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NASCAR: Aric Almirola’s your wild card Chase entry for 2014

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We knew it had to be someone, and on Sunday in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400, we got our surprise winner that has benefited from NASCAR’s new Chase for the Sprint Cup format.

Indeed Aric Almirola, the 11th different winner of 2014, has now gone from winless and 23rd in the points to Chase entrant on the strength of being in the right place at the right time when NASCAR opted to call Sunday’s already rain-delayed race.

And Almirola’s win has reduced the number of Chase berths available for drivers without a win by one, down to five … for now.

Granted, over the last nine races before the Chase, you’d have still expected at least three more different winners between say, veterans Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne, Clint Bowyer or Greg Biffle. Take the three potential winners to make a total of 13, and then add three at-large berths by virtue of points standings, and there would be your 16.

But with Almirola having secured one of the available six spots beyond the 10 prior winners, suddenly of that group of six, it’s now guaranteed one of them won’t be in the Chase.

With one more “wild card” race to go in the stretch of events before the Richmond cutoff in September – the Watkins Glen road course race in August – there remains the potential that another driver like an AJ Allmendinger, Brian Vickers or Almirola’s Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose could win that race and take away another at-large points berth.

None of this is to take away from Almirola and RPM’s accomplishments on Sunday. The win for Almirola is career validation in a sense – this is a driver who’s fought for the better part of six or seven years to fully make it into Sprint Cup, only really finding his footing the last year or two with RPM in the iconic and legendary “43.”

It’s about crew chief Trent Owens, a former Nationwide Series driver turned wrench-turner, winning his first ever Cup race on the box. It’s about competition director Sammy Johns, leading a team back from the brink of extinction a few years ago. And it’s about Richard Petty himself – with the team back in the winner’s circle for the first time since 1999, when it was still the iconic Petty Enterprises.

As the early “underdog” entry into the Chase, Almirola suddenly takes on the role occupied by other surprise Chase entrants in recent years – Kurt Busch with Furniture Row Racing a year ago, or Vickers with Red Bull Racing and Juan Pablo Montoya with Chip Ganassi Racing.

These are drivers you wouldn’t necessarily expect in the Chase, but like a baseball or football team getting hot at the right time, or right moment, they have themselves an opportunity to compete for a championship.

Perhaps a better analogy is one of the 43 team as an impressive mid-major basketball school that peaked late, won its conference championship, and captured an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament instead of a team from the power conferences (i.e. a Kahne at Hendrick Motorsports).

Heading into this weekend, you wouldn’t have projected Almirola as a title contender. But now, he and the 43 crew have a shot.

Abt quickest on final day of first Donington Formula E test

PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA - NOVEMBER 22: Daniel Abt of Germany and Audi Sport ABT Formula E Team prepares during the Formula E Championship race on November 22, 2014 in Putrajaya, Malaysia.  (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images)
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Daniel Abt made the most of drab conditions at Donington Park on Thursday to close out the first collective Formula E pre-season test at the top of the timesheets.

Overnight rain left the track damp at the start of the morning session, and although the skies remained overcast throughout the day, times were just a few tenths off the benchmark set on Wednesday by Jean-Eric Vergne.

Abt’s fastest lap of 1:30.073 from the morning session held out as the fastest time overall on Thursday despite a late flurry of full-power laps in the afternoon.

Nick Heidfeld finished the day second for Mahindra ahead of Nico Prost, while afternoon leader Vergne was fourth-fastest in the overall timesheets.

Jaguar Racing continued its driver evaluation by drafting in Ford WEC driver Harry Tincknell to partner Adam Carroll. Tincknell finished with a fastest lap of 1:33.927, good enough for P16 in the morning session.

Thursday also saw Indy Lights title contender Dean Stoneman make his first Formula E appearance, driving for NextEV in place of Oliver Turvey – en route to Japan for Super GT – and Nelson Piquet Jr. – who had to leave early to go to the Red Bull GRC event.

Collective Formula E testing resumes at Donington Park next month, with another three days of running scheduled from September 5-7.

Gateway confirmed to return to IndyCar schedule

MADISON, IL - AUGUST 10:  A general view of the race during the IRL (Indy Racing League) IndyCar Series Emerson Indy 250 on August 10, 2003 at the Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
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Gateway Motorsports Park is back on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule, adding another oval and another Midwest track to the 2017 slate.

Next year’s race, which will run August 26, will be the first North American open-wheel race at the facility located in Madison, Ill. outside St. Louis since 2003.

Track owner and CEO Curtis Francois joined Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Co. (INDYCAR parent company) for the announcement.

“Today is a monumental day for the people of the St. Louis region,” Francois said in an INDYCAR release. “I am proud of the progress we’ve made at my hometown track. I knew someday we’d be making an announcement like this because I have such confidence in the people of this region and their commitment to great sporting events.

“More than a dozen track operators around the country sought this INDYCAR race for their communities,” he added. “I firmly believe we came out on top because of the energy, loyalty and commitment to great sports that sports fans of all kinds demonstrate each day in this community.”

Added Helio Castroneves, who won the most recent race there in 2003, “I think it’s great that we’re going back to Gateway. Personally, I like it because I’ve had success there but also that I used to race for Hogan (a St. Louis-based Indy car team in 1999) which makes it a special place to me. I won there with Team Penske in 2003 and there was an all-Brazilian podium with Tony (Kanaan) and Gil (de Ferran).”

