Helton: Tony Stewart still eligible for Chase, but must win to get in

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Tony Stewart is still eligible to make this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR president Mike Helton announced Friday afternoon at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“Back earlier this year when we announced the format for the ’14 Chase, that announcement included some responsibility about the routine participation in the season in order to be eligible in the Chase,” Helton said.

“Along with that importance of routine participation also came the asterisk, so to speak, about accepting rare incidents. This has been a very unique set of circumstances to Tony and to our sport.

“As the league, it’s our responsibility to try to make decisions that are correct and right. Sometimes we evaluate circumstances that are given us and then make those decisions as correctly as we can.

“After evaluating the circumstances around this occurrence, we’ve come to the conclusion that Tony would be eligible to participate in the Chase if he were to earn a spot in it.”

In other words, Stewart must win either Sunday night in Atlanta or next Saturday night in the final Chase qualifying race at Richmond to make the expanded 16-driver field of the 11th edition of the Chase.

Helton said there has been no consideration of expanding the field to 17 drivers, much like it was expanded to 13 for last season’s Chase due to the Michael Waltrip Racing scandal that occurred at Richmond.

“We haven’t had anyone suggest it, and that’s not on the table right now,” Helton said. “It’s simply if Tony were able to earn a spot in the Chase, and our decision is currently yes.”

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DiZinno: Dixon toppling Penske highlights nice Road America encore

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The sequel is often harder to duplicate than the original, so the second year of the KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America was always going to be a test case to prove last year’s “oh my goodness, IndyCar at Road America is back!!” vibe wasn’t a one-off.

Similar to the Indianapolis 500, while 2016 was always going to be a special event, the 2017 event matched it in awesomeness, even with a slight reduction in crowd.

With that as a backdrop, here’s some takeaways from the weekend:

DIXON SLAYS PENSKE’S QUARTET

Photo: IndyCar

Because IndyCar often dwells so much on its history – which often serves as a crutch for IndyCar’s future – it is sometimes hard to appreciate the history being made as we speak.

In Scott Dixon’s latest historic act, winning his 41st career race to move within one of Michael Andretti for third on IndyCar’s all-time win list, he singlehandedly toppled the Team Penske quartet in the process.

A well-timed caution for him and being on the right tires – Dixon had Firestone red alternates on while combatant Josef Newgarden was on the black primaries – paid dividends. Dixon promptly delivered one of the overtakes of the season following the Lap 31 restart, basically taking Newgarden’s earlier around-the-outside pass for the lead at Turn 1 of Helio Castroneves and saying “hey, I can do this too.”

The combination of the strategy with Mike Hull, in his 25th anniversary weekend with Ganassi, and Dixon’s pace on track delivered an overdue first win of the year. It was such a big win, and extended his points lead to 34 in the process, he even did donuts after the race.

“He’s a calm person. I can get pretty worked up at some points throughout the races,” Dixon said. “It’s nice to have that sort of level-head person on the stand to extract the most out of everybody that’s on there.

“His knowledge and experience that he’s had, you know, in racing, I don’t know how long he’s been in racing, it’s got to be a long time if he’s been at one team for 25 years, we win and lose as a team. All but one race victory has been with this team. Mike’s a very large instrumental piece of, you know, Chip’s team and the success that they’ve had.

“It’s very gratifying. They looked pretty disappointed. It was nice to get a victory. As far as road courses go, this was going to be one of the more difficult ones for us because of the long straights and the drag that we have.”

The win also came after Dixon missed the morning warmup owing to a fuel pump issue, but the team got it resolved.

Sometimes it’s hard to appreciate good deadpan but Dixon nailed that after the race, too.

“I did not fix it, which is a good thing, because we probably wouldn’t have started the race!” he laughed.

PENSKE’S LOST CHANCE

Helio Castroneves led early at Road America. Photo: IndyCar

Between a disappointed Josef Newgarden, a dehydrated Helio Castroneves, a seemingly invisible Simon Pagenaud and an occasionally erratic Will Power, Team Penske’s dominant weekend ended without first place when it mattered most.

