Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

Will Power opens IndyCar season with St. Pete win

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Will Power clearly had the car to beat in today’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and the Team Penske pilot made it count en route to taking the checkered flag in the season-opening race for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship.

Power took the lead from pole sitter Takuma Sato with an outside pass in Turn 1 on Lap 31, and basically never looked back on the way to not only his second career win in St. Pete but also the fourth win in his last six races dating back to last season.

The Australian ended the 2013 season on a tear with wins last fall at Sonoma, Race 2 of the Houston doubleheader, and the season finale at Fontana. That late-season surge made him a title pick of many observers going into 2014, and he’s living up to the billing so far.

However, Power’s win didn’t come without controversy. After an extended caution, Power was set to lead the field to a restart with 28 laps remaining. But instead of accelerating, Power appeared to slow down.

The field proceeded to stack up behind him, and in the process, Jack Hawksworth tagged another car from behind before skidding into the inside wall of the frontstretch, collecting Marco Andretti.

In the immediate aftermath of the crash, Marco’s team owner and father, Michael Andretti, put the blame on Power, while Team Penske’s Tim Cindric said that Power told him the green flag had been thrown earlier than he expected.

Additionally, TV replays showed that Power had not yet reached the restart cone when the field began to stack up.

After the cleanup, Power held the lead on the next restart with 23 laps to go. Ryan Hunter-Reay managed to get past Helio Castroneves for second in Turn 1, but the American was unable to reel in Power during the closing laps and finished 1.9 seconds back. Castroneves settled for third and the last spot on the podium.

In Victory Lane, Power re-iterated his claim that the green had been thrown early on him.

“I thought we were meant to go in that [restart zone],” he explained to ESPN’s Jamie Little. “So, I was surprised. I don’t even know what happened behind me! What happened?”

When Little explained the accident that occurred between Hawksworth and Andretti, Power responded: “I lifted a little. I didn’t touch the break at all. You can take a look at my data – I did not touch the brake.”

As for what his peers thought about the matter, opinions were mixed. Notably, Power’s teammate Castroneves thought that things were “a little strange” on the first restart.

“[Power] was being very tricky for sure, and I understand,” said Castroneves. “It was too slow on the first one and on the second one, obviously, he played a little bit. I got hung out to dry and Hunter-Reay took advantage of it [for second].”

However, defending series champion Scott Dixon, who finished fourth, believed the ill-fated restart wasn’t Power’s fault.

“I don’t think Will did anything wrong – they moved the restart zone late this morning in warmup, so I think he was probably a little slow, if anything,” Dixon said.

“But I think sometimes, it’s just people being too greedy, man. They’ve got to come down hard on that so nobody tries to take advantage by jumping a few spots early on.”

Simon Pagenaud, also a trendy choice for the 2014 championship, came home fifth ahead of Tony Kanaan, who finished sixth in his first race for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.

Sato converted his pole into a Top-10 finish with a seventh, and was followed by Justin Wilson in eighth, Josef Newgarden in ninth (after starting last on the grid), and Ryan Briscoe in 10th.

As for former Indianapolis 500 and CART champion Juan Pablo Montoya’s return to open-wheel racing, it was not an altogether pleasant one.

Montoya, who is coming off a seven-year run in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, was not a factor during the 110-lap race and finished 15th in a day he’ll likely chalk up as a learning experience.

The Verizon IndyCar Series returns to action on Sunday, April 13 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. You can watch it live on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra starting at 4 p.m. ET.

FIRESTONE GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG
Unofficial Results

1. 12-Will Power
2. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay
3. 3-Helio Castroneves

4. 9-Scott Dixon
5. 77-Simon Pagenaud
6. 10-Tony Kanaan
7. 14-Takuma Sato
8. 19-Justin Wilson
9. 67-Josef Newgarden
10. 8-Ryan Briscoe
11. 17-Sebastian Saavedra
12. 7-Mikhail Aleshin (R)
13. 11-Sebastien Bourdais
14. 15-Graham Rahal
15. 2-Juan Pablo Montoya
16. 20-Mike Conway
17. 34-Carlos Munoz (R)
18. 18-Carlos Huertas (R)
19. 27-James Hinchcliffe, one lap down
20. 83-Charlie Kimball, two laps down
21. 98-Jack Hawksworth (R), Lap 83, Contact
22. 25-Marco Andretti, Lap 82, Contact

Rosberg quickest in opening German GP practice

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29: Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg made an impressive start to his home grand prix weekend by leading first practice at Hockenheim for Mercedes on Friday.

Rosberg heads into the German Grand Prix trailing teammate Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship for the first time this season after the Briton’s victory last weekend in Hungary.

Rosberg won the last German Grand Prix in 2014, delighting home fans at Hockenheim, and brought a smile to those scattered across the grandstands on Friday morning by topping FP1.

A fastest lap of 1:15.517 was enough to give Rosberg P1 by three-tenths of a second, with Hamilton trailing in second place.

The rest of the pack was left far behind, with Sebastian Vettel leading the charge for Ferrari in third place. His time was over a second slower than Rosberg’s best lap, suggesting that Mercedes is set to dominate proceedings once again in Germany.

Kimi Raikkonen followed Vettel in the second Ferrari, finishing fourth ahead of the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.

Fresh from finishing every session of the Hungarian Grand Prix weekend in P7, Fernando Alonso finished FP1 seventh for McLaren, with teammate Jenson Button close behind in P8. Daniil Kvyat and Carlos Sainz Jr. rounded out the top 10 for Toro Rosso.

Second practice for the German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Friday.

Cruz Pedregon aims to land knockout punch in battle for playoff spot

2016_Cruz_Pedregon_Action
(Photos courtesy NHRA)
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He may be one of the nicest guys in drag racing, but Cruz Pedregon has a fighting side to him.

He’s a big fan of the fight game, including pro boxers like Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and others.

But it’s Pedregon who will be gearing up for quite a brawl during this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma (California) Raceway.

Ranked 12th in the standings and with just four races remaining to crack the top 10 and qualify for the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the two-time Funny Car champ is strapping on the gloves tight and plans to come out swinging this weekend.

Given where he’s ranked, some might consider Pedregon an underdog to make the playoffs. Right now, he’s 188 points out of 10th place (held by Alexis DeJoria), the final qualifying spot for the Countdown.

But make no mistake about it: the Southern California native, a winner of 35 national events, knows what to do to keep his title hopes alive.

2016_Cruz_Pedregon head shot

“My favorite fighter was Muhammad Ali (and) I feel like this time right now for me and our team is like Ali-Frazier 1,” Pedregon said in an NHRA media release. “Joe Frazier hit Ali with a big left hook right on the chin and (knocked) him down.

“Ali took a breath and got right back up and that’s what we have to do, just take a deep breath and get up, and keep fighting for these round wins and points.”

There’s no question Pedregon has struggled in 2016: he’s failed to advance past the first round in 11 of the season’s first 14 races, including eight of the last nine.

And while he reached the semifinals four times last season (finished ninth in the overall season standings), he hasn’t won a race since 2014 at Englishtown, New Jersey (finished 10th in the season standings).

But if there was ever a time for a turnaround, it’s this weekend, as Pedregon is sponsored by Toyota and this is a Toyota-sponsored race.

There has been one bright spot this season for Pedregon: he reached the finals at Charlotte, but fell short of winning. Still, it showed his 10,000-horsepower Camry has what it takes to challenge for wins.

“The most frustrating part about the entire thing is just not having the runs we all know we are capable of running,” Pedregon said. “We are a 3.90s car, we are a 3.80s car, and we just haven’t been able to completely show our full potential.

“It also frustrates me for our team. I have the best group of guys I’ve ever had work on my car. There is no quit in them and even when they are frustrated like me they put their heads down and work harder because they want to win, they want to show people what we have here and I think that speaks to the core leadership on our team.”

But don’t think Pedregon is going to take a dive or roll over this weekend. He’s going to be punching from the first qualifying session until the final round – and he hopes to be the last man standing in Sunday’s eliminations.

“Our mindset for these next few races is first, figure out the little things that (are) happening to us and get them straightened out,” Pedregon said. “Second is just going out and running how I think our Snap-on Tools/WIX Filters Toyota is capable of running.

“I know we have a fast car, everyone knows we have a fast car, it’s just these little things jump up and happen to us and it’s frustrating. We go out to each qualifying session with the goal of top five in mind and we will fight for each round to get into the Countdown.”