The Gateway return has been several years in the works. Ed Carpenter tested a couple years ago to re-establish the track as a possible testing venue for IndyCar. Track officials, meanwhile, made several visits to IndyCar races in the interim, including this year’s Indianapolis 500.

“I’ve always felt Gateway was a great place to host IndyCar. This has been on my mind since 2012,” Francois told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch before the formal announcement. “I reached out and we had some substantive conversations. But it took time, effort and a lot of discussions to make sure we had the right date, right fan participation and just the overall atmosphere to host the race.”

There were seven prior open-wheel races at Gateway from 1997 through 2003. CART ran on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend from 1997 to 1999 before the race moved to mid-September in 2000. Once the Indy Racing League took over in 2001, the race ran in late August.

There were seven different winners, and all are fairly big names: Paul Tracy, Alex Zanardi, Michael Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya, Al Unser Jr., Gil de Ferran and Castroneves.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule released

FORT WORTH, TX - JUNE 10:  Helio Castroneves of Brazil, driver of the #3 AAA Insurance Team Penske Chevrolet, practices for the Verizon IndyCar Series Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway on June 10, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
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The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule has been released on Thursday, which follows on from INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye’s thought process that the calendar would come out “sometime in August” and is definitively earlier than in recent years.

It also features a clear road map for the next two years with most dates and tracks pretty much established through 2018.

A number of tracks or series had already released 2017 IndyCar dates, so today’s release only produces a handful of extra announcements that weren’t already known inside the beltway.

Twelve dates and 13 races were already known either from tracks or other series that have released elements of their 2017 calendars. Additionally, start times for NBC Sports Group’s NASCAR races in the second half of this year gave an idea of what time IndyCar races could start as well.

Here’s the changes of note, then, for 2017:

  • Phoenix moves from the first weekend in April to the last weekend in April, owing primarily to the NCAA Final Four in Phoenix next April 1 and 3. Yes, this makes less logistical sense given that Long Beach is April 9, but you get the move from a TV and local hotel/fan awareness possibility.
  • Texas resumes in its usual June date, as it was intended to this year prior to the rain-delayed and postponed date in late August.
  • Gateway becomes the sixth oval to join the 2017 calendar, back on a North American open-wheel schedule for the first time since 2003 with a Saturday date of August 26. It will be one of two races in August, along with Pocono, which was confirmed for a two-year extension in August this year.
  • Watkins Glen is also confirmed to return as well in a multi-year agreement, this time with a whole year-plus of preparation as opposed to three months since being announced for this year in May as an eleventh hour replacement for Boston.

Otherwise, this is a pretty similar and pretty good schedule for IndyCar in 2017 – which fittingly, will have 17 races.

“The release of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule continues to build upon the success INDYCAR has experienced the last three years and establishes continuity and consistency in our event calendar,” Mark Miles, CEO of INDYCAR parent company Hulman & Co., said in a release.

“As a series we are working diligently to create long-term relationships with our promoters to establish date equity and to provide them with the opportunity to initiate ticket renewals and event promotions earlier, which is pivotal to continuing the increase in attendance at our events.”

Per that release, INDYCAR has experienced a 38 percent growth in both television ratings and viewership from 2013 to 2015 and the same numbers are up this season by a total of 7 percent compared to this time last year. Attendance at INDYCAR events is also on the rise, with six events this season drawing crowds at or near record highs.

Broadcast times and start times will be finalized at a later time.

The Mazda Road to Indy will also be present on most of these weekends. But the Andersen Promotions-run and operated three series is yet to put out its full 2017 calendars.

2017 Verizon IndyCar Series dates, plus additional content

  • March 12, St. Petersburg (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • April 9, Long Beach (IMSA WeatherTech Championship, Pirelli World Challenge)
  • April 23, Barber (IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup, Prototype Challenge)
  • April 29, Phoenix
  • May 13, Grand Prix of Indianapolis
  • May 20-21, Indianapolis 500 qualifying
  • May 28, Indianapolis 500
  • June 3, Detroit Race 1 (IMSA WeatherTech Championship)
  • June 4, Detroit Race 2
  • June 10, Texas (NASCAR Camping World Truck Series)
  • June 25, Road America (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • July 9, Iowa
  • July 16, Toronto
  • July 30, Mid-Ohio (Pirelli World Challenge)
  • August 20, Pocono
  • August 26, Gateway
  • Sept. 3, Watkins Glen
  • Sept. 17, Sonoma (IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup)

In infographic form:

2017IndySchedule

F1 teams to use prototype Pirelli tires in Belgium practice

GP GERMANIA F1/2016 - HOCKENHEIM (GERMANIA) 31/07/2016
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Pirelli has confirmed that it will give all 11 Formula 1 teams two sets of prototype tires for use in practice for the Belgian Grand Prix this weekend.

Last year’s race at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps saw Sebastian Vettel suffer a tire failure late in the race, while Nico Rosberg also suffered a problem in practice at almost 190 mph.

Over the Austrian Grand Prix weekend in June, further concerns were raised about the strength of the tires supplied by Pirelli after Vettel again suffered a tire failure.

The Italian company tweeted out on Thursday that it would be providing teams with unmarked prototype tires for practice to evaluate and help minimize the effect of external bodies such as debris and curbs.