Ryan Hunter-Reay hangs on for Indianapolis 500 victory (VIDEO)

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has captured the 98th Indianapolis 500 in a dramatic finish, holding off a final charge from Helio Castroneves after making a gutsy, outside pass into Turn 1 on the final lap for the lead.

Hunter-Reay held off Castroneves by just 0.0600 of a second, the second-closest finish in ‘500 history (1992), and won after starting 19th on the grid. The win is the first for Andretti Autosport since 2007 (Dario Franchitti) and the team’s third overall.

“It’s a dream come true, man,” RHR told ESPN’s Dr. Jerry Punch in victory lane. “This is just the most fantastic team for what they’ve given me. My dream has come true today and I’m a proud American boy, that’s for sure.”

After a Lap 195 restart, Castroneves and Hunter-Reay exchanged the lead several times. The 2012 Verizon IndyCar Series champion is the first American winner of the Indianapolis 500 since Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 (which had been the second-closest finish). Unofficially, he should take over the 2014 points lead as well.

Marco Andretti finished third with Carlos Munoz fourth, Juan Pablo Montoya fifth and Kurt Busch sixth in his first Indianapolis 500, before he heads to Charlotte for the Coca-Cola 600.

The race was more or less a fuel mileage battle over the first 149 laps, as the Indianapolis 500 set a record for the longest caution-free stretch in its illustrious race history. All of Hunter-Reay, Castroneves, Andretti, Montoya and Ed Carpenter were realistically in the mix for the lead, depending on when they pitted.

Montoya fell out of the lead pack following a Lap 131 pit stop where he had a pit speed violation, which also hit him at one NASCAR Brickyard 400 a number of years ago. Prior to that, he had been running three to four laps longer over the course of a stint, and was in prime position to win if the race stayed in a green flag flow.

But after Charlie Kimball’s half-spin on Lap 150 exiting Turn 2 brought out the race’s first caution – perhaps mercifully – things got wild, hairy and more yellow the rest of the way.

The fuel strategy game went out the window and by that point, the majority of the field pitted on Lap 153 for four tires and fuel. Carpenter, who didn’t pit on the sequence as he’d pitted eight laps earlier on Lap 145, assumed the lead on the restart.

Carpenter and Hunter-Reay exchanged the lead several times but the race didn’t stay green for long. Scott Dixon made an ultra rare unforced error as he smacked the wall exiting Turn 4, making hard left-side contact with the SAFER barrier on Lap 168.

During the yellow, rookie Martin Plowman contacted Josef Newgarden exiting Turn 3, which put Newgarden out of the race and ended the hopes of the popular “dark horse” pick.

Everyone would be good to go to the finish from there after making stops on Lap 170. Alex Tagliani temporarily stayed out in the second Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda, but pitted on Lap 174 before the restart.

The race’s most controversial incident occurred after the Lap 175 restart. Townsend Bell, who had driven a sterling race to that point in the No. 6 KV Racing Technology Chevrolet, was up to second and was involved in a three-wide scrap into Turn 1 with the top two starters in Ed Carpenter and James Hinchcliffe, who were running third and fourth.

Bell and Carpenter ran two-wide on corner entry with enough room for Hinchcliffe to at least consider sticking his car’s nose in for an attempt. Bell ran high but made slight contact with Carpenter, and Hinchcliffe’s dive into the corner meant that both drivers were out of the race. Bell continued in second behind new leader Hunter-Reay, who inherited the point after Tagliani’s pit stop.

After this accident, the race restarted once more on Lap 180, ran for a furious 10-lap stint, and then was halted again when Bell’s drive ended with contact in Turn 2.

Rather than stay under yellow for an extended period, INDYCAR opted to throw a red flag – similar to what was done at the 2012 season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. – to ensure the chance of a green-flag finish.

A final six-lap scrap occurred from there that was more-or-less a slingshot battle, where it seemed that being second was probably a better position than being first. Indeed Hunter-Reay and Castroneves exchanged the lead several times, and despite Castroneves’ final charge he was unable to pass the similar yellow car for the win.

Behind the top six already mentioned – of which four were from Andretti Autosport – Sebastien Bourdais upheld some honor for KVRT in seventh, Will Power ended eighth, rookie Sage Karam turned in a fantastic debut from P31 on the grid to ninth for Dreyer & Reinbold Kingdom Racing with Chip Ganassi Racing (finished ahead of all four Chip Ganassi Racing cars) and JR Hildebrand rounded out the top 10.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

IMSA: Henzler, Bonanomi called up for drives at COTA

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Two fill-in drivers have been confirmed for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s next race at Circuit of The Americas, on May 6.

Wolf Henzler will deputize for Kevin Estre in the No. 912 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR, while Marco Bonanomi will make his IMSA Prototype class debut as a fill-in driver for Tom Kimber-Smith in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson.

Henzler will be in the No. 912 car alongside Laurens Vanthoor in GT Le Mans in the first “standard” two-hour, 40-minute race of the season, the Advance Auto Parts Showdown, as Estre will be on FIA World Endurance Championship duty the same day in the WEC 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps with Porsche’s GT Team there.

Henzler’s absence means if TRG runs its Porsche 911 GT3 R at COTA in the GT Daytona class, Kevin Buckler would need a replacement for him.

There’s another potential fill-in-for-WEC driver scenario needed if Alegra Motorsports, the Rolex 24 at Daytona winners, were to run in GTD as well. Thus far Carlos de Quesada’s team has run Daniel Morad and Porsche factory driver Michael Christensen in its No. 28 Porsche in GTD through three races, but with Christensen and Estre set to share the No. 92 car at Spa, a replacement would need to be sourced there.

Bonanomi is the second replacement that is confirmed though. The Italian, who made one prior IMSA start since the 2014 merger with Fall-Line Motorsports in an Audi R8 LMS Ultra, will fill-in for “TKS,” who returns to England to take care of his mother, who is battling cancer.

“Tom will unfortunately miss the next race at Circuit of the Americas. He needs to be able to spend time back in the UK with his mother who is presently undergoing treatment for cancer,” said team principal Bobby Oergel.

“As all the drivers who have driven with PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports know, once you’re a part of our team, you’re family, and Tom is a big part of this family. It’s unfortunate that he will miss a round of the championship, but we know that family comes before racing, and we’re happy that he is able to take the time he needs to be with his family during this time.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Tom and his mother, and we are praying that she will be cancer free in the near future.”

Bonanomi has tested with the car and will share the car with Jose Gutierrez, who missed Long Beach as Will Owen filled in for him there.

“I was very happy to receive the call from PR1 to drive at their test at COTA. It was my first time driving the Ligier, but I think the test was very positive,” said Bonanomi.

“We tested some set up changes for the race that I think will be very good. The track itself is very demanding on the car and tires, especially with the extreme temperatures that can be present. The first practices during race week will be very critical to get everything just right in terms of set up, but after the test, I think we should be pretty close.”