Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Matheus Leist scores pole for Indy Lights’ Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Persistent rain threatened to halted all track activity Thursday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, before efforts to dry the track came good later on Friday.

But once qualifying occurred, Matheus Leist secured the pole for the marquee race of the Indy Lights season, Friday’s Freedom 100 (live, 12 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The Freedom 100 has a knack for throwing up surprise polesitters – Ethan Ringel and Ken Losch immediately come to mind – and Leist, the Brazilian rookie in his first-ever oval start, now joins that list.

Leist, driver of the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda, looked a promising prospect after posting the first official lap over 200 mph in series history, a tow-assisted lap of 201.032 mph (44.7690 seconds), and also the best no-tow speed of 199.354.

He backed up with laps of 199.268 and 199.128, respectively, for a new two-lap record of 199.198 mph. The previous mark was held by Ringel, in the first year of the new car in 2015, at 197.684 mph.

Despite seven other drivers that took their shot to beat him, none did. Colton Herta came the closest with a two-lap average of 198.648 in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry.

Two more of Herta’s Andretti Autosport teammates posted excellent qualifying runs. Dalton Kellett, who was third here last year in what stands as his best Indy Lights finish to date, will roll off from the same position in his teal-and-white No. 28 car, while rookie Ryan Norman will start alongside in the No. 48 Andretti Autosport entry, keeping up his strong weekend.

Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five in the second of four Carlin entries, while Aaron Telitz upheld Belardi Auto Racing’s honor with sixth on the grid.

While Herta enters Friday’s race third in points, 18 behind the top two, neither Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) nor Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), had good qualifying runs.

With speeds of 196.058 (Kaiser) and 195.661 (Jamin), they’ll roll off from positions 11 and 13 in the 14-car field.

Here are your qualifying speeds and provisional starting lineup for Friday.

Prior to qualifying, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway crew got the track dry in time for a 20-minute practice, which Leist also led.

As you can see below, drivers spent the rain delay trying to make due of things.

The points standings heading into tomorrow’s race are below:

1. 18-Kyle Kaiser, 139
2. 27-Nico Jamin, 126
3. 98-Colton Herta, 121
4. 22-Neil Alberico, 103
5. 9-Aaron Telitz, 97
6. 26-Matheus Leist, 89
7. 5-Santiago Urrutia, 87
8. 13-Zachary Claman De Melo, 87
9. 51-Shelby Blackstock, 80
10. 31-Nicolas Dapero, 75
11. 48-Ryan Norman, 71
12. 28-Dalton Kellett, 64
13. 2-Juan Piedrahita, 55
14. 11-Garth Rickards, 54

How much higher — and faster — can NHRA Funny Car driver Robert Hight go?

Photo courtesy John Force Racing
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At the rate he’s been going, Robert Hight is going to keep going higher and higher.

During the week, Hight is the President of John Force Racing (and son-in-law of the legendary drag racer). On weekends, Hight transforms into one of JFR’s three Funny Car drivers.

But he’s been standing out above the rest of the NHRA Funny Car crowd of late – boy, has he ever.

As the NHRA heads to Minnesota for this weekend’s Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, Hight has been hotter than the flames that shoot out of the exhaust pipes on his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro.

He captured two of the last three NHRA national events – also known as the Western Swing – at Denver and Seattle (and reached the quarterfinals at Sonoma).

Robert Hight

And during last week’s off-weekend from the NHRA 24-race schedule, Hight kept his hot hand … err, foot … going, winning the Night Under Fire match race at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio.

“When you’re on roll like we’ve been on and the car’s running so well, this is what you want,” Hight said in a media release. “Even though last week was a match race, we still got the win, and we ran great.

“You don’t want this to ever end. It’s going to at some point, but we want to roll into Brainerd and get right back in there.”

If Hight’s good fortune continues at Brainerd, the next race on the schedule is the biggest race of the year each season, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in Brownsburg, Indiana on Labor Day weekend.

In addition to his two wins, Hight has made a dramatic jump upward in the Funny Car point standings, climbing from eighth to third place.

He’s 166 points behind Funny Car points leader and defending series champ Ron Capps, but is just eight points behind second-ranked Matt Hagan.

But wait, there’s more:

* In addition, Hight has qualified No. 1 in three of the last four national events, and has qualified third or better in the last nine consecutive national events.

* He also made major news three weeks ago when one of those No. 1 qualifiers was the fastest speed ever seen in Funny Car annals: 339.87 mph at Sonoma.

Now he’s looking for even more speed this weekend – and maybe even more records to fall.

“If conditions are good, Brainerd can be a fast race track,” said Hight, the 2015 Brainerd winner. “I’m looking forward to going there, having a successful weekend.

“We have a good shot at getting up to second points, and going into Indy No. 2 would be pretty cool. We’re looking for another win.”

