Penske gives IndyCar some buzz with Stewart offer

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Nearly 12 weeks after winning his first IndyCar championship, Ryan Hunter-Reay will finally get to accept his trophy in a ceremony at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

At least for one night, the attention will be on Hunter-Reay and everything that went right last season in IndyCar. Thursday’s celebration will be a welcome respite from the controversy that’s engulfed the series since the season ended in September.

IndyCar’s management has been nothing short of a disaster since the season ended with the Hulman & Co. board of directors stumbling along until CEO Randy Bernard was let go. The board let Bernard twist for months, bungled its handling of the rumors surrounding his fate, and then tried to paint his hurried Oct. 28 dismissal as a “mutual separation,” infuriating fans of the series.

When the dust settled, Bernard was gone, series founder Tony George had been ousted from his seat on the board over his rejected $5 million cash offer to buy back IndyCar, powerful team owner Roger Penske had assailed the board’s credibility over the Bernard firing and fans were threatening to never watch another race again.

Penske left little doubt he still harbors ill will over the handling of the situation when he picked up his first Sprint Cup championship at the NASCAR awards ceremony in Las Vegas last week. He took a moment to thank the France family for their contributions to the series and said of NASCAR: “You guys are great. You continue to invest, and reinvest, in the greatest motorsports business in the world.”

Ouch.

Penske is crafty, and he loves IndyCar, so he managed to turn the talk to his beloved Indianapolis 500 before the night was over by offering three-time NASCAR champion Tony Stewart the chance to drive for him next May.

Just like that, IndyCar had some positive press just as its banquet puts the series briefly back into the spotlight. Although Stewart has yet to publicly respond to Penske’s offer, Indianapolis Motor Speedway started an online petition where fans can encourage the two-time Brickyard 400 winner to accept the ride.

Should Stewart pass, drivers were using Twitter on Monday to inform Penske they wanted the seat. Among them were Chip Ganassi Racing development driver Kyle Larson, Conor Daly, who spent this year in Formula One support series GP3, and NASCAR driver Brian Vickers, who tried to put together an Indy 500 deal last May but was stymied by IndyCar’s engine shortage.

“I’m serious about Indy. Would do it in a heartbeat, was not just tweeting to be funny,” Vickers said Monday.

And broadcast partner ABC seemed amenable to discussions with IMS about moving up the start time of the 500 to accommodate Stewart (or Vickers or Casey Mears or AJ Allmendinger or Danica Patrick or Sam Hornish Jr. _ because there’s a list of NASCAR drivers with open-wheel experience who could theoretically now be thinking about trying to run both the IndyCar race and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600).

“ABC/ESPN would enthusiastically support the opportunity for said driver(s) to participate in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. We have strong partnerships with the league and speedway,” said Julie Sobieski, ESPN vice president, programming & acquisitions.

IMS has not said if it’s willing to move its start time, and the Indy 500 is a strong enough race that it doesn’t need this additional buzz.

But this shot to the arm right now is good for IndyCar, even as its teams had been doing their part to continue pressing ahead despite the turmoil. Among the many moves already:

_KV Racing signed Simona deSilvestro and has already tested twice this winter with the Swiss driver. It’s a big pickup for a team that split with team manager Mark Johnson, laid off dozens of employees and parted ways with EJ Viso and Rubens Barrichello at the end of last season.

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