Wild night: Denny Hamlin avoids 9-car wreck, pace car fire en route to Sprint Unlimited win

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After winning last year’s season finale at Homestead Miami Speedway, Denny Hamlin picked up where he left off by starting the new 2014 season with a win in Saturday’s Sprint Unlimited at Daytona International Speedway.

Hamlin, who started the night from the pole, was the class of the field, leading 27 laps across the three segments of the 75-lap exhibition race to win the entire event.

It was further affirmation that Hamlin is fully back from last year’s devastating wreck early in the year at Fontana, Calif., that knocked him out for four races and forced him to drive in pain for most of the remainder of the season.

But his win at Homestead was the best medicine Hamlin could ask for and provided momentum and motivation not only coming into Saturday night’s race, but certainly for next Sunday’s Daytona 500 and the rest of the 36-race season.

“The best car won, that’s for sure,” Hamlin said of his Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry. “We’re two in a row and building on something. It was survival of the fittest, for sure. With three (laps) to go, we were at the tail end of a very small pack and it’s really hard to get a run, but this car was just phenomenal.”

What started as an 18-driver field ended with only eight cars remaining at the end. Brad Keselowski finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kevin Harvick, Jamie McMurray, Marcos Ambrose and Ryan Newman.

With a full moon shining down on the track, it was perhaps one of the strangest nights of racing NASCAR has seen in a long time.

It started with defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson spinning out by himself and ending his night early by slamming into the inside retaining wall on the final lap of the first segment, a 30-lap affair.

On the sixth lap of the 25-lap second segment, a massive nine-car wreck brought out a race-stopping red flag. The mayhem began when Matt Kenseth cut down on the front end of Joey Logano, triggering the wreck.

Drivers involved in the wreck were Danica Patrick, Carl Edwards, Kenseth, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kevin Harvick, Logano, Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch.

The night grew even stranger when the final part of the big wreck resulted in Stenhouse slamming into the side of his girlfriend’s car.

Stenhouse was unable to see where he was going due to damage incurred in the first split seconds of the crash. To her credit, Patrick avoided all of the slamming and banging around her and slid to a stop – only to have her boyfriend run into her and end her night.

Earlier in the day, hours before the Sprint Unlimited during practice for Sunday’s front row qualifying session, Patrick and Stewart suffered motor failure in engines leased from Hendrick Motorsports. Patrick and Stewart drove different cars with different motors in the Sprint Unlimited.

But wait, it got even stranger: As Hamlin and the other eight drivers that were left to start the final segment came to the green flag, the pace car caught fire! (See video below)

The pace car was quickly brought to a halt and track fire and safety personnel converged upon it to put out the small blaze — certainly nothing like the inferno that took place in the 2012 Daytona 500 when Juan Pablo Montoya slammed into the rear of a track jet dryer.

Other things of note in Saturday’s strange night:

* Kyle Busch went on a wild single-car ride when he spun out in the third segment, but was able to regain control and continue on early in the final segment, rallying for a third-place finish.

* Dale Earnhardt Jr. was knocked out of the race midway through the final 20-lap segment when he was hooked into the outside retaining wall by Marcos Ambrose.

Before taking his mangled car to the garage, Earnhardt managed to catch up with Ambrose on the track and expressed his displeasure at what happened.

But after climbing from his car and watching a TV replay, Earnhardt backed off on fully blaming Ambrose for the incident.

“It looks like I was trying to get down there and Marcos went to the outside and I didn’t know he was there,” Earnhardt said. “Hard racing and I hate to have it happen.

“I was upset with him, but I can’t really say it was his fault. He was going to the outside and I didn’t know he was up there. I thought he was staying with me because he’d been pushing me down the straightaway. I thought he was committed to that situation, and a lot was happening right there, and we just got turned around.”

While Earnhardt’s night was over at that point, Ambrose was able to continue on.

All in all, the Sprint Unlimited may not have played out the way many had hoped, but in the end a strange night ended with an exciting finish and a great storyline for the winning driver. We can only hope that next Sunday’s Daytona 500 plays out that well.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: Pritchett, Capps, Butner capture wins in Springnationals near Houston

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Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) had some spring in their step – and gas pedal – on Sunday, capturing their respective classes in the NHRA Springnationals.

Here’s how the final round broke down at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas, the fifth race on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule:

* In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.781 seconds at 321.96 mph) earned her third win of the young season, defeating Steve Torrence (3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph) in the final round.

“Our goal was to leave as the points leader and that was not easy at all,” Pritchett said. “Going into the final we said this is our bounce back and we’re going to keep it interesting.

“I’ve never been in a position to really be counting points and I know it is early in the season, but I’m definitely enjoying that.”