Hight also is on the verge of becoming part of another NHRA milestone. If he gets past the first round in Sunday’s final eliminations, it will be his 400th career round victory.

Only five other Funny Car drivers have ever earned 400 or more round wins, led by Hight’s boss and father-in-law, John Force, with 1,278 career round wins.

“That’s big,” Hight said. “You’ve got to get round wins before you get race wins, and that’s how you get race wins. John has 1,278 round wins, so 400 doesn’t seem like very much.

“I don’t know how 400 stacks up to other guys who have raced the similar amount of time, but I’m happy that the round wins are coming more frequently than there were for us. That’s encouraging, and that’s exciting.”

The first two rounds of qualifying at Brainerd on Friday are at 4:30 p.m. ET and 7 p.m. ET.

The final two rounds are Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. ET.

Final eliminations begin at Noon ET, with live coverage on Fox Sports 1 from 2-5 p.m. ET.

Want to learn more about Hight? Check it out:

  • Hight won the 2009 NHRA Funny Car championship. He’s going for his second title this year, being one of six Funny Car drivers that have already qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
  • Hight has competed in 12 races at Brainerd, and has qualified for 11 races and every race since 2010.
  • Hight has advanced to the finals once at Brainerd, in 2015. He won that race, defeating Tommy Johnson Jr.
  • Hight is 9-10 all-time in 19 elimination rounds at Brainerd.
  • Hight’s best qualifying effort at Brainerd has been No. 3, which he has achieved three times – 2007, 2008 and 2010. Brainerd is one of two current tracks in which Hight is still looking for a No. 1 qualifier (Bristol being the other).
  • Hight has won five of his 11 first-round elimination matchups at Brainerd.
  • Hight’s 39 victories are the fourth most in Funny Car history, behind John Force (148); Ron Capps (55); and Tony Pedregon (43). He is tied with Del Worsham for 21st on the all-time professional victories list; Worsham has 31 wins in Funny Car and eight in Top Fuel.
  • Hight is one elimination round victory away from 400. His 399 round wins are 24th all-time in NHRA history. Angelle Sampey currently has 400 round wins.
  • Hight has been the No. 1 qualifier four times this season, and three times in the last four races. His 53 No. 1s are third most in Funny Car history, and he is tied for 11th with Larry Dixon across all professional categories. Only Force (155) and Cruz Pedregon (61) have more in the category.
  • In 2017, Hight has two victories, a 26-14 record in elimination rounds, and four No. 1 qualifiers. He holds a season-best 38 elimination-round wins in a season, in 2014. He has surpassed 30 elimination-round wins in a season seven times in 12 previous seasons.
  • Hight has set the fastest event speed a career-best nine times this season, which exceeds his previous season-best of seven set in his rookie season, 2005. He now has 50 fastest event speeds in his career, the 50th coming last month at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway, where he set the NHRA record at 339.87 mph.
  • Hight has four final rounds this season and 61 in his career.
  • Hight has competed in 158 consecutive races, tied for 17th all-time with Doug Kalitta, dating back to the second race at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., in 2010.
  • Hight’s most recent NHRA victory – 2017 Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash.
  • Hight’s most recent No. 1 qualifying effort – 2017 Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash.
  • Hight’s best time/speed at Brainerd – 3.885 seconds (2016 E1); 330.31 mph (2016 Q1)
  • Hight’s best time/speed of career – 3.807 seconds (2017 Sonoma Q2; third quickest elapsed time in history); 339.87 mph (2017 Sonoma Q2; fastest speed in history)

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Newgarden thankful to be leading, not chasing, in IndyCar title push

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As the Verizon IndyCar Series prepares for its final four-race stretch of the 2017 season over the next five weeks, new points leader Josef Newgarden is thankful he’s made up a big deficit in the last two races rather than chasing as he pursues his first series championship.

Newgarden moved into the points lead for the first time in his career after winning the Honda Indy 200 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course three weeks ago, his third win this season and second in a row. Heading into Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN), he has his first chance to win three races in a row in his career, and also to get his first Pocono win after banking three top-five finishes there in four past starts.

Just three races ago at Iowa, before he won at Toronto and Mid-Ohio, Newgarden was 56 points behind then-leader Scott Dixon, in fifth in points. He’s now leading, seven clear of Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves, eight clear of Dixon and 17 clear of defending series champion Simon Pagenaud.

Naturally, Newgarden’s happy to be leading, but wary of any slip-ups at Pocono while in the No. 2 Fitzgerald Glider Kits Team Penske Chevrolet that could see him lose this slim gap.

“I think with the way I view it, I always prefer to be in the lead,” he said. “I don’t know why you ever wouldn’t want to be the leader. If you can be in a position where you’re leading the championship, I always think it’s better than having a deficit because to me, I don’t really approach a race weekend different if I’m leading or if I’m trying to catch up.

