IndyCar title chase may shape up as a battle of mental chess match

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Some years, luck determines the Verizon IndyCar Series championship outcome. Some years, it’s runs of success over a certain period.

This year, it might be who can keep their head in check best after overcoming adversity.

For all of the series top drivers and presumptive title contenders – Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – managing both their own expectations and their view of their competitors could determine who emerges ahead once this season is over.

The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans weekend kicked off a stretch of 13 races over three months, and begun the crucial “summer stretch” between now and the last doubleheader weekend, the Honda Indy Two in Toronto July 18-20, that will go a long way towards determining this year’s championship.

From Detroit to Toronto, the series will race nine times in eight weekends. There’s a two-week gap in-between Texas next Saturday night and the Houston doubleheader June 27-29, which is many weeks off as the series will have the rest of the season after Houston (the Sundays of July 27 and August 10 represent the remaining off weekends).

This stretch includes all three doubleheader weekends (Detroit, Houston, Toronto) plus Pocono, which is a double points, 500-mile race. Only Texas next weekend and Iowa the second weekend of July will be one qualifying, one race weekends with the standard points structure.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen how drivers are starting to handle themselves as we head into this mental stretch of races.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis to kick off the month of May saw Pagenaud and the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team at the forefront, quickest car on the weekend and smartest too, in terms of nailing their fuel strategy to make it home over Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.

Then RHR and Castroneves engaged in an epic scrap for the win at the Indianapolis 500… neither giving an inch and RHR ultimately making two brilliant passes for the win. He was elated; Castroneves did well to hide his frustration publicly, but you know he was gutted to finish second by that little a gap, and lose out on his fourth ‘500 win.

This weekend saw Power take on the role of the villain, the masked avenger who made contact with Pagenaud on Saturday (no penalty, just as he also did not receive one in Long Beach) but did make contact with Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal on Sunday (which did trigger a penalty).

Meanwhile Castroneves came out revitalized with arguably his best weekend in the series in years. He’s won races with the DW12 before, yes, but not with as much “he’s still got it” pace and gusto as he delivered both races this weekend, particularly Sunday. It was a seriously impressive mental bounce back after losing out in Indy.

Power’s mind has long been hard to decipher. He’s consistently been IndyCar’s out-and-out fastest driver since he joined Team Penske, but he’s never been fully able to keep it all together over the course of the season, and hasn’t yet captured an elusive championship. This year, he’s not making any friends, and he’s not focusing on points – only on driving the best he can every race. It remains to be seen whether that mindset will ultimately pay dividends.

Hunter-Reay is arguably IndyCar’s most versatile driver, as he excels on any of road courses, short ovals and big ovals. If he has even the tiniest of weak points, it’s on street courses, where he’s been plagued either by mechanical issues or slight mistakes the last year and a half. After Indy, RHR had a weekend nearly as bad as AJ Allmendinger’s last year in Detroit, and now must find a way to recover in Texas.

Pagenaud and Dixon are similar in that they both have a seriously steely resolve and exterior, and haven’t let issues get to them this year, at least publicly. Dixon’s Sunday drive from 22nd and last to fourth was one of those classic “don’t forget how good the Iceman/defending champion is” type-performances. Pagenaud, too, came back on Sunday following a rough Friday and Saturday.

What about Castroneves? He might have the best mindset going forward. At 39, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He nails the game outside of the cockpit; he’s still IndyCar’s most recognizable star on a national level and he’s won everything he’s ever needed to in IndyCar. Except, of course, that elusive first championship.

The Brazilian is basically IndyCar’s walking, talking version of Pharrell’s “Happy!” but there’s still a burning desire to be the best when he straps his helmet on. He’s driving so much calmer, cooler and consistently than he was three years ago.

If Power and/or Hunter-Reay self-destruct around him, Dixon can’t make up the 140-plus point deficit (he’s 142 back now, and we’ll know likely by Pocono whether he still has a shot) and Pagenaud isn’t consistent enough to match the “big teams,” Castroneves may well samba into this year’s title.

Marco Andretti’s the remaining driver in the top five still with a shot at the title, but he’s at the point where he has to win – particularly at Pocono, given double points there – before you can really begin to factor him into title contention. Given his results consistency level though, you can’t rule him out of it, either.

How drivers and teams manage this summer stretch, both on-track and in their heads, will be fascinating to watch.

NASCAR Truck drivers feel the earth move sitting in NHRA powerhouses

Photos courtesy Kalitta Motorsports
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Several NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers got to see how the other half lives – namely, their counterparts in the NHRA – on Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway and across the street at zMax Dragway.

To say it was an eye-opening experience is putting it mildly.

Top Fuel drag racers Shawn Langdon and Troy Coughlin Jr., as well as Funny Car driver J.R. Todd – all from one of the top teams in the NHRA, Kalitta Motorsports – are in Charlotte for this weekend’s 4-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway.

NASCAR Trucks driver Noah Gragson gets to feel the 10,000 horsepower of a Top Fuel dragster.

Thursday, they invited NASCAR drivers Ryan Truex, Christopher Bell, Grant Enfinger and Noah Gragson to show how it’s done NHRA-style.

