NHRA: Alexis DeJoria returns from injury at this weekend’s U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis

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Fans heading to Indianapolis this weekend for the NHRA’s biggest race of the year, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway, will get a very pleasant surprise.

Funny Car driver and fan favorite Alexis DeJoria, who has missed the last two races recuperating from a fractured left pelvis suffered in a race crash a month ago in Sonoma, California (see video above), will be back behind the wheel of her Tequila Patron Toyota Camry.

The Sonoma wreck was the worst of her career and the first time she has been injured in a drag racing wreck. She had a hard wreck in 2009 at Englishtown, New Jersey, but was uninjured.

DeJoria, who won the Funny Car class in the U.S. Nationals in 2014, comes into this weekend not only looking forward to returning to the Funny Car wars, but also to hopefully lock herself into the six-race Countdown to the Championship.

Even with missing the last two races at Seattle and Brainerd, Minnesota, DeJoria still has a 87-point lead over Chad Head, her closest rival for the 10th and final Countdown spot, which will be determined this weekend.

But Head isn’t the only competitor DeJoria has to worry about. Former two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon is 115 points behind DeJoria, and is a four-time winner at the U.S. Nationals.

MotorSportsTalk spoke with DeJoria recently about how she’s feeling, her return behind the wheel and her hopes to make the Countdown.

Here are excerpts from that interview:

Q.) How do you feel physically?

DEJORIA: “I feel really good. It’s been about five weeks now and I’ve done all the physical therapy I could possibly do and all the treatments they have for fractured bones and what not, lots of rest and healing in general.

“I’ve let my family take care of me. My husband (noted motorcycle builder Jesse James) took real good care of me while I was home. He works from home, so it’s easy to do that. So, just everything combined, I feel really good. I’ve missed two races so I’m eager to get back out there.”

NHRA Drag Racing

Q) Even with such a bad injury, what makes you eager to climb back into the race car?

DEJORIA: “You have to understand that this is part of what you do, part of your job, you’re racing cars that are over 10,000 horsepower. They’re very fast, very powerful and can be very evil at the same time. You always have to know that (crashing) is a possibility. And if you don’t think that way, then you’re absolutely crazy.

“Some people are just real lucky. I’ve been in a lot of accidents and have never got hurt. From the outside, you’d think she definitely has to be hurt, look at the car. But I’ve come out unscathed up to now. This was a little different.

“So for me personally, and I can only speak for myself but I’m sure a lot of professional athletes and drivers feel the same way, it’s that drive and that sheer tenacity and the ability to keep fighting in the face of adversity or that challenge that you constantly have.

“We’re all going to make mistakes at some point, we’re all going to fall at some point, but what makes us different is we’re the ones that keep getting up and keep fighting. Those are the ones that really succeed in life in these professional jobs we have.

“You have to be able to do that, to get back up and fight again. That’s the kind of person I was raised to be and that’s one of the reasons why I chose NHRA drag racing. It’s a very humbling sport. Not every day is going to be a good day. You’re not always going to make it down the track. There’s so many variables that can take you out. But I love the challenge. I love that. I love the ability to charge ahead no matter what the circumstances are, I absolutely love it.”

Drag Racing

Q) You want to win a championship and if you do that, you would become the first female Funny Car champion in NHRA. How important are both those aspects for you?

DEJORIA: “They’re both very important in a very unique way. For me, coming into the sport, I want to succeed. I’m a very competitive person and I didn’t come here just to make some quick passes down a track in a race car. I came here for the big picture, the big win, the ultimate win of winning a championship, and not just as a competitor but also because there are so few female women out there in the NHRA professional categories.

“Obviously, we want to be this the first this or first that, and being one of only two females, it is kind of a unique thing. It’s like a relay race. Courtney and I just pass the baton back and forth. This week, you’re the faster female and maybe next week I’ll be the fastest female. There’s only two of us, it’s kind of crazy, we kind of laugh at it when they make a big deal of the fastest female, when there’s only two of us. It’s not that big of a deal.

“But ultimately the championship, overall, that speaks volumes. It’s not just me and Courtney, it’s every woman that’s ever competed in Nitro Funny Car. And that’s something unique. A woman has done it in Top Fuel, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, but that hasn’t happened yet in Funny Car. My ultimate goal would be to win a championship.”

