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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.

IMSA: Landy, Boehm score first career CTSC poles at VIR

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Landy/Ecklin. Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Sebastian Landy (GS) and Kevin Boehm (ST) won their first career poles for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Oak Tree Grand Prix at VIRginia International Raceway; the latest two-hour, 30-minute race takes place on Saturday.

Landy, a veteran of IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama and Battery Tender Mazda MX-5 Cup action, makes his GS class debut and promptly stuck the No. 99 Automatic Racing Aston Martin Vantage he’ll share with Rob Ecklin on the GS pole, with a best time of 1:56.929 on the 3.27-mile road course.

“[Track experience] helped a little bit but I have to thank everyone at Automatic Racing,” the local driver out of Great Falls, Va. told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam. “I’ve always wanted to race in GS. It’s a great day to start on pole for your first race. If I wasn’t as sloppy as I was, there could have been more!”

Danny Burkett starts the No. 33 CJ Wilson Racing Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport he shares with Marc Miller in second, with the pair of Ford Shelby GT350R-Cs from Multimatic Motorsports and Compass360 Racing (the latter repaired after its Road America accident) on Row 2.

Honda has a 1-3 start in the ST class with Columbus, Ohio’s Boehm taking the No. 92 HART Honda Civic Si to the top spot at 2:04.660. He’ll share that car with Cameron Lawrence while the team’s No. 93 car, qualified by Chad Gilsinger who shares with Ryan Eversley, will start from third.

The No. 84 Bimmerworld BMW 328i (James Clay, Tyler Cooke) slots in-between the pair.

Qualifying results are linked here.

The second IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship practice of the day at a hot VIR was less eventful than the morning session when the roof popped off the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM of Dirk Werner.

Corvette Racing came to the fore in second practice with the No. 3 Corvette C7.R of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen top of the charts in GT Le Mans and overall. In GT Daytona, the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (Madison Snow and Bryan Sellers) was quickest one.

Practice results from the day are linked below.

Practice 1
Practice 2

Stewards confirm Alonso, Ericsson grid drops for Belgian GP

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Fernando Alonso of Spain driving the (14) McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team McLaren MP4-31 Honda RA616H Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 race stewards at Spa have confirmed that Fernando Alonso and Marcus Ericsson will join Lewis Hamilton in taking a grid drop for this weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix.

Following the conclusion of the summer break, teams are now beginning to get tight on their power unit component allocations for the remainder of the season.

Each car is limited to just five of each power unit component for the season, with penalties being awarded for exceeding this limit.

After being forced to make unplanned changes earlier in the season, Hamilton took two complete new power units on Friday at Spa, meaning he will almost certainly start the Belgian Grand Prix from the back of the grid with a 30-place drop.

Hamilton won’t be the only driver to drop back, though. The FIA stewards confirmed on Friday that both Alonso and Ericsson had also been forced to make changes, resulting in penalties for both drivers.

Alonso has a 35-place grid penalty looming over him after taking a whole new power unit. The Spaniard was already on the limit of five of each component heading to Spa, making the penalty more severe than Hamilton’s.

Ericsson has taken a new turbocharger, his sixth, meaning he receives a 10-place grid penalty. For each of the remaining ‘sixth’ elements the Sauber driver takes over the rest of the season, he will drop a further five places.

Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix will settle matters at the front of the grid, but at the rear, it will very much be a case of ‘wait and see’ once all of the penalties are confirmed on Sunday morning.

You can watch qualifying from Spa live on the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.

Button ‘almost there’ on deciding Formula 1 future

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 26: Jenson Button of Great Britain and McLaren Honda sits in his car in the garage during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
© Getty Images
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Jenson Button says he is “almost there” on deciding his future in Formula 1 as McLaren continues to deliberate its driver line-up for 2017.

Button is the most experienced driver currently racing in F1, and has been with McLaren since 2010.

Fernando Alonso is set to remain with McLaren for next season, but the team is yet to decide whether it will retain Button or promote junior driver Stoffel Vandoorne into a full-time seat.

Button has been linked with a return to Williams – the team he made his F1 debut with in 2000 – should McLaren drop him.

The 2009 F1 world champion is yet to decide whether or not he will continue in F1 next year, but feels he is close to a decision.

“I am almost there with my thought process and you will hear about it soon. I can’t put a timescale on it, but it will be soon enough,” Button told Press Association.

“I did think about it lot [over the summer]. I didn’t have a lot of time to lie on a sun-lounger and think about it to be fair.

“I was busy, but yes, of course, I thought about it.”

Button’s last race win came at the end of 2012 with McLaren, and has not finished on the podium since the start of 2014 thanks to difficulties with the team’s Honda engine last year.

Although McLaren is on the rise, Button stressed that he wants to be in a car that is capable of battling at the front of the pack in 2017.

“I have always said that if I feel like I can be in a car that is fighting for wins I will definitely stay. I think any racing driver would,” Button said.

“But if I am not and I feel like I am not, there is nothing else for me to achieve. I will go and play darts instead.

“I can’t just sit on the beach. I will do all sorts of racing after F1 whether it is in racing cars, push bikes, or triathlons because I am a competitive person and I always want to win.

“So, that is what I want to do. Something I can fight for wins in.”

Button has been linked with a move into the FIA World Endurance Championship should he decide to call time on his F1 career, and is also likely to take up rallycross in some form, following in the footsteps of his father, John.

A roof popped off a BMW M6 GTLM in IMSA’s VIR first practice

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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First practice for this weekend’s Michelin GT Challenge, a GT Le Mans and GT Daytona-only round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship at VIRginia International Raceway is in the books.

Fastest times were set by Earl Bamber in the No. 912 Porsche North America Porsche 911 RSR (1:43.232, GTLM and overall) and Madison Snow in the No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3 (1:45.722, GTD).

Bamber told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam, “It’s a good way to start the weekend. It’s a new surface; it already seems quicker than last year. The guys at VIR have done a great job to repave it. It’s been pretty difficult the last couple races for us.”

But the session was more notable because it featured a weird interruption, when the roof off the No. 25 BMW Team RLL BMW M6 GTLM popped off on course.

It left Dirk Werner needing to bring the car, sans the roof and rear window, into the pit lane but luckily without further damage following the inadvertent convertible debut of the car.

Werner’s befuddled co-driver, Bill Auberlen, attempted to explain the situation to Adam.

“I’m telling you… I’m dying to ask if it was cooler inside the cockpit!” Auberlen told IMSA Radio, noting how hot it is on track, as well (ambient temperatures are expected in the mid-90s with track temperatures in the 110-115 range).

“So no, we did not plan on this. This is very odd. It’s bizarre how the roof would blow off the thing.

“I went in the grass once. Couldn’t get the downshfits accomplished. Now this. Maybe we get all the troubles out now.

“But now the roof blew off? No idea how, it’s just bad luck.”

Here’s pics and a few tweets about the abnormal incident: