IndyCar has 500 miles to glory, through speed, dirt, tire fall off and unpredictability

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FONTANA, Calif. – Put off your evening plans and brew the coffee to stay up late for a late night, 500-mile shootout Saturday night from Auto Club Speedway for the MAVTV 500, starting at 9 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Because if you miss the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series season finale, you don’t get any live IndyCar racing for at least the next five, and possibly, six, months.

This season’s condensed 18-race schedule started the last weekend in March, and it will end the last weekend in August. Whether that’s a good thing depends on who you talk to in the paddock, or whether you note the year-on-year viewer increase for most TV broadcasts.

As always, the last race of the year offers a bevy of story lines that are usually hard pressed to be matched at other events throughout the year.

Need a primer on what to look for? Here’s some things to note:

THE TITLE BATTLE

For the second time in three years, IndyCar will have a first-time champion. That is a good thing, as it offers IndyCar another shot to promote a new champ after squandering the opportunity for American Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 due to the leadership in-fighting and eventual removal of CEO Randy Bernard that dominated the headlines.

Likely Will Power or Helio Castroneves will deliver Roger Penske his first title in eight years – if either falters, or has some bizarre sequence of events happens, Simon Pagenaud could still steal the title.

DOUBLE FOR THE JUMBLE

The championship battle is always going to be the main storyline, but the double points on offer could provide a significant shakeup in the overall top 10 standings.

From second-placed Castroneves (575) to sixth-placed Juan Pablo Montoya (519), there’s only 56 points that separate those five. So what currently goes Castroneves 575, Pagenaud 545, Ryan Hunter-Reay 534, Scott Dixon 523 and Montoya 519 could be significantly altered after Saturday night.

The rest of the top 10 could change significantly as well. The gap from seventh-placed Tony Kanaan to 11th-placed Ryan Briscoe is only 34 points.

The points breakdown this race: 1-100, 2-80, 3-70, 4-64, 5-60, with 6-10 decreasing by 4 points per position from there down to 40 for 10th, and with 11th through 22nd decreasing by 2 points per position from there down to 16 for 22nd. Four additional bonus points are on offer, one for pole, one for leading one lap and two for leading the most laps.

THE DIFFERENT WINNERS RECORD

We wrote about this leading into Milwaukee and the mark still stands – if a new winner emerges this weekend in Fontana, it will be the 11th of this season, and thus tie a record for the most number of different winners in a season.

THE RELIABILITY ISSUES

On ovals this season, the number of DNFs from Indianapolis through Milwaukee are, in order: 9, 5, 4, 7 and 2.

Last year at Fontana alone? There were 16 DNFs in the 25-car field – 6 alone within the last 100 miles.

With engine reliability compromised by the high heat of the race and the radiators getting clogged with debris, it made for a long night for a fair number of drivers. Both Chevrolet and Honda’s respective 2.2L V.6 engines have done well in battle thus far and rarely have issues, but between them, they had five failures in this race year.

THE TIRE FALL OFF

Wednesday’s test saw a fair number of cut tires, although it was later fixed by the end of the day. Still, fall off and wear should be an issue. A couple drivers I spoke to Thursday estimated the tires will be very good for the first 10 laps of a stint, decent over the next 30 and “hanging on” in the final 8-10 laps of a stint.

With the Mazda Road to Indy seasons complete, and without the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series also on the weekend schedule, this race is the first oval this year where just Firestone rubber is being laid down. So no Cooper or Goodyear rubber will be ground into the surface this weekend. The Texas and Iowa races had NASCAR on the docket, but no MRTI races.

THE DRIVERS WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE

Those drivers without a contract in hand next year – Simon Pagenaud, James Hinchcliffe and more – will no doubt want to showcase themselves to potential suitors Saturday night, and it’s their last chance to do so before the winter.

Josef Newgarden has a contract in hand but still has yet to win his first ever race; Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Justin Wilson, Ryan Briscoe and Charlie Kimball are three potential 11th winners of the year; and there’s more still who could use a solid weekend to end 2014 on a high note.

Marquez adds to COTA win streak while Vinales crashes out

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Death, taxes and Marc Marquez winning MotoGP’s annual trip to Circuit of The Americas in the spring seem to be things you can bank on.

The Spaniard won again on Sunday, his incredible fifth straight win at the Austin road course, in as many attempts. It’s also his 11th straight victory on United States soil.

The Repsol Honda rider took the victory with Movistar Yamaha’s Valentino Rossi in second and the second of the Honda riders, Dani Pedrosa, completing the podium. Rossi made it past Pedrosa for second despite an earlier slide off, but was 3.069 seconds adrift of Marquez.

Cal Crutchlow and Johann Zarco completed the top five.

Meanwhile, Rossi’s teammate Maverick Vinales meanwhile crashed out early, putting pause to his chances of a season-opening three-peat. He crashed out a Turn 18 and was OK after the incident, but has now lost the points lead.

Rossi’s up by six points, 56-50, over Vinales with Marquez third on 38 points.

A trip to Jerez on May 7 is next up as MotoGP races in Europe for the first time this year. The series has opened with three flyaway races to Qatar, Argentina and the U.S.

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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