Michael Waltrip Racing to lose NAPA sponsorship at year’s end

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In the wake of Michael Waltrip Racing’s attempted manipulation of the race finish at Richmond International Raceway on Sept. 7, NAPA Auto Parts has announced that it will leave the team after this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship.

Last week, NAPA and fellow MWR sponsor 5-Hour Energy expressed their disappointment at MWR’s role in the Richmond scandal, with NAPA saying it would hold a review of its sponsorship with the team.

NAPA posted the following statement on its Facebook page this morning regarding their decision to leave:

NAPA-backed driver Martin Truex Jr. was knocked out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after NASCAR heavily penalized the team with points deductions for all three drivers, probation for their crew chiefs, a $300,000 fine, and an indefinite suspension for general manager Ty Norris.

Clint Bowyer (who is backed by 5-Hour Energy) spun out with seven laps to go at Richmond to bring out the caution, while fellow MWR driver Brian Vickers was ordered to pit in the closing laps to give up his track position. Both of those moves, according to NASCAR, were made to help Truex get into the post-season.

But while NASCAR delivered a swift judgment with their penalties of MWR, the fact still remains that MWR has suffered its biggest post-Richmond blow today, as major sponsors such as NAPA are the life blood of the sport.

In a statement, team co-owner Michael Waltrip said that as the owner, he takes full responsibility for the actions of the team.

“I sincerely apologize for the role our team played and for the lines NASCAR has ruled were crossed by our actions at Richmond,” he said. “NASCAR met with the competitors in Chicago and we all know how we are expected to race forward.”

A statement for the entire team was also released, in which MWR writes that it “respects” NAPA’s decision to part ways with the team.

“There is no doubt, the story of Michael Waltrip Racing begins with NAPA Auto Parts, but there are many more chapters yet to be written,” the team said. “MWR has the infrastructure and support of Toyota for three teams plus three Chase-caliber, race-winning drivers.

“With the support of our corporate partners, we are preparing to field three teams in 2014. MWR is a resilient organization capable of winning races and competing for the championship and that remains our sole focus.”

NAPA has had a working relationship with Waltrip since 2001, and served as his primary sponsor for his two Daytona 500 victories in ’01 and 2003. They also joined him for his creation of Michael Waltrip Racing in 2007, and stayed on to sponsor Truex when he replaced Waltrip as a full-time driver in 2010.

But while the team still plans on staying a three-car franchise, NAPA’s departure would seem to make that plan, currently, a very iffy one.

If they can’t replace the lost money, the consequences could be disastrous. In that situation, the AP’s Jenna Fryer writes that a group of nearly 100 employees could be facing layoffs. Additionally, Truex could find himself out of a ride as well.

Castroneves obliterates track record for Phoenix pole (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Helio Castroneves has shattered the previous track record at Phoenix International Raceway en route to his second pole of the Verizon IndyCar Series season and Team Penske’s fourth in four races to kick off 2017. In the process, he also won his 49th pole of his INDYCAR career (7 CART/42 IRL/IC), which puts him in a tie for third all-time in series history with Bobby Unser.

The Brazilian, driving the No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet, also set the pole at Phoenix last year but at a two-lap average of 192.324 mph.

Tonight, under the lights with temperatures of 72 degrees Fahrenheit ambient and 83 for track, Castroneves’ average was a staggering 194.905 mph.

“People don’t realize that qualifying is extremely difficult,” he said. “I took it to the limit – I had one eye closed and one eye open. Experience is a big part of this and today was really, really good. The conditions were really difficult today in practice – the gusting winds were horrendous. We worked mostly on the race setup (in practice). My engineer did a phenomenal job and obviously everybody at Team Penske – the REV Group car was really fast. Qualifying is one thing – the race is another – but I’m really confident going into tomorrow.”

Teammate Will Power starts second for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Power was only the second car to run, but put down what looked to be an incredible two-lap average of his own – the first driver over 194 mph – before Castroneves beat him under slightly cooler and less windy conditions later in the session.

Young Americans JR Hildebrand, in his first race back after missing Barber, and Barber winner Josef Newgarden will share Row 2 with Simon Pagenaud fifth in Chevrolet’s first top-five qualifying sweep of the season, a result which was somewhat expected given Chevrolet’s edge in the aero department on a downforce-heavy short oval aero kit package at Phoenix.

It was Tony Kanaan, who was feted along with Castroneves on Thursday night in a separate event at the Heard Museum honoring both drivers’ 20 years in IndyCar, who led Honda’s charge in sixth. Mikhail Aleshin, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti and points leader Sebastien Bourdais completed the top 10.

Of note, Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe was 11th, his worst start thus far this year, and Ed Carpenter’s team was able to get his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet back out after a fuel leak in practice, and a rapid fuel cell change. But his luckless run in his oval races continues and he’ll start 21st and last tomorrow night.

Qualifying results are below.

AVONDALE, Arizona – Qualifying Friday for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.022-mile Phoenix Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine and speed:

1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 194.905
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 194.017
3. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 193.912
4. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 193.676
5. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 193.414
6. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 192.539
7. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 192.327
8. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 192.050
9. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 191.387
10. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 191.349
11. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 191.194
12. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 190.799
13. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 190.768
14. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 190.565
15. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 190.405
16. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 190.029
17. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 189.786
18. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 189.779
19. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 189.301
20. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 188.536
21. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 186.360

Phoenix weekend, Friday notes

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Days are weird when the track activity for the Verizon IndyCar Series doesn’t start until 4 p.m. PT and local time. Qualifying is tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, online via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App at http://indystream.nbcsports.com.

That then makes the notes we gather a little different.

  • Thursday night kicked off the weekend with an honoring and fun night of storytelling from Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, moderated by veteran open-wheel and NBA reporter Gary Gerould. The event, held at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, offered a lot of camaraderie, laughs and memories shared for the pair of Brazilians. We’ll have a full recap of the event on Saturday.
  • Oberto premieres on Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda this weekend as a primary sponsor. In a “convenient coincidence,” Oberto is also on Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ No. 41 Beetle GRC for two-time defending champion Scott Speed in this weekend’s Red Bull Global Rallycross opener in Memphis (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBC). The red-and-white No. 27 car had a primary sponsorship vacancy for most races this year in the wake of hhgregg’s financial issues, with United Fiber & Data only on for selected races.
  • Fernando Alonso’s entry is getting most of the attention among one-off Indianapolis 500 cars, but he’s not the only one. Per Spanish site IndyCarAlDiaJuncos Racing is set to run at least one car on the same May 3 date as Alonso will make his debut, as Ricardo Juncos’ team gets close to making its announcement for its driver or drivers it will have in this year’s race.
  • Alonso’s livery for his No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti is set to be revealed either the Tuesday before his test on May 2 or the morning of his test on May 3, itself. The @McLarenIndy account tweeted a sneak pic of the livery earlier this week.
  • The Jay Howard Team ONE Cure Honda-powered entry for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports doesn’t yet have its engineer set, but the team is getting close to finalizing the crew for that car.
  • Zach Veach’s No. 40 IWiT Championship Chevrolet will be revealed Wednesday night, May 10, at AJ Foyt Racing’s Indianapolis shop.
  • On a Red Bull Global Rallycross note: Andretti, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have both IndyCar and GRC efforts running this weekend, so four of the 10 Supercars. The rest of the GRC field features Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE (three cars), Subaru Rally Team USA (two cars) and Loenbro Motorsports, the former Ganassi team (one car).
  • Be on the lookout for a pair of digital pieces on NBCSports.com later this weekend. NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt caught up with Helio Castroneves for Rapid Fire, while she’ll also fill in for Anders Krohn – who’s on Red Bull GRC duty in Memphis – hosting IndyCar Paddock Pass. Hargitt caught up with Barber winner Josef Newgarden, series returnee JR Hildebrand and Hildebrand’s Barber fill-in Zach Veach in this week’s episode.

Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

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Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.