First Firestone Fast Six runs for Pagenaud, Wilson, Newgarden

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Few would argue Simon Pagenaud and Justin Wilson are two of the top drivers in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Additionally, few would argue Josef Newgarden is one of the series’ emerging talents, who hasn’t yet had many opportunities to shine thanks to near consistent mechanical gremlins and bad luck.

So it may come as some as a surprise, then, that all three made the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying for today’s Grand Prix of Baltimore presented by SRT for the first time this year. For Newgarden, it’s also the first Fast Six appearance of his career.

Pagenaud and Schmidt teammate Tristan Vautier both advanced into the Fast Six; each has led a practice session (Pagenaud on Saturday morning, Vautier Friday afternoon) this weekend.

“The engineer (Ben Bretzman) worked really hard on understanding how to control the ride better, and they digged really deep after Sonoma,” Pagenaud said. “Even though it’s a completely different racetrack, there’s a lot of things they understood, and the car is just absolutely fantastic this week.  So I’m very proud of the HP team. And being here with Tristan is also a great accomplishment for the team.”

Wilson posted his best qualifying effort since Toronto 2012, when he qualified third. Much of the attention at the Dale Coyne Racing team has gone to Wilson’s younger brother Stefan, who is debuting this weekend.

“To be honest, I didn’t expect it after practice,” Justin Wilson said. “We were 10th in practice this morning, 17th yesterday, so it’s been a bit of a struggle this weekend, but we’ve just kept digging away and fighting back. (We’re) not quite in Will and Scott’s league, but I’ll keep looking at it and see what I can learn as a driver and see what we can learn with the setup and try and get there.”

Newgarden seems to have a torrid love affair with the otherwise controversial Pratt Street chicane. He is using Lucas Luhr’s chassis from Sonoma (nicknamed “Rapunzel”), and has made up most of his time through the chicane in maximum attack mode.

“That’s like the only place I’m good around this circuit I feel like,” Newgarden said. “I’m just barreling it in there, I don’t even care what part I’m hitting. The front’s going everywhere; it doesn’t matter. I’m just flat out through it pretty much.”

Vautier in sixth made his third Fast Six of the season, having also made it at St. Petersburg and Barber, the first two races of 2013. His was a bit more controversial, though. That will be hit in a separate post.

With Pagenaud, Wilson and Newgarden making the Fast Six, 20 different drivers have made it in this year at least once.

NHRA Gatornationals: John Force qualifies 15th with no motor explosion, says ‘I need to race smart’ Sunday

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There’s good news and bad news for John Force fans.

The good news is the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ did not suffer yet another motor explosion after enduring his third in three races during Friday’s qualifying session at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway.

In fact, Force intentionally feathered the gas pedal on his Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car to make sure it wasn’t again overtaxed, qualifying 15th with a run of 4.281 seconds at 222.88 mph.

Now for the bad news.

When Sunday’s final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. ET, Force will be matched against daughter and No. 2 qualifier, Courtney Force (3.914 seconds at 332.18 mph).

“It is a little bit of a bummer that I have to race him in the first round,” Courtney Force said of her father. “Tomorrow is a new day and we will have all our stuff ready and we will put on our game faces to go for that win.”

Courtney Force is seeking her second consecutive win, having also won two weeks ago at the second national event of the season in suburban Phoenix.

“I want to have a good side-by-side safe race tomorrow in round one,” Force said. “Our goal is to take my dad down and have a long day at the track winning rounds.

“We want to move the momentum over from Phoenix. I feel like my guys have a good handle on this Advance Auto Parts Camaro.”

But don’t count out dear old dad, an eight-time Funny Car winner at Gainesville.

“I am the kind of guy that, when it is qualifying day, I run it to the edge.,” John Force said. “I run it even if I know it will hurt itself.

“(With his three motor explosions this season) I am rethinking all that. What I am looking is the long haul. To go out here and say I have to win this race or I have to qualify low after as much stuff as we have put on the ground in Pomona and Phoenix and then to come here and do it again is bad. … We want to fix this problem and move on.

“Tomorrow I am going to have to play the odds game. I am going to run it to 700 or 800 feet and hope (Courtney) gets in trouble. I need to race smart.”

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