Kevin Harvick far from being happy after Paul Menard wrecks him, costing a chance for win

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HAMPTON, Ga. – Kevin Harvick was happily motoring along Sunday night to what appeared would be a second dominating win in two nights at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

After leading 159 laps in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race, Harvick led 195 laps in Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race.

But late in the event, Paul Menard slid up the track into Harvick, the two cars made contact – collecting Joey Logano in the process – and Harvick ultimately wound up going from what looked like a sure win from the pole to a disappointing 19th-place finish.

Rather than becoming the sixth driver to win three races this season, Harvick dropped one place in the Sprint Cup standings, falling from seventh to eighth with one regular season race remaining this coming Saturday night at Richmond International Raceway.

“We all probably could have given each other more room,” Harvick said. “I knew the No. 27 (Menard) was going to get a bad restart and I tried to time it to where I could get on the outside of him.

“I got on the outside of him and he just kept coming up and I wasn’t going to let off the gas; I knew the No. 22 (Logano) was up there. The No. 27 kept coming up and just came up until we all wrecked.”

 

MORE: Kasey Kahne rallies in last 2 laps to win at Atlanta, makes Chase

 

BOWYER BOONDOGGLE: Clint Bowyer’s hopes of making this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup appear slim at best following Sunday’s Oral-B USA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Instead of getting closer to locking himself into the Chase in the race, Bowyer instead fell outside the top 16 Chase qualifiers with a disappointing 38th-place finish.

Early in the race, Bowyer suffered a broken shifter in his Toyota, prompting him to go back to the garage and miss more than 20 laps while his team made necessary repairs.

Bowyer is now ranked 17th in the Chase lineup, meaning next Saturday night’s race at Richmond will very likely be a make-or-break situation for him.

He trails Greg Biffle, who remains on the Chase bubble in 16th place, by 23 points – a rather formidable amount to make up in just one race.

Bowyer would have to finish between 19 and 21 positions higher (depending upon how many laps either driver might lead) than Biffle at Richmond.

 

MORE: Tony Stewart’s comeback hopes end with rough 41st-place finish at Atlanta

 

AMBROSE’S CHASE HOPES SINK: Marcos Ambrose came into Sunday night’s race hoping to pull out a Hail Mary win and earn a berth in the upcoming Chase.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out quite the way Ambrose hoped for when the motor on his Richard Petty Motorsports Ford Fusion blew up on Lap 123, ending his night.

 

 

I AM IRONMAN: NASCAR’s reigning ironman, Jeff Gordon, made the 750th consecutive start Sunday night of his more than two-decade Sprint Cup career.

Ironically, Atlanta Motor Speedway was the site of Gordon’s first career Cup start in the 1992 season finale.

“That is a big number,” Gordon said. “I hadn’t thought about it a whole lot until I saw a decal with it made up. I thought, ‘Man, that is a lot of races, especially in a row.’ I’m really proud of that, it’s been an amazing career in the Cup Series.

“It seems like it was yesterday that it started right here over 20 years ago. I love this track. I love racing here so it’s pretty cool to have 750 happening here.”

Gordon is now in his 22nd full-time season on the Sprint Cup Series. He’s managed to stay behind the wheel for every race of that stretch, even though there have been times he’s been in a great deal of pain resulting from prior crashes or back issues that have beset him the last several years.

Still, Gordon has no regrets.

“Here we are at 750,” he said. “At the time I didn’t really think about that, but now I look back on it and it’s something I’m proud of.”

But don’t expect Gordon to go another 22 seasons.

“I can guarantee there won’t be another 750,” Gordon said with a laugh.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Castroneves obliterates track record for Phoenix pole (VIDEO)

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Helio Castroneves has shattered the previous track record at Phoenix International Raceway en route to his second pole of the Verizon IndyCar Series season and Team Penske’s fourth in four races to kick off 2017. In the process, he also won his 49th pole of his INDYCAR career (7 CART/42 IRL/IC), which puts him in a tie for third all-time in series history with Bobby Unser.

The Brazilian, driving the No. 3 REV Group Chevrolet, also set the pole at Phoenix last year but at a two-lap average of 192.324 mph.

Tonight, under the lights with temperatures of 72 degrees Fahrenheit ambient and 83 for track, Castroneves’ average was a staggering 194.905 mph.

“People don’t realize that qualifying is extremely difficult,” he said. “I took it to the limit – I had one eye closed and one eye open. Experience is a big part of this and today was really, really good. The conditions were really difficult today in practice – the gusting winds were horrendous. We worked mostly on the race setup (in practice). My engineer did a phenomenal job and obviously everybody at Team Penske – the REV Group car was really fast. Qualifying is one thing – the race is another – but I’m really confident going into tomorrow.”

Teammate Will Power starts second for Saturday night’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Power was only the second car to run, but put down what looked to be an incredible two-lap average of his own – the first driver over 194 mph – before Castroneves beat him under slightly cooler and less windy conditions later in the session.

Young Americans JR Hildebrand, in his first race back after missing Barber, and Barber winner Josef Newgarden will share Row 2 with Simon Pagenaud fifth in Chevrolet’s first top-five qualifying sweep of the season, a result which was somewhat expected given Chevrolet’s edge in the aero department on a downforce-heavy short oval aero kit package at Phoenix.

It was Tony Kanaan, who was feted along with Castroneves on Thursday night in a separate event at the Heard Museum honoring both drivers’ 20 years in IndyCar, who led Honda’s charge in sixth. Mikhail Aleshin, Scott Dixon, Marco Andretti and points leader Sebastien Bourdais completed the top 10.

Of note, Long Beach winner James Hinchcliffe was 11th, his worst start thus far this year, and Ed Carpenter’s team was able to get his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet back out after a fuel leak in practice, and a rapid fuel cell change. But his luckless run in his oval races continues and he’ll start 21st and last tomorrow night.

Qualifying results are below.

AVONDALE, Arizona – Qualifying Friday for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 1.022-mile Phoenix Raceway, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine and speed:

1. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 194.905
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 194.017
3. (21) JR Hildebrand, Chevrolet, 193.912
4. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 193.676
5. (1) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 193.414
6. (10) Tony Kanaan, Honda, 192.539
7. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 192.327
8. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 192.050
9. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 191.387
10. (18) Sebastien Bourdais, Honda, 191.349
11. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 191.194
12. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 190.799
13. (8) Max Chilton, Honda, 190.768
14. (83) Charlie Kimball, Honda, 190.565
15. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 190.405
16. (19) Ed Jones, Honda, 190.029
17. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 189.786
18. (26) Takuma Sato, Honda, 189.779
19. (14) Carlos Munoz, Chevrolet, 189.301
20. (4) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 188.536
21. (20) Ed Carpenter, Chevrolet, 186.360

Phoenix weekend, Friday notes

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – Days are weird when the track activity for the Verizon IndyCar Series doesn’t start until 4 p.m. PT and local time. Qualifying is tonight from 8 to 9 p.m. PT and local time, online via NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports App at http://indystream.nbcsports.com.

That then makes the notes we gather a little different.