Q) You’re in 10th place and are trying to clinch a berth in the Countdown to the Championship. Can you talk about the pressure to not only make the Countdown but also the pressure to win the championship?

DEJORIA: “There’s a lot of pressure coming back. Obviously, it’s my first race back after an accident, I haven’t been in the car for a long time and Indy is the biggest race of the year. It’s a fight to get to stay in the Countdown to the Championship.

“So, there’s a lot on the table, but for me, I just have to keep it simple. I’m just so thrilled to just get back there and see my team, who I miss incredibly so much, because they’re my family away from home. We have a special bond. We’re on the road together so much, we see each other more than we see our own families at times. It’s a special bond. I miss my teammates and I also miss my competitors, too. I know that sounds crazy, but I just miss the whole circus out there.

“I’m just thrilled to get back there. I’ve won Indy before, so there’s a little bit of pressure off my shoulders – it’s like an I did it before, we can do it again kind of thing. I’m going to have my friends and family there, my dad’s coming out, my daughter will have her birthday on Sunday of the race. So, there’s a lot of good, positive things and I’m just going to focus on that, keep it simple and hopefully we can get some very consistent runs under our belt, qualify well and get some bonus points.

“We’re in the Traxxas Shootout (a special exhibition race held during the U.S. Nationals for Funny Car and Top Fuel teams) because we won early on in the season (Las Vegas). So that’ll be nice, too.

“There’s lots of good things to look forward to. Those pressures are going to be there, but I’m going to choose not to focus on them and focus on the positives and am just grateful to be in this position and that I get to race another day.”

DRAG RACING

Q) Your friend, fellow Funny Car driver Courtney Force, had her own wreck one week after yours, but did not suffer as severe an injury as you did. You immediately took to Twitter to offer your support for Force. How hard was it to watch her wreck so soon after your own wreck?

DEJORIA: “I was resting in bed, my husband were watching the race live on television, and it was absolutely surreal watching her go through very similar circumstances. And when she didn’t get out of the car right away, I started getting teared up. It was like watching my own accident from a different perspective.

“She came out and was hurt as well, couldn’t put weight on her right foot and it was just so difficult to watch. It was incredible, I just couldn’t believe it happened again in the race right after mine, and the only other female in the class. All that tied together, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe it.’ I’m very glad, though, that she didn’t have any bone damage. She had some soft tissue damage around her knees when they hit the steering wheel like mine did.”

Q) What changes will you make to your Funny Car to improve its safety and help reduce any chance of reinjury to you?

DEJORIA: “We’ll be having a lot more padding around me inside the seat of my race car at Indy where we obviously didn’t have it before. If I had it, maybe I wouldn’t have had a fracture, then again, maybe I would have. I had a very hard lateral hit into the retaining wall, and the barrier walls I hit didn’t move, so I think that added to the excessive damage I had vs. what Courtney went through.

“The barrier wall at Seattle actually moved three or four feet when she hit it, so I think it absorbed some of the blow. I’m very glad she’s okay. She’s my buddy and I hate to see anybody go through that, be it a friend or competitor. At the end of the day, we’re all a family. We’re all very close, we’re a traveling circus. We all want the same thing at the end of the day (to win) but we also don’t want to see each other get hurt.”

Q) Where are you at percentage-wise physically?

DEJORIA: “Physically, I feel good. No crutches, I actually worked out at the gym tbe other day. I’m slowly getting back into my normal routine. A fracture usually takes about six to eight weeks to completely heal.

“So, Indy, when I make my first run on Friday, will be about five weeks. I should be about 85 to 90 percent healed. But again, we’re changing the whole interior of the cockpit and with padding and so much more that I didn’t have before, so I should be fine. My doctors are giving me the okay to go.”

Q) How do you not think about the accident when you climb back behind the wheel for the first time since your crash on Friday?

DEJORIA: “I’ve been through a couple other wrecks. This wasn’t my first time. If it was the first time, I think I might be a little bit more concerned, but this is not my first rodeo.”

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IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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Pagenaud ‘quite satisfied,’ if still agitated, with P2 on Pocono grid

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The close-but-no-cigar, always slightly overshadowed nature of defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Simon Pagenaud’s 2017 season came to the fore again in Saturday’s qualifying session for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Pagenaud was on the verge of securing his second pole this season, and first on an oval since Iowa Speedway in July 2016, after knocking Charlie Kimball off the top spot.