On the way to the final round matchup with Torrence, Pritchett defeated Scott Palmer, Doug Kalitta and defending Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who is also her teammate at Don Schumacher Racing.

Pritchett’s bragging rights were a bit more than usual, as her husband works on Torrence’s pit crew.

* In Funny Car, Capps – who won his first national championship last season – earned his first win of the season.

Capps (4.004 seconds at 284.33 mph) defeated Robert Hight (4.107 seconds, 202.88 mph) to claim the 51st win of his NHRA career, as well as his third triumph at Royal Purple Raceway.

“These things become so hard to win these days,” Capps said. “But you take things for granted where I felt like we should’ve won at any of those first three races of the season.

“NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car division has to be the most competitive thing in the world right now; its cut-throat.”

The final matchup was anything but ordinary for both drivers: Capps’ engine exploded just before the finish line, while Hight had engine issues and crossed the center line, marking an automatic disqualification.

Along the way to the final round, Capps defeated Todd Simpson, 16-time world champion John Force and teammate Jack Beckman.

* In Pro Stock, Butner (6.550 seconds, 212.26 mph) claimed his first career Pro Stock win, defeating No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin (6.562 seconds, 212.03 mph).

It was Butner’s first win and seventh career final round appearance, while Coughlin reached his first final round since ’s first final round appearance at Seattle in 2015.

“Any win that you stand on that stage, Super Stock, Super Street or whatever it is (the feeling) never gets old,” Butner said. “It’s a great feeling and you can’t explain it unless you experience it.

“To make four consecutive win lights is very tough and a lot harder than I expected.”

Butner defeated Allen Johnson and four-time champ Greg Anderson before facing Coughlin in the final round. Only 13 cars qualified in Pro Stock, short of the usual 16-car field.

MORE: NHRA: Pro Stock teams get into confrontation during Houston race

The series now moves on to zMax Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, April 28-30, for the eighth annual Four-Wide Nationals.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Steve Torrence; 3. Antron Brown; 4. Clay Millican; 5. Doug Kalitta; 6. Bob Vandergriff; 7. Tony Schumacher; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr.; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Brittany Force; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Steven Chrisman; 16. Troy Buff.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Robert Hight; 3. Courtney Force; 4. Jack Beckman; 5. J.R. Todd; 6. John Force; 7. Alexis DeJoria; 8. Jonnie Lindberg; 9. Cruz Pedregon; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jim Campbell; 12. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 13. Matt Hagan; 14. Tim Wilkerson; 15. Jeff Diehl; 16. Todd Simpson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Greg Anderson; 4. Tanner Gray; 5. Chris McGaha; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Richie Stevens; 8. Erica Enders; 9. Alex Laughlin; 10. Allen Johnson; 11. Drew Skillman; 12. Jason Line; 13. Alan Prusiensky.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Steve Matusek; 2. Shane Molinari; 3. Mike Castellana; 4. Jonathan Gray; 5. Danny Rowe; 6. Mike Janis; 7. Troy Coughlin; 8. Shannon Jenkins; 9. Chuck Little; 10. Michael Biehle; 11.Eric Latino; 12. Steven Whiteley; 13. Larry Morgan; 14. Khalid alBalooshi; 15. Sidnei Frigo.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.781 seconds, 321.96 mph  def. Steve Torrence, 3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.004, 284.33  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.550, 212.26  def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: Steve Matusek, Chevy Camaro, 8.985, 124.96  def. Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, Foul – Red Light.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.758, 322.11 def. Troy Buff, Broke; Clay Millican, 3.729, 326.79 def. Steven Chrisman, 9.654, 83.58; Troy Coughlin Jr., 3.852, 277.20 def. Brittany Force, 3.871, 274.55; Doug Kalitta, 3.761, 325.06 def. Terry McMillen, 3.833, 315.86; Antron Brown, 3.752, 321.04 def. Terry Haddock, 3.931, 283.79; Steve Torrence, 3.748, 324.20 def. Shawn Reed, 3.867, 315.86; Leah Pritchett, 3.748, 324.59 def. Scott Palmer, 4.766, 152.52; Bob Vandergriff, 3.770, 323.43 def.Shawn Langdon, 3.813, 318.84;

QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.766, 326.00 def. Vandergriff, 3.778, 323.89; Millican, 3.784, 320.97 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 317.34; Torrence, 3.755, 324.20 def. Coughlin Jr., 6.779, 93.70; Pritchett, 3.763, 324.05 def. Kalitta, 3.759, 326.56;

