Verizon IndyCar Notes & Quotes: St. Petersburg Friday

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ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. – The first day of official on-track action is in the books for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series. Some news, notes and quotes after practice to follow.

  • All bar Practice 1 pace setters James Hinchcliffe and Justin Wilson improved their times in Practice 2. Hinchcliffe and Wilson’s morning times left them sixth and seventh in the combined times.
  • Here’s qualifying groups for Saturday. Hard to call either one harder than the other at the moment…
  • Schmidt Peterson’s Simon Pagenaud, now sporting Environmental Rail Solutions aboard on his all-light blue No. 77 Honda this race, said left several tenths on the table struggling for front grip. Considering he was less than four tenths off the pace of overall leader Takuma Sato, that could be a dangerous sign for the rest of the weekend.
  • In his open-wheel return, Juan Pablo Montoya ended 19th on the combined time charts in the No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet, albeit only nine tenths off Sato. “Obviously we wanted to be a little further up the speed charts, but we knew it was going to be a learning process,” he said. “This is my first time on this circuit, so we had to guess a little bit on the setups. Unfortunately we unloaded pretty far off.” I saw him at one point head-on through Turns 1,2 and 3, and the car looked to have stepped out on him. He’s still got that level of car control.
  • Best of the four Chip Ganassi Racing team drivers on the day? That would be 2009 St. Pete winner Ryan Briscoe, back in a full-time IndyCar seat for the first time since 2012. He ended, fittingly, eighth in the No. 8 NTT Data Chevrolet. “We made some good setup changes but we still have some work to do for tomorrow. I think we’re on the right track,” said the Australian. Teammates were ninth (Scott Dixon), 16th (Tony Kanaan) and 17th (Charlie Kimball) after all experimenting with different setups.
  • Jack Hawksworth led the quartet of rookies in the No. 98 BHA/BBM Honda in 11th. Carlos Munoz was 13th (No. 34 Cinsay/AndrettiTV.com Honda), Mikhail Aleshin 14th (No. 7 SMP Racing Honda) and Carlos Huertas 22nd and last (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda).
  • Huertas, though, was not out of his depth at only 1.8 seconds off the pace of Sato, and half a second behind countryman Sebastian Saavedra. Considering he’d never seen the track or sat in the Coyne car before Practice 1, a fine day’s work in all honesty. Additionally, he was substantially ahead of where Ana Beatriz was after Friday last year, although her car was evil handling to put it nicely.
  • We expect Mike Conway to be something of a miracle worker on road and street courses, but 20th in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet entry probably wasn’t what team or driver expected today. “We didn’t find as much as we wanted between sessions 1 and 2. We are struggling a bit to get the Fuzzy’s Chevy where we would like it in terms of time. We tried a lot of things today and we’ll study our data and see where we can improve for Saturday,” he said.
  • Paul Page made his return to IndyCar for the first time since 2004, his last year in TV for the open-wheel series. The legendary Page is the new voice of IMS Radio, and handled things well throughout the first two sessions back on the mic.
  • Mazda Road to Indy day 1 practice leaders: Gabby Chaves (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires), Spencer Pigot (Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires), Jake Eidson (Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda).
  • Pirelli World Challenge Friday practice leaders: Tomas Enge (GT), Nick Mancuso (GT-A), Jack Baldwin (GTS).

More to come after Practice 3 and qualifying on Saturday.

NHRA: Brittany Force cleared to race this weekend in Phoenix after bad wreck 2 weeks ago

Photo: John Force Racing
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Drag racing is a Force family tradition. So, too, is not keeping a Force family member down.

Just 12 days after the most serious wreck of her six-year drag racing career, Brittany Force and John Force Racing announced late Thursday afternoon that the defending 2017 NHRA Top Fuel champion has been medically cleared and will indeed race in this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

“I flew into Phoenix early this (Thursday) morning and headed straight out to the race track to meet up with my team,” Force said. “I suited up and got belted back into my car that I ran all last season.

“It honestly felt good to be strapped back in and I was surprised how comfortable I was. I’m looking forward to getting back in my car tomorrow (Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying) and getting back in the swing of things with my guys.”

The 31-year-old Force, one of four daughters of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, suffered a concussion and bruising after the hard crash she was involved in on February 11 in the first round of eliminations of the season-opening NHRA Lucas Oil Winternationals in Pomona, California.

Shortly after leaving the starting line in a race vs. Terry Haddock, Force’s dragster crossed from the right to left lanes, impacted the retaining wall with a very hard lateral crash, bounced off, spun, went on its side and briefly caught fire after crossing the finish line wheels-up.

While she is still recovering from the bruising, Force feels strong enough to get back behind the wheel. Getting back in the race car could be the best medicine of all, since she has three runner-up finishes in Phoenix, including back-to-back second-place showings in both the 2016 and 2017 national events.

The three-day event kicks off Friday with qualifying rounds at 4 and 6:30 p.m. ET, the same times as Saturday’s qualifying. Final eliminations begin at 1 p.m. ET Sunday.