Newgarden looked the best of the bunch while Castroneves lost out on strategy – he pitted too early in the final sequence – while Pagenaud and Power faded from contention. Power got one penalty assessed and ordered to give up one position to Pagenaud for a move earlier in the race and ultimately finished behind him, on a day when “the incident involving Car 12 and Car XX” was said repeatedly. Pagenaud, as has been his strength this year, banked another solid top-five finish without generating major headlines to do so.

A TRIO OF UNDER-THE-RADAR GOOD DAYS

In sixth, seventh and ninth, Charlie Kimball, Ed Jones and Max Chilton got needed results. Kimball’s penchant for poor luck finally turned as he hoped it would going into the weekend. Jones, again, continued to overachieve for Dale Coyne Racing – this time wearing a Walter Payton Chicago Bears tribute helmet and having overcome a major piece of debris hitting his left front wing. Chilton fell to ninth from seventh but banked his fourth top-10 finish in the last six races. For a driver who only had two all of last year, that’s moving in the right direction.

GOOD CROWD ONCE AGAIN

Thanks to Chevrolet for a pre-race ride in one of its event cars, driven by USF2000 regular Ayla Agren – Road America is a big Chevrolet track – I had a good view of the crowd in the final moments before this year’s race kicked off. Between the grandstands and hillsides, there were plenty of fans and just as many campers.

It’d be hard to call this year’s race day crowd as big as last year’s but even if it was down slightly, it was still very good.

MAZDA MOTORSPORTS MANIA

Eight of the additional races this weekend were from the Andersen Promotions operated and INDYCAR sanctioned, Mazda-powered series. With all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires here for two races each, plus two Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires races on the docket, fans and paddock observers had a chance to witness a festival of “driving matters” on display at RA.

They were largely entertaining. Saturday’s second Pro Mazda race nearly witnessed Victor Franzoni complete a last-to-first comeback, and end disappointed after being beat by sparring partner Anthony Martin. Just like in USF2000 last year when Martin and Parker Thompson battled for the title, it will be hard to see one of them lost the title. Both Indy Lights races had huge margin of victories and surprising Carlin drivers winning (Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman De Melo) but great action throughout the field. Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser continues to drive like a champion-in-waiting; his race craft has grown by leaps and bounds in the last two years. And in USF2000, Rinus VeeKay delivered on his season-long potential with the only weekend sweep in a dream weekend for Augie Pabst’s Pabst Racing time. The likable young Dutchman, who is still only 16, was able to celebrate with both his own and with Pabst’s family this weekend. Teammates Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl also scored podiums.

MX-5 Cup? Two photo finishes showcased that series’ racing at this track like few others on the calendar. Patrick Gallagher and Nathanial Sparks each used last lap, last turn moves to net their wins.

PWC’S POPULAR WINNERS… 

Elkhart Lake, WI – Jun 23, 2017: The Pirelli World Challenge racers take to the track on Pirelli tires during the Pirelli World Challenge Grand Prix at Road America presented by VP Racing Fuels at the Road America in Elkhart Lake, WI.

Panoz winning a sports car race is cool. As Ian James said on Saturday, few have given as much to sports car racing in North America, and for that matter the world, what Don Panoz has. So seeing Panoz’s latest wild GT creation tame Road America for a double win with James driving was not just a highlight for the driver, but also the Tom Milner-led team, who’ve been through a lot over the years with either uncompetitive or unreliable past cars.

A Panoz sports car was last a winner with the old Esperante GT2 in 2006, its Le Mans class win that year the car’s ultimate highlight. And with James’ weekend sweep, it continued PWC GTS’ crazy run of different drivers, teams and manufacturers sweeping the weekend – now five different drivers, teams and manufacturers in as many weekends, over 10 races. Yet it’s the one driver who hasn’t won, Lawson Aschenbach in the Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro GT4.R, who still leads the points.

