No. 69 McLaren and No. 35 Porsche. Photo courtesy of IMSA

IMSA: CTSC kicks off its 2017 season today at Daytona

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A new era for the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge begins this weekend at the BMW Performance Challenge at Daytona International Speedway, on two fronts.

GS sees the introduction of new FIA GT4-spec cars, while the series itself sees its first four-hour race, up from the standard two-hour, 45-minute platform (coverage available via live stream on IMSA.com, with audio from IMSA Radio).

As such, that makes handicapping both the race and the season a roll of the dice.

Dean Martin (GS, Ford Mustang GT4) and Connor Bloum (ST, Porsche Cayman) captured the pole positions for today’s race. Qualifying results are linked here.

So beyond the front row and the early story lines, here some of the notes to watch from here:

A REVAMPED GS FIELD 

While nearly all of the small GS field from a year ago returns, how they do so are in different capacities compared to this time 12 months ago.

Multimatic Motorsports’ previous Ford Shelby GT350R-C is history after just a year and a half, replaced by the seemingly Transformers-like new GT4 variant of the new Mustang, that is even more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessor. It was a rocket at the Roar test, which concerned some of the field, and the pace has carried over this week.

Gone too is Billy Johnson from the lineup, through no fault of his own but rather a circuitous regulations tweak that’s left him sidelined. Johnson’s FIA Driver Rating was increased from Gold to Platinum, the highest level of four and reserved for those largely with factory driver status. But IMSA has implemented a rule where Platinum-rated drivers can no longer compete in the series, and thus it’s Johnson out, and Jade Buford back in alongside the indefatigable Scott Maxwell, the Canadian who’s done so much for Multimatic and Ford over the years.

CJ Wilson Racing again has two cars, but the lineups shift. Till Bechtolsheimer will race alongside Marc Miller in the team’s No. 33 Porsche Cayman GT4 while new recruits Damien Faulkner and Russell Ward will share the No. 35 Techemet Porsche. Wilson, who announced Thursday night his plans to race a Porsche GT3 Cup car this year, explained the dynamic of the changed four-hour race.

“The four-hour will be really challenging. You have a lot of different variables and can shuffle things around. When do we use tires? When do you switch drivers? How different is it with two versus three (drivers)? It’s gonna be really different,” Wilson told NBC Sports.

Karl Thomson’s Compass360 Racing as a name has been fused to the edgier, shorter, C360R. With its singular Ford gone, the team now has two of the new McLaren GT4s, and the pairings of Paul Holton and Matt Plumb (No. 76) and Matthew Keegan and Nico Rondet (No. 77) make for strong lineups.

Several-time 2016 race winner Bodymotion Racing (Porsche), Team TGM (two Porsches of the Cayman GT4 MR variety), Muehlner Motorsports America (Porsche), Automatic Racing (adds two new McLarens to its two Aston Martins) and TRG (Aston Martin) are also back in action, but again with little year-to-year carryover. Bodymotion missed this race last year with Cameron Cassels sidelined per a family commitment, and he and Trent Hindman will be keen to impress this year.

And then there are the extra GS entries, which should figure to pack a punch. The two MIA/Pfaff McLaren/Garaga McLaren entries bring that manufacturer’s total up to six for this race. James Sofronas has assembled two solid lineups in his pair of new Porsche Cayman GT4 MRs, which ran late last year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and other club race events. Two more Porsches come from championship-caliber Florida-based teams RS1 and BGB Motorsports, the latter making its series return after a several-year hiatus.

ST’S BATTLE OF CAYMANS VS. EVERYONE ELSE

In the 20-car ST class field, nine of the cars are Porsche Caymans, including defending class champions Spencer Pumpelly and Nick Galante in the No. 17 RS1 Porsche Cayman.

The remainder of the class features the usual fleet of three Mazda MX-5s from Freedom Autosport, three MINI JCWs from Luis Perocarpi’s LAP Motorsports, Bimmerworld’s pair of aging but venerable 3-series BMWs, the CRG-I Do Borrow Nissan Altima, C360R Audi S3 and JDC-Miller Motorsports BMW 228i.

The field is easier to predict here, with RS1, Freedom, Murillo Racing, CRG-I Do Borrow and perhaps the MINIs entering the race-winning equation.

2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden dies at 35

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2006 MotoGP champion and American World Superbike Championship rider Nicky Hayden has died at the age of 35 from injuries sustained in a road accident last week.

Hayden was struck by a car while out cycling in the Rimini region of Italy, leaving him in a critical condition after suffering trauma to his chest and head, the latter resulting in serious brain damage.

