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IndyCar: 2014 midterm progress report

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Technically, the Verizon IndyCar Series won’t reach the halfway point of the season until after the first race of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston weekend on Saturday. That will mark 9 of 18 races complete, and signal just two months left in the season.

But, with this having been a two-week break, the longest the series will have at any point this year, we take a look back at the stunners, spoilers and stragglers thus far in 2014:

BEST DRIVER: HELIO CASTRONEVES

So why am I picking the 39-year-old Brazilian over his Team Penske teammate and series points leader, Will Power, or the guy he lost out to for the Indianapolis 500, Ryan Hunter-Reay? Castroneves has shown the resilience and determination I didn’t think was possible after his near-title miss in 2013. His Detroit weekend was one of his out-and-out fastest weekends in years; he was revitalized at Indianapolis, just missing the 500 win to Hunter-Reay, and was frustrated with thirds at both St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Grand Prix. If he holds it together in the second half, he may well finally put together that elusive first series championship. Power and  Hunter-Reay, for as much as they’ve been the two drivers with the highest ceilings this year, have been in the headlines for controversy or mistakes as much as their highlights. And being the best driver on IndyCar’s biggest day does not necessarily mean he/she has been the best driver over the course of the season.

BEST ROOKIE: JACK HAWKSWORTH

It all comes down to circumstances, and Hawksworth is excelling most in his. A rookie on in the single-car No. 98 Integrity Energee Drink BHA/BBM with Curb-Agajanian Honda entry should not have three top-five starts and 32 laps led this year, but indeed he does. I was surprised when Bryan Herta brought him in instead of offseason favorite Luca Filippi, but Hawksworth has been nothing short of impressive this year. This is not to sell the other rookies short, but all of Carlos Munoz (Andretti Autosport), Mikhail Aleshin (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports) and Carlos Huertas (Dale Coyne Racing) have excellent teammates at their disposal to learn from; Hawksworth does not.

NEED A REBOUND IN SECOND HALF: SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS, GRAHAM RAHAL

I don’t want to call either of the former Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing Champ Car teammates “disappointing,” but thus far these two have been below my expectations. Bourdais has made way too many mistakes, especially for someone of his experience level, and incurred the wrath of several penalties. For whatever reason, despite having all the resources at his disposal at RLL, Rahal has struggled in qualifying and has had to rely on great starts and restarts to make up positions this year.

HARD-LUCK AWARD: JOSEF NEWGARDEN

I gave Josef my “most improved” driver award last year and his qualifying has been significantly better in 2014, especially impressive considering a change in engineers preseason and working as a single-car entry for Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. But man he can’t buy a break. Speared by RHR in Long Beach, Martin Plowman at the Indy 500 and Power at Detroit Race 2, plus a rare unforced error in Detroit Race 1, have left Newgarden’s results not at the level of his qualifying performances.

BEST FIRST-HALF RACE: INDY 500

Hard not to give it to the race where Hunter-Reay and Castroneves staged a thrilling six-lap bout for the win after the red flag, and the field kept it clean and green for the first 149 laps. It had just the right amount of passing, pacing and fuel strategy for my liking, with an excellent finish to boot.

