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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Schmidt Peterson aiming high with Hinchcliffe, Wickens

Photo: IndyCar
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The new Schmidt Peterson Motorsports duo of James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens expressed a high amount of confidence during Wednesday’s confirmation of Hinchcliffe’s return and Wickens’ signing, as the pair looks to return the Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson co-owned team to prominent status within the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“We’re hoping to give Toronto and Ontario and Canadian sports fans in general something to cheer about over the next season,” Hinchcliffe quipped during a teleconference on Wednesday.

Granted, there are likely to be several challenges to overcome, notably for Wickens, who returns to single-seater competition for the first time since 2011, when he was a champion of the Formula Renault 3.5 series and served as test driver for the now defunct Manor Racing (then known as Marussia Virgin Racing).

Having spent every year since then in DTM, where he won a total of six races and finished as high as fourth in the championship (2016), Wickens knows returning to open wheel competition will be an adjustment. However, he explained that the history of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, specifically its Indy Lights history, speaks to their ability to help a driver adapt, and he rates the program they’re putting together very highly.

“I think Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have a fantastic driver development program. They showed that in their multiple Indy Lights championships along the way. I think we will have a strong program in place. I have a feeling that the simulator will be my new best friend,” Wickens said when asked about getting reacquainted with an open-wheel car.

Of course, having an experienced teammate like Hinchcliffe to lean on will undoubtedly help the transition, something Wickens readily admitted.

“I’m very fortunate that I have James as my teammate because he’s so experienced, I can learn off him. Because we already have such a good off-track relationship, I feel like you can just take his word, trust him, kind of move forward with it,” he revealed.

They’ve been teammates before, both in karting where they first met in 2001, and then in the now-defunct A1 Grand Prix series in 2007-2008, a series that pitted nations against each other in spec open-wheel cars. Funnily, that A1GP type of vibe returns as Schmidt Peterson Motorsports now has that with its “Team Canada” mantra while all four of Andretti Autosport’s full-season drivers are American.

For Hinchcliffe, Wickens’ background, even if it hasn’t been in the single-seater realm since 2011, was a big selling point in adding him to the team.

“In Robby, we have a proven winner at a very high level. The level of technical expertise that he comes with from his time in DTM is very impressive,” he said of Wickens’ technical background.

Hinchcliffe added that Wickens’ ability to analyze the car and its setup was evidenced in two outings: one at Sebing International Raceway in March, in part of a “ride swap” between the two longtime friends, and a second at Road America, when he subbed on Friday practice for Mikhail Aleshin.

Wickens sampled Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda earlier this year. Photo: IndyCar

Hinchcliffe revealed that Wickens’ feedback to the team and his ability to quickly adapt to the chassis took everyone somewhat by surprise.

“We did our ride swap. He had two hours in the car, hardly anything even resembling a test day, and his performance was pretty impressive. No doubt the time in Road America helped because that really gave us a better sense of his technical feedback, integrated with the team a little bit more. Everybody was happy to work with him on that day,” said Hinchcliffe.

Further still, Hinchcliffe is firm in his belief that the 2018 aero kit and its reduction in aerodynamic downforce will fall right into Wickens’ wheelhouse, based on Hinchcliffe’s own take after sampling Wickens’ DTM Mercedes earlier this year.

“In all honesty, I was saying earlier today, the 2018 car is probably better suited for him than the 2017 car because of the experience he’s had the last handful of series,” Hinchcliffe asserted.

“The (aero kit) was such high downforce, it would be a big change coming out of DTM. But with the loss of downforce that we’ve seen, the car is moving around a little bit more, brake zones, things like that, it won’t be as big a transition I think. Just based on the experience that I got in our ride swap, I think he’s going to adapt very quickly, be comfortable very quickly, and as a result be competitive very quickly. So it’s going to be exciting.”

As for expectations heading into next year, team co-owner Schmidt did not mince words and expects the team’s performance to resemble what they did in 2012, 2013, and 2014, when they won a total of four races (with driver Simon Pagenaud) and finished in the top five in the championship each year.

“We had a stint in ’12, ’13, ’14 where we finished fifth in the points (or better. I think we want to get back to that level of competition,” Schmidt added. “We felt like we were missing things in having two cars with equal funding and equal drivers and equal capabilities. We think this gets back there.”

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