GT saw the perfect balance of Fong and Long on top. Adderly Fong took his first PWC win in his No. 88 Bentley Team Absolute Bentley Continental GT3 on Saturday while Patrick Long rebounded in his No. 58 Wright Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R on Sunday. The two were second in the races they didn’t win, with Cadillac splitting its two drivers – Michael Cooper and Johnny O’Connell – in third.

… BALANCED BY WEEKEND SCHEDULE ANGST

The good news this weekend was that there was a lot of action on track. The bad news for competitors in certain paddocks was that that “lot of action” meant awkward or bad track times. Pirelli World Challenge, in particular, had a brutal weekend schedule that may threaten the combination of PWC and IndyCar on the same weekend going forward for 2018 and beyond, IndyCar having been confirmed for June 23-24 here next year.

PWC already lost its Touring Car classes from the weekend compared to 2016 going in, with MX-5 as the replacement. A handful of invitational TC cars were added to the GTS races. The majority of PWC sessions were held Thursday with the GT and GTS/TC classes only having one session each on Friday, a qualifying and a race apiece on Saturday, and a second race apiece on Sunday.

Several competitors voiced their displeasure over this this weekend, and it was the latest sign of PWC’s growing pains as it works to evolve into a marquee, standalone series beyond being an excellent supporting act on IndyCar weekends. The fact for the second time this year that Sunday’s second GT race was not shown on a live web stream despite being advertised as such did not help matters, either, as a same day delay TV broadcast did occur for a smaller audience.

ADDITIONAL NOTES

  • The first murmurs of IndyCar silly season started to emerge this weekend with an AutoWeek report that hinted Andretti Autosport could be on the move from Honda to Chevrolet next season. While it would not be a surprise to see team and manufacturer movement next year – and there are whispers of multiple teams doing just that – it would be a surprise to see that starting so soon. Several drivers could do with improved results too in the coming races as contracts start to get looked at for 2018.
  • Robert Wickens handled his abnormal situation as well as he could. The Canadian had to deal with wondering whether he’d get to keep racing into the weekend after substituting for Mikhail Aleshin on Friday at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. It’d be nice to see Wickens earn a proper opportunity for a full weekend later this year, and it’s worth noting the DTM calendar and IndyCar’s remaining road and street course races don’t have any clashes…
  • Birthday weekends at race tracks are amazing, but exhausting. The amount of kind words and gestures were overwhelming though this weekend, as was what I think was a joint operation between INDYCAR, Road America and several media colleagues to surprise me with a cake in the media center on Friday evening was very flattering. I’m not sure where the “LaVern” came from, but the #BlameTony hashtag – a running joke going six years on – was a fun touch. Thanks to all.
  • It was also fun to call Sunday’s second Indy Lights race from the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network booth. Seeing the behind-the-scenes operation of how radio works as the crew puts everything together is like an orchestra. Coincidentally, IndyCar Radio regular Jake Query led NBCSN’s Indy Lights coverage this weekend, as Kevin Lee gets to call additional Verizon IndyCar Series races as lead announcer and host.

The Verizon IndyCar Series is off until Iowa; Pirelli World Challenge races next at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course; the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is split between its next races at Iowa (Indy Lights, USF2000) and Mid-Ohio (Pro Mazda) and MX-5 resumes next in Toronto.

Good news for F1: Gloves are off between Hamilton and Vettel

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) The gloves are off between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel, and Formula One is already the winner.

After so much talk of mutual respect, their previously harmonious relationship melted in the heat of Sunday’s hectic Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Hamilton said Vettel “disgraced himself” by deliberately driving his Ferrari alongside and swerving it into the side of him. Vettel, who was given a time penalty, said he only did it in response to a dangerous braking move by Hamilton right in front of him.

Whatever the arguments, F1 finally has what it craves: a saga between fiercely competitive champions that promises to last all season.

