Breaking down Sunday’s pole qualifying for the Daytona 500

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In storybook fashion, Austin Dillon on Sunday afternoon drove the legendary No. 3 to the pole position for next Sunday’s 56th running of the Daytona 500.

It was the first time any driver has attempted to qualify the No. 3 since the late Dale Earnhardt did so in 2001, just days before he was tragically killed in a last-lap crash in the 500.

Without question, Dillon putting what many fans still to this day consider as Earnhardt’s car at the front of the field, and to take the green flag for next Sunday’s running of the Great American Race, will bring a big boost to NASCAR’s popularity — and will likely help deliver more ticket sales and higher TV ratings for the season opener.

Dillon was the only driver to exceed 196 mph, with a top qualifying run of 196.019 mph at 45.914 seconds.

Almost as surprising was Martin Truex Jr.’s impressive run to earn the outside pole for the 500. Truex was next fastest at 195.852 mph at 45.953 seconds.

That in itself is a great accomplishment, but it’s magnified by the fact that Truex is driving for a single-car operation, Furniture Row Racing. FRR made history last season when then-driver Kurt Busch made it the first single-car team to ever qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Front row is what we’re here for today,” Truex said. “Obviously, we can’t say enough about this team. What a great job. I think we’ve got about six miles on this car. One run yesterday, no testing down here, just an amazing job by everybody on the team.

“Obviously, I’m a pretty lucky guy to get to hold the wheel.”

Luck may have played a part in his run, but Truex had help. The same motors that powered Dillon to the pole and three other Richard Childress Racing drivers, also powered Truex’s car – putting five ECR-powered cars in the top 12 fastest rides.

After Dillon and Truex were three other RCR drivers, fifth-fastest Ryan Newman (195.707), 10th-fastest Paul Menard (194.919) and 12th-fastest Brian Scott (194.776).

Only Dillon and Truex have their qualifying spots locked in for the 500. The remainder of the 43-car field will solidify its qualifying spots on the starting grid in Thursday’s Budweiser Twin 150 Duels.

Let’s look at some of the other top storylines that emerged from Sunday’s activities:

* Ford power is back – well, at least in its qualifying efforts. Greg Biffle looked like he might sit on the outside pole until Truex knocked him off. But still, The Biff had a stout run of 195.818 mph. Right behind him at fourth-fastest was Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards (195.712). Brad Keselowski’s Team Penske entry was sixth-fastest (195.296), and ninth-fastest Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (195.004) made it four Fords in the top 10. All told, Ford-powered cars clocked in seven of the 15th-fastest runs of the day, while Chevrolets had the other eight-fast speeds.

* What happened to Toyota? After Denny Hamlin won Saturday night’s Sprint Unlimited, you’d have thought Toyota drivers would have strong runs in Sunday’s pole qualifying. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as the fastest Toyota driver was last season’s Sprint Cup championship runner-up, Matt Kenseth, who clocked in 17th-fastest at 194.574 mph. Clint Bowyer, who made the day’s final qualifying attempt, was 20th-fastest (194.523). Kyle Busch, who stirred controversy before his run by wondering if there was a conspiracy theory to put both Dillon’s and Dale Earnhardt’s cars on the front row (Earnhardt ultimately was seventh-fastest), was only 21st fastest (194.502). Hamlin, meanwhile, was 22nd-fastest (194.477).

* Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus struggled all day. The No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet failed to get through two pre-qualifying tech inspections. The first time, the car was too wide by 1/10,000ths of an inch, and its side skirts were just under 1/64th of an inch too long. Once those problems were corrected, the car was brought back for inspection, only to be sent back again when it wound up being 1 ½ pounds lighter than minimal requirements. Knaus and crew eventually got everything up to par, but Johnson – the defending Daytona 500 winner – couldn’t muster more than a 14th-fastest speed of 194.637 mph.

* What happened to Stewart-Haas Racing? You’ll have to go pretty far down on the speed charts to find an SHR driver. Kevin Harvick paced his four teammates at 23rd-fastest (194.422), Danica Patrick was 25th-fastest (194.380), Kurt Busch was 28th-fastest (194.078) and team leader Tony Stewart was 35th-fastest (193.365). Could the motor failures that Stewart and Patrick suffered during practice Saturday have left the team gun-shy in its qualifying runs?

* Dave Blaney was supposed to make a qualifying effort but never reached the grid.

