IndyCar: Possible Long Beach stunners and spoilers

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Picking a Long Beach winner is no easy task – it’s provided several drivers their first IndyCar victory and there’s a good seven or eight to choose from this week if you’re looking for a contender. And even after that there’s another five or six who could play spoilers. Here’s a field breakdown:

PAST LONG BEACH WINNERS (7)

The seven past Long Beach winners are Sebastien Bourdais, who’s won here three times from 2005 through ’07, two-time winner Will Power (2008, ’12), and single-race winners Juan Pablo Montoya (1999), Helio Castroneves (2001), Ryan Hunter-Reay (2010), Mike Conway (2011) and Takuma Sato (2013).

Power and Hunter-Reay are the only two drivers in the field to qualify in the Firestone Fast Six both years at Long Beach since the Dallara DW12’s introduction in 2012, and RHR hasn’t qualified worse than third at Long Beach since 2009. On past performance they’re likely to be the pace setters.

Power’s Penske teammates Castroneves and Montoya aren’t as likely to be pole threats, but at least one of the two should make the Firestone Fast Six.

St. Petersburg polesitter and defending Long Beach winner Sato has a shot at his third straight pole position in a street course qualifying session, after also winning the pole for Houston Race 1 last year (Race 2 qualifying was canceled due to inclement weather, with the grid set by entrant points).

Bourdais and Conway are each in the situation where they’re gelling with new teams in just their second race apiece at KVSH and Ed Carpenter Racing.

Qualifying is important, but not imperative at Long Beach. Power won from 12th after a 10-spot grid penalty and a fuel-saving masterpiece two years ago and Sato from fourth last year. It’s still better to be in the top three, though.

THE SAFE SPOILERS (6)

Any of Ryan Briscoe, Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe, Tony Kanaan, Justin Wilson or Graham Rahal would be your next best bets.

Briscoe is a former Long Beach polesitter; Pagenaud and Hinchcliffe have past Long Beach wins in other categories (ALMS and Indy Lights, respectively) and Kanaan has the polesitting car from Long Beach last year, Dario Franchitti’s No. 10 Target car.

Wilson and Rahal were the two additional podium finishers in 2013 and while both work with new engineers this year, a repeat result is not impossible.

Although none has won yet at Long Beach, all six have past Long Beach podium finishes in IndyCar and seek that top step of the podium.

LONGER SHOTS BASED ON HISTORY OR THEIR SITUATION (10) 

While Briscoe and Kanaan have had some Long Beach success, Ganassi teammates Scott Dixon and Charlie Kimball haven’t. This has been a frequent bogey track for Dixon, and a place that for whatever reason always seems to bite him.

Asking RLL’s Oriol Servia to pull a repeat of his 2007 heroics in his first race of the new season, when he came second that year to Bourdais, might be a bit tougher to pull off this time around. It wouldn’t be a shock to see him in podium contention by Sunday, but it might take a session or two to gel with the car and the team this week.

For Andretti Autosport, Marco Andretti’s qualifying has left his Long Beach results lacking more often than not (best finish sixth in 2009 in five starts), while Carlos Munoz seeks an encore of his excellent qualifying at St. Petersburg or something close to his Indy Lights win here last year. You wouldn’t put either of these two in the top tier of Long Beach contenders just yet.

The four that fall into the “can they punch above their weight” club are Sebastian Saavedra, Josef Newgarden and rookies Jack Hawksworth, Mikhail Aleshin and Carlos Huertas. All did so at some stage in St. Petersburg and we’ll see if they can follow up this weekend.

You can see the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Sunday at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”