Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama - Day 1

Castroneves paces Barber Friday practice

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Helio Castroneves, the defending polesitter at Barber Motorsports Park, led practice Friday for the second round of the 2013 IZOD IndyCar Series season.

The Brazilian was one of 11 drivers who dipped into the 1:08 range in Friday’s second practice session around the 2.3-mile road course. That’s still nearly a second off times set in testing, but teams have not yet run Firestone’s softer, grippier alternate red tires.

“I think it’s better to be lucky than good,” he said. “Obviously with the yellow in the end a lot of guys probably put tires, but the car felt pretty good. The AAA team felt really strong, the morning unfortunately it was a little bit difficult because seeing that the track has lots of grip and when you have an extra set of tires certainly it helps a little bit. In the end of the day, with AJ and Will we’ve been actually doing a lot of different stuff out there and it seems to be working.”

Like several other drivers this weekend, Castroneves’ car features an alternate livery. Castroneves is sporting blue and white AAA colors, with an additional marketing campaign that sees “Turbo,” the upcoming DreamWorks Animation film about a snail who races in the Indianapolis 500.

Although a Chevrolet was quickest, Honda runners took four of the next six spots on the timesheets for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Sam Schmidt’s two cars were third and fourth, rookie Tristan Vautier again getting the better of Simon Pagenaud, while Alex Tagliani leapt to second in the Barracuda/Bryan Herta Autosport entry and Scott Dixon ended the day in sixth.

Will Power was fifth once again, as in the morning, with AJ Allmendinger continuing his weekend within a tenth of his Australian Team Penske teammate once again in eighth place.

EJ Viso was seventh, best of Andretti Autosport’s quartet of cars, with James Jakes (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) and St. Petersburg front row starter Takuma Sato completing the top 10. Viso’s session included an off course excursion at Turn 8, but without any damage he was able to return back to the pits.

Dale Coyne Racing made strides with its brakes – both Justin Wilson and Ana Beatriz knocked one full second off their morning times – while the rest of the AGR contingent struggled. Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Marco Andretti have not yet been on the pace. KV Racing Technology also dropped to 16th and 17th with Tony Kanaan and Simona de Silvestro – both found some time but not as much as others – and Charlie Kimball was one of only two drivers to fail to improve on his time from practice one. That meant a drop from fourth to 18th on the day.

Through two sessions, 23 of 26 drivers have eclipsed Power’s track record of 1:09.8529, which will almost certainly be broken with official times in qualifying on Saturday. Qualifying airs at 5 p.m. EST Saturday on the NBC Sports Network.

Combined times from Practice 1 and 2 are below:

Rank  Car Driver            Team                C/E/T Time 

1.     3    Helio Castroneves    Penske                 D/C/F 1:08.5440
2.     98   Alex Tagliani        Barracuda/BHA          D/H/F 1:08.6288
3.     55   Tristan Vautier      Schmidt Peterson       D/H/F 1:08.6720
4.     77   Simon Pagenaud       Schmidt Hamilton       D/H/F 1:08.7627
5.     12   Will Power           Penske                 D/C/F 1:08.8066
6.     9    Scott Dixon          Target Chip Ganassi    D/H/F 1:08.8446
7.     5    EJ Viso              Venezuela/Andretti/HVM D/C/F 1:08.8556
8.     2    AJ Allmendinger      Penske                 D/C/F 1:08.9119
9.     16   James Jakes          RLL                    D/H/F 1:08.9479
10.    14   Takuma Sato          Foyt                   D/H/F 1:08.9817
11.    19   Justin Wilson        Coyne                  D/H/F 1:08.9917
12.    1    Ryan Hunter-Reay     Andretti               D/C/F 1:09.0524
13.    22   Oriol Servia         Panther DRR            D/C/F 1:09.1384
14.    10   Dario Franchitti     Target Chip Ganassi    D/H/F 1:09.1492
15.    27   James Hinchcliffe    Andretti               D/C/F 1:09.2602
16.    11   Tony Kanaan          KV                     D/C/F 1:09.2755
17.    78   Simona de Silvestro  KV                     D/C/F 1:09.2779
18.    83   Charlie Kimball      Novo Nordisk Ganassi   D/H/F 1:09.2798*
19.    25   Marco Andretti       Andretti               D/C/F 1:09.3452
20.    7    Sebastien Bourdais   Dragon                 D/C/F 1:09.3480
21.    67   Josef Newgarden      Fisher Hartman         D/H/F 1:09.5084
22.    15   Graham Rahal         RLL                    D/H/F 1:09.6315
23.    4    JR Hildebrand        Panther                D/C/F 1:09.7176
24.    6    Sebastian Saavedra   Dragon                 D/C/F 1:10.1026*
25.    20   Ed Carpenter         Carpenter              D/C/F 1:10.2497
26.    18   Ana Beatriz          Coyne                  D/H/F 1:11.2361

*Fastest time set in Practice 1 instead of Practice 2

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

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NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski