Johnson out to reclaim Charlotte glory at next week’s Coke 600

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With his fourth NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race victory in hand, Jimmie Johnson now looks to re-assert himself as the king of NASCAR’s longest challenge — the Coca-Cola 600.

Johnson, the five-time Sprint Cup champion, won three consecutive “600s” at Charlotte Motor Speedway from 2003 to 2005. But the 1.5-mile oval outside the Queen City has changed considerably since those days with a major repave taking place there in recent years, and Johnson has not won at CMS since claiming the track’s fall 500-miler in 2009. It’s a problem that he would like to correct next Sunday night.

“We’ve had decent finishes and been competitive and led laps but the track is just so different now than it was then, and we had it scienced out,” said Johnson, who takes a 44-point lead in the standings over Carl Edwards into the “600.”

“We knew literally what time in the afternoon, what the adjustment needed to be made to the car, and it was like clockwork — [it] didn’t matter the year, just every single time. It’s not that way anymore.

“We certainly want to have that magic because winning here in Hendrick [Motorsports]’s backyard and [having sponsor] Lowe’s corporate offices just up the road, there’s a lot of reasons we want to be good here. But more importantly, it’s like we know that we’ve had it so we feel like we can find it again, and we’re knocking on the door. But like I was saying earlier, we’re one of three or one of five that can make something happen here now, where before we had a pretty strict advantage.”

After winning last night, Johnson mentioned Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth as possible threats to win the “600” outside of himself, with crew chief Chad Knaus throwing Carl Edwards into the mix as well. All of those drivers have had solid success at Charlotte in their careers, particularly Kahne and Kenseth, who both have multiple Cup wins at CMS to their credit (Kahne with four, Kenseth with two).

Penske, Chevrolet dominate Phoenix weekend

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Even though Team Penske and Chevrolet won the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park, the Honda teams still appeared more than capable of running with them, and the race was pretty balanced from a competition standpoint (for example: three Chevrolets and two Hondas finished in the top five, and three cars from each manufacturer made the Firestone Fast Six).

However, the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix was a different story. As was projected coming into the race, the Chevrolet aero kit and power unit dominated on the short oval.

Chevrolets qualified 1-5, with Team Penske drivers qualifying first (Helio Castroneves), second (Will Power), fourth (Josef Newgarden), and fifth (Simon Pagenaud), and JR Hildebrand of Ed Carpenter Racing sandwiched the quartet in third.

And during the race, all 250 laps were led by Penske drivers. Pagenaud led the most with 116, followed by Castroneves (73), Power (59), and Newgarden (2).

“Simon drove a great race,” said Jim Campbell, U.S. Vice President Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “Kyle (Moyer) and the No. 1 team put together terrific car set up, race strategy and quick stops. Excited for Simon to get his first oval win with Chevy here at Phoenix.”

What’s more, it is the first short oval win for the Penske squad since Power’s triumph at the Milwaukee Mile in 2014, and is the first oval win period for Pagenaud. The Frenchman was understandably elated in the post-race press conference.

“It’s phenomenal. I’m just as excited as I was in the championship,” he revealed. “I think that’s going to resonate to you. I was very emotional at the end of the race there because I’ve been running after this. The desire to be good on ovals for me was really strong. I wanted to come to America and I wanted to embrace the sport, embrace the oval, and show that I could do the job.”

Conquering a short oval was makes things that much more special for Pagenaud, as he explained.

“I mean, I’m just super proud. To me, short oval is probably the hardest skill to have to win an oval,” he said. “Obviously, Indianapolis is more of a chess game, being there on the longer race, 500 miles. But here it’s very physical. You got to stay very clear in your head, despite being taxed physically, and also you need to keep up with the car very aggressively with traffic.”

Will Power had his best finish of 2017 at Phoenix Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

Teammate Will Power detailed that Chevrolet has been hard at work to match the somewhat unexpected speed from the Honda teams, and firmly believes they’ll be strong at both Indianapolis races.

“Obviously some tracks suited the Honda a little bit better. But, you know, I feel like we’re going to be good,” Power affirmed. “I mean, we were good at Barber. I think we’ll be good at Indy road course. Chevy’s been working really hard to have a great engine for the 500, which I’m very confident in those guys because they do such a good job. I think they could come up with something pretty good.”

Pagenaud’s win vaults him into the championship lead by 18 points over Scott Dixon, while Power rocketed into the top ten and currently sits seventh in the standings.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

JR Hildebrand shines at Phoenix after return from injury

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JR Hildebrand had one of the best weekends of his Verizon IndyCar Series career at the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. After returning from a broken hand suffered at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Californian qualified a career-best third and went on to finish third. The result is his first top five since Long Beach in 2013 and his first podium since the 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Hildebrand explained in the post-race press conference that he knew Ed Carpenter Racing would be strong on short ovals, and he felt pressure to make good on their potential.

“I was definitely anxious to make good on the speed. The team has a great short oval package,” he revealed. “I’m excited to get the result. The car was bitchin’. I think at the end of the race, we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to have that in it. It’s a strong result heading into May.”

And if not for traffic at the end, Hildebrand might have been able to pass Will Power for second. But, as he described, battling traffic was a main theme the entire night, especially with lapped cars battling each other for significant positions.

“For me the race ended up coming down to how you managed traffic. Guys are a lap down but racing for top-10 spots. Usually when you’re lapping guys on a road course there’s no stress. Here they were racing even harder than we were. It is a difficult thing to manage. It became about picking opportunities to pass guys,” Hildebrand explained.

In regards to his hand injury, Hildebrand described it as a non-factor and does not see it being an issue going forward. “In my hand, there was no stress. (It’s) good for (Gateway International Raceway) on Tuesday and then the whole month of May.”

The result also sees Hildebrand on the podium in new engineer Justin Taylor’s first oval start. The past Audi LMP1 engineer helped put the car right on pace, right off the transporter.

Hildebrand now sits 13th in the championship standings, ten back of tenth place Ed Jones. He gained eight positions in one race.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

Pagenaud breaks through for first oval win in Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Simon Pagenaud parlayed a combination of pace and longer fuel stints to win his first career Verizon IndyCar Series race on an oval, in the next logical career step for the 2016 series champion.

After starting fifth, Pagenaud advanced to the lead and led 116 of 250 laps in Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix in the fourth race of the 2017 season in his No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet.

He’s the fourth winner in as many races, has four top-five finishes to kick off the year, and has now moved into the points lead. It’s his 10th career win.

In a Chevrolet-dominated affair, Pagenaud led teammate Will Power, who finally broke his duck of five straight races outside the top 10, JR Hildebrand, who finished on the podium in his return to action, and Helio Castroneves, who again lost the win from pole position but banked his fourth straight top-10 finish.

Team Penske dominated, leading all 250 laps themselves. Pagenaud, at one point, had more than a one lap lead on the field after stretching a run in the middle portion of the race – but that was negated following a wave-by during a yellow flag caused when Takuma Sato had a strange incident off of Turn 4.

Power tried to carve his way back from there but with too many lapped cars in-between him and Pagenaud following the wave-by, he was never able to get much closer than a few seconds. Ultimately, he ended 9.1028 seconds behind and did well to hold back Hildebrand’s late charge.

Scott Dixon completed the top five finishers, the top Honda. The Hondas were on the back foot all weekend, and seemed unable to break the stranglehold Chevrolet and Penske had on the top of the charts.

In an attrition-filled race, only 13 of 21 starters finished, with five cars going out in a first-lap accident, including prior points leader Sebastien Bourdais.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: For the second straight race, Team Penske got three of its four cars into the top four. It was a 1-3-4 at Barber, and a 1-2-4 tonight…. Ed Carpenter broke a rough patch of results with a seventh place finish after starting 21st and last, his first top-10 since coming sixth at Iowa after his memorable scrap with Sage Karam…. like Power and Carpenter, Charlie Kimball also got his first top-10 of the year with a run to eighth…. Ed Jones finished 11th more by default, but a finish in his first IndyCar oval start was a good one…. the result won’t show it but Conor Daly had his best run of the year, running as high as second before gearbox issues cost him a shot at his first top-10. He ended 14th.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Andretti Autosport wore the collar of four DNFs with all four of its cars for the second time in three races. Both Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi had lighter wall contact that eventually led to retirements, Takuma Sato had slightly heavier wall contact in Turn 3 and Marco Andretti was caught up in the Turn 1, Lap 1 mess. Another forgettable, and expensive evening…. James Hinchcliffe was a season-worst 12th with his car struggling with fuel mileage… Mikhail Aleshin’s incident streak continued after the first lap mess that also took out Andretti, Bourdais, Max Chilton and the luckless Graham Rahal.

NOTABLE: All four Penske drivers combined to lead all 250 laps…. with teams from Penske, Carpenter and Ganassi locking down the first nine spots, AJ Foyt Racing’s Carlos Munoz in 10th was “best of the rest,” as Dale Coyne Racing hit its first race of the year outside the top 10 with both cars, on an expensive evening for the small team.

QUOTABLE: From a very happy race winner, Pagenaud: “Those were the longest 50 laps of my life.  I have a button on the steering wheel to check the lap count, ever lap I was pressing the button.  It was the most stressful end of the race I’ve ever lived, but the car was just phenomenal.  It was an incredible day for the Menards car, Chevy, incredible job with the aero package for these kinds of tracks and on the engine as well.  Since the beginning of the season we worked so closely it’s been fun, I have to say. Obviously, thanks to Verizon as well for all the support that they give us.  I’ve got to tell you, this is just incredible.  For me, this is my best win because it’s so strategic to win on an oval.  You have to really study what the others are doing, how your car is responding adjust it during the race to be good at the end and today was just exactly a perfect day.  I couldn’t be any happier.”

RESULTS

AVONDALE, Arizona – Results Saturday of the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.022-mile Phoenix Raceway, with order of finish, starting position in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, laps completed and reason out (if any):

1. (5) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 250, Running
2. (2) Will Power, Chevrolet, 250, Running
3. (3) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 250, Running
4. (1) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 250, Running
5. (8) Scott Dixon, Honda, 249, Running
6. (6) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 249, Running
7. (21) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 248, Running
8. (14) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 248, Running
9. (4) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 248, Running
10. (19) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 247, Running
11. (16) Ed Jones, Honda, 247, Running
12. (11) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 246, Running
13. (12) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 220, Mechanical
14. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 180, Running
15. (15) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 141, Contact
16. (18) Takuma Sato, Honda, 135, Contact
17. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 0, Contact
18. (9) Marco Andretti, Honda, 0, Contact
19. (10) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 0, Contact
20. (13) Max Chilton, Honda, 0, Contact
21. (17) Graham Rahal, Honda, 0, Contact

Race Statistics:
Winner’s average speed: 144.058
Time of Race: 1:46:24.9473
Margin of victory: 9.1028 seconds
Cautions: 2 for 32 laps
Lead changes: 4 among 4 drivers

Lap Leaders:
Castroneves 1-73
Newgarden 74-75
Pagenaud 76-77
Power 78-136
Pagenaud 137-250

Verizon IndyCar Series point standings: Pagenaud 159, Dixon 141, Newgarden 133, Bourdais 128, Hinchcliffe 120, Castroneves 118, Power 91, Kanaan 87, Hunter-Reay 82, Jones 81.

 

Bourdais among five cars caught up in Turn 1 pileup at Phoenix (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – A massive five-car pileup has dwindled the 21-car Verizon IndyCar Series field in tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix down after a first turn accident.

Points leader Sebastien Bourdais, rival Mikhail Aleshin (the two have collided several times before), Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal and Max Chilton were all involved in the accident.

Aleshin, who started seventh in the No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, lost control coming through Turn 2 and collected the others. Bourdais, in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, tried to avoid to Aleshin to the outside but crashed into him. Andretti, in the No. 27 Oberto Honda for Andretti Autosport, spun behind him after contact with Bourdais. Rahal, in the No. 15 United Rentals Honda, tried to split the gap but got caught up. Chilton’s No. 8 Gallagher Honda has also sustained enough damage to be sidelined.

All drivers were out of their cars after the accident, and have been checked, cleared and released from the infield medical center.

Quick quotes are below, Aleshin, Rahal and Chilton talking to NBCSN’s Robin Miller, Andretti to Marty Snider and Bourdais to Kevin Lee.

“Unfortunately when I started to turn into Turn 1, the rear went and I couldn’t do anything. With full lock, I understood that was it. Snap oversteer. Couldn’t do anything about it. It was obviously my mistake. I am sorry for the guys who hit me as well. That’s racing,” Aleshin said.

Andretti said, “I want to be able to just finish a race. Everyone was trying to miss Mikhail. It looked like he had more downforce. Ryan just missed it. I tried to spin to miss him, then my smoke is why Graham couldn’t see. He hit me. It’s not ideal seeing blue smoke with most of the field coming at you. Glad everyone is OK. It was a product of Mikhail losing it and us trying to avoid it.”

Rahal added, “I didn’t have a perspective. I don’t know what happened. The spotter yells go low, Chilton’s spinning in front of me, I tried to go above him, and his car came up the banking. Legitimately I don’t know what happened. Our luck right now. Need to go to New Orleans for a voodoo doll. Spotter yells one thing. Where else do you go? This is what happens when you qualify at the back. Our sponsors, mechanics don’t deserve this. A lot of work to be done ahead. You’ve been around this long enough – you, PT – you’re just doomed. I was wrong place, wrong time.”

Bourdais said, “You’re just along for the ride. I was too close to brake. Marco was already in there anyway. Ryan cleared it barely. Not much you can do. It was a pretty big slap. It was a shame. You have to have wiser moves on the start like that. Everyone gets caught up in the moment and we were collateral damage. Our Sonny’s BBQ car is busted on the left and right side.”

Chilton concluded, “We had a pretty decent start. I was sort of tensing because four-wide is never good on a short oval. Mikhail lost his car. You only need one car to make a mistake and it’s a disaster. I did the normal human reaction. I spun, as I came back, I got collected by Rahal. Frustrating way to end the day. But so much downforce and these races are so boring, everyone tries to overtake on Lap 1.”

A quick video of the accident via the inside of Turn 1 is below along with the main video above.