BenFred: IndyCar’s latest trip to World Wide raceway offers compelling stories on, off track | Ben Frederickson

Devlin DeFrancesco faced down death and won long before he first strapped himself into a racecar capable of speeding 230-plus miles per hour.

He was born 15 weeks premature. He spent the first four months of is life in a Toronto hospital’s incubator. By 6, he was racing go-karts. And now he’s a 22-year-old rookie IndyCar driver on a two-pronged mission. One, win races. Two, raise funds for the women’s and children’s programs at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, the hospital that helped save his life.

Pretty incredible story, isn’t it?

DeFrancesco hopes more learn it after he wins the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 next Saturday at World Wide Technology Raceway.

It would not be the first time he has mastered our region’s unique oval better than his competition.

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When the Indy Pro 2000 Championship circuit was here back in September 2020, DeFrancesco won his race at WWTR, posting his fastest lap on his final lap in order to hold off challengers. He has since graduated to the big show. But this is still a familiar stage.

“It’s a huge thrill, always, to drive here,” DeFrancesco said this week after his testing session at the track in advance of next Saturday’s race.

“I love coming here.”

Factor in that familiarity and the confidence it creates and DeFrancesco seems like a smart pick to make his first NTT IndyCar Series top-10 finish this weekend.

He’s just one name to know for St. Louis sports fans who are leaning into racing more now that WWTR owner Curtis Francois continues to bag big events.

The jostling at the top of the IndyCar Series standings is tight and tense. The timing of next Saturday’s race should be put in the proper context. It’s the first of the season’s final three.

Will Power, who has one of the best names in sports, leads Scott Dixon by just six points. Power, the IndyCar Series champion in 2014, has been a championship runner-up four times around his lone championship. He’s oh so close to his securing his second first-place series finish. But Dixon is gaining ground. He climbed into second by winning the most recent IndyCar race in Nashville. He’s aiming for his seventh IndyCar Series title.

Still very much in the mix is ​​two-time IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, and that’s important to mention here, because he arrived ranked fourth and with the experience of having won three of his six races at this track. Dixon won here in 2020. Power won here in 2018.

Just 33 points separate fifth-ranked Alex Palou from Power.

For context, when Dixon won the series championship back in 2015, he was 48 points back with three races remaining.

Everything is up for grabs, and down-the-stretch jostling is turning up the temperature on off-track drama.

Defending series champion Palou is wrapped up in an awkward dispute about which team he will race for next season, a story that has provided a fascinating test case for team chemistry. He’s with Chip Ganassi Racing at the moment. He wants to go to McLaren Racing next. A lawsuit is in progress to determine the validity of a 2023 contract option Ganassi Racing wants to be honored. That probably makes for some awkward team meetings in the interim.

Romain Grosjean, ranked 14th and Newgarden have fresher beef. Newgarden crashed into Grosjean in Nashville’s crash-littered race their last time out. The disagreement about Newgarden nudging Grosjean into a wall on a restart late in the last race spilled over into social media and could pop up on the track.

If you’re not into the racing, the soap-opera side of the IndyCar series is pretty compelling.

And then there is the big name everybody knows, even if your only connection to high-stakes racing is trying to survive Highway 40 traffic.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is in next Saturday’s field. He hasn’t raced here since NASCAR’s Xfinity Series was held here in 2001. He’s ranked 22nd, one spot ahead of DeFrancesco.

“He’s taught all of us a thing or two,” the 22-year-old DeFrancesco said about 46-year-old Johnson. “He’s been getting better on the road courses and street courses. But he’s really one to learn from and to watch on all of the ovals.”

One week until we get to watch what should be a fun one.

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