(Photos courtesy Toyota Racing)

NHRA Funny Car: Cruz Pedregon ready to ‘retool, regroup and reload’ in 2017

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Veteran Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon is used to winning races and championships.

He’s tied with the legendary Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for fifth on the NHRA all-time Funny Car wins list with 35 triumphs.

He also is a two-time NHRA Funny Car season champion (1992, 2008).

But the driver of the Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car is not used to the kind of dismal season he had in 2016 – and he’s bound and determined to dramatically change that in 2017.

The 2016 season was the worst of Pedregon’s career. He failed to win a race for the second straight season, failed to advance past the first round of eliminations in 18 of the season’s 24 races, failed to qualify for the sport’s biggest race of the season — the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis — and missed qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

2017 NHRA Pomona Winternationals

When the season concluded, Pedregon found himself with a disappointing 12th place finish in the final standings. As far as he was concerned, he only had one place to go, and that was up in 2017.

“I needed to go through a rebuilding mode, like they do in football, baseball and basketball,” Pedregon told MotorSportsTalk. “I had to do a better job of bringing people in and figuring out what I needed to purchase as an owner.

“That’s not how I want to race, so I made the changes I felt we needed to make.”

The biggest change was the guy under the hood. As both a driver and team owner, Pedregon had tuned his own car since 2010. But during the off-season, he hired a new crew chief, Aaron Brooks, formerly of the Lucas Oil Top Fuel team that disbanded after last season.

“At the end of the day, the competition has raised the bar the last two years,” the 53-year-old Pedregon said. “Unless you’re part of a satellite team or part of a multi-car team, those things can elude you if you’re a single car team.

“So, I feel not being part of a multi-car team and not really having a crew chief or car chief that had some connection with the technology, I just felt we got behind from a technical standpoint and it caught up to us.

“We had some good years in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and ‘13 was my best year (since his last championship season in 2008). We won four races and were in the championship conversation all the way up to the end (finished fourth, preceded by fourth-place finish in 2012 and third-place finish in 2011).

“Then in 2014, we dropped off a little bit (finished 10th), and 2015 (finished ninth) we declined in performance and consistency and then we hit the bottom last year. So, I had to retool, regroup and reload, and that’s what I did by hiring Aaron, who was with the Lucas Oil Top Fuel time for the last five years.

“Aaron has great attention to detail and is very crafty. He’s kind of a throwback crew chief. More modern-day crew chiefs sit behind a computer and makes calls based on data, while Aaron is more of a hands-on guy, working with the team. My team really needed that.

“I feel now we have a car that’s built properly, it’s on-par or exceeds what’s currently out there winning the races. Now what lies ahead of us is to go out and execute. We have to go out and prove that not only can we build a nice car and have a nice influx of equipment, and now we’re going to go out on the track.”

Because Brooks did not join the team until January, Pedregon had limited preseason testing. In the season-opening Circle K Winternationals at Pomona, California two weeks ago, Pedregon failed to advance past the first round.

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But that’s going to change, Pedregon promises. He comes into this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix looking for bigger and better results.

“We need these runs under our belts so we can get the consistency that we need to race with these guys,” Pedregon said. “I feel like performance-wise, we’re going to be right near the top. I’d say top-five is what we’re shooting for and I don’t see why we can’t start that this weekend in Phoenix.”

By the same token, Pedregon is prepared to bide his time if additional patience and time is needed to get back into the thick of the Funny Car ranks.

“We’re going to experience some growing pains, but there’s not a guy on this team that doesn’t feel like the potential is through the roof,” Pedregon said. “Personally, I think we won the off-season free agency game in landing Aaron Brooks.

“Yeah, we lost early in Pomona, but the sky is the limit with this group. We ran a career-best in a ‘must’ qualifying run on Saturday.

“Realistically, it may take four or five races, but I don’t think much more than that. Much like a football team, the first two quarters may not show what we’ve got, but the last two quarters, we’ll really show what we have.

“I’m motivated like no other. I feel like a big weight has been lifted off my shoulder because the last couple of years. While I was optimistic, I had to really go through that to get to the point where I’m at now and say, ‘Look, I can’t do this by myself. I tried.’

“That being said, I’ve enjoyed some good years with crew chiefs. The last time I had a bonafide crew chief, who really gets in there and does what a crew chief does, was back in 2007 through 2009 with Rahn Tobler, and in those three years, we won a championship.

“Now we’ve got Aaron on board … any time I pull up to the line, I feel we have a shot to win.”

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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