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JR Hildebrand returns in career-best third on grid at Phoenix

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.

In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.

“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.

“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”

Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.

“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”

That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.

“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.

“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.

“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.

“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.

“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”

Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.

“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.

“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”

Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.

Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.

Sebastien Bourdais released from IU Methodist hospital; begins rehab

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais only posted just yesterday that he was “unable to go for a run” – his spirit and humor clearly not affected despite sustaining multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in his crash during qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil in the No. 18 GEICO Honda on Saturday.

On Thursday, his post revealed even better news: he’s been released from IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and will be set to fly home soon to Florida for his rehabilitation.

Bourdais’ place in the race at Dale Coyne Racing will be taken by James Davison, but judging by this first round of leaving, the Frenchman is keen to begin the recovery process as quick as humanly possible.

Bottas remains confident he can close gap in F1 title race

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MONACO (AP) Valtteri Bottas has put his recent bad luck behind him and remains confident he can close the gap in the Formula One title race at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix.

The Finnish driver’s fledgling Mercedes career has been a topsy-turvy one since he joined from Williams as a replacement for F1 champion Nico Rosberg.

He drove brilliantly to win his first career race at the Russian Grand Prix after securing his first ever pole position in Sochi last month. But two weeks ago he was undone by engine problems in practice for the Spanish GP and then failed to finish because of a turbo issue late in the race.

“It’s one to forget for sure. It’s been a bit up and down for me this year,” Bottas said Wednesday at the Monaco GP. “Bad result, good result.”

His other results so far are two third places and one sixth place, putting him 41 points behind four-time F1 champion Sebastian Vettel and 35 behind three-time champion Lewis Hamilton, his Mercedes teammate.

“The gap to Sebastian, to Lewis, is bigger than I was hoping for this year. But things can change quickly,” Bottas said. “What gives me confidence is that there is still 75 percent of the season left. I feel my best races are ahead this year. I feel I’ve done a good job in some races, but I feel there is more to come to be at a consistently good level.”

Although Bottas has impressed with this speed, he has yet to show the hallmarks of a genuine title contender.

His magnanimous approach goes somewhat against that.

Bottas showed his team ethic by allowing Hamilton past him in Bahrain so that the British driver could chase after Vettel.

He did so again in Barcelona, holding up Vettel for a crucial few laps. That allowed Hamilton to gain some precious seconds on Vettel’s chasing Ferrari. Hamilton won a thrilling race, Vettel was second and Bottas got nothing – except praise for his efforts.

It is a difficult situation for Bottas, who is on a one-year contract and has the added pressure of the demanding Hamilton as a teammate. With 55 race wins to his name, Hamilton is clearly the No. 1 driver, even though the team has not officially said so.

Over the past three years, Hamilton was on an equal footing with Rosberg as they fought each other for the title. This led to tensions and fall outs.

The 27-year-old Bottas is not relishing the prospect of finding himself in a similar position. But it might become inevitable if he does manage to close the gap on Hamilton and turn the title race into a genuine three-way battle.

“I can’t even imagine how it can be after a few years with a teammate battling for the title always. There is respect both ways (with Hamilton), which is good,” Bottas said. “(We are) just enjoying working together and hopefully that will help us in this close fight with Ferrari. It is a team sport anyway, so we need to push forward together.”

It’s hardly the talk of a driver desperate to win the title.

F1 Paddock Pass: Monaco Grand Prix (VIDEO)

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From the streets of Monte Carlo, Monaco, comes the crown jewel of the Formula 1 season (all times for the weekend via NBC or NBCSN here) this weekend, the Monaco Grand Prix.

And here with the pre-race updates from the paddock are NBCSN pit reporter and insider Will Buxton and producer Jason Swales, along with the race crew from the F1 on NBC team who are on site in Monaco.

This is an interesting weekend for Monaco, given the Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel battle for race wins and the championship so far in 2017. There’s also the question of whether someone can spring a surprise in Monaco, as has been done on several occasions over the years.

Here’s the show, below:

Brown wants to see F1 back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

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McLaren executive director Zak Brown would like to see Formula 1 return to Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the future, saying it would “make sense” for the sport.

The United States Grand Prix was held on the old IMS road course between 2000 and 2007 before dropping off the calendar, with a low point being hit in 2005 when just six cars started the race over tire safety concerns.

IMS re-designed its road course in order to host MotoGP and, from 2014, an IndyCar road course race as a prelude to the Indianapolis 500.

F1 is known to be looking to expand its footprint in the United States following Liberty Media’s takeover of the series, with additional races to the current USGP at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas being sought after.

Southern California has also been a talking point; Long Beach’s future has been discussed in the press more so than has Indianapolis, as a consulting firm has been brought in to examine what would be the best case scenario for the city.

Brown has spent a significant amount time this last month in Indianapolis as part of two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 entry, and feels the sport would be wise to push for a return to the Brickyard in the near future.

“I am of the opinion that Formula 1 at IMS works. I think they’ve changed the configuration of the track a little bit,” Brown said during a teleconference on Wednesday.

“I think it makes sense for Formula 1 to be at the world’s greatest racetrack. I think the city of Indianapolis is well catered to take care of Formula 1, just like it did in the past, and the Super Bowl.

“I think the drivers like it. I think Indianapolis is easy to get to geographically. I realize it may not have the glamour of some of the other markets that are being spoken about, but it’s here, it’s ready to go.

“I think economically, given that Liberty is taking a different view on some of their future partnerships, I think there is an opportunity there. Personally I’d like to see it happen.”

J. Douglas Boles, Indianapolis Motor Speedway President, told a group of reporters on site that no talks had been held with Liberty as of yet, and while the circuit would be open to negotiations, it would have to be financially viable.

“I have not had any talks directly with the folks with Liberty or with Formula 1. We’d certainly entertain a conversation,” Boles said.

“We’d have to figure out the economics. That’s why it wasn’t here after 2007; in order for it to come back here, the economics would have to make sense.

“At some level that conversation, Mark Miles [CEO of Hulman & Co., INDYCAR/IMS parent company] and Zak have a really good relationship, I think we’d ultimately lead it through Mark.

“When we redid the road course between 2013 and 2014, one of the things that was important to us was to make sure our road course remained FIA Grade 1, so if that there ever was a point in time where we had the opportunity to host an F1 race, we wouldn’t have to go through a complete renovation of our road course again.

“There’s two tracks in the U.S. that are that. COTA’s one, and we’re the other. So theoretically they could run here.”