(Photo: Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Things seem to go better with Coke for Vickers in 2014

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It may just be a coincidence, but for some reason it appears that Coca-Cola products seem to have brought out some of the best in Brian Vickers this season.

Seven races ago, Vickers finished sixth in the Coca-Cola 600 and climbed to eighth in the Sprint Cup standings afterwards.

Although he had fallen back as far as 20th in the standings since then, Sunday’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway brought out more of the best in Vickers, who earned his best finish of the season, finishing second to winner Aric Almirola in the rain-shortened 112-lap race.

In addition, Vickers climbed from 19th to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings but is still two spots shy of making the Chase for the Sprint Cup as of this writing.

Sure, a lot of things can happen over the remaining eight races prior to setting the 16-driver field for the expanded and revamped Chase, but Vickers hopes to build upon Sunday’s finish and work to further solidify his potential berth in the upcoming playoffs.

“No, it wasn’t,” Vickers said when asked after the race if it was an easy afternoon.  “There was a lot of strategy going on, and it kept changing. When we started the race, knowing there was a competition caution coming at lap 20, we thought about kind of taking it easy and going to the back, and lo and behold, the lane we were in just kept going forward, so we went to the front, and then it got a little bit too dicey for my comfort that early, and guys were moving around a lot.

“So we went to the back, just had a bad feeling about kind of the energy in the pack and where it was headed, so we dropped back, and at about two laps later there was a big crash and we were fortunate to be out of that.

“Then we kept going there and got to a point where we were ready to go but just didn’t quite have the speed we needed in the car to get from where we were at to the front, and we ended up actually getting into the pack at about the wrong moment and were fortunate enough to get through the last big wreck.

“I saw it kind of starting out of the corner of my eye, a car from the outside to the inside just went way too quick, and I just jumped on the brakes and as soon as I saw it opening downshifted and went to the gas and was able to get through it.  But very lucky to get through that wreck and keep the car out of trouble.”

Vickers owes much of Sunday’s end result to late-race pit strategy by crew chief Billy Scott. Like a Weather Channel meteorologist, Scott read the radar and the approaching rain and devised a plot that would get Vickers up toward the front and hopefully keep him there if the rains came – which indeed they ultimately did.

“The guys did a great job,” Vickers said. “(Scott) called a great race and put me in a position to win there at the end. You know, it was just — we were just a lap away from an opportunity to make a pass.

“I had one shot at the 43 with a run, and the 13 got to my right rear corner and I just couldn’t move up and do anything with it.  We were just stuck there. And then the rain just came at the wrong time for us and the right time for them (race winner Aric Almirola).”

Now that he’s back up to 16th in the Sprint Cup standings, Vickers hopes to build upon the momentum gained at Daytona and hold on to that 16th and final qualifying spot for the Chase.

“I’m just really proud of everyone on this Aaron’s Dream Machine team,” Vickers said. “They’ve done a great job getting the momentum going back in the right direction, and that’s what we need right now.”

Almirola’s win makes him the 12th different winner thus far in 2014 with eight races to go. A number of drivers remain winless including Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and yes, Vickers.

Barring any additional first-time winners this season, with only four spots left still open to drivers to make the Chase on points and not wins, Vickers is well aware of the huge job ahead of him to not only hold on to what he has, but also to pad it in any way he can.

“Obviously the fewer spots there are, the intensity picks up for the guys in that position,” he said. “I think every week you go to every race trying to win and knowing what’s at stake if you do and what’s at stake if you don’t.

“The closer to the Chase you get, the more that intensity is going to pick up. Our job is to go out there and try to win next weekend.  We came close this weekend, but the weather didn’t work in our favor, and that’s that. We’ve just got to get on with it and go to next week.”

And next week can’t come soon enough, as it was at New Hampshire that Vickers earned the third Sprint Cup win of his career and the first since 2009 in the 19th race of last season while driving a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Can he make it two in a row in the early summer race at Loudon?

We’ll find that out next Sunday. But just in case, maybe Vickers should have a bottle or can of Coke next to himself behind the wheel. It may give him the added extra he just may need.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

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.


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

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.

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

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.

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

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.”