Even though he’s in a catch-up position, Pedregon isn’t letting the pressure get to him. He’s one of the best drivers in the sport when the pressure is the highest.

In fact, Pedregon thrives on pressure. That, combined with a good fight, could turn things around in a hurry for him. And he has the perfect example of past history to prove how solid a punch he can land.

“Every qualifying session, every round of racing means something,” Pedregon said. “If you feel as if you’re under pressure, people tend to tense up and lose focus and miss their mark.

“You can control only what you can control and that’s all you can do. (In) 1992 I won five straight races to clinch a title and in 2008 I won four.

“That’s not because I felt the pressure of needing to win, it was the mentality of going out and everyone doing the same routine over and over, like chopping a tree down. I believe in my team and in my race car.”

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TOYOTA NHRA SONOMA NATIONALS FACT SHEET

WHAT: 29th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, the 15th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships. The NHRA Lucas Oil Series also will be featured at this event.

WHERE: Sonoma Raceway, Sonoma, Calif. The track is located at the intersection of Highways 37 and 121.

COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 15 feet above sea level; Track direction is north to south.

WHEN: Friday through Sunday, July 29-31

SCHEDULE:        

FRIDAY, July 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 4:30 and 7 p.m.

SATURDAY, July 30 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations

MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 1:10 and 4:15 p.m.

NHRA PRO BIKE BATTLE AT SONOMA RACEWAY at 1, 3 and 4:50 p.m.

SUNDAY, July 31 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10 a.m.

MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.

TELEVISION:      

Friday, July 29, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 7:30 p.m. (ET).

Saturday, July 30, FS1 will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 10 p.m. (ET).

Sunday, July 31, FOX will televise three hours of live finals coverage at 4 p.m. (ET).

2015 EVENT WINNERS: Antron Brown, Top Fuel; Jack Beckman, Funny Car; Chris McGaha, Pro Stock, Eddie Krawiec, Pro Stock Motorcycle.

MOST VICTORIES AT SONOMA: John Force, 7, FC; Doug Kalitta, 5, TF; Greg Anderson, 4, PS; Antron Brown, 4, TF; Ron Capps, 4, FC; Darrell Alderman, 3, PS; Warren Johnson, 3, PS; Eddie Krawiec, 3, PSM; Jason Line, 3, PS; Jim Yates, 3, PS.

TRACK RECORDS:

Top Fuel – 3.707 sec. by Antron Brown, July ‘15; 329.10 mph by Dave Connolly, July ’15.

Funny Car – 3.921 sec. by Jack Beckman, July ‘15; 325.77 mph by Matt Hagan, July ‘15.

Pro Stock – 6.499 sec. by Chris McGaha, July ’15; 213.00 mph by Shane Gray, July ‘15.

PS Motorcycle – 6.785 sec. by Eddie Krawiec, July ’12; 198.79 mph by Hector Arana Jr., July ’15.

NATIONAL RECORDS:    

Top Fuel – 3.676 sec. by Brittany Force, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn.

Funny Car – 3.862 sec. and 335.57 mph by Matt Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kan.

Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.;  215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J.

PS Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.

TICKETS: For tickets call (800) 870-RACE (7223). Tickets may also be purchased online atwww.sonomaraceway.com.

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Point standings (top 10) following the 14th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series::

Top Fuel: 1.  Antron Brown, 1,145; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 1,088; 3.  Steve Torrence, 982; 4.  Brittany Force, 953; 5.  Tony Schumacher, 916; 6.  Shawn Langdon, 800; 7.  J.R. Todd, 799; 8.  Clay Millican, 681; 9. Richie Crampton, 660; 10.  Leah Pritchett, 553.

Funny Car: 1.  Ron Capps, 1,120; 2.  Courtney Force, 998; 3.  Jack Beckman, 976; 4.  Matt Hagan, 881; 5. (tie) Robert Hight, 877; Del Worsham, 877; 7.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 855; 8.  John Force, 821; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 793; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 733.

Pro Stock: 1.  Jason Line, 1,548; 2.  Greg Anderson, 1,466; 3.  Bo Butner, 955; 4.  Allen Johnson, 885; 5. Vincent Nobile, 758; 6.  Drew Skillman, 753; 7.  Chris McGaha, 661; 8.  Shane Gray, 658; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 613; 10.  Alex Laughlin, 595.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1.  Eddie Krawiec, 742; 2.  Andrew Hines, 633; 3.  Angelle Sampey, 534; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 500; 5. Chip Ellis, 386; 6.  Hector Arana, 375; 7.  LE Tonglet, 364; 8.  Matt Smith, 290; 9.  Steve Johnson, 268; 10.  Michael Ray, 262.

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F1 Paddock Pass: German Grand Prix (VIDEO)

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 28: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari laughs in the Drivers Press Conference during previews to the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 28, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 makes its long-awaited return to Hockenheim this weekend for the German Grand Prix after a two-year absence.

Lewis Hamilton arrives in Germany leading the drivers’ championship for the first time in 2016 following his victory in Hungary last weekend.

Five wins in the last six races have seen Hamilton wipe away Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg’s 43-point lead in the title race, turning it into a six-point advantage ahead of F1’s summer break.

With the driver market beginning to fall into place for next year and the F1 Strategy Group having met earlier today, this weekend’s race is due to feature a number of key storylines.

Previewing the weekend with all the latest interviews, news and analysis, Will Buxton brings you the latest edition of Paddock Pass.

John Force gets ‘gorilla’ off back, ready to become King Kong again

2015_John_Force_Head
(Photo: Gary Nastase Photography)
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John Force admits he’s probably been watching politics a little bit too much of late, particularly some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

After he won this past Sunday at Denver, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion couldn’t contain himself.

“I was like a little kid, I got kinda stupid,” he said. “I’m yelling it out, ‘We’re live on Fox. We’re going to make NHRA drag racing great again.’”

Force paused, and then sheepishly added, “It just kinda came out of me.”

But Force had good reason to be caught up in the moment: he had just won his first NHRA national event in over a year.

For a guy who has now won a record 144 races, going more than a year without a win was tantamount to coming out of a dark forest after being lost for nearly 13 months.

“I did a recent interview and the guy said, ‘Boy, you’re back.’ But I never really left. Mentally, I never left.

“But the problem is when you get in that battle and you’re getting whipped every week, whether it’s the Schumacher’s or Pedregon, Wilkerson or Kalitta that are beating you up, there ain’t a whole lot to say.

“You take your whipping and just keep fighting it. Now I have something to say.”

Indeed, Force has something to say – but then, he always does. The most popular and outspoken driver in NHRA history wants to make sure that the fans, and especially his fellow competitors:

“I didn’t just get a monkey off my back, I got a gorilla off it,” he quipped.

And now it’s Force who is ready to get back to his old King Kong form.

“Without a doubt, I’m going after a championship,” Force said. “That’s how (teammates) Robert Hight and my daughters think. That’s what we do.”

NHRA Drag Racing
John Force, left, after defeating daughter Courtney in the final round of this past Sunday’s race in Denver.

To say Force was excited after winning is an understatement:

“I was jacked. I started yelling, and I never do that if it’s my daughter or Robert Hight, if I’m lucky enough to beat ‘em. I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to rub it in, but man, my heart was pounding.

“I jumped out of the car at the end of (his winning) run and I wanted to be like Ron Capps. He always jumps up on his hood when he wins a race and he doesn’t hurt it.

“I wanted to jump up on that hood, I got out of the car, and I about fell off the side of the car. They had to catch me. … It was so funny. One of my guys said, ‘Old man, get off there, you’re going to kill yourself, get off that roof.’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to stand up there like Capps, I want to do this for live TV.’ I’ll tell you, I got a little crazy there.”

Winning at Denver brought back memories of the 1992 season, when Force was going for a third consecutive Funny Car championship.

“I remember we won championships in 1990 and 1991 and then here comes Cruz (Pedregon) with the hamburger stand from hell. He was sponsored by McDonald’s, and he beat us in ’92. I was having fits.

“We were going up to the race in Seattle, were in a McDonald’s drive-thru and my daughter Ashley said, ‘Dad, I want one of those McDonald’s cars.’ I wanted to break it. My wife said, ‘Are you losing your mind?’ I told her, ‘You don’t understand what it’s like.’ This kid came out of nowhere.

“(Former crew chief Austin) Coil said, ‘Force, relax, he’d have to win the last five and we’d have to lose in the first round each time.’ And that’s what happened. Cruz just won everything. He found magic and we found stupidity.

