Brown (TF), Hight (FC), Gray (PS) and Krawiec (PSM) all No. 1 for Sunday’s NHRA finals in New Hampshire

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Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Shane Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) earned the No. 1 qualifying positions in their respective classes Saturday ahead of Sunday’s final eliminations of  the Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway and Motorsports Park in Epping, N.H.

The four-round eliminations begin at 11 am ET Sunday at the track north of Boston.

Brown qualified No. 1 Friday with a track record 3.770 seconds at 323.58 mph and was able to hold on to that advantage through Saturday’s two additional qualifying rounds. It was Brown’s second No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 37th of his career in both Top Fuel and previously in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

“We got a lot of confidence for tomorrow,” Brown said in a NHRA media release.

The 2012 Top Fuel champ is seeking his fourth win of 2014; he’ll face Todd Patton in the first round Sunday.

“It’s going to be a good race,” Brown said. “Everybody is running so close. Everyone has their work cut out for them. We have to definitely be on our A game and attack each round.”

Top Fuel points leader Doug Kalitta qualified No. 2 (3.773 seconds at 323.89 mph) and will face Terry McMillen in Sunday’s opening round.

Like Brown, Hight laid down a great run Friday (3.998 seconds at 321.58 mph, both track records) that held up through Saturday’s two rounds and put him at the top of the Funny Car heap for the first time this season heading into Sunday (and the 36th No. 1 of his career).

“Tomorrow’s a new day, and [crew chief] Mike Neff’s the best,” said Hight, who faces Mike Smith in Sunday’s first round. “He’ll race it one round at a time. He’s not going to go up there first round and try to set low E.T. of the round. We’re going to look at each opponent and race smart. That’s why we’ve won a lot of rounds this year.”

Gray, meanwhile, joined the Brown and Hight parade by riding his best qualifying round Friday (6.485 seconds at 212.79 mph) through Saturday and holding on to the No. 1 spot heading into Sunday.

“We will see if we can get by first round,” said Gray, who faces Val Smeland in Sunday’s first round. “There’s always a chance that you will, always a chance you won’t. It’s always 50/50 out there.”

Pro Stock points leader Erica Enders-Stevens qualified No. 2 (6.489 seconds at 213.98 mph) and will face Larry Morgan in Sunday’s first round.

The only shakeup from Friday’s No. 1 qualifiers was in Pro Stock Motorcycle, where Krawiec overtook provisional polesitter Hector Arana Jr. in Saturday’s final two qualifying rounds with a track record of 6.794 seconds at 193.32 mph.

“We went back and looked at all the data last night,” Krawiec said of his third No. 1 qualifying position in 2014 and 17th of his career. “When we came off the truck, both bikes were running well. We were struggling a bit though, in going down the track and making good runs. …We had to make a couple changes to make some more power.”

Krawiec squares off with Justin Foley in Sunday’s first round of eliminations. Arana set the track speed record Friday (198.50 mph) and is qualified second going into Sunday, where he’ll face Jerry Savoie.

 

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Here’s Sunday’s first-round pairings for final eliminations in the Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway and Motorsports Park in Epping, N.H.:

Top Fuel — 1. Antron Brown, 3.770 seconds, 323.58 mph  vs. 16. Todd Paton, 4.258, 230.29; 2. Doug Kalitta, 3.773, 323.89  vs. 15. Terry McMillen, 4.180, 229.00; 3. Richie Crampton, 3.774, 324.90  vs. 14. Dom Lagana, 3.915, 319.29; 4. Brittany Force, 3.776, 325.92  vs. 13. Clay Millican, 3.887, 315.64; 5. J.R. Todd, 3.778, 324.83  vs. 12. Bob Vandergriff, 3.877, 76.43; 6. Spencer Massey, 3.796, 326.63  vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, 3.841, 321.50; 7. Leah Pritchett, 3.803, 318.77  vs. 10. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.819, 320.81; 8. Tony Schumacher, 3.815, 322.65  vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.817, 324.51.

Funny Car — 1. Robert Hight, Ford Mustang, 3.988, 321.58  vs. 16. Mike Smith, Dodge Stratus, 7.016, 89.77; 2. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.026, 307.44  vs. 15. Jeff Arend, Dodge Charger, 4.550, 208.39; 3. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.031, 323.35  vs. 14. Dave Richards, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.371, 247.02; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.033, 318.24  vs. 13. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.221, 278.92; 5. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.053, 315.27  vs. 12. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.217, 294.18; 6. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.061, 313.80  vs. 11. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.105, 312.50; 7. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.063, 312.50  vs. 10. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.102, 308.92; 8. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.073, 314.17  vs. 9. John Force, Mustang, 4.092, 316.60.

Pro Stock — 1. Shane Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.485, 213.03  vs. 16. Val Smeland, Chevy Cobalt, 22.409, 198.23; 2. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.489, 213.98  vs. 15. Larry Morgan, Ford Mustang, 7.251, 207.40; 3. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.493, 212.96  vs. 14. Kenny Delco, Cobalt, 6.729, 207.30; 4. Shane Tucker, Cobalt, 6.496, 213.94  vs. 13. John Gaydosh Jr, Pontiac GXP, 6.705, 206.95; 5. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.497, 214.25  vs. 12. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.528, 213.40; 6. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.503, 213.74  vs. 11. V. Gaines, Dart, 6.525, 213.23; 7. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.512, 213.16  vs. 10. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.523, 213.13; 8. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.519, 213.77  vs. 9. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.521, 213.94.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.794, 197.88  vs. 16. Justin Finley, Suzuki, 7.046, 192.38; 2. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.796, 198.50  vs. 15. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.963, 196.04; 3. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.816, 194.58  vs. 14. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.938, 194.04; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.842, 195.17  vs. 13. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.935, 192.93; 5. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.846, 197.19  vs. 12. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.917, 193.63; 6. Michael Ray, Buell, 6.850, 196.13  vs. 11. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.901, 195.05; 7. John Hall, Buell, 6.864, 195.22  vs. 10. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.895, 193.29; 8. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.876, 194.74  vs. 9. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.895, 197.02.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Sam Hurwitz, 7.353, 182.97; 18. Brian Pretzel, broke.

Kanaan finding IndyCar ‘more competitive than ever’

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Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan believes that the Verizon IndyCar Series is becoming “more competitive than ever” as the championship’s plans for the future begin to become clear.

INDYCAR bosses have outlined a five-year plan for the series moving forward, with a universal aero kit in 2018 and a push for a third manufacturer to join Chevrolet and Honda in the future on the agenda.

The 2017 season has kicked off in an unpredictable fashion as seven drivers have shared the opening nine race wins, with Will Power and Graham Rahal being the only repeat winners.

Kanaan feels that the series is only becoming more and more competitive, with the introduction of the universal aero kit poised to aid that from next year.

“I think it is going to be more competitive than ever as we still have different aero kits that can make a difference. Next year is going to be even tougher,” Kanaan said.

“At the last race [in Texas] we had 15 cars and two-tenths of a second. I think it is the right direction, and they are also trying to keep the costs down which is the biggest challenge in racing all over the world, to get the teams to afford to be there.

“The way they are doing the kits, trying to get more teams and new teams into the series, and it is working. We had three new teams at Indy 500 and they are looking forward to coming back. We should try to add more teams and not lose cars.”

Kanaan added that a third manufacturer would be “a big help” for IndyCar, saying: “They are in talks with two others but I don’t know who they are but more people, cars, manufacturers, teams will always help.”

Having made his debut in American single-seaters back in 1998, Kanaan has raced through many different eras, but does not believe the series has ever been more competitive.

“It doesn’t get any easier and I don’t get any younger. It goes the opposite way!” Kanaan chuckled.

“It is amazing as you cannot afford to have one little problem or one little hiccup in a race. Before if you did that you would finish third or fourth but now you will finish 15th.

“You have 22 cars and in some races 21 of them on the lead lap and five seconds from one another. It raised the game for the mechanics too with the importance of pit stops.”

Sauber driver Ericsson dismisses talk of favoritism in team

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Formula One driver Marcus Ericsson has dismissed talk of favoritism within Sauber following the unexpected departure of team principal Monisha Kaltenborn.

Kaltenborn, who was also Sauber’s chief executive officer, left Wednesday by mutual consent. The news came shortly after another team statement denying reports of unfair treatment between the Swedish driver and German teammate Pascal Wehrlein.

“There were a lot of stories in the press about this unfair advantage for one driver. It was upsetting, disrespectful, it’s false and untrue,” Ericsson said Thursday ahead of this weekend’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “For me and Pascal, it’s been very clear that’s not the case. We’ve both been given equal equipment.”

Ericsson has yet to score a point after seven races, while Wehrlein has four points after an eighth-place finish at the Spanish GP in May.

“We’re not going to go on holiday together, but as teammates goes we’ve been working really good together so far,” Ericsson said. “When we try different things across the cars, we discuss things.”

Sauber’s statement said Kaltenborn left “due to diverging views of the future of the company.” Her successor has not been announced.

The 46-year-old Kaltenborn joined Sauber in 2000 as head of its legal department and later became chief executive officer.

“We have to trust the owners that they know what they’re doing, and that they have a good plan for the future,” Ericsson said. “I have a lot to thank Monisha for. She was the one who gave me the chance to come here after my year in Caterham.”

Wehrlein also praised Kaltenborn for standing by him. He missed the first two races of the season after injuring his back in a crash at the Race of Champions in Miami in January, sustaining hairline cracks in vertebrae and compressing some of his intervertebral discs.

“Monisha was very close to me at one of my toughest times in my career so far,” Wehrlein said. “I am very thankful for that, and this is something that I will never forget.”

Indy Lights: Leist rides wave of momentum heading to Road America

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As the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires resumes action at Road America this weekend, perhaps its hottest driver is 19-year-old Brazilian native Matheus Leist.

The Carlin driver enters Road America off a strong month of May, in which he captured both his first podium finish (third, Race 2 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course) and his first career pole and win (Freedom 100) in Indy Lights.

“I think we are working very hard this year, so the hard work’s paying off,” Leist told NBC Sports following his Freedom 100 triumph. “We did a great race at the (Grand Prix), I managed to finish third: my first podium. And now, I did my first pole position, with a track record, and won my first race, and the most important race in the championship. It was definitely a great month for me.”

Despite his youth and lack of experience, Leist managed to keep all challengers at bay in what was a dominating victory. And the race became all the more challenging when he faced an early restart after contact between Colton Herta, Dalton Kellett, and Ryan Norman, and a full slate of challengers were ready to slipstream by Leist if he made even the smallest of mistakes on the subsequent restart.

However, as he detailed, thwarting off challengers was made possible because the team prepared a car with a lot of speed in it, which allowed them to trim a little more downforce off the car to help with straight line speed, especially useful on restarts.

“I knew we had a great car, so we went in the race with less downforce than the other guys, which helped me to stay in front. After like 10 laps, I was thinking ‘I can definitely win this race from here,’” he asserted.

The success has seen those in the IndyCar ranks take notice of the 19-year-old. He was acknowledged during the public driver’s meeting for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and was featured in the parade held the day before the 500-mile classic. The success and acknowledgment from those at the highest level is somewhat overwhelming for the 19-year-old.

“Very grateful for everything that’s happening with me. I think this is one of the most important moments of my life. I just won a race in Indianapolis, such a big and great place, and important place. It’s been an amazing time with the drivers (congratulating me). I had a great time at the parade as well, so it was very nice,” he added.

Even better, he had his first test day in an IndyCar last week at Road America, taking over the No. 98 Andretti-Herta Autosport Honda usually driven by Alexander Rossi.

“The braking point here is crazy. It’s the fastest car that I’ve ever driven. The high speed corners, there’s a few corners where it’s almost flat in Indy Lights and here with more power, more downforce, it’s easy flat!” he said.

A champion of the 2016 BRDC British F3 Championship, Leist remains new to the American racing scene. But, as he explained, the influence of a couple heroes, chiefly Rubens Barrichello and Tony Kanaan, has helped him transition.

“I have quite a bit of contact with Rubens. I used to have dinner with him. He’s a very nice guy with me, he’s always helping me. I know Tony as well, we raced in Brazil last year together in a go-kart race. He’s a guy, as well, who said whenever I want, I can ask him to help.”

