Photo: SH Rallycross

Full Red Bull GRC season a tantalizing prospect for Ward, SH Rallycross

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For Jeff Ward, getting into this year’s full Red Bull Global Rallycross season in the No. 07 SH Rallycross Ford Fiesta is a huge piece of excitement for driver, team and the series.

Ward will run the car that will run with MET-Rx primary sponsorship support, with an additional commitment from WIX Filters, and 360fly adorning two parts of the car all season.

Now 54 years old but in a case where age is just a number, the veteran open-wheel and motorcycle and off-road truck ace and champion will embark on his first full Red Bull GRC campaign in 2016, and looks forward to a big amount of success.

Ward described how the deal came together with SH Rallycross, the team co-owned by James “Sulli” Sullivan. Ward ran the 360fly colors with Chip Ganassi Racing in two race weekends last year, at Daytona and Washington, D.C.

“Last year went well with my two drives,” Ward told NBC Sports. “I’d always wanted to do rally from the X Games. It’s kind of tough to get in because you had to run Rally America and get invited. But this was always the niche.

“I did the off-road truck stuff; I did the two races last year. I put the feelers out and talked to a few teams. I met with ‘Sulli’ and everything fell in place. It worked out great.”

Ward described how many people he’s actually familiar with in this world.

“Even though it looks like a new team on the outside it’s a great group of guys I’ve known forever,” Ward explained. “It’s a solid group. I’ve known Jimmy Vasser from my IndyCar days, ‘Sulli’ was in Motocross, Dennis Reinbold in IndyCar.

“Between them and our partners they’re ecstatic about this series and where it is going.

“360fly for instance is very cool. I’ve worked with them for a long time. They’re a great company and it was nice to bring them on board. Then add SH Rallycross having MET-Rx and WIX back again, and they’ve been there, it makes for a great combination.

“I’m grateful for where this team is at and how well it did last year. They made every main event last year, which is not easy to do.”

Indeed with Nelson Piquet Jr. in the main season and Andreas Bakkerud in the non-points X Games, SH Rallycross did what no other team did in making every final event of the season. Piquet won at Washington, D.C. for his first Red Bull GRC win and finished fourth in last year’s points standings.

Although Ward has driven a wide range of machinery, adapting to the Red Bull GRC beasts took a bit of time.

“It’s pretty impressive. These cars are definitely impressive cars,” he said. “They do what you want them to do. I’ve never driven a four-wheel drive car before until Daytona. I raced IndyCar for five to six years and those things accelerate pretty damn strong! But on a standing start, the rally cars are extremely impressive.”

Ward loves doubleheaders and thinks he should do well at them this year. Additionally he feels in great shape heading into the year because he’s still been active.

“Yep, the last year full-time in IndyCar was with Chip (Ganassi) in ‘02. But I did two to three seasons in Lucas Oil Pro 2 off truck seasons. Maybe 4-5 in Super Motos. Mountain bikes. Six-hour endurance races. So I haven’t stopped,” Ward said.

“I’ve been busy doing stuff. You have to stay in great shape.

“I still have that fire of wanting to win the championship. I’ve worked really hard to get in the hunt day one. That’s all I’ve done is race to win championships.

“It’s not just one race as a whole. At end of the season, you don’t want to think you’ve lost one or two points somewhere.”

IndyCar: Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama Recap

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After two days, with both featuring a lot of rain, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is finally in the books for the Verizon IndyCar Series.

With Mother Nature intervening with rain and fury over both days, it’s understandable if there’s a sense of relief that the weekend at Barber Motorsports Park is behind us.

Still, as is usually the case, Barber produced plenty of thrills, and a few spills, across the weekend of racing.

A recap of big stories to emerge from the weekend is below.

Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head…

Mother Nature was ever present on Sunday and Monday, dropping a lot of rain on Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

Rain races can be very fun and entertaining…if they’re able to run. Sadly, that just wasn’t the case on Sunday.

The undulating and picturesque Barber Motorsports Park is one of the most striking road courses in the country, and often produces some of the best racing anywhere. But, the nature of the track and its dramatic elevation changes can make it susceptible to standing water in heavy rains.

And that’s the exact scenario that played out on Sunday, with heavy and persistent rain hitting the track late in the morning, and hanging around the entire day.

While INDYCAR officials and Barber track crews worked tirelessly on Sunday to disperse the standing water, the rainfall was simply too heavy for them to make any impact.

While very unfortunate, postponing the finish of the race to Monday was the right decision, as several drivers explained.

“It’s tough because we have so many people that come out here to watch us,” said eventual race winner Josef Newgarden following the Sunday postponement. “We want to put on a good race. We want to put on a show. So calling the race, running around behind the pace car not running, it’s tough, it’s tough to do that. But I think it was the right thing in the end. When we started the race, the conditions were OK. You could run at that level of rain. Then, it intensified right before that first caution. I think when the caution came out, it got to a point where it was just too much.”

Graham Rahal echoed Newgarden’s sentiments, also emphasizing poor visibility as a big factor in making the conditions too treacherous.

“It was a tough beginning, but when we kind of got going it was OK and kind of fun to challenge for a while, but visibility was a major issue (on Sunday), no doubt. I’m glad that the series postponed it. I would have like to get it in (on Sunday), but that’s life,” he explained.

Rest assured, Firestone makes a strong rain tire, and IndyCar teams, drivers, and track crews are more than equipped to handle a rain shower from Mother Nature. But, Sunday’s weather was simply too extreme.

Newgarden Shines in the Rain and the Sun

Josef Newgarden in Victory Lane at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: IndyCar

About the only thing as powerful as Mother Nature during the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden.

Last year’s IndyCar champion was quickest at the end of Friday’s practices, scored the pole on Saturday, and led all but nine laps across Sunday and Monday.

And his leads were always decisive. He quickly gapped the field when racing started on Sunday, holding down a gap of as much seven seconds over teammate Will Power in the early laps. And on Monday, he gapped the field by as much as 27 seconds during the second half of the race.

Only outside circumstances could have prevented Newgarden from getting to Victory Lane…and that nearly happened. A late rain shower in the final minutes created split strategies across the field, with Newgarden among those opting for rain tires, while Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay and Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais gambled by staying out on slicks.

Hunter-Reay, however, jumped into the pits soon after for rain tires, a move that helped him eventually finish second, while Coyne and Bourdais gambled that the track would not get wet enough to force them to pit.

Alas, with only a few minutes remaining and the rain getting heavier, conditions became too slick and Bourdais was forced to pit, handing the lead back to Newgarden and dropping Bourdais to fifth.

“More hectic than you would want at the end,” Newgarden quipped when asked about conditions at the end of the race. “It seemed like it was pretty straightforward all day. We weren’t having yellows. It was dry. Then that rain made it very nerve-racking.

Newgarden added that pitting for rain tires, and doing so early, was their best option, even though it opened the door for others to jump ahead.

“I think for us we did the only thing we could,” he said of their strategy. “We went to rains as soon as it intensified. We had to. I think it was the right thing to do, just because we’re in the lead, we have the most to lose by not putting on rains early.”

The victory, Newgarden’s second of 2018, moves him back into the championship lead with 158 points, 13 ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.

Misc.

  • Ryan Hunter-Reay enjoyed a solid weekend following a troublesome day at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The Andretti Autosport driver ranked in the Top 10 through practice, qualified a strong fourth, and ran a very clean race to finish second, his best finish of 2018, and he now sits only three points out of third place in the championship – he is currently sixth, with 113 points.
  • While teammate Robert Wickens has made more headlines, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe is having one of the best early-season efforts of his IndyCar career. With finishes of fourth, sixth, ninth, and second to his name through four races, Hinch sits fifth in the standings on 118 points, and is keeping himself well within reach of the championship lead. A race win would do wonders for his championship standing, but the consistent start puts him in a good position heading into the month of May.
  • Conversely, four-time champion Scott Dixon has yet to finish on the podium in 2018 – his best finish is fourth at ISM Raceway. Still, at seventh in the standings with 107 points, Dixon is within striking distance despite the quiet start.
  • Elsewhere, Will Power and Simon Pagenaud have had comparatively disastrous starts to their seasons. Power has hit the wall in three of the first four races, while Pagenaud only has a best finish of ninth, coincidentally at Barber this weekend, through four races. Power sits tenth in the championship on 81 points, while Pagenaud languishes down in 15th on 66.
  • He made not have made many friends out there, but Zachary Claman De Melo gave viewers some thrills after the Monday restart, pushing his way through the field despite being two laps down. It also created one of the highlights of the race, with he and Spencer Pigot going for a slide through Turns 7 and 8 (video below). For his efforts, Claman De Melo recorded the fastest lap of the race on his way to finishing 19th.

The Verizon IndyCar Series now has two weeks before their next race, the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11-12. However, the series will be plenty busy, with testing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway kicking off next week.

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