“Then, the next year, we went out and won 10.”

That’s where Force is at now. One win down, nine to go – or at least he hopes in the remaining 10 races on the NHRA schedule.

While he may not win nine races, what he showed at Denver means Force and his team are capable of winning many more races in what had been a challenging season up until last weekend.

When he came off the mountain at Denver, Force had improved from ninth to eighth in the Funny Car point standings. But he still has more mountains to climb ahead of him, as he’s 299 points behind points leader Ron Capps.

But on the flip side, Force is only 60 points out of fourth place, currently occupied by two-time champ Matt Hagan.

That’s why Force is looking forward to this weekend’s Toyota Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

“The hill was big for us but when we got on that mountain (last week’s race at Denver), for some reason we had it all right,” Force said. “But trust me, when we get to Sonoma this weekend, they’ll (his Funny Car rivals will) be back. They didn’t like getting beat. They’ll all be back but we’re still learning, we’re still turning that corner.”

Force and Top Fuel counterpart, eight-time champ Tony Schumacher, both earned their first wins in over a year at Denver. So as the so-called Western Swing (Denver, Sonoma and Seattle) continues this weekend, Force and Schumacher both want to continue their newfound winning ways.

“The Western Swing is pretty special,” Force said. “Schumacher told me after Denver that we’re going to try to win the Swing, him and me. But he said, one thing if we don’t, nobody else can. So, we’ve fought everybody by this first win.”

Even though he’s now 67 in age, Force said he feels much younger in performance. He claims he never thought that his win at Epping, New Hampshire a year ago in June potentially could have been the last of his career.

“Nope, never did,” Force said. “First of all, I took a big financial hit.”

That he did. Force lost his two primary sponsors after the 2014 season when Castrol Oil (which had been with him for more than 30 years) and Ford (20 years) both decided to reallocate resources in other directions.

“You’ve got to be financial to stay alive,” Force said. “I put all that back together. That was my focus. Then I started building teams again.

“I told Jim Campbell (U.S. Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports) at Chevrolet that this wasn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take me time to put together. It fell apart. Financially, it killed me. I had big overhead and couldn’t pay it. I lost people, we weren’t able financially to test as much.

“Now we’re back in the game and we’re starting to turn the corner. I’ve got a team that’s young, with so much heart and hungry.”

Force had a number of drivers to get past en route to his win at Denver, none more important – or close – to him than his opponent in Sunday’s final round: his daughter Courtney.

The win over his youngest daughter was both bittersweet and humorous, and only Force can tell those stores in his own inimitable fashion.

First, the bittersweet aspect:

“You know what’s funny, I didn’t even know I’d won. She (Courtney) was right out my window all the way to the (finish) lights. I kept saying to myself, ‘Come on, baby, keep it in the groove, keep it in the groove, don’t be looking over at her.’ I promised I wouldn’t look over at her, I didn’t want to know she was there, because I get emotional (when he races) my kids and then you don’t fight the fight to win.

“You got to go in there like you want to tear their throat out, but how do you do that to your baby girl? I did look over and thought, man, she’s right out the window, and I knew she was faster than me.

“She did her job, she was right there. But when we cleared the lights, I didn’t see her anymore because she likes to drive by me (in the shutdown area).

“I told them, don’t talk about my daughter to me in the final. Everybody mentioned she was next to me, but I wanted to forget about her. I didn’t even want to look over to see her team. I needed to go do my lane, be a tiger and go after it.

“I didn’t want to know it was her, I gave it everything I got and the good Lord got us there. But I’ll take it because I needed it.”

And now, as the late Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story on his win over Courtney – with the kind of humorous twist that only John Force can put on it:

“After the race, our teams went out to dinner. Courtney went to a pizza place with her team; she wouldn’t go to dinner with me. I said to her, ‘Are you still mad at me, honey?’ She said, ‘Dad, you just aggravate me.’

“I told her, ‘I needed it, I needed to get you.’ She said, ‘I know, you needed to win for Peak and Chevy to prove you were okay.’

“I told her, ‘They’re all looking at you. They love you, you’re beautiful, like your mom. You ain’t homely looking like me. I needed a win. Now, I need more. And she knows.’”

And so does every other Funny Car driver out there.

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