IndyCar: An important weekend for title chase, ovals at Milwaukee IndyFest

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Traditionally a staple on the Verizon IndyCar Series calendar in June, the Milwaukee weekend now shifts to August in 2014, which is crucial on several fronts.

From an event standpoint, Milwaukee is the fifth of six oval races this season. While the Indianapolis 500 is and will always be both IndyCar’s biggest and marquee race from an attendance and interest standpoint, the other oval races this year at Texas, Pocono and Iowa have come under fire for perceived lack of attendance.

“It’s hard to compare a Milwaukee or Pocono to St. Petersburg or Long Beach; they’re different environments,” says Ed Carpenter, owner/driver of the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. “They have done a really good job at Milwaukee. Sometimes the perception of attendance is one event – street courses feel busier than what they are compared to a Pocono or Iowa, good example, or Texas as well.

“The actual attendance you see at Texas or Iowa isn’t all that different… but like St. Pete, Detroit, there’s more going on at the race. It feels more crowded at Detroit because of confined space. It looks more different than what they are. For ovals it’s a different type of excitement; and there is always going to be more passing.”

It’s an important event for IndyCar to look big – Andretti Sports Marketing has more or less “thrown the kitchen sink” at this event for the last three years, although there’s still something of a mystery as to how well it gets through to the locals.

The upside is that this year’s race comes following the Wisconsin State Fair. A record number of patrons passed through the gates there, and a fair number should have been exposed to IndyFest signage and appearances. Drivers have been in the state for appearances and promotions on-and-off since March. Radio ads and billboards have made the rounds; a good Sunday forecast should encourage a good walk-up number.

But the look will be important, because although Milwaukee is overflowing with history and praise from most in the IndyCar paddock, it needs to work business-wise to ensure its long-term survival. For that, I say, if you’re near the area and claim to be an IndyCar oval fan, you need to put your money where your mouth is, show up, and pack the joint. Here’s a rundown of the events occurring this weekend.

From the series standpoint, the championship now enters its final stretch of three races, in three weekends, on three completely different types of circuits.

The ABC Supply Co. Wisconsin 250 at Milwaukee IndyFest Presented by the Metro Milwaukee Honda Dealers (Sunday, 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is on the legendary, historic one-mile Milwaukee Mile oval. Then it shifts to the flowing road course of Sonoma next week, and the two-mile, bumpy Auto Club Speedway in Fontana the following week.

This is more or less the week Ryan Hunter-Reay and Simon Pagenaud, 63 and 64 points behind points leader Will Power (and his Team Penske teammate, Helio Castroneves, who lost the lead at Mid-Ohio) need to make headway and get to within roughly the 30-40 point ballpark of the top two.

There’s 200 available points, plus bonus points, for the final three races with Fontana a double-points race. Hunter-Reay, who’s won the last two Milwaukee races and three in total, has his first ever shot at a race three-peat this weekend.

In his 2012 title-winning season, Hunter-Reay kicked off a string of three wins during the season at Milwaukee, which began his championship charge. Wins at Iowa and Toronto added to it.

None of the other three other than “RHR” have won here. Castroneves, in particular, has had a snakebit history at this track. Past Milwaukee winners Juan Pablo Montoya and Scott Dixon have a mathematical, if less realistic shot at the title but could well play themselves into it with another big week themselves. Neither “JPM” nor “Dixie” has anything to lose.

Then there are the spoilers. Any of 13 drivers have the chance to become IndyCar’s 11th different winner this season, which would tie a record set in the 2000 and 2001 CART seasons.

From that baker’s dozen, Tony Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe are the two I’m watching closely this weekend. Kanaan’s been fast, leading and unlucky on ovals; Hinchcliffe has traditionally run well at Milwaukee.

Marco Andretti and Josef Newgarden would also be popular winners – Andretti for the name and the fact it’s his father, Michael’s, organization promoting the event, and Newgarden after his Mid-Ohio near miss.

But whoever wins Sunday will have mastered the combination of pace, patience, balance, setup and traffic.

And so long as there’s a good number of folks in the stands here to see it – so it looks like the historic and major event it can be, and to enhance the NBCSN TV coverage – that’ll be a good day at the office for both INDYCAR and Andretti Sports Marketing.

NHRA: Pritchett, Capps, Butner capture wins in Springnationals near Houston

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Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Bo Butner (Pro Stock) had some spring in their step – and gas pedal – on Sunday, capturing their respective classes in the NHRA Springnationals.

Here’s how the final round broke down at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas, the fifth race on the 24-race NHRA national event schedule:

* In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.781 seconds at 321.96 mph) earned her third win of the young season, defeating Steve Torrence (3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph) in the final round.

“Our goal was to leave as the points leader and that was not easy at all,” Pritchett said. “Going into the final we said this is our bounce back and we’re going to keep it interesting.

“I’ve never been in a position to really be counting points and I know it is early in the season, but I’m definitely enjoying that.”

On the way to the final round matchup with Torrence, Pritchett defeated Scott Palmer, Doug Kalitta and defending Top Fuel champ Antron Brown, who is also her teammate at Don Schumacher Racing.

Pritchett’s bragging rights were a bit more than usual, as her husband works on Torrence’s pit crew.

* In Funny Car, Capps – who won his first national championship last season – earned his first win of the season.

Capps (4.004 seconds at 284.33 mph) defeated Robert Hight (4.107 seconds, 202.88 mph) to claim the 51st win of his NHRA career, as well as his third triumph at Royal Purple Raceway.

“These things become so hard to win these days,” Capps said. “But you take things for granted where I felt like we should’ve won at any of those first three races of the season.

“NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car division has to be the most competitive thing in the world right now; its cut-throat.”

The final matchup was anything but ordinary for both drivers: Capps’ engine exploded just before the finish line, while Hight had engine issues and crossed the center line, marking an automatic disqualification.

Along the way to the final round, Capps defeated Todd Simpson, 16-time world champion John Force and teammate Jack Beckman.

* In Pro Stock, Butner (6.550 seconds, 212.26 mph) claimed his first career Pro Stock win, defeating No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin (6.562 seconds, 212.03 mph).

It was Butner’s first win and seventh career final round appearance, while Coughlin reached his first final round since ’s first final round appearance at Seattle in 2015.

“Any win that you stand on that stage, Super Stock, Super Street or whatever it is (the feeling) never gets old,” Butner said. “It’s a great feeling and you can’t explain it unless you experience it.

“To make four consecutive win lights is very tough and a lot harder than I expected.”

Butner defeated Allen Johnson and four-time champ Greg Anderson before facing Coughlin in the final round. Only 13 cars qualified in Pro Stock, short of the usual 16-car field.

MORE: NHRA: Pro Stock teams get into confrontation during Houston race

The series now moves on to zMax Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, April 28-30, for the eighth annual Four-Wide Nationals.

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

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Steve Torrence; 3. Antron Brown; 4. Clay Millican; 5. Doug Kalitta; 6. Bob Vandergriff; 7. Tony Schumacher; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr.; 9. Shawn Langdon; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Brittany Force; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Scott Palmer; 15. Steven Chrisman; 16. Troy Buff.

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

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Greg Anderson; 4. Tanner Gray; 5. Chris McGaha; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Richie Stevens; 8. Erica Enders; 9. Alex Laughlin; 10. Allen Johnson; 11. Drew Skillman; 12. Jason Line; 13. Alan Prusiensky.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Steve Matusek; 2. Shane Molinari; 3. Mike Castellana; 4. Jonathan Gray; 5. Danny Rowe; 6. Mike Janis; 7. Troy Coughlin; 8. Shannon Jenkins; 9. Chuck Little; 10. Michael Biehle; 11.Eric Latino; 12. Steven Whiteley; 13. Larry Morgan; 14. Khalid alBalooshi; 15. Sidnei Frigo.

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

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.781 seconds, 321.96 mph  def. Steve Torrence, 3.787 seconds, 322.11 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.004, 284.33  def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Chevy Camaro, 6.550, 212.26  def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: Steve Matusek, Chevy Camaro, 8.985, 124.96  def. Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, Foul – Red Light.

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

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Tony Schumacher, 3.758, 322.11 def. Troy Buff, Broke; Clay Millican, 3.729, 326.79 def. Steven Chrisman, 9.654, 83.58; Troy Coughlin Jr., 3.852, 277.20 def. Brittany Force, 3.871, 274.55; Doug Kalitta, 3.761, 325.06 def. Terry McMillen, 3.833, 315.86; Antron Brown, 3.752, 321.04 def. Terry Haddock, 3.931, 283.79; Steve Torrence, 3.748, 324.20 def. Shawn Reed, 3.867, 315.86; Leah Pritchett, 3.748, 324.59 def. Scott Palmer, 4.766, 152.52; Bob Vandergriff, 3.770, 323.43 def.Shawn Langdon, 3.813, 318.84;

QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.766, 326.00 def. Vandergriff, 3.778, 323.89; Millican, 3.784, 320.97 def. Schumacher, 3.779, 317.34; Torrence, 3.755, 324.20 def. Coughlin Jr., 6.779, 93.70; Pritchett, 3.763, 324.05 def. Kalitta, 3.759, 326.56;

SEMIFINALS — Pritchett, 3.772, 319.45 def. Brown, 3.815, 322.11; Torrence, 3.760, 323.27 def. Millican, 8.621, 87.00; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.781, 321.96 def. Torrence, 3.787, 322.11.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.897, 327.90 def. Todd Simpson, Chevy Camaro, 11.347, 81.01; Courtney Force, Camaro, 5.344, 132.02 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 10.819, 77.81; John Force, Camaro, 4.216, 220.08 def. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.485, 205.51; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.870, 331.77 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.543, 195.51; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.959, 323.58 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.935, 322.04; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.224, 222.62 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.142, 162.12; Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.944, 326.16 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.556, 190.16; Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.927, 327.03 def. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 8.109, 112.19;

QUARTERFINALS — Capps, 3.951, 321.04 def. Lindberg, 5.159, 153.63; Hight, 3.898, 327.82 def. Todd, 3.958, 324.36; Beckman, 3.897, 329.18 def. J. Force, 4.134, 273.39; C. Force, 3.947, 294.37 def.DeJoria, 4.146, 260.16;

SEMIFINALS — Hight, 3.908, 324.98 def. C. Force, 3.943, 324.28; Capps, 3.926, 325.37 def. Beckman, 6.126, 114.85;

FINAL — Capps, 4.004, 284.33 def. Hight, Foul – Centerline.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.565, 211.86 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.548, 211.89 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.581, 210.97; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.555, 212.03 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.563, 210.90; Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, 6.589,210.64 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.536, 211.46 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dart, 6.588, 211.03; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.523, 213.33 def. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.567, 211.16; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.499, 213.03 was unopposed;

QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.547, 211.86 def. Stevens, 6.628, 209.75; Anderson, 6.558, 211.73 def.Nobile, 6.590, 211.73; Butner, 6.544, 212.06 was unopposed; Coughlin, 6.546, 211.73 def. McGaha, 6.574, 211.43;

SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.558, 211.63 def. Gray, Foul – Red Light; Butner, 6.536, 212.69 def.Anderson, Foul – Red Light;

FINAL — Butner, 6.550, 212.26 def. Coughlin, 6.562, 212.03.

PRO MODIFIED: ROUND ONE — Bob Rahaim, Chevy Corvette, DQ def. Sidnei Frigo, Corvette, DQ; Troy Coughlin, Corvette, 5.789, 251.77 def. Khalid alBalooshi, Chevy Camaro, 10.699, 82.60; Steve Matusek, Camaro, 5.817, 250.18 def. Steven Whiteley, Cadillac CTS-V, 6.273, 175.11; Mike Janis, Camaro, 5.825,246.53 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.934, 224.06; Danny Rowe, Corvette, 5.811, 250.00 def. Larry Morgan, Camaro, 6.707, 161.83; Shane Molinari, Pontiac Firebird, 5.815, 254.76 def. Chuck Little, Corvette, 5.816, 247.34; Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 5.815, 223.17 def. Shannon Jenkins, Ford Mustang, 5.809, 240.68; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.722, 251.77 def. Michael Biehle, Mustang, 5.845, 254.66;

QUARTERFINALS — Castellana, 5.685, 252.99 was unopposed; Gray, 5.801, 250.04 def. Coughlin, 10.018, 81.15; Matusek, 5.793, 251.77 def. Rowe, 5.944, 208.42; Molinari, 5.811, 255.92 def. Janis, 6.446, 167.72;

SEMIFINALS — Molinari, 5.843, 240.38 def. Gray, 9.355, 94.35; Matusek, 5.804, 251.95 def.Castellana, 7.361, 130.30;

FINAL — Matusek, 8.985, 124.96 def. Molinari, Foul – Red Light.