FIVE STORIES TO WATCH IN THE SECOND HALF

  • Power vs. the world: Points leader Will Power has made himself no friends with some of his on-track moves this season, but, as he said post-Texas, he’s still been earning a lot of penalties. How he handles himself and the pressure in the hunt for his first title will be fascinating over the coming weeks.
  • Pagenaud, RHR, Castroneves in with a shot? Figure these three – RHR, Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – have the best shot to overtake Power for the championship. The top four are within 91 points heading into the final 10-race stretch. Pagenaud’s No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda team needs just slightly better qualifying efforts (no top-three starts this year… RHR has four), but otherwise is a title contender.
  • Can Ganassi pull second-half comeback encore? The pre-Pocono test at Sebring last year has entered the annals in recent IndyCar history for Target Chip Ganassi Racing. But at 156 points back in eighth place, Scott Dixon has a higher mountain to climb if he wants to repeat his 2013 series championship. Teammates Tony Kanaan, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball seek the glory of wins, and not also-ran performances.
  • The double points lottery: Pocono and Fontana offer double points on their own, and with doubleheaders at Houston and Toronto, those four weekends of the remaining eight on the calendar have a greater determination towards the championship than the four other, standard points weekends of Iowa, Mid-Ohio, Milwaukee and Sonoma. A driver like a Marco Andretti or Tony Kanaan, for instance, could bag the Pocono win and if the leaders hit problems, suddenly vault himself back into title contention as well.
  • Fatigue: There’s 10 races in the next 10 weekends… there’s six races in the next four. How drivers and crews hold up over what’s going to be a physically demanding and at times, exhausting schedule, will determine much of the championship chase.

See the rest of the season on NBCSN, and both of this weekend’s races from Houston at 3 p.m. ET each of Saturday and Sunday on NBCSN and Live Extra.

NHRA: Courtney Force rolls to 1st win of ’16; Force sisters first to lead 2 classes at same time

Houston winners, from left, Doug Kalitta, Courtney Force and Greg Anderson.
(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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After watching sister Brittany have fun winning two Top Fuel events this season, it was little sister Courtney Force’s turn Sunday in the NHRA Spring Nationals at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas.

Force captured the Funny Car class for her first win of the season, her first since summer 2014 and her eighth overall win in the Funny Car ranks.

In addition, it marked the fifth consecutive NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that has featured a female winner.

Force (3.913 seconds at 327.90 mph) defeated No. 1 qualifier and last week’s winner at Charlotte, Tim Wilkerson (3.943 at 323.81 mph).

In so doing, Courtney Force is now tied with Wilkerson, a two-time winner this season, for the Funny Car points lead.

What’s more, with Brittany Force leading the Top Fuel standings, this marks the first time in NHRA history that sisters have led or are tied for the lead in their respective competition classes.

“It was a pretty amazing weekend for our Chevy Camaro team,” Force said in a media release. “I was nervous going into the final against Wilkerson. I knew what kind of numbers he could put on the board and I knew I just had to be right there with him.

“We’ve been working really hard and I feel like this one felt even better than my first ever career win. We wanted it more than anything.”

The Houston-area race marks the end of the first quarter of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule.

In addition to Courtney’s win Sunday, Brittany’s two wins, Leah Pritchett’s win in Top Fuel in March and Alexis De Joria’s recent win, that marks four different females that have won races in Top Fuel or Funny Car – the most in a single season in NHRA history.

And there’s still 18 more races for even more females to extend that new mark.

As for other winners Sunday, Doug Kalitta captured the Top Fuel class, while Greg Anderson took Pro Stock.

Kalitta (3.813 seconds at 280.60 mph) earned his first win of 2016, his third SpringNationals triumph and his 39th career Top Fuel win, defeating No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence (3.810 seconds at 306.81 mph).

“I actually didn’t realize I had won until I had gotten to the end and turned around and came back,” Kalitta said. “I was real happy. It’s good to get a win and get the momentum going. It just charges everybody up. It was just a really good day for us.”

Kalitta is now tied with Antron Brown and Kenny Bernstein for fourth place on the Top Fuel all-time wins list.

Finally, in Pro Stock, No. 1 qualifier Anderson (6.630 seconds at 209.43 mph) earned his third win of the season and his third career triumph in the SpringNationals, defeating Ken Black Racing teammate Jason Line (6.597 seconds at 209.95 mph).

“It was a tremendous day today,” said Anderson, a four-time Pro Stock champion. “I was having a ball today. I just kept wondering, ‘When’s it going to rain? When’s it going to rain? Please don’t because I feel great today.’ My car is great. My car was just a dream to drive every run and I knew I had a great chance today to win an event.”