  • Thursday night kicked off the weekend with an honoring and fun night of storytelling from Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan, moderated by veteran open-wheel and NBA reporter Gary Gerould. The event, held at the Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, offered a lot of camaraderie, laughs and memories shared for the pair of Brazilians. We’ll have a full recap of the event on Saturday.
  • Oberto premieres on Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Andretti Autosport Honda this weekend as a primary sponsor. In a “convenient coincidence,” Oberto is also on Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross’ No. 41 Beetle GRC for two-time defending champion Scott Speed in this weekend’s Red Bull Global Rallycross opener in Memphis (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, NBC). The red-and-white No. 27 car had a primary sponsorship vacancy for most races this year in the wake of hhgregg’s financial issues, with United Fiber & Data only on for selected races.
  • Fernando Alonso’s entry is getting most of the attention among one-off Indianapolis 500 cars, but he’s not the only one. Per Spanish site IndyCarAlDiaJuncos Racing is set to run at least one car on the same May 3 date as Alonso will make his debut, as Ricardo Juncos’ team gets close to making its announcement for its driver or drivers it will have in this year’s race.
  • Alonso’s livery for his No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti is set to be revealed either the Tuesday before his test on May 2 or the morning of his test on May 3, itself. The @McLarenIndy account tweeted a sneak pic of the livery earlier this week.
  • The Jay Howard Team ONE Cure Honda-powered entry for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports doesn’t yet have its engineer set, but the team is getting close to finalizing the crew for that car.
  • Zach Veach’s No. 40 IWiT Championship Chevrolet will be revealed Wednesday night, May 10, at AJ Foyt Racing’s Indianapolis shop.
  • On a Red Bull Global Rallycross note: Andretti, Bryan Herta Rallysport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing have both IndyCar and GRC efforts running this weekend, so four of the 10 Supercars. The rest of the GRC field features Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE (three cars), Subaru Rally Team USA (two cars) and Loenbro Motorsports, the former Ganassi team (one car).
  • Be on the lookout for a pair of digital pieces on NBCSports.com later this weekend. NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt caught up with Helio Castroneves for Rapid Fire, while she’ll also fill in for Anders Krohn – who’s on Red Bull GRC duty in Memphis – hosting IndyCar Paddock Pass. Hargitt caught up with Barber winner Josef Newgarden, series returnee JR Hildebrand and Hildebrand’s Barber fill-in Zach Veach in this week’s episode.

Newgarden, Chevy top Phoenix practice

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Friday’s two-hour practice for the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix started out slowly, with only a handful of drivers turning laps in the opening 30 minutes. However, the second hour, and the final 30 minutes in particular, turned into a frenzy, with drivers making several runs and completing qualifying sims.

Josef Newgarden topped the speed charts with an average speed of 192.108 mph, the only lap above the 192 mark of the session.

JR Hildebrand enjoyed a strong run on his return after suffering a broken hand at Long Beach to run second in practice. Helio Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud, and Will Power completed the top five, making it a Chevrolet sweep of the top five spots.

Heavy winds wreaked havoc on the session, with sand blowing onto the track surface throughout practice. Conditions became severe enough that practice was halted a couple minutes prior to its scheduled conclusion.

Of note: driver Ed Carpenter, in his first race outing of 2017, suffered a shortened practice due to mechanical issues and the crew reportedly was working on swapping out the fuel cell on his No.20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.

Times and qualifying order are below. Qualifying begins at 11:00 p.m. ET (8:00 local time).

 

 

Honda defends decision to redesign F1 power unit for 2017

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Honda Formula 1 chief Yusuke Hasegawa has defended the decision to redesign its power unit layout for 2017 despite suffering a number of reliability and performance issues at the start of the season.

Entering its third year since returning to F1 as an engine supplier, Honda looked to make gains by revising the layout of its power unit to mirror that of pace-setter Mercedes.

The decision appeared to backfire, though, with a lack of both performance and reliability leaving customer team McLaren frustrated and without a single point after three races.

Speaking in Friday’s FIA press conference in Russia, Hasegawa was asked if the decision to revise the power unit layout was a mistake, and defending the move despite admitting to the ongoing problems.

“I don’t think we made a complete mistake from last year’s performance. We knew that we have to change everything, not only the package but also the combustion, so we tried to modify all areas,” Hasegawa explained.

“Some areas we succeeded, to reduce the weight and lower the center of gravity, but yeah, definitely we couldn’t get enough power from the combustion. So, yeah, it is just an excuse, but we still need time.

“But we don’t think we made a huge mistake, the direction was right. We are very much disappointed with our current situation.

“But because the base concept is correct, we believe we can make good progress in the middle of the season.”

McLaren’s hopes of scoring its first points of the year in Russia took a hit on Friday when Stoffel Vandoorne was forced to take new elements for his power unit, triggering a 15-place grid drop for the race.