* Ageless Morgan Shepherd (okay, he’s 72) was slowest on the qualifying grid with a 48th-fastest speed (189.542).

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Comedian Adam Carolla makes pro racing debut in Trans Am

Adam Carolla pilots the No. 33 GoShare Corvette at Willow Springs International Raceway. Photo: Burtin Racing
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As the host of such shows as CarCast, Ace on the House, and Adam Carolla and Friends Build Stuff Live, and with a massive classic car collection to boot, funnyman Adam Carolla is an unapologetic gearhead who is well-versed in the car industry. He even made a documentary honoring Paul Newman in recent years. However, he recently took his love of all things automotive one step further: he contested his first professional car race.

He joined the Burtin Racing team, which fields Corvette C7.Rs in the Trans Am presented by Pirelli West Coast Championship, at California’s Willow Springs International Raceway for the High Desert Challenge, the season opener for Trans Am’s 2017 season. He piloted their No. 33 GoShare entry as a teammate to Richard Wall, who signed as a last-minute entrant for team’s the No. 7 machine.

Carolla was not daunted by the challenge. He quickly came to grips with the 850-horsepower beast and qualified a solid fifth for the 100-mile feature. In the race itself, he worked his way up to third before facing a tough challenge from Trans Am veteran and former champion Greg Pickett, who previously ran the Muscle Milk Pickett Racing effort in the American Le Mans Series and IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Photo: Burtin Racing

However, Carolla was unfazed by Pickett’s advance and he held off the former champion to claim third, not far behind teammate Wall, who crossed the line in second. Tomy Drissi won the event in the No. 8 Ghost in The Shell Chevrolet Corvette.

For Carolla, simply contesting the Trans Am event was an honor. “For me, Trans Am has always been huge,” said Carolla, who earned the COOLSHIRT Systems “Cool Move of the Race” award for his performance.

“I have old Trans Am cars from the 70’s and 80’s. I have some 2.5 (liter) Trans Am cars from the 70’s and I have Paul Newman cars that were raced in Trans Am. So just the idea of being asked to race in the modern Trans Am was a huge honor. Just being able to hold my own in modern Trans Am was exciting to me.”

Team owner Claudio Burtin was ecstatic with Carolla’s performance. “I think we all have to take our hat off to Adam Carolla on his debut in Trans Am,” he said of Carolla. “This is a fast and difficult track at Willow Springs, and the team is ecstatic with Adam’s podium finish. GoShare is thrilled with the results and we will work to improve one step higher on the podium next time.”

The Trans Am presented by Pirelli West Championships resume action on April 29-30 at Auto Club Speedway.

Preferred Freezer Services expands partnership with Hildebrand, Ed Carpenter Racing

Mike Finnegan/Ed Carpenter Racing
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Preferred Freezer Services, which has been a sponsor of Ed Carpenter Racing and driver J.R. Hildebrand since 2014, is set to expand its partnership with both driver and team. Hildebrand’s No. 21 Chevrolet with sport the white and blue Preferred Freezer Services livery at four races during the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, the first being at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 7-9. The expansion also includes the entire month of May, which will see the brand on the No. 21 for the INDYCAR Grand Prix and the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. They will return as a primary sponsor for the Honda Indy Toronto in July and will be an associate sponsor throughout the season.

“Preferred Freezer Services was a big part of helping me get to running just the Indy 500 with ECR the first year in 2014. We’ve been fortunate to see the program grow and help it expand over the last few years,” Hildebrand said of the relationship. “I’m really excited to be able to continue that partnership and have them on board for a few more races this year! It is great to work with these guys again and I can’t wait to kick it off at such an awesome event as Long Beach.”

As Hildebrand explained, the partnership between sponsor, driver and team dates back to 2014, when Preferred Freezer Services adorned a then one-off No. 21 entry for Hildebrand, incidentally his first start for Ed Carpenter Racing. They expanded their partnership in 2015, adorning Hildebrand’s entry at that year’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indy 500. Their presence grew even more last year, when they appeared on the cars of Hildebrand and Josef Newgarden at both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hildebrand has finished in top ten in the last three Indianapolis 500 mile races. However, his best finish remains his infamous second place at the 2011 race, in which he crashed in the final corner while leading, which yielded victory to Dan Wheldon.