“Now we have a situation where there is more controversy. It was clear this could happen the closer it gets,” Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff said. “(It) certainly doesn’t help their relationship going forward. So now the gloves are off.”

Hamilton and Vettel have won a combined seven F1 titles and more than 100 races. Vettel has four of those titles, while Hamilton has three. But the British driver has won more races, 56 to 45.

This season they are evenly matched, with three wins each, and Vettel leads Hamilton in the overall championship by 14 points after eight races.

While Hamilton often tangled with former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg over the past three years, losing the title to him last year, this new showdown is more intriguing. Not only does it oppose multiple world champions – which was not the case with Rosberg – it also pits Mercedes against a fiercely proud Ferrari team chasing its first drivers’ title since 2007 and its first constructors’ since 2008.

Ferrari is desperate to end its barren run and is banking on Vettel to deliver. The German driver is under enormous pressure.

“The sport needs the rivalry and what we’ve seen has the ingredient of a great championship,” Wolff said. “At a certain stage, the best ones that compete for world championships can’t be friends. Maybe we’ve seen the limitation of that respect.”

Wolff has noticed a change in behavior from Ferrari, too.

“Normally I get a breakfast (at Ferrari) on Sunday morning. (This time) only a tea,” he said. “For me the analogy is like rugby, during the race they are our enemies. But we must be capable, once the race is done, to have a beer like rugby players and acknowledge someone’s performance.”

Although Vettel appeared to be more to blame on Sunday, Wolff had some sympathy for him.

“They’re warriors and you’re at war at that moment, fighting for the race win and the championship,” Wolff said. “Emotions are running high.”

Hamilton finished fifth in Sunday’s race, while Vettel was fourth. Although that meant Hamilton lost a bit of ground, he saw something to exploit over the remaining 12 races, something he considers Vettel’s vulnerability under high pressure.

“As a team we can only look at that as a positive for us,” Hamilton said. “He’s obviously under pressure and that’s not a bad thing if that’s how he reacts.”

The next race is the Austrian GP in two weeks, Round 9 of their heavyweight contest.

Bird to skip Nurburgring WEC in favor of New York Formula E race

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Sam Bird has confirmed that he will miss the FIA World Endurance Championship race at the Nürburgring on July 16 in order to enter the inaugural New York Formula E round on the same weekend.

Bird was one of a handful of drivers forced to choose between commitments in WEC and Formula E after the series were unable to avoid a clash despite previously enjoying a gentleman’s agreement to not hold races on the same weekend.

Bird races with DS Virgin Racing in Formula E and with AF Corse in WEC, and previously hinted that a decision regarding the July 16 weekend would hinge on his result at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Alongside full-season teammate Davide Rigon and Le Mans addition Miguel Molina, Bird finished fifth in the GTE-Pro class in the No. 71 Ferrari 488 GTE at Le Mans and as the fourth-highest WEC entree.

Despite being just 14 points off the GT world championship lead, Bird confirmed on Monday that he would be missing the race at the Nürburgring to take part in the New York double-header, with races on July 15 and 16 in Red Hook, NY.

“With the first ever FIA-sanctioned motorsport event to be held in New York, Formula E is continuing to push the boundaries and break new ground, and it’s exciting to be part of that,” said Bird.

“I know we’ll put on a great show for the people of New York and I’m expecting big crowds to turn up on both days. Being a double race event, there’s a huge amount at stake for all the teams and the drivers so it’s definitely one to watch.”

Bird’s teammate for the New York weekend is still to be confirmed, with regular racer Jose Maria Lopez contracted to race for Toyota in the WEC at the Nürburgring on that weekend.

Reserve driver Alex Lynn is set to bail on his own WEC duties with G-Drive Racing in LMP2 in order to make his Formula E debut in New York, but DS Virgin team boss Alex Tai said that the team is still “assessing options”.

Formula E championship leader Sebastien Buemi is yet to formally confirm his absence from New York, but, like Lopez, he is contracted to race for Toyota at the Nürburgring on that weekend.

Newgarden on Road America runner-up: ‘It’s going to sting’

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – With arguably his most complete weekend as a member of Team Penske in the books at Road America, Josef Newgarden looked a likely winner in Sunday’s KOHLER Grand Prix.

Alas, an ill-timed caution and being on the wrong compound of Firestone tires at the wrong time cost the Hendersonville, Tenn. native now living in Charlotte likely his second win of the season.

Scott Dixon moved around him on the outside of Turn 1 following a restart on Lap 31, and wasn’t headed the rest of the way.

The win lost though, Newgarden was able to at least match his car number – 2 – with a runner-up finish in his now No. 2 DeVilbiss Team Penske Chevrolet, and his fourth podium finish of the season. He won at Barber, came third at Long Beach and came second in race two at Detroit. This finish today comes after starting third, and after leading 13 laps.

“It stings a little bit coming home second when you feel like you have a winning car. Scott was great today. So was Ganassi Racing. Those guys did a great job. Certainly very deserving of the win.

“But that’s tough coming up a little bit short. I felt like when the caution came out and we were on the primary tires, Helio and Scott had the alternates, I thought this is probably not going to be very good on the restart. It was hard to get temperature in them to get up to speed for the restart.

“I don’t know if it sealed our fate, but once the race was over, I was like, That’s what sealed our fate. It was an ill-timed caution. If that didn’t come out, we would have gotten 10 laps or so on the tires, we would have been okay.

“Once we shuffled back to third, it was about trying to get back by those guys. At that point we were on the same strategy pretty much the last stint. So it was hard to do anything with Scott. Felt we were a touch quicker than him, but couldn’t do anything on that final stint.

“Tough coming up short, but a great weekend for us at Team Penske. We were strong all weekend. Just didn’t get it done when it counted in the race, so that’s going to sting.”

Incidentally, Newgarden’s Barber win was probably at a race he didn’t figure to win – but he’d usurped Dixon for what became the lead there – while here this looked a race he planned to win but didn’t, and lost out to Dixon in the process. He reflected on the humor of this in the post-race press conference.

“I mean, Scott’s one of the hardest to pass. It was funny, because it was kind of a reverse Barber situation,” he laughed. “At Barber this year, you had Scott behind me at the end with a little more overtake, then it was me behind Scott this time with a little more overtake. You kind of had a similar result almost.

“I think it doesn’t necessarily matter who it is. For sure, you know, you give Scott a lot of credit, he’s going to be tough. He’s not going to make a lot of mistakes. You really got to push the issue with him.

“But I think I was concerned about getting by him, just his race pace. We were quicker than him, but we weren’t quick enough to overtake him. We were probably only 2, 3/10ths quicker than him outright speed, which wasn’t enough to do much with him.

“Once we were up to temperature, we were all running full, we both had red tires on, they were new tires for both of us, it was kind of hard to do anything once we got up to speed. I couldn’t make anything happen. As soon as I did something with overtake, he would do it. We were just kind of tit for tat till the end. He’s obviously one of the toughest to race against.

“I think if the situation were reversed, we would have been okay, as well, to win the race. So it’s just tough strategy today.”

Newgarden at least had a simpler weekend at Road America this year. He took in the ambience of the weekend without many of the distractions of a year ago, recovering from a collarbone injury and having launched a children’s book.

“I mean, certainly no distractions. Last year there was probably a little more distraction from trying to deal with comfort inside the cockpit. But from a performance standpoint, I don’t think it was much different.

“I wouldn’t blame the injuries last year for any performance deficit. I thought we were actually very good in the race last year. We had a top 10. I made a mistake in qualifying, which I think if we didn’t do that, we probably could have had a top five last year. If anything, it was nice not having any distractions personally.”

It was a solid weekend altogether though. Newgarden sits fifth in points with 318, 61 behind Dixon at the top.

He heads next to Iowa, where in his most authoritative of his four career victories, he led 282 of 300 laps last year. That race comes up Sunday, July 9, at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.