Todd, Langdon and Coughlin started the day taking Toyota Camry pace cars around the 1.5-mile CMS oval.

Then everyone moved across the street to see some real horsepower, namely, 10,000 horses worth – which is roughly about 13 times the power they have under the hood of their race trucks.

Truex and Bell got a chance to “warm up” Todd’s Funny Car, while Enfinger and Gragson did the same with Langdon’s Top Fueler.

 

Meanwhile, Todd and Langdon both did smoky burnouts that, if the Truck guys thought they could do burnouts, they learned a lot to the contrary.

“It was a cool to do a big smoky burnout,” Todd said. “It was cool to see the guys reactions. We had a great time today and I think we created several new fans.”

Added Langdon, “Days like today is what makes me love our sport even more. Bringing these guys over here and letting them hit the throttle and sit in the car when it warms up gives them a look at what we do. To see the smiles on their faces after a badass burnout and how excited they are, just gets me pumped.”

Here’s what the NASCAR guys thought about the experience.

Bell: “J.R. Todd let me sit in his Toyota Camry Funny Car and they even cracked the throttle open for me when we were warming up the motor. It is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. It is a feeling like none other.”

Enfinger: “Just a crazy experience, something I have never done. Been able to do a lot of cool things with Toyota, but it is not every day that you get to make your dad jealous.”

Gragson: “This was awesome. It was the experience of a lifetime. It was great to hang out with J.R. Todd, Shawn and Troy Jr. Definitely a cool experience; one that I will remember forever.”

Truex: “This has probably been the craziest experience that I have ever been a part of. I got to sit in a Funny Car; they hit the throttle, which really scared me. When I was outside the car, I jumped about three feet in the air. It was cool to get inside and experience that. The nitro was all in my face, and I think they gained a new fan with me today.”

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F1 drivers split on new ‘shield’ protection

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) Formula One drivers are split over plans to test a new “shield” device to protect against flying debris.

The FIA will trial the transparent screen in the coming months for a potential introduction in 2018, as it pushes for greater head protection for drivers. Recent years have seen major head injuries in several motorsport series.

“I wouldn’t mind trying out the shield, seeing how is the visibility,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said on Thursday. “In terms of safety it would be a good step compared to what we have now.”

Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was another supporter, saying “we’ve still got to see a bit more, but first impressions seem OK.”

The FIA previously seemed to favor a metal frame known as the “halo,” which was designed to stop a flying wheel hitting a driver’s head but was criticized by some drivers on aesthetic grounds.

Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat said on Thursday he was “quite against” the shield and the halo. “The way Formula One should look should remain the same,” he added. “We have enough protection.”

Romain Grosjean of Haas voiced concern the “next step” would be completely closed cockpits.

Recent years have seen several high-profile head injuries, including the deaths of Formula Two driver Henry Surtees in 2009 when he was hit by a loose wheel and IndyCar driver Justin Wilson, who was struck by debris, in 2015.

In Formula One, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa missed the second half of the 2009 season when a loose spring from another car hit his helmet, leaving him needing surgery.

Haas changes F1 brake supplier ahead of Russian Grand Prix

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Haas has switched from Brembo to Carbon Industrie brakes ahead of this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix in a bid to remedy its long-running braking issues in Formula 1.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas took his eponymous operation onto the F1 grid in 2016, with Romain Grosjean scoring all 29 of its points through its debut season.

Grosjean and then-teammate Esteban Gutierrez had their efforts spurned on a number of occasions by brake issues which continued to arise through pre-season testing in 2017 and the early races.

Haas pushed to remedy the issue by testing new Carbon Industrie brakes in the post-Bahrain Grand Prix test, with Grosjean and new teammate Kevin Magnussen conducting running.

The team duly decided to fit the new Carbon Industrie brakes for this weekend’s race in Russia, with both VF-17 cars to run with them from Friday onwards.

“To be fair to Brembo, the last update in brakes we had that arrived in China were much better. It took a long time to get them,” Grosjean explained.

“So then I was not screaming to change to Carbone Industrie but it was in the pipeline, so we tried them, and both drivers were pretty pleased with them. We felt like we had more control under braking.

“I’m very sensitive to my left pedal, so I really need to get good brakes to get good confidence and push the car to its maximum limit. So we are going to run them here.

“There is still a little bit of work we need to be doing around the mapping and finding the solution around those brakes but I think yeah, definitely it’s going to help me a little bit to find the last few hundredths.”

NHRA: Chad Head to substitute for Alexis DeJoria in Charlotte

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Alexis DeJoria will miss this weekend’s NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, with her Kalitta Motorsports team confirming DeJoria will need to tend to a family matter.

Chad Head, Kalitta Motorsports Director of Safety, will step into the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry this weekend. No timetable was given for DeJoria’s return; after Charlotte this weekend, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series continues for its third consecutive race weekend next week in Atlanta.

This isn’t the first race DeJoria has had to miss recently, as she also was diagnosed with a concussion and missed the 2016 NHRA season finale in Pomona.