SEMIFINALS — Pritchett, 3.772, 319.45 def. Brown, 3.815, 322.11; Torrence, 3.760, 323.27 def. Millican, 8.621, 87.00; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.781, 321.96 def. Torrence, 3.787, 322.11.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.897, 327.90 def. Todd Simpson, Chevy Camaro, 11.347, 81.01; Courtney Force, Camaro, 5.344, 132.02 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 10.819, 77.81; John Force, Camaro, 4.216, 220.08 def. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.485, 205.51; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.870, 331.77 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.543, 195.51; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.959, 323.58 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.935, 322.04; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.224, 222.62 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.142, 162.12; Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.944, 326.16 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.556, 190.16; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.927, 327.03 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 8.109, 112.19;

QUARTERFINALS — Capps, 3.951, 321.04 def. Lindberg, 5.159, 153.63; Hight, 3.898, 327.82 def. Todd, 3.958, 324.36; Beckman, 3.897, 329.18 def. J. Force, 4.134, 273.39; C. Force, 3.947, 294.37 def.DeJoria, 4.146, 260.16;

SEMIFINALS — Hight, 3.908, 324.98 def. C. Force, 3.943, 324.28; Capps, 3.926, 325.37 def. Beckman, 6.126, 114.85;

FINAL — Capps, 4.004, 284.33 def. Hight, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.565, 211.86 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.548, 211.89 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.581, 210.97; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.555, 212.03 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.563, 210.90; Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, 6.589,210.64 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.536, 211.46 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.588, 211.03; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.523, 213.33 def. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.567, 211.16; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.499, 213.03 was unopposed;

QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.547, 211.86 def. Stevens, 6.628, 209.75; Anderson, 6.558, 211.73 def.Nobile, 6.590, 211.73; Butner, 6.544, 212.06 was unopposed; Coughlin, 6.546, 211.73 def. McGaha, 6.574, 211.43;

SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.558, 211.63 def. Gray, Foul – Red Light; Butner, 6.536, 212.69 def.Anderson, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.550, 212.26 def. Coughlin, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: ROUND ONE — Bob Rahaim, Chevy Corvette, DQ def. Sidnei Frigo, Corvette, DQ; Troy Coughlin, Corvette, 5.789, 251.77 def. Khalid alBalooshi, Chevy Camaro, 10.699, 82.60; Steve Matusek, Camaro, 5.817, 250.18 def. Steven Whiteley, Cadillac CTS-V, 6.273, 175.11; Mike Janis, Camaro, 5.825,246.53 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.934, 224.06; Danny Rowe, Corvette, 5.811, 250.00 def. Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.707, 161.83; Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, 5.815, 254.76 def. Chuck Little, Corvette, 5.816, 247.34; Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 5.815, 223.17 def. Shannon Jenkins, Ford Mustang, 5.809, 240.68; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.722, 251.77 def. Michael Biehle, Mustang, 5.845, 254.66;

QUARTERFINALS — Castellana, 5.685, 252.99 was unopposed; Gray, 5.801, 250.04 def. Coughlin, 10.018, 81.15; Matusek, 5.793, 251.77 def. Rowe, 5.944, 208.42; Molinari, 5.811, 255.92 def. Janis, 6.446, 167.72;

SEMIFINALS — Molinari, 5.843, 240.38 def. Gray, 9.355, 94.35; Matusek, 5.804, 251.95 def.Castellana, 7.361, 130.30;

FINAL — Matusek, 8.985, 124.96 def. Molinari, Foul – Red Light.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 494; 2. Antron Brown, 440; 3. Tony Schumacher, 438; 4. Doug Kalitta, 358; 5. Steve Torrence, 352; 6. Brittany Force, 282; 7. Clay Millican, 269; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr., 228; 9. Terry McMillen, 195; 10. Scott Palmer, 180.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan, 400; 2. Ron Capps, 398; 3. John Force, 371; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 357; 5. (tie) Courtney Force, 301; Robert Hight, 301; 7. Jack Beckman, 282; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, 235; 9. J.R. Todd, 222; 10. Jim Campbell, 211.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 457; 2. Bo Butner, 426; 3. Jason Line, 403; 4. Jeg Coughlin, 372; 5. Tanner Gray, 370; 6. Shane Gray, 278; 7. Erica Enders, 255; 8. Chris McGaha, 246; 9. Vincent Nobile, 235; 10. Drew Skillman, 225.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Mike Castellana, 169; 2. Steve Matusek, 147; 3. Steven Whiteley, 146; 4. Danny Rowe, 129; 5. Troy Coughlin, 125; 6. Shane Molinari, 106; 7. Mike Janis, 104; 8. Michael Biehle, 82; 9. Eric Latino, 78; 10. Jonathan Gray, 77.

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Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

Photo: IndyCar
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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

Brown and Alonso. Photo: IndyCar
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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).