On Monday, the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena confirmed through a medical bulletin that Hayden had died as a result of his injuries.

“It is with great sadness that Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team has to announce that Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries suffered during an incident while riding his bicycle last Wednesday,” Hayden’s WSBK team said in a subsequent statement.

“Nicky passed away at 19:09 CEST this evening at Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy. His fiancée Jackie, mother Rose and brother Tommy were at his side.”

“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancée Jackie I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way,” Tommy Hayden said.

“Although this is obviously a sad time, we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle.

“He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming World Champion. We are all so proud of that.

“Apart from these ‘public’ memories, we will also have many great and happy memories of Nicky at home in Kentucky, in the heart of the family. We will all miss him terribly.

“It is also important for us to thank all the hospital staff for their incredible support – they have been very kind. With the further support of the authorities in the coming days we hope to have Nicky home soon.”

Known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, Hayden made his way up the American motorcycle racing ladder around the turn of the millennium, culminating with victory in the AMA Superbike championship in 2002.

Hayden moved into MotoGP, the world’s premier class of motorcycle racing, for 2003 with Honda, and finished his rookie season fifth in the championship.

Hayden scored his first win in 2005 before taking the championship one year later, picking up two victories on the way as he edged out Valentino Rossi in a final-race showdown.

Remaining with Honda until the end of 2008, Hayden then moved to Ducati where he spent five seasons, recording a best championship finish of seventh in 2010.

Hayden rekindled his partnership with Honda in 2014, racing with the satellite Aspar team for two seasons before then enjoying two one-off run-outs in 2016, a year in which he was focused on commitments in the World Superbike Championship.

Hayden took his first WSBK victory in Malaysia last year, finishing fifth in the final standings, and was 10 races into the 2017 campaign prior to the cycling accident.

Dixon, Franchitti OK after robbing at gunpoint at Indy Taco Bell

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INDIANAPOLIS – According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department police report, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint at an Indianapolis Taco Bell on Sunday night.

A team spokesperson confirmed the incident to NBC Sports and that both drivers – Dixon, the leading active driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – were OK, but would decline comment.

Dixon, who won the pole for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and Franchitti were at a Taco Bell, located at 3502 W. 16th St., around 10 p.m. on Sunday night.

According to FOX 59 in Indianapolis, which reported the story via reporter Russ McQuaid and online, here, Dixon and Franchitti were in the drive-through lane there – being robbed before the suspects allegedly fled, and were arrested as of Monday morning.

“The victims stated 2 (black males) robbed them at gunpoint and fled north on Berwick (Avenue) on foot,” the police report stated.

Dixon, who along with wife Emma and their two daughters, Poppy and Tilly were present in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press conference earlier Sunday afternoon, live in Indianapolis.

Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, spoke to Indianapolis TV stations WTHR (Indianapolis NBC affiliate) and WISH-TV on Monday morning from IMS. Video of that is linked below via the Indianapolis Star’s Brody Miller.

Kanaan led off the interview saying, “I was supposed to be with them. I’m from Brazil, so I’m a little bit more accustomed to this stuff (laughter). I’m glad they’re OK, and now I can make fun of them.”

Scott Dixon didn’t post anything on Twitter about his pole run on Sunday until earlier this morning. This report would seem to indicate that he had bigger things on his mind.

Chip Ganassi, meanwhile added in a joke about Taco Bell sponsorship.

Button: Monaco return feels ‘slightly surreal’

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Jenson Button hasn’t yet sat or tested the McLaren Honda he’ll be racing this weekend. But when you’re a past Formula 1 World Champion and Monaco Grand Prix winner (Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBC), as Button is, you should be able to adapt pretty quickly.

Button, who won both titles during the 2009 season, will make his first and thus far only planned start of 2017 this weekend as stand-in for Fernando Alonso, who’s hogged the headlines and embraced the challenge of his maiden run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

With Monaco offering a good chance to score points for McLaren – it’s not power-dependent – Button is keeping expectations low up front as he prepares for his comeback.

“It feels slightly surreal to be back in the cockpit for the Monaco Grand Prix. When the call came from Eric there was no hesitation – it’s a totally unique situation and a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to stepping back behind the wheel for one of the most crazy, unpredictable and exciting races of the year,” he said in the team’s advance release.

“Monaco is truly unique as a track, and requires a lot of work to fine-tune the car and optimize the set-up for the narrow layout. It’s always a challenge – a huge challenge, for any driver – but a really exciting challenge, and has always been up there in my favorite races of the year.”

Button said he’s focused and prepared for the drive, for what will be his 306th career Grand Prix start – one which would draw him level with Michael Schumacher for second on Formula 1’s all-time start list. Button’s old teammate, Rubens Barrichello, holds that mark with 322 starts in 326 Grand Prix weekends.

