Pedregon (FC), Langdon (TF), Connolly (PS) and Ray (PSM) lead way into Sunday’s NHRA Gatornationals eliminations

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NHRA Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon may be a California native, but there’s something about Gainesville, Fla., that just seems to bring out the best in him.

Pedregon posted a 4.068 second run (at 308.21 mph) to earn the No. 1 qualifying position for Sunday’s final eliminations of the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway.

“I looked at the time slip at the finish line and noticed that it ran really well to each increment,” Pedregon said of his 55th career No. 1 qualifying position. “It gave me the confidence to say, ‘I don’t think anybody is going to run this.’

“From what I could see, we pretty much got all of it that we could. It had good splits, fast speed through the middle, and ran to the finish line. That was basically like, ‘If you want some, come get some.'”

It’s the third straight year in a row and the fifth overall that Pedregon has been the Gatornationals’ No. 1 Funny Car qualifier. He’s looking for his second career event win at Gainesville, having done so the first time in 1998.

Pedregon will face 16-time and defending 2013 Funny Car season champion John Force in the first round Sunday. In earning No. 1 honors, Pedregon snapped Force’s string of five consecutive top qualifying positions dating back to last season.

The 1992 and 2008 Funny Car world champ is looking to bounce back from a disappointing start in the 24-race season’s first two events at Pomona (Calif.) and Chandler (Ariz.).

“We changed maybe one thing too many in the offseason,” Pedregon said. “We made one good run out of five in Pomona and blew up for our troubles. In Phoenix, the component we changed in the clutch management system told us in no uncertain terms that it was going to take too many races to figure it out. We went back to our regular setup.”

Other top qualifiers heading into Sunday’s eliminations – which begin at 11 a.m. ET – were Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock) and Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

With the best overall performance in Friday’s first round of qualifying, Langdon was even better Saturday, with a 3.776 second run at 320.58 mph. It was Langdon’s first No. 1 spot at Gainesville and the 14th of his career.

“We were able to take our 3.78 from yesterday and make a couple small, minor adjustments to go 3.77,” said Langdon, who is in pursuit of his first career Gatornationals event win. “Brian [Husen, crew chief] did an excellent job this weekend of making the right calls.”

In Pro Stock, Connolly earned his first No. 1 qualifying spot since 2008 (eighth overall in his career) with a career-best run of 6.476 at 213.98 on Friday that held through Saturday’s two sessions.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Ray saved his best for last, earning the No. 1 spot in his final qualifying attempt with a career-best run of 6.793 at 197.74 mph.

“We hadn’t shown our potential until then but we knew it was out there,” Ray said. “It wasn’t a bunt or even a hard single. George [Bryce, team owner and crew chief] decided to swing for the fences and he connected.

“He told me that if I would hold low gear for another ten feet it would go 6.7s and he wasn’t lying. I went as far as I could before hitting the [shift button] and had my career-best E.T.”

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 45th annual Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, the third of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.  Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs are listed below pairings.

Top Fuel — 1. Shawn Langdon, 3.776 seconds, 325.37 mph  vs. 16. J.R. Todd, 3.936, 304.74; 2. Antron Brown, 3.804, 320.43  vs. 15. Sidnei Frigo, 3.920, 301.00; 3. Richie Crampton, 3.816, 322.34 vs. 14. Morgan Lucas, 3.867, 319.45; 4. Doug Kalitta, 3.819, 321.04  vs. 13. Brittany Force, 3.865, 315.93; 5. David Grubnic, 3.823, 312.78  vs. 12. Clay Millican, 3.861, 308.71; 6. Bob Vandergriff, 3.831, 320.51  vs. 11. Spencer Massey, 3.861, 320.36; 7. Tony Schumacher, 3.839, 323.19  vs. 10. Leah Pritchett, 3.843, 317.64; 8. Steve Torrence, 3.839, 319.22  vs. 9. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.840, 316.97.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Pat Dakin, 4.015, 240.98; 18. Terry McMillen, 4.315, 206.86; 19. Ike Maier, 4.448, 186.98.

Funny Car — 1. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.068, 308.21  vs. 16. John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.380, 246.98; 2. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.103, 304.39  vs. 15. Blake Alexander, Dodge Charger, 4.292, 287.84; 3. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.108, 305.15  vs. 14. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.212, 286.74; 4. Chad Head, Camry, 4.115, 300.46  vs. 13. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.162, 299.60; 5. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.121, 308.85  vs. 12. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.144, 295.01; 6. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.121, 302.14  vs. 11. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.139, 301.54; 7. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.127, 285.41  vs. 10. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.132, 303.78; 8. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.128, 307.23  vs. 9. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.130, 309.20.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Dave Richards, 5.070, 161.15.