Pippa Mann returns to Dale Coyne Racing for fifth straight Indy 500

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Dale Coyne Racing has confirmed Pippa Mann will be back in the team’s third car for the 2017 Indianapolis 500, which will mark her fifth consecutive year with the team and sixth start in the race overall.

She joins Sebastien Bourdais and rookie Ed Jones as Coyne’s three drivers in for the race, as the Coyne team is expected to focus just on these three after running four cars last year.

“I’m very happy to be rejoining Dale Coyne Racing for my fifth consecutive year with the team at the 101st Indy 500,” Mann said in a release.

“Dale has invested heavily in the team over the winter, and it’s an exciting time to be part of his organization. I’m looking forward to working with the same familiar faces from my 2016 campaign, like my race engineer Rob Ridgely, as well as working with the new members of the team, including my new teammates Sebastien (Bourdais) and Ed (Jones). I’m thrilled to be getting back on the race track this May for my sixth Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Mann continues her relationship with Susan G. Komen, the supporters of the pink No. 63 Honda for the last three years in an effort which first began in 2014.

As she’s done for the past four consecutive years, Mann will continue to raise awareness for the Get Involved Campaign alongside her racing program. This year, the campaign that raises money for Susan G. Komen® is partnering with Auction Cause, a premier cause marketing agency, that will run the auction on eBay for Charity. The campaign will launch May 1 and close the week following the Indy 500. The funds raised will be used to support Komen’s global breast cancer research, and community based programs throughout the U.S.

Komen continues as a key partner and Mann has announced another partnership with OrthoIndy, with further partnerships to be released soon.

“I’m also excited about the link up with Auction Cause and eBay for Charity this May,” she added. “They have so much experience running online campaigns, I feel like it’s a huge step for me, and for the Get Involved Campaign to partner with them. This new format has allowed me to reach out to more drivers, get them involved with more signed items, and I’m hoping we’re able to reach more race fans, and raise even more money for Susan G. Komen than we have ever done before.”

“It’s always a pleasure to have Pippa on board for the Indy 500 and to help promote the Get Involved Campaign, raising funds for Susan G. Komen,” Coyne said. “Pippa works hard every year to put together this program and to race in the Indy 500. With her perseverance and enthusiasm for our sport, it’s only fitting that we continue this relationship that started five years ago.”

Newgarden hails ‘spectacular’ Montoya after JPM’s first 2017 test

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At 26 years old, Josef Newgarden was watching Juan Pablo Montoya win races in CART, then Formula 1, then NASCAR as his own career was starting out.

When Montoya returned to IndyCar in 2014 at age 38, Newgarden was just 23, and the two had the chance to share a race track together for the first time.

After Newgarden’s subsequent rise over the years, he was scouted by Team Penske, and eventually signed to replace Montoya in the team’s No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

But Montoya remains part of the Team Penske landscape in 2017, driving the team’s fifth car during the month of May at both the IndyCar Grand Prix in Indianapolis and the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He’s also been mentioned as the leading candidate to drive with Penske’s highly likely but not officially confirmed future sports car program, which Penske discussed openly during a media roundtable at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener.

At last week’s test at Barber Motorsports Park, Newgarden and Montoya had the chance to work together as teammates and as Newgarden explained, having the chance to study his predecessor’s data was something he relished.

“Juan’s fun to be around. He’s an interesting guy,” Newgarden told NBC Sports. “He’s so competitive… and you can tell how competitive he is interacting with him. But it’s fun to look at his data, and have the privilege to look at that.

“I’m excited to see that at Indianapolis, because that’s the big race for all of us together at Team Penske.”

Montoya has mentioned his appreciation for Newgarden in the past, particularly after the two raced so closely for position at the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America last season.

Newgarden said he’s looked up to Montoya for years and seeing him in this element provided such a rare glimpse into his world.

“The level of respect I have for Juan is tremendous,” he said. “He’s been so spectacular, and is even more so on ovals. I’ll be so thankful to get the chance to look at his data.”

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Newgarden, who today is promoting the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach (April 9, 4 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and has that sandwiched in-between two tests at the Indianapolis oval. Team Penske used a team test last Friday and will be back in action as part of a Chevrolet manufacturer test on Saturday.

“It’s a great couple days to get my feet wet,” he said. “I hadn’t been around there with Team Penske yet. It’s good to get that type of knowledge early on.”