IndyCar: Penske pair edge ahead in points at end of Toronto weekend

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TORONTO – Neither Helio Castroneves nor Will Power won either of the Honda Indy Toronto races this weekend. But with a pair of podiums and their title rivals Simon Pagenaud, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Juan Pablo Montoya all having at least one issue in one of the two races, Castroneves and Power have taken the momentum out of Toronto heading to the final four races of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Castroneves ended second and 12th; the former result increased his points lead as Power was only ninth. But the Australian’s third place finish in race two caught him back up.

Of course, Power’s weekend can’t be discussed without mentioning his race one spin on Saturday, when he looped it at Turn 11 and damaged the left rear suspension. A rapid effort by the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet crew got the car back together in less than a half hour and even gave him the chance to race, although he was eventually moved to the rear of the grid for race one when it eventually did race on Sunday.

Castroneves now leads Power by 13 points, 533-520, as the series heads for an off weekend before the final stretch of four races in five weekends in August.

It’s an intriguing situation for “The Captain,” Roger Penske, who could well see two of his own fight to win the 2014 title. Both drivers still seek their first championship while Penske seeks his first as an owner since 2006 (Sam Hornish Jr.).

Both drivers continue to focus on maximizing their own races, rather than worrying about their competitors.

“I don’t drive looking to the other guys.  I drive when I can push and make it happen, you know?” Castroneves said after his runner-up finish in race one.

Added Power following race two, “At the end of the day you’re always reminded about the championship by the media and your team on the radio.  I’ve been so many times in a massive points lead halfway through the season, you get into a points race, and it’s just no good.  You have to think of the task at hand.”

While these two now hold the edge leaving Toronto, it was a tough Sunday for the other three that needed good Sundays to get back within striking distance.

Hunter-Reay’s passing attempt on Tony Kanaan in race one ended in tears and left the three-time winner this year 21st. It didn’t get much better in race two with a 14th place finish. Hunter-Reay is still third in points, but after leaving Iowa down 32 to Castroneves, he’s now 69 back after Sunday.

Pagenaud rebounded to fourth in race one after he was contacted by rookie Luca Filippi on the opening lap, which blocked the track exiting Turn 4. But the driver of the No. 77 Oculus Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports Honda ended 22nd in race two, retiring due to an ill-timed electronic issue. Pagenaud is fourth in points and a further two behind “RHR.”

JPM’s day was highlighted – unfortunately – by his nosing into the Turn 8 barrier in race two, then being wedged on top of Mikhail Aleshin who had nowhere to go on the slick surface. Finishes of 18th and 19th made for a miserable Sunday, and leaves Montoya 105 points behind Castroneves in fifth.

Sixth through 10th is a crapshoot, with only 29 points separating new sixth-place man Scott Dixon, defending series champion, from Sebastien Bourdais in 10th.

Although double points are on offer for the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. on August 30, it’s still likely going to require drivers being within the 25-30 point range of the leaders to have a shot.

“It will be fun to have people up there at the end,” Power said. “The last race, double points, there will be – I’m going to say there will be four people in contention, I reckon.  A lot can happen … and man, it can turn so quickly, I don’t know.”

Here’s the top 10 following race two:

1.  Helio Castroneves, 533
2.  Will Power, 520
3.  Ryan Hunter-Reay, 464
4.  Simon Pagenaud, 462
5.  Juan Pablo Montoya, 428
6.  Scott Dixon, 387
7.  Carlos Munoz, 384
8.  Tony Kanaan, 380
9.  Marco Andretti, 375
10. Sebastien Bourdais, 358

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
(Getty Images)
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski