Excited about NASCAR’s Chase changes, Ragan looks for more David vs. Goliath success in 2014

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Ever since he became a full-time Sprint Cup driver in 2007 at the age of 21, David Ragan’s performance has been kind of stuck in neutral – not by choice, mind you.

But for whatever reason – with the exception of a career-best 13th-place finish with Roush Fenway Racing in 2008 – Ragan has finished consistently between 23rd and 28th in the other six of his seven Sprint Cup seasons.

That’s hopefully going to change in 2014. After winning at Talladega last spring (Ragan’s second career Sprint Cup win), being pushed to the finish line by Front Row Motorsports teammate David Gilliland, it gave the entire team a David definitely can beat Goliath kind of confidence.

And if 2014 goes the way Ragan hopes, there’ll be a lot more giant killing to do during the 36-race Sprint Cup season.

“That was a big day for our team and me and David (Gilliland) personally,” Ragan said recently. “A 1-2 finish was something to be proud about. It was an opportunity for us to continue to build our brand.

“Definitely, a lot of good things came from that. It gives our guys motivation that if we all execute the plan we have, that we can win another one if the stars align right and if we put ourselves in the right position. We can’t win races running 20th or 25th, but if we can get to that top 10 or top five, we can win a race. We can win some this year at several different tracks. You’ve got to win one before you win two and before you win three.”

The Unadilla, Ga., native has seen a completely different side of the Sprint Cup world since joining Front Row in 2012 after his contract was not renewed by Roush Fenway when enough sponsorship couldn’t be found.

After five seasons with one of Sprint Cup’s premier teams, signing up with Front Row kind of brought Ragan back to his roots of working with smaller teams before he got his big break with Roush in 2005.

“I’ve kind of matured and opened my eyes up a little bit,” Ragan said. “I was a young guy, 19 years old, when I started at Roush. You come in and it’s a fast-paced world, I’m running Nationwide races and Cup races and traveling to 30-40 sponsor appearances a year.

“You don’t really see the big picture. You have tunnel vision, where you see what you’re doing that given time. That makes it tough and it was tough for me to learn at a young age, so coming to Front Row, a little smaller organization and not as many commitments outside of the race track, you do get a chance to step back and see what’s important in the real world.

“Definitely, my profession and career as a race car driver, I want to be successful and win races, but it’s also important to have a good family, your friends, your loved ones, spend some time with your old grandparents and things. You kind of see what’s going on. That’s probably the difference in between 19 years old and 28 years old.”

Had NASCAR expanded the field of the Chase for the Sprint Cup from 12 to 16 last season, Ragan would have made the 10-race playoffs by virtue of his Talladega win. Even though he didn’t make the Chase, Ragan believes there’s plenty of carryover from last season that can serve as motivation for his efforts in 2014.

“The opportunity to have a few more guys in the Chase is great,” Ragan said. “I think the way it’s going to happen, when you have teams being eliminated from the actual championship contention, that’s a good format, in my opinion.

“To have a Front Row Motorsports capable to make the Chase, you have to step your game up. You’re not going to be able to goof off for nine races and win the championship. You’re going to have to be competitive every single race and win some races throughout the year. Winning is all we want to do, it’s what the fans want to see and I think NASCAR has given us what everybody wants to see.”

Ragan comes from a racing family, one with roots that date back to the earliest days of NASCAR, when his grandfather competed on the beaches of Daytona. Ragan’s father, Ken, competed in 50 career Cup races from 1983 to 1990.

And now third-generation David is carrying on the family tradition. Even though he considers himself an old school racer, Ragan likes the changes NASCAR has made to the Chase, particularly the incentive and excitement that comes with it, and the ability to create a scenario that will mean greater excitement, bigger TV ratings and attract new fans to the sport.

“I guarantee you that whoever wins the Daytona 500, one of their first thoughts is that ‘I’m going to be in the Chase at Chicagoland,'” Ragan said. “It gives me chill bumps about (possibly making the Chase). I’m excited, and I couldn’t be more of a traditional fan.

“My grandfather and family was entering NASCAR races back in the late 1940s, so we’ve been around this sport for a long time. I love all forms of auto racing. I couldn’t be more excited about the upcoming season. I think we have to continue to evolve our sport based on the fans that we have in the world, and based on the world as it changes.

“You look at other sports and they’re consistently making small changes and tweaks. The fundamental parts are always going to be there: You’re going to have 43 cars, you have to go and race and the best guy is going to win.

“It is a game changer and is something that in a positive way can be a great thing for our sport. We all live on instant news, we want every football game to come a time-expired field goal being kicked, or a baseball game in the bottom of the ninth and the team from behind and win, or the 2007 Red Sox, where they came back from an 0-3 deficit. That’s the stuff you always remember, and this is kind of setting it up to have those kinds of finishes.”

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Here’s a flashback to Ragan’s win last April at Talladega:

Newgarden pulls off first Penske win at Barber after Power’s demise

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Josef Newgarden has secured his first win for Team Penske in just his third start for his new team, in Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park.

The driver of the No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Chevrolet inherited the lead on Lap 77 after teammate Will Power, who had otherwise dominated the race, was forced to pit with a left rear puncture.

Newgarden promptly proceeded to hold off Scott Dixon for the win by 1.0495 seconds, with Simon Pagenaud on the podium in third ahead of Helio Castroneves and Alexander Rossi.

More to follow…

WATCH LIVE and notes: IndyCar at Barber (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

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Coverage of the third round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, takes place today starting at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com (stream link here). The coverage comes after INDYCAR: NEXT featuring James Hinchcliffe from Long Beach, which airs at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Leigh Diffey will be in the booth with Townsend Bell and Paul Tracy. Marty Snider, Kevin Lee, Katie Hargitt and Robin Miller will be in pit lane.

Coverage will run from 2 to 5 p.m. CT and local time, so 3 to 6 p.m. ET.

The race sets up nicely for Team Penske and Chevrolet to get on the board with Will Power, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud starting in the top three positions.

But with the first two race winners, Hinchcliffe (fourth at Long Beach) and Sebastien Bourdais (21st at St. Petersburg) have started significantly further back. One of those trends seems set to continue today.

Beyond the top three, some of the other story lines to watch include these:

  • With a 90-lap race, the pit windows are fairly open for a three-stop strategy. A two-stop could only be achieved with a significant amount of yellow.
  • With ambient temperatures in the mid-60s, about 20 to 25 degrees cooler than the rest of the weekend and with rain having washed rubber from the 2.3-mile circuit, expect track conditions to be significantly different on Sunday.
  • Scott Dixon starts fourth in pursuit of his elusive first 2017 victory and first Barber victory after six non-win podiums.
  • Ryan Hunter-Reay will lead Andretti Autosport’s charge from P5, looking for his first win since Pocono 2015 and for his third Barber win after taking the 2013 and 2014 victories.
  • Josef Newgarden rolls off P7, as he looks for his first win with Team Penske. He won his first career race at his “adopted home track” in 2015 with CFH Racing.
  • Either or both Dale Coyne Racing drivers look to continue their incredible starts. Ed Jones and Sebastien Bourdais share Row 6, Jones having done well to outqualify Bourdais straight-up on Saturday.
  • Zach Veach makes his IndyCar debut from 19th. The 22-year-old has improved by about four or five tenths per session each session thus far for Ed Carpenter Racing, and will look for a clean race on Sunday.
  • Meanwhile, Fernando Alonso and Zak Brown have arrived in Alabama and will make the rounds on Sunday as a get-acquainted session with the Andretti Autosport team.
  • ASIMO, Honda’s advanced humanoid robot, is the race’s grand marshal and will give the command to start engines.

The starting lineup with Firestone tire designation is below:

Indy Lights: Colton Herta rolls to win 400th Indy Lights race

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Colton Herta rebounded from a difficult Race 1 at Barber Motorsports Park to dominate Race 2 of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the 400th event in the history of Indy Lights. Herta started on pole after qualifying was rained out and immediately shot off into the lead when the green flag waved. He claimed victory over second-place Kyle Kaiser by more than nine seconds to complete a dominant performance.

“I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race,” the young Herta said of his triumph.

Herta was thankful to have pole and the inside line entering turn one, which helped him take the lead off the start, and emphasized he is already think championship. “Having the inside going into Turn One on the first lap was huge, because it’s so hard to pass here,” he explained. “Kyle was close to me on the first lap, but after that I was on my own. I do think that the more experience you have out in front, the better you are at staying calm. I think I’m better at that now because I have been up there in championships in Europe and it hasn’t worked out – and the championship is the focus now.”

Kaiser’s second place mirrors his second-place finish from Saturday, while Nico Jamin backed up his win on Saturday with a third on Sunday.

Race 2 again saw an opening lap caution, this one for contact between Zachary Claman De Melo and Pato O’Ward. Both went off course between turns two and three, with O’Ward spinning and briefly stalling in the gravel trap. Each made it back around to the pits, but both retired after suffering too much damage to continue.

Santi Urrutia also went for a quick spin after the race restarted, even damaging the front wing in the process. However, his incident did not bring out a caution and the race ran green to the end.

Herta now leads Kaiser by 17 points, with Jamin 27 out of the lead in third.

Results are below. The race will air Wednesday 4/26 at midnight on NBCSN.

Fernando Alonso ready to tackle ‘the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure’

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With smiles, humor, wit and determination, two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived in the Barber Motorsports Park press conference room and promptly delivered his second win of the season – the first coming when he, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown, Honda and Andretti Autosport combined to stun the racing world in announcing earlier this month that Alonso would be racing in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Alonso’s odyssey to come over the next month or so since that announcement has a game plan, a travel schedule and plenty of words to describe the experience. He and Brown arrived in Alabama late Saturday, and the two met the rest of the Andretti Autosport team.

On Sunday, Alonso made his maiden appearance on pit road during the warmup session for today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s pit for his No. 28 DHL Honda.

The press conference this morning then brought the same spirit of determination Alonso has outlined as his quest for even wanting to run the Indianapolis 500 in the first place, as well as a few jokes along the way.

“It’s true! It’s my first time here, and hopefully not the last. I want to come to see more of Alabama and this circuit,” Alonso led off during the press conference.

“This has been an amazing week to 10 days from the announcement. For any racing driver in the world to compete in this race is the main goal, against the best drivers, in some of the fastest, best cars in the world.

“This is the spirit of the Indy 500 adventure. I need to go through different steps in this learning, I need to do it in a short amount of time. But it’s so exciting. I need to thank McLaren, Honda for this opportunity and all the Andretti Autosport team.”

Alonso promptly outlined the schedule he’s going to be undertaking from here. After watching today’s IndyCar race, he’ll go to Andretti Autosport’s Indianapolis shop for a seat fit in preparation for his maiden test on May 3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. From the shop, he’ll be off to Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix (TV times on NBCSN here), and then back to the U.S. after that.

“From now on, it’ll be an interesting next couple weeks. There’s a couple of trips to Europe and U.S.A. back and forth. Next weekend, we will race in Russia for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, then the test, then the Spanish Grand Prix, then come back for the Indianapolis 500. I will try to learn as quick as I can.”

Alonso said he’s been thinking about this opportunity for several years in advance.

“Let’s say four to five years ago, I started thinking about how to grow up as a driver and become more complete,” he said.

“I didn’t think it was possible. But it makes me very happy to have this first attempt.

“Winning is something really big. I take it more like an experience. I’m very open. If the race was tomorrow, I’m not ready to do it because I know nothing about it. But I will go step-by-step to do some simulator laps. I have to be as good as I can on simulator, qualifying and running alone, then traffic when it comes time.”

Brown confirmed the support team around Alonso is as solid as ever. Michael Andretti will call Alonso’s race as strategist with Andretti technical director Eric Bretzman serving as engineer. Today he added that Alonso will have Honda consultant, 2003 Indianapolis 500 champion, two-time CART champion and closed course world speed record holder Gil de Ferran there as a driver coach to aid Alonso’s development.

Alonso brought some jokes when asked about Formula 1 drivers’ respective takes on his running Indianapolis and skipping the Monaco Grand Prix, where Jenson Button will make a one-race cameo to come out of retirement to deputize.

“We don’t talk much. It’s a different world!” Alonso laughed. “The only thing I know is probably what you guys have read, which is what I’ve read too.

“Some of them are happy and curious to see how competitive we can be. Others aren’t happy with anything in life … except their own performance. It’s a different world.”

About his former sparring partner in F1, Juan Pablo Montoya: “I don’t know if he’ll be at the front!” Alonso said to more laughter.

Alonso said he’ll look forward to the simulator time ahead, and told NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy that the simulator he is used to in Formula 1 is incredible.

In terms of the best advice he’s received?

“Enjoy,” Alonso reflected.

“It’s something that this race is so unique, so I’m ready to experience these emotions. That race, that day, everything happens so quickly. You tend to forget what you are doing. I’m ready to enjoy everything I’m doing that day.”

Brown, Andretti and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, head of INDYCAR’s parent company, also joined Alonso on the dais. Stefan Wilson’s contribution to the effort was once again praised.

The most noteworthy piece of news to come out of this trio was that Miles confirmed he’d be going on a European promotional tour after the Phoenix race (April 29) to spread the word about IndyCar, the Indianapolis 500 and Alonso’s attempt.

“The attention we have seen already is incredible,” Miles said. “I will be In London, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, and we’re going be there while he’s in Indy to tell the IndyCar story.

“I’ve read clippings back from the first race in Indianapolis, and Fernando’s presence will make it even bigger this year.”

Perhaps Brown summed up the announcement best: “This is an outstanding opportunity for the world of motorsports to be able to come to Indianapolis. And I’ve never seen a driver so excited, dedicated and motivated to run in a race.”

More to follow…