Anderson and Line have dominated Pro Stock this season, with the duo combining to win all of the first six races of 2016, with each capturing three victories apiece. Line, who has reached the final round in every race thus far this season, still leads the standings, while Anderson is second, 79 points back.

The series takes a week off before resuming May 13-15 in suburban Atlanta for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals.


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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Doug Kalitta; 2.  Steve Torrence; 3.  Antron Brown; 4.  Leah Pritchett; 5.  Shawn Langdon; 6. Tony Schumacher; 7.  Kebin Kinsley; 8.  Scott Palmer; 9.  Troy Buff; 10.  Terry McMillen; 11. Brittany Force; 12.  J.R. Todd; 13.  Richie Crampton; 14.  Clay Millican; 15.  Terry Haddock; 16. Rob Passey.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Courtney Force; 2.  Tim Wilkerson; 3.  Jack Beckman; 4.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 5.  Del Worsham; 6. Matt Hagan; 7.  Alexis DeJoria; 8.  Ron Capps; 9.  Chad Head; 10.  Cruz Pedregon; 11.  Todd Simpson; 12.  Robert Hight; 13.  Bob Bode; 14.  John Force; 15.  Jim Campbell; 16.  John Hale.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Greg Anderson; 2.  Jason Line; 3.  Allen Johnson; 4.  Bo Butner; 5.  Vincent Nobile; 6.  Drew Skillman; 7.  Chris McGaha; 8.  Alex Laughlin; 9.  Erica Enders; 10.  Shane Gray; 11.  Jeg Coughlin; 12.  Aaron Strong; 13.  V. Gaines.

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FINAL RESULTS:

Top Fuel — Doug Kalitta, 3.813 seconds, 280.60 mph  def. Steve Torrence, 3.810 seconds, 306.81 mph.

Funny Car — Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.913, 327.90  def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.943, 323.81.

Pro Stock — Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.630, 209.43  def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.597, 209.95.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.768, 325.61 def. Terry McMillen, 3.889, 306.26; Leah Pritchett, 3.817, 325.37 def. Clay Millican, 6.021, 103.86; Scott Palmer, 3.922, 309.42 def. Richie Crampton, 5.540, 133.43; Doug Kalitta, 3.763, 325.69 def. Terry Haddock, 6.200, 115.25; Steve Torrence, 3.764, 327.27 def. Rob Passey, Broke; Antron Brown, 3.823, 313.66 def. J.R. Todd, 5.054, 142.26; Shawn Langdon, 3.772, 322.42 def. Troy Buff, 3.824, 316.67; Kebin Kinsley, 4.002, 239.10 def. Brittany Force, 4.861, 185.69; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.780, 321.27 def. Palmer, 4.014, 266.69; Pritchett, 3.745, 329.18 def. Langdon, 3.762, 318.77; Torrence, 3.742, 328.30 def. Schumacher, 3.808, 318.77; Kalitta, 4.309, 200.80 def. Kinsley, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.755, 322.11 def. Pritchett, 4.639, 187.08; Torrence, 3.730, 327.03 def. Brown, 3.769, 309.34; FINAL — Kalitta, 3.813, 280.60 def. Torrence, 3.810, 306.81.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.037, 307.02 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 7.728, 80.43; Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 3.946, 324.83 def. Todd Simpson, Chevy Camaro, 4.244, 284.45; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.939, 321.73 def. John Hale, Charger, Broke; Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.951, 321.04 def. Bob Bode, Toyota Solara, 5.847, 125.66; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.958, 319.67 def. Robert Hight, Camaro, 4.562, 216.20; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.032, 315.93 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.037, 312.57; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.987, 316.97 def. John Force, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.998, 317.64 def. Chad Head, Camry, 4.010, 315.56; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 3.962, 318.17 def. Capps, 4.674, 179.56; Johnson Jr., 3.985, 316.97 def. DeJoria, 3.971, 321.58; Beckman, 3.949, 325.22 def. Worsham, 3.944, 324.59; Wilkerson, 3.926, 323.50 def. Hagan, 3.954, 324.59; SEMIFINALS — C. Force, 3.932, 327.03 def. Johnson Jr., 3.964, 317.34; Wilkerson, 3.906, 325.14 def. Beckman, 3.941, 322.04; FINAL — C. Force, 3.913, 327.90 def. Wilkerson, 3.943, 323.81.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.655, 207.50 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.651, 208.10; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.668, 206.26 def. Erica Enders, Dodge Dart, 6.659, 207.18; Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.635, 208.46 def. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.661, 208.30; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.973, 160.63 def. Jeg Coughlin, Dart, Foul – Red Light; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.636, 208.65 def. Aaron Strong, Camaro, 6.708, 206.61; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.608, 209.43 def. V. Gaines, Dart, 13.741, 58.89; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.597, 209.92 was unopposed; QUARTERFINALS — Butner, 6.636, 208.84 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; Johnson, 6.655, 208.42 def. Skillman, 7.511, 139.57; Line, 6.602, 209.72 was unopposed; Anderson, 6.598, 210.08 def. Nobile, 6.659, 208.49; SEMIFINALS — Line, 6.605, 209.62 def. Butner, 6.649, 208.84; Anderson, 6.604, 209.85 def. Johnson, 6.644, 208.23; FINAL — Anderson, 6.630, 209.43 def. Line, 6.597, 209.95.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