“Although I haven’t turned a wheel on track yet in the MCL32, I feel well prepared,” he said.

“I know the track well, of course, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in the McLaren simulator already. I’m still fit, and I’ve been training probably more than ever, because I’ve had the time to focus on my triathlon preparation and competitions.

“I’m looking forward to working with the team again, and, as I’ll be on the other side of the garage this time around, I’ll do my best to look after the car for Fernando!”

McLaren Honda racing director Eric Boullier, who has been in Indianapolis with Alonso this week, said Button is up to the task.

“In the famous Monaco paddock, we welcome the return of Jenson, who we are all looking forward to working with again, and who is already doing a sterling job deputizing for Fernando, having already completed stints in our simulator in preparation,” he said.

Button’s story has, of course, generated some discussion. Mark Webber didn’t rate it a particularly big deal while Romain Grosjean said he does not expect Button to struggle.

Coverage for the Monaco Grand Prix begins on Thursday with free practice one coverage online at 4 a.m. ET, then free practice two live on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET.

After Indy qualifying, Dixon unofficially moves into points lead

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INDIANAPOLIS – Points are not officially awarded for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil until after the race is completed next Sunday.

But as the Verizon IndyCar Series awards qualifying points for all 33 positions, the standings are different now today than they were 24-plus hours ago.

Pole position for Scott Dixon netted him 42 points in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon was second in points with 181, 10 behind Simon Pagenaud in the No. 1 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet at 191, heading into Indianapolis 500 practice, qualifying and the race.

But with Pagenaud having a frustrating qualifying – he only will start 23rd, scoring only 11 qualifying points – he now falls 21 points behind Dixon as Dixon netted 31 points. The unofficial margin is 21 points as Dixon now goes to 223, with Pagenaud also crossing the 200-point threshold at 202.

The respective good qualifying efforts from Andretti Autosport and tough ones for Team Penske have shifted their points totals.

Given how many points are available for the Indianapolis 500, via both qualifying and the race, it’s important to track how this progresses.

Here is how the points look now, after qualifying (unofficial as INDYCAR will add in the qualifying points next week).

It’s ranked by position, driver, total points, qualifying points and points/position entering qualifying:

FULL-TIME ENTRIES/DRIVERS

1. 9-Scott Dixon, 223 (42, 181/2nd, +1)
2. 1-Simon Pagenaud, 202 (11, 191/1st, -1)
3. 12-Will Power, 171 (26, 145/5th, +2)
4. 2-Josef Newgarden, 164 (12, 152/3rd, -1)
5. 3-Helio Castroneves, 164 (15, 149/4th, -1)
6. 5-James Hinchcliffe, 154 (17, 137/6th, No Change)
7. 28-Ryan Hunter-Reay, 141 (24, 117/8th, +1)
8. 98-Alexander Rossi, 137 (38, 99/9th, +1)
9. 18-Sebastien Bourdais, 136 (Did Not Qualify, -2)
10. 26-Takuma Sato, 133 (36, 97/10th, No Change)
11. 10-Tony Kanaan, 127 (30, 97/11th, No Change)
12. 21-JR Hildebrand, 119 (32, 87th/14th, +2)
13. 19-Ed Jones, 115 (23, 92/12th, -1)
14. 15-Graham Rahal, 107 (20, 87/13th, -1)
15. 8-Max Chilton, 103 (19, 84/15th, No Change)
16. 7-Mikhail Aleshin, 100 (21, 79/17th, +1)
17. 27-Marco Andretti, 99 (28, 71/18th, +1)
18. 14-Carlos Munoz, 93 (10, 83/16th, -2)
19. 83-Charlie Kimball, 88 (18, 70/19th, No Change)
20. 4-Conor Daly, 78 (8, 70/20th, No Change)
21. 11-Spencer Pigot, 71 (66 ECR, 5 Juncos)
22. 20-Ed Carpenter, 66 (40, 26/22nd, No Change)

PART-TIME ENTRIES/DRIVERS

23. 22-Juan Pablo Montoya, 36
24. 29-Fernando Alonso, 34
25. 16-Oriol Servia, 22
26. 77-Jay Howard, 14
27. 40-Zach Veach, 13 (11 ECR, 2 Foyt)
28. 24-Sage Karam, 13
29. 88-Gabby Chaves, 9
30. 50-Jack Harvey, 7
31. 63-Pippa Mann, 6
32. 44-Buddy Lazier, 4
33. 17-Sebastian Saavedra, 3
34. 18-James Davison, 1