drivers usually stand in Victory Lane after a rigorous night of racing in South Carolina.

But curve balls can happen. Ward Burton pulled off one of his five career Cup Series wins at this race in 2001, and unheralded Regan Smith used a daring fuel-mileage gamble to win the Southern 500 in 2011.

One other fun wrinkle of this event is the throwback paint schemes. Nearly every car in the field will feature a historic livery paying tribute to an iconic car or driver of NASCAR’s yesteryear. Pit crews also will join in the fun with retro-looking uniforms.

But will we see Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte wearing leisure suits and platform shoes in the TV booth for the race? The Bojangles’ Southern 500 will be televised at 6 p.m. (ET) Sunday on NBCSN.

Red Bull Air Race: The Red Bull Air Race World Championship, like IndyCar, also is in the pressure-packed stretch run of its season this weekend as the series returns to the skies over Porto, Portugal.

There are just three races left in the season, which ends Oct. 14-15 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

American pilot Kirby Chambliss leads the elite Master Class by just one point, 40-39, over Yoshihide Muroya of Japan and Martin Sonka of the Czech Republic. Canadian pilot Pete McLeod is fourth, just two points behind Chambliss as the dogfight for the title continues in the world’s most prestigious aerobatic flying championship.

Chambliss enters Portugal by showing hot vapor trails to the field. He won the last event, July 23 at Kazan, Russia. Chambliss is flying for his third Red Bull Air Race World Championship but his first since 2006.

Another interesting storyline from Kazan was the first podium finish of the season in the Master Class for American pilot Michael Goulian, who finished third behind Chambliss and McLeod.

Full coverage from Porto is available at redbullairrace.com, on the Red Bull TV app for mobile phones and gaming consoles. Delayed coverage will be televised at 6 p.m. (ET) Monday on NBCSN.

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Mathias Dolderer
 
Race Teams Enjoy Their Labors During Labor Weekend
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