Top Fuel: 1.  Brittany Force, 464; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 463; 3.  Antron Brown, 445; 4.  Steve Torrence, 417; 5. Clay Millican, 355; 6.  J.R. Todd, 316; 7.  Tony Schumacher, 295; 8.  Leah Pritchett, 291; 9. Richie Crampton, 275; 10.  Terry McMillen, 259.

Funny Car: 1.  (tie) Courtney Force, 439; Tim Wilkerson, 439; 3.  Ron Capps, 417; 4.  Robert Hight, 404; 5. John Force, 384; 6.  Jack Beckman, 379; 7.  Del Worsham, 376; 8.  Alexis DeJoria, 339; 9.  Chad Head, 303; 10.  Matt Hagan, 280.

Pro Stock: 1.  Jason Line, 689; 2.  Greg Anderson, 610; 3.  Bo Butner, 508; 4.  Drew Skillman, 399; 5.  Chris McGaha, 339; 6.  Allen Johnson, 318; 7.  Vincent Nobile, 262; 8.  Erica Enders, 257; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 255; 10.  Alex Laughlin, 220.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA: PR1/Mathiasen, The Heart of Racing score PC, GTD Monterey wins

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Sunday’s second of two two-hour Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix events was a calmer, cleaner affair at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the Prototype Challenge and GT Daytona classes, featuring both polesitting entries scoring the wins in the latest IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race.

The PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports team took its first win since winning last year’s Petit Le Mans, and first in a sprint race since incidentally, the last PC/GTD combined race at Lime Rock Park in July.

Robert Alon scored the pole in the team’s No. 52 Oreca FLM09 entry and ran consistently in second behind James French in the opening stint. Once Tom Kimber-Smith took over the car at pit stops, “TKS” controlled the race despite the advances of Renger van der Zande from Starworks Motorsport.

“Very early on Bobby (Oergel, team principal) said, ‘Start saving fuel,'” Kimber-Smith told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam post-race. “It was hard to save with someone trying to chase down. If he was close enough he would have given me a go. We held on for the end. We needed this win; we needed it for the championship.”

Van der Zande shared the No. 8 Oreca FLM09 with Alex Popow and CORE autosport mirrored the No. 90 Visit Florida Racing Corvette DP in starting from pit lane after being late to the grid, serving a penalty but rebounding to a podium finish. Jon Bennett and Colin Braun were in the CORE entry and Braun put in a sterling drive to secure a podium.

GTD saw seven different manufacturers in the top seven positions – Porsche, Ferrari, Aston Martin, Audi, BMW, Dodge and Lamborghini – although the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R was peerless up front with Alex Riberas and Mario Farnbacher dominating from pole to lead flag-to-flag in the 79-lap, two-hour race.