Pro Stock — 1. Dave Connolly, Chevy Camaro, 6.476, 213.98  vs. 16. Matt Hartford, Dodge Avenger, 6.591, 211.39; 2. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.483, 214.69  vs. 15. Robert Patrick, Ford Mustang, 6.568, 211.06; 3. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.484, 214.62  vs. 14. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.558, 212.53; 4. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.487, 214.04  vs. 13. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.554, 212.16; 5. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.495, 213.60  vs. 12. Steve Kent, Camaro, 6.536, 212.43; 6. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.510, 212.56  vs. 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.533, 214.04; 7. V. Gaines, Avenger, 6.518, 213.30  vs. 10. Larry Morgan, Mustang, 6.529, 212.66; 8. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.525, 213.20  vs. 9. Jimmy Alund, Camaro, 6.525, 212.90.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Shane Tucker, 6.617, 211.53; 18. Kenny Delco, 6.634, 210.24; 19. Lewis Worden, 6.639, 210.83; 20. Mark Hogan, 6.653, 208.39.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Michael Ray, Buell, 6.793, 197.74  vs. 16. Fredrik Fredlund, Suzuki, 6.979, 193.99; 2. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.800, 196.96  vs. 15. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.919, 194.38; 3. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.806, 196.47  vs. 14. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.895, 196.02; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.813, 195.68  vs. 13. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.892, 194.46; 5. John Hall, Buell, 6.830, 196.27  vs. 12. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.891, 196.53; 6. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.846, 195.96  vs. 11. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.882, 195.48; 7. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.849, 196.62 vs. 10. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 6.874, 196.96; 8. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.858, 195.36  vs. 9. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.868, 195.22.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Eddie Reed, 6.996, 190.35; 18. Mike Berry, 7.004, 191.81; 19. Freddie Camarena, 7.026, 193.57; 20. Elvira Karlsson, 7.028, 190.06; 21. Joe DeSantis, 7.071, 189.07; 22. James Surber, 7.082, 187.26; 23. Odolph Daniels, broke.

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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.

More brake issues strike Haas in Russia F1 practice despite supplier change

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The Haas Formula 1 team endured another difficult day of practice ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as drivers Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen suffered more brake issues despite changing supplier.

Haas confirmed on Thursday that it would be switching from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes, having suffered problems throughout its 14-month stint in F1.

Despite enjoying a positive test in Bahrain with Carbon Industrie parts last week, both Grosjean and Magnussen struggled with their brakes in FP1 and FP2 at the Sochi Autodrom on Friday.

Grosjean finished FP2 14th-fastest, with Magnussen breaking into the top 10, charging to ninth place in the VF-17 car.

“We’ve got very little grip. We’re really struggling with the balance,” Grosjean said. “We had some issues, as well, with the brakes over the long runs. We need to look at what we can do better with them.

“Generally, it’s just been a very difficult Friday. The car didn’t perform well – very low grip on low fuel and high fuel.”

Team principal Guenther Steiner added: “We had a lot to do and I think we did a lot. We still haven’t got all the results yet, as we need to go through data.

“I would say the issues with the brakes were mainly because they’re new to us. We need to find out how they work. Going through the data, we will decide tomorrow what we’re doing and how we continue.

“All in all, we had pretty fruitful sessions. We did a lot of laps and we learned a lot. Now we need to get the best out of what we learned for tomorrow to go into qualifying.”

Qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

F1 Paddock Pass: Russian Grand Prix, Friday edition (VIDEO)

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While the drivers may be the stars of Formula 1, their on-track escapades would not be possible without the titanic effort from those behind the scenes at their respective teams, making it key for us to hear from the people who make racing possible from time to time.

Following on from the special Friday edition of NBC Sports’ original digital series ‘Paddock Pass’ in Bahrain, Will Buxton is back with all of the interviews from the team bosses in today’s FIA press conference in Russia.

In part one, we hear from Otmar Szafnauer, COO at Force India, who gives his verdict on the team’s showing in 2017 so far and new driver Esteban Ocon’s start to the season. We also catch up with Renault technical boss Nick Chester and Pirelli’s new F1 chief, Mario Isola.

In part two, Ferrari’s engine boss Luigi Fabroni offers his thoughts on the Italian marque’s strong start to the 2017 season following Sebastian Vettel’s wins in Australia and Bahrain. At the other end of the success spectrum, McLaren’s Matt Morris and Honda’s Yusuke Hasegawa discuss the ongoing rebuilding project at woking.

Vettel refusing to be misled by Mercedes’ F1 practice pace in Russia

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Sebastian Vettel is refusing to read too much into Ferrari’s impressive Formula 1 practice pace in Russia on Friday, saying it is easy to be “misled” by rival team Mercedes.

Vettel arrived in Russia for the fourth round of the season after making the best start to a campaign by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2004, winning two of the first three races.

Vettel continued Ferrari’s impressive showing to start 2017 by dominating second practice on Friday at the Sochi Autodrom, finishing over half a second clear of Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

However, Vettel is refusing to take too much from the result, citing Mercedes’ jump in pace from Friday to Saturday in Russia last year as a reason why not to.

“I think Mercedes will be fine. It’s a circuit that suits them, so they will be strong tomorrow,” Vettel said after practice, as quoted by the official F1 website.

“I don’t want to make this personal but I think last year people expected Williams to be the fastest after Friday if I remember right, and obviously it turned out Mercedes were.

“That’s how sometimes you can be misled. I think there are a lot of things we can play with in the car, loads, engines modes. At this track especially there are a lot of things you can show or not show.

“I think the most important [thing] is that we talk about ourselves, our balance, and I think we improved throughout the session so I’m reasonably happy.”

Vettel will be chasing Ferrari’s first pole since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix on Saturday, with qualifying live on CNBC from 8am ET.