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

Castroneves obliterates track record for Phoenix pole (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Helio Castroneves has shattered the previous track record at Phoenix International Raceway en route to his second pole of the Verizon IndyCar Series season and Team Penske’s fourth in four races to kick off 2017. In the process, he also won his 49th pole of his INDYCAR career (7 CART/42 IRL/IC), which puts him in a tie for third all-time in series history with Bobby Unser.

The Brazilian, driving the No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet, also set the pole at Phoenix last year but at a two-lap average of 192.324 mph.

Tonight, under the lights with temperatures of 72 degrees Fahrenheit ambient and 83 for track, Castroneves’ average was a staggering 194.905 mph.

“People don’t realize that qualifying is extremely difficult,” he said. “I took it to the limit – I had one eye closed and one eye open. Experience is a big part of this and today was really, really good. The conditions were really difficult today in practice – the gusting winds were horrendous. We worked mostly on the race setup (in practice). My engineer did a phenomenal job and obviously everybody at Team Penske – the REV Group car was really fast. Qualifying is one thing – the race is another – but I’m really confident going into tomorrow.”

Teammate Will Power starts second for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Power was only the second car to run, but put down what looked to be an incredible two-lap average of his own – the first driver over 194 mph – before Castroneves beat him under slightly cooler and less windy conditions later in the session.

Young Americans JR Hildebrand, in his first race back after missing Barber, and Barber winner Josef Newgarden will share Row 2 with Simon Pagenaud fifth in Chevrolet’s first top-five qualifying sweep of the season, a result which was somewhat expected given Chevrolet’s edge in the aero department on a downforce-heavy short oval aero kit package at Phoenix.

It was Tony Kanaan, who was feted along with Castroneves on Thursday night in a separate event at the Heard Museum honoring both drivers’ 20 years in IndyCar, who led Honda’s charge in sixth. Mikhail Aleshin, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti and points leader Sebastien Bourdais completed the top 10.

Of note, Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe was 11th, his worst start thus far this year, and Ed Carpenter’s team was able to get his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet back out after a fuel leak in practice, and a rapid fuel cell change. But his luckless run in his oval races continues and he’ll start 21st and last tomorrow night.

Qualifying results are below.

AVONDALE, Arizona – Qualifying Friday for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.022-mile Phoenix Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine and speed:

1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 194.905
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 194.017
3. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 193.912
4. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 193.676
5. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 193.414
6. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 192.539
7. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 192.327
8. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 192.050
9. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 191.387
10. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 191.349
11. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 191.194
12. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 190.799
13. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 190.768
14. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 190.565
15. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 190.405
16. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 190.029
17. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 189.786
18. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 189.779
19. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 189.301
20. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 188.536
21. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 186.360

Phoenix weekend, Friday notes

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Days are weird when the track activity for the Verizon IndyCar Series doesn’t start until 4 p.m. PT and local time. Qualifying is tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, online via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App at http://indystream.nbcsports.com.

That then makes the notes we gather a little different.

  • Thursday night kicked off the weekend with an honoring and fun night of storytelling from Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, moderated by veteran open-wheel and NBA reporter Gary Gerould. The event, held at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, offered a lot of camaraderie, laughs and memories shared for the pair of Brazilians. We’ll have a full recap of the event on Saturday.
  • Oberto premieres on Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda this weekend as a primary sponsor. In a “convenient coincidence,” Oberto is also on Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ No. 41 Beetle GRC for two-time defending champion Scott Speed in this weekend’s Red Bull Global Rallycross opener in Memphis (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBC). The red-and-white No. 27 car had a primary sponsorship vacancy for most races this year in the wake of hhgregg’s financial issues, with United Fiber & Data only on for selected races.
  • Fernando Alonso’s entry is getting most of the attention among one-off Indianapolis 500 cars, but he’s not the only one. Per Spanish site IndyCarAlDiaJuncos Racing is set to run at least one car on the same May 3 date as Alonso will make his debut, as Ricardo Juncos’ team gets close to making its announcement for its driver or drivers it will have in this year’s race.
  • Alonso’s livery for his No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti is set to be revealed either the Tuesday before his test on May 2 or the morning of his test on May 3, itself. The @McLarenIndy account tweeted a sneak pic of the livery earlier this week.
  • The Jay Howard Team ONE Cure Honda-powered entry for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports doesn’t yet have its engineer set, but the team is getting close to finalizing the crew for that car.
  • Zach Veach’s No. 40 IWiT Championship Chevrolet will be revealed Wednesday night, May 10, at AJ Foyt Racing’s Indianapolis shop.
  • On a Red Bull Global Rallycross note: Andretti, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have both IndyCar and GRC efforts running this weekend, so four of the 10 Supercars. The rest of the GRC field features Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE (three cars), Subaru Rally Team USA (two cars) and Loenbro Motorsports, the former Ganassi team (one car).
  • Be on the lookout for a pair of digital pieces on NBCSports.com later this weekend. NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt caught up with Helio Castroneves for Rapid Fire, while she’ll also fill in for Anders Krohn – who’s on Red Bull GRC duty in Memphis – hosting IndyCar Paddock Pass. Hargitt caught up with Barber winner Josef Newgarden, series returnee JR Hildebrand and Hildebrand’s Barber fill-in Zach Veach in this week’s episode.

Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

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Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

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.