But the driver of the No. 1 DXC Technology Team Penske Chevrolet got eclipsed by Takuma Sato, the final qualifier, right at the end to lose the pole and perhaps more critically, an additional point that went with it.

“(There’s) the word going through my mind and I’m not going to say it,” Pagenaud laughed in the post-qualifying press conference.

“Disappointing, of course. You can taste the win, and that’s what we’re all about. We’re racers. We want to win. I’m here to win, to be first, not to be second.

“In the meantime it’s a really good starting position. At the time it’s like gambling. You’re in the game and you feel like you could win, so it’s very exciting. That’s the roller coaster of racing in your life as a racer. It’s up and down, up and down your whole career. These moments are why I race. It’s happiness, satisfaction of doing the job.”

Pagenaud’s job satisfaction this year has come with his unrivaled consistency, if not outright pace, in defense of his 2016 title.

He leads the field with 10 top-five finishes in 13 races – no one else has more than seven – and he is the only driver to have completed all 1,738 laps of competition so far this year.

That underscores his consistency but it also reflects how much better his 2016 title-winning season was. He won five races last year to one so far this year (Phoenix), had eight poles (seven outright, one where he moved up a spot) last year to one this year, and has led only 133 laps this year – 116 of them at Phoenix.

That leads nicely into the point that Pocono is a key race for Pagenaud if he is to defend his title. He enters tomorrow’s race fourth in points but only 17 behind championship leader Josef Newgarden, his new teammate at Team Penske who’ll look to go one better in terms of winning a title for Roger Penske in his first season rather than in his second, as Pagenaud did last year.

Pagenaud’s title aspirations nearly came unglued at this race last year following his only DNF of the year. He crashed in Turn 1 and finished 18th while Will Power won and cut the gap from 58 points leaving Mid-Ohio to 20 leaving Pocono.

Now Pagenaud is even fewer points back but with more drivers to climb over, as IndyCar heads towards a grandstand finish to this year’s title between himself, Newgarden, Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon – and potentially Sato, Power and Graham Rahal if they can deliver a big points haul in Pocono.

“The championship is a lot more exciting for you guys this year,” he said. “I think it’s the beauty of IndyCar. We go on superspeedway, short oval next week, then completely different in two weeks, then Sonoma, which is a beautiful venue to finish the season.

“You know, that’s the beauty of this racing series, which I really love, because you have to show skills in every condition, every different aspect of track. So I’m very excited about it.

“If you can show strength in the last four, you deserve the championship, for sure.”

Pagenaud expects speeds to be slower in tonight’s final practice, a better preparation for Sunday’s race, as he estimated the rash of accidents today was owing to more drivers and teams chasing the temperatures for pole.

“This evening’s session is good so you can check your car in traffic, see how it behaves in the wake. But I think, you know, you’re still going to have to think about the race and the conditions being different, what to do on the race car to compensate for it,” he said.

“Tomorrow, we’re not going to be as fast as this because this is trim-out conditions, trying to go as fast as possible over two laps. Those are not the setups. The tires don’t last in those conditions.

“For the race, completely different story. You know, it’s a 500-mile race. There’s a lot of riding around, trying to balance your car for the end of the race. Trying to find the right level of downforce during the race is key as well. So you make a lot of adjustments, pit stops, get ready for the shootout, the last 60 laps really.

“For us, that’s going to be the plan. First goals were to be in the top five in qualifying. We were there. That’s checked. Now we need to run around in the front all day and be there to strike at the end.

“There’s also the fact that we’re playing for a championship here, so we have to be smart at the end.”

Pagenaud’s canny ability has kept him in the title fight as he looks to keep the No. 1 on his car for another season, which makes the frustration of losing a point today only slightly bittersweet as he looks at the bigger picture.

“Ben (Bretzman), my engineer, just nailed the gearing, the balance on the car. That was the best we could do,” he said.

“I’m quite satisfied. Front row start is really good, our best start here in Pocono. A 500-mile race, so a lot can happen.

“Today was pretty much ego day trying to get that pole position. For us it would have been nice to get another point. But overall I think we did our best and we’ll go to bed pretty satisfied with today.”