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

POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 494; 2. Antron Brown, 440; 3. Tony Schumacher, 438; 4. Doug Kalitta, 358; 5. Steve Torrence, 352; 6. Brittany Force, 282; 7. Clay Millican, 269; 8. Troy Coughlin Jr., 228; 9. Terry McMillen, 195; 10. Scott Palmer, 180.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan, 400; 2. Ron Capps, 398; 3. John Force, 371; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., 357; 5. (tie) Courtney Force, 301; Robert Hight, 301; 7. Jack Beckman, 282; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, 235; 9. J.R. Todd, 222; 10. Jim Campbell, 211.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 457; 2. Bo Butner, 426; 3. Jason Line, 403; 4. Jeg Coughlin, 372; 5. Tanner Gray, 370; 6. Shane Gray, 278; 7. Erica Enders, 255; 8. Chris McGaha, 246; 9. Vincent Nobile, 235; 10. Drew Skillman, 225.

PRO MODIFIED: 1. Mike Castellana, 169; 2. Steve Matusek, 147; 3. Steven Whiteley, 146; 4. Danny Rowe, 129; 5. Troy Coughlin, 125; 6. Shane Molinari, 106; 7. Mike Janis, 104; 8. Michael Biehle, 82; 9. Eric Latino, 78; 10. Jonathan Gray, 77.

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Rossi charges to fifth after starting 18th at Barber

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Alexander Rossi has had a black cloud hanging over his head in each of the first two races of the Verizon IndyCar Series season. Last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner suffered an ill-timed caution at St. Petersburg that hurt his team’s strategy and then dropped out at Long Beach after an engine failure when he was running in the top three.

That misfortune continued on into Saturday, as he and the Andretti-Herta Autosport team couldn’t find the speed in qualifying, leaving him 18th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, everything turned up roses come race time and Rossi had arguably the drive of the day. Rossi was immediately on the charge and used a combination of strategy and speed to run seventh after the opening sequence of pit stops. He hung around the top five the rest of the day, eventually moving up to fifth after Charlie Kimball and Will Power made late-race pit stops.

All told, it was a remarkable run for him.

“It’s good considering we started 18th,” Rossi told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “We were pretty disappointed yesterday. We were on the verge of desperation. We had to diagnose what happened Saturday.”

The result vaulted Rossi all the way up to 10th in the championship standings, one point ahead of Tony Kanaan. He trails points leader Sebastien Bourdais by 57 markers heading into the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

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Bourdais hangs on to points lead after Barber

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Sebastien Bourdais’ drive to eighth is not quite the headline-maker to match his win at St. Petersburg or his second at Long Beach, but it was still a championship-caliber drive on a weekend where he and Dale Coyne Racing didn’t quite have the pace they had in the opening two races of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Bourdais advanced out of his Round 1 qualifying group, but went no further after turning the 12th fastest time in Round 2, leaving him 12th on the grid for the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

However, he managed to weather the storm and keep his nose clean, taking home an unspectacular but respectable eighth.

“Yeah not quite sure what did what. Maybe the conditions got us more in the operation of the tires,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee when asked about his struggles during the weekend.

Bourdais also added that might have been able to pass Tony Kanaan for seventh in the final laps, but he couldn’t quite do enough to make a run at him.

“I really thought I had (Kanaan) there. He used the pushed to pass. I didn’t forget! I really thought I had him. He used the push to pass on the way back. Shame on me. It was a good fight. Not the greatest day but top 10 is good for the guys and the Sonny’s BBQ car.”

Bourdais leads Scott Dixon by six points and Josef Newgarden by seven. Simon Pagenaud sits 10 markers behind while James Hinchcliffe is 15 back after three races.

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A full day of Fernando: Alonso takes Barber by storm (VIDEO)

Brown and Alonso. Photo: IndyCar
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Fernando Alonso was a busy man today at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, as he prepares for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil and made the rounds of media and promotion in doing so as part of his joint entry into the race thanks to McLaren, Honda and Andretti Autosport.

The two-time Formula 1 World Champion arrived on pit lane for Sunday’s morning warmup and set up in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda pit, where he’d interact with Michael Andretti and the rest of the team.

Alonso had a quick sit-in in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Honda:

Alonso then made it to the media center for a formal press conference with Andretti, McLaren F1 executive director Zak Brown and Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles, the head of INDYCAR’s parent company. Alonso was high on life through most of the press conference and had a few playful jabs at some of his competitors.

Before the race, Alonso signed some autographs for fans, who were pleased he was on site.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

From there, it was a chance to head to the grid and speak with NBCSN IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell.

Alonso’s day wasn’t done, as he visited both the NBCSN booth and the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth for further interviews. A portion of the NBCSN interview is below.

Alonso will now head to Indianapolis with the team this week for a seat fit and further preparation for his May 3 test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, his first run in the car. He’ll then be off to Sochi, Russia for next weekend’s Russian Grand Prix, which you can see on NBCSN (times here).