Porsche’s 911 GT3 R has a handful of World Challenge wins with EFFORT Racing, but this was its first in an endurance race (albeit only a two-hour race, but who’s counting).

Scuderia Corsa parlayed a front row starting position into its second second place finish of the day; the GTLM 488 GTE was second earlier, and the GT3 variant was second today in GTD with Alessandro Balzan and Christina Nielsen.

TRG-AMR, which missed Sebring, rebounded nicely with a new lineup of James Davison and Brandon Davis to end third in the No. 007 Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3. Both team veterans secured the team’s first podium of the year.

PC and GTD resume in Detroit the first weekend in June.

Pericak praises Ford fuel mileage as new GT wins in Monterey

67 Ford GT
Photo: Ford Performance
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The Ford EcoBoost V6 twin-turbo engine put in the back of the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs has been developed for years with Ganassi’s Ford-Riley DP program.

Sunday in the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix, the first of two two-hour races, the new Ford banked its first win courtesy of that engine making some incredible fuel mileage.

Richard Westbrook brought the No. 67 Ford GT home for his second straight win in Monterey, having also won overall here last year with Michael Valiante in a Corvette DP.

Westbrook took over the No. 67 car from Ryan Briscoe and proceeded to run 52 laps on a single fuel stint, for an hour and 17 minutes into the two-hour race.

“We’ve been waiting for this win for a long time,” Ford Performance director Dave Pericak said post-race.

“I think it’s great that it came as a fuel economy win. It’s great for Ford EcoBoost, because that’s what it’s all about, but this is really a boost for the team going into Le Mans. We’ve been working up to this point to showcase the car’s durability and I think this is what the team needed to go to Le Mans.”

“It hasn’t sunk in yet. The bad thing is we don’t have much time to celebrate. Le Mans is coming fast.”

“It’s a great win for our employees who have been watching us and turning us on and it’s a good way to keep up the momentum going into the big race.”

Here’s quick reactions from the @CGRSportsCar and @FordPerformance Twitter accounts in the immediate aftermath:

Mercedes feared power unit issue would end Rosberg’s Russian GP

SOCHI, RUSSIA - MAY 01:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the podium during the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff praised Nico Rosberg not only for his flawless display en route to winning Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix, but also for managing an issue on his power unit that could have ended his race.

Mercedes has struggled with the reliability of its power unit so far this season, with defending champion Lewis Hamilton suffering failures in qualifying for both of the last two races.

Rosberg suffered a dip in pace midway through the second stint of the race in Sochi that saw his lead over Hamilton dip from 12 seconds to just 7.5 seconds.

Hamilton ultimately had to back off due to a water pressure issue on his own power unit, but Wolff revealed after the race that Rosberg also had to manage a problem on his car.

“That race was anything but plain sailing today – it was a pretty stressful experience to get both cars home, and there was a point when we thought neither of them might make it to the flag,” Wolff said.

“First of all, congratulations to Nico, he did a perfect job all weekend and controlled the race from the front once again. He didn’t put a foot wrong.

“When we faced an issue on the MGU-K during the middle part of the race, he was able to do all the necessary steps to keep it under control and bring it home.

“As for Lewis, he drove brilliantly. Some really good, aggressive passing manoeuvres and clever racing brought him to P2 – and he was just getting his head down to charge when we saw a water leak and he was losing water pressure.

“The only thing to do was ask him to back off to bring the car home and fortunately that meant the situation stabilized but cost him the chance of racing Nico. No doubt he will be thinking about what could have been today – but it was a fantastic recovery after such a tough moment in qualifying yesterday.

“A one-two finish is always something special and to be savoured, especially with the performance advantage we enjoyed this weekend. We are pushing hard this year and finding the limits of our car – but we need to get on top of our issues so the drivers can battle it out on track themselves.

“That’s what we all want to see and what we will be working hard to achieve in the coming days before Barcelona.”