Takuma Sato

LONG POND, Pa. – With but four races remaining to be completed on the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, each one becomes exponentially more important.

It’s why 15 drivers participated in team testing today at Pocono Raceway, in preparation for the ABC Supply 500 weekend at the “Tricky Triangle” Aug. 20-21. Drivers from six teams logged more than 1,700 laps on the 2.5-mile triangular oval. Because it was a team test, lap times were not reported.

Getting track time was paramount for rookie Max Chilton, making his first visit to Pocono.

“It’s hugely important,” said the driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. “You’ve got to leave this being comfortable in what you’ve got for the race. We’re trying to get that, so I’m confident to come back here in a fortnight.”

Even the veterans realize the value of testing at Pocono, with its three distinctly different corners.

“This place is so tricky,” said Graham Rahal, driver of the No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda. “It’s extremely demanding to get the car balance just right. You’ve got to get the aerodynamic trim levels where you’re still fast enough. You can put on a ton of downforce and make it go flat (on the accelerator), but then you might go too slow for the race.

“Any day, any lap you can get around here, trust me, is good because you’re always learning.”

Indy cars raced every year at Pocono from 1971-89, with all-time wins leader A.J. Foyt taking the checkered flag four times. The Verizon IndyCar Series has been visiting the track annually since 2013. Team owner/driver Ed Carpenter is adamant that the race should be a mainstay on the calendar.

“There’s a long list of reasons why I think it’s important to come here,” said Carpenter, driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for the team that bears his name. “This track was built for Indy cars, so we need to be here. There’s a long history of Indy car racing and racing in general – a lot of passion and it does happen to be in a really good market for Indy cars.

“And from a driving standpoint, the track’s just a ton of fun to drive. I hope it’s a partnership that continues for a long, long time.”

Also participating in the test were Jack Hawksworth and Takuma Sato of AJ Foyt Racing; Marco Andretti, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Carlos Munoz and Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport; Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Charlie Kimball from Chip Ganassi Racing; Josef Newgarden of Ed Carpenter Racing; and Mikhail Aleshin and James Hinchcliffe from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

Fans were admitted free to watch the daylong testing. The two-day race weekend consists of practice and qualifying on Aug. 20 and the 200-lap race on Aug. 21. Race-day coverage begins at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. For ticket information, visit poconoraceway.com.

Drivers enjoy friendlier competitions

Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco AndrettiEight drivers who ran in the test joined in more light-hearted sporting activities Wednesday at Pocono Raceway, teaming with local media for fun contests of wiffle ball – baseball using a narrow plastic bat and slotted plastic ball – and the cornhole bag toss game.

Most of the drivers had little prior experience with either pastime. Aleshin, from Moscow, was a bit baffled by cornhole but fascinated with wiffle ball. Sato took to wiffle ball well, in part, he said, because he just attended a Major League Baseball game to see Japanese legend Ichiro Suzuki in his quest to reach 3,000 hits.

Andretti, the local favorite from nearby Nazareth, Pa., did smack a grand slam off teammate Hunter-Reay. But only after pleading for mercy after whiffing at a number of Hunter-Reay pitches.

“Marco asked for me to slow it down,” said Hunter-Reay, the 2015 Pocono race winner shown at right lofting a slow toss to Andretti. “He said, ‘Dude, you’ve got to take some heat off it!’ I took the heat off it and then he hit it out of the park. I gave him that one. I just felt bad because I kept on smokin’ ‘em by.”

Hunter-Reay was quick to add that he’s no batting star himself. “We had a good time,” he said. “I’m definitely a pitcher, not a hitter.”