And, while he admits Formula 1 was his original focus, Leist is happy to pursue a career in the United States with the Verizon IndyCar Series. “My first goal was Formula 1, but now I’m thinking more about becoming a professional driver than a Formula 1 driver, that’s why I came to IndyCar,” he finished.

Leist sits sixth in the Indy Lights championship, but only trails points leader Kyle Kaiser by 30 points as the series heads to Road America.

Tony DiZinno contributed to this report

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Despite recent win, Hamilton says Ferrari still favorite

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Despite his recent win at the Canadian Grand Prix, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton still considers Ferrari rival Sebastian Vettel to be the Formula One favorite.

Hamilton’s win in Montreal came after a terrible weekend in Monaco, underlining how unpredictable Mercedes has been after three years of dominance.

“Consistency is the key to winning the championship,” Hamilton said Thursday at a news conference. “Up until now, Sebastian has had the consistency of a winning championship, so we have to improve on our consistency if we are going to have a shot at winning this title.”

Victory at this weekend’s Azerbaijan GP would give Hamilton back-to-back wins – and would be a further boost after cutting Vettel’s overall lead to 12 points with his Canada GP win two weeks ago.

But he remains circumspect as to whether Mercedes has truly turned the corner.

“(Ferrari) have had a more consistent season so far. We’ve had more of an up-and-down season,” Hamilton said. “I think they (Ferrari) still are favorites in terms of the fact their car seems to work everywhere. But I think there’s more unlocked potential in our car.”

Hamilton believes the Belgian GP in late August will show whether Mercedes can release that potential, and topple Ferrari in the title fight.

“I’m hoping by August, coming into September, by then we are the favorites,” said Hamilton, who is chasing a fourth F1 title.

Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton’s new teammate and the only other driver to win a race, is in third place and trails Vettel by 48 points. Whether or not Bottas can become a title contender remains to be seen, however. Most observers conclude that Hamilton undoubtedly holds No. 1 status at Mercedes.

“Lewis is in the best place I have seen him during any of the last five years since he joined the team,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “He is coping so well with the difficult days. This is what the very best are made of.”

Vettel, who is gunning for a fifth F1 title, also appears to be No. 1 at Ferrari ahead of Kimi Raikkonen.

Ferrari has been more reliable and might even be slightly faster than Mercedes. That bodes well considering that the 6-kilometer (3.7-mile) Baku circuit, which glides through the city’s medieval walls and passes the Caspian sea, has F1’s fastest top speed of 370 kph (230 mph).

Ferrari is chasing its first drivers’ title since Raikkonen in 2007 and its first constructors’ title since 2008.

Although Ferrari missed out on a podium place in Montreal, with Vettel finishing fourth, there was some bad luck because his car was damaged by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull heading into the first corner.

It would have been more worrying for Ferrari had Vettel finished fourth in a straight, trouble-free contest with Hamilton. Encouragingly for Ferrari, the way Vettel cut through the field following his early trouble showed the German driver is back to his very best.

Vettel’s previous title came in 2013, the last of four straight with the once-dominant Red Bull, and there are clearly shades of the confident Vettel of old this season.

Verstappen, tipped to be F1’s next big star, needs a strong performance in Baku.

Last year, the 19-year-old Dutch driver became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But he has secured only one podium and failed to finish three races so far this season.

Worse still is the misery two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso is enduring at McLaren.

Although still widely considered the equal of Hamilton – and slightly ahead of Vettel – on pure ability, Alonso has not won since the Spanish GP in May 2013.

He can hardly even finish a race these days, such is the unreliability of McLaren’s Honda engine.

McLaren is the only team yet to score a point. Between them, Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne have completed only four races, with a best finish of 12th by Alonso.

Considering how demanding the Baku circuit is on engines, it promises to be another frustrating weekend for Honda amid growing rumors McLaren is considering a new engine supplier deal with Mercedes. An embarrassing but realistic possibility for beleaguered Honda.

“Like Canada, we don’t have very high hopes,” Vandoorne said Thursday.