“I think for us it’ll be hard to hold on to it because everyone is so close, so you have one little mistake or one little mess-up in the next race and it’s very easy to slip back. So we’ve just got to try and stay out front if we can, and like I was saying before, the more that we can build a points gap, that only helps to Sonoma, so if we can’t do that, I think we need to just stay at least in touch with the lead as much as possible and make sure that we have a shot at winning the championship on our own terms when we go to Sonoma.”

Moving into the lead at Mid-Ohio puts Newgarden in an interesting position in recent IndyCar history.

Last year, Pagenaud’s decisive win against Will Power was a net 20-point swing in the championship and moved him into a 58-point lead over him with four races to go. That same 58-point spread now covers the top six entering this weekend’s race.

In 2015, Juan Pablo Montoya led Mid-Ohio winner Graham Rahal by nine points after that race, with two races to go. Eventual champion Dixon was third in points, 34 back.

Power led Castroneves by four after Mid-Ohio in 2014 with three races to go, and a dominant win the next race for him at Milwaukee helped seal his maiden championship win by Fontana a few weeks later.

There were still five races after Mid-Ohio in 2013. Castroneves led Dixon by 31 points, and Dixon came back to win that year’s title.

In 2012, Newgarden’s rookie season, Power led Ryan Hunter-Reay by five points out of Mid-Ohio with three races to go. Despite Power building the gap, he lost that year’s title in the last race to Hunter-Reay.

The 2015 title combatants… swap Pagenaud for Montoya and that’s all 2017’s title combatants. Photo: IndyCar

So how does Newgarden, who’s contending for a title in his first season at Team Penske, focus on the task at hand now that he’s thrust into a his first real title-contending scenario? Although he’s been on the fringes of it each of the last two years with Ed Carpenter Racing, he’s never quite been in this position.

Pagenaud seized his chance last year to win the 2016 title. It took Power three straight crushing end-of-year, last-race losses from 2010 to 2012 before he won his first and only title in 2014. Castroneves, despite an eternal number of runner-up finishes, has still never won a title. And Ryan Briscoe’s one shot at a title with Penske came unglued courtesy of an unforced error in 2009.

This is Newgarden’s first real chance at a title and as he explained, something he was hoping for once he joined the team.

“I definitely think I hoped I would be in a championship position. How could you not?” he said. “When joining Team Penske, I think you hope you’re going to just dominate.

“I didn’t know how the championship was going to unfold. I knew that we were going to have work in front of us.

“I feel like we’re still gelling, we’re still learning. So I’m a little bit surprised at how quickly we’ve hit the ground running, but I guess there’s also been moments where we could have been better and I could have been better and maybe as a team we could have been better, and I think with experience that will come.”

Newgarden (left) and Power (right) flank Rahal. Photo: IndyCar

Newgarden said he hasn’t drawn on his teammates for any advice in how they’ve handled other title-contending situations, and that makes sense because he’s also racing each of them for the title at the same time. The strength in numbers at Team Penske means the odds of one of the four drivers winning is strong, with only Dixon or Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Graham Rahal poised to steal it otherwise.

“It’s an interesting question,” Newgarden admitted. “I haven’t really spoken much to the other teammates specifically about their mindset or where it was at or where the team was at with regard to the championship.

“It’s actually kind of oddly quiet. You know, it’s almost like we’re just expected to be able to do our job. It’s not that we don’t get spoken to by various people within the teams to make sure we have what we need or make sure we understand what the game plan is, it’s just most of the big broad brush strokes.

“I think they’re just — for them they view it as it should be understood by us. We’re all pretty experienced within the series, and I think everyone that’s come into Team Penske has always had some level of experience.

“I think they expect for you to do the right thing. Penske wants us to work well together. They allow us to race. They allow us to do whatever we want to try and beat each other, but it’s just most important that we work together and take care of each other at the end of the day.

“We try and help the whole group be better, and if it’s not me winning a race or winning the championship, then we focus on trying to get at least one of the Penske cars to do that. You always hope it’s you. You want to be the best within the team. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to have one of the Team Penske cars succeeding, and that’s what we all work for.”

Ocon working harder than Perez in bid to make up for inexperience

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Esteban Ocon feels he is working a lot harder than Force India Formula 1 teammate Sergio Perez in a bid to make up for his lack of experience as the pair enjoy one of the closest cross-garage battles on the grid.

Ocon moved up to Force India for 2017 after spending half a season with the backmarker Manor squad last year, and has impressed through his first 11 races in the team’s colors, scoring 45 points to Perez’s 56.

The pair have been evenly-matched on-track – albeit sometimes too much so, with their collision in Baku costing Force India a possible podium finish as a minimum.

Reflecting on his start to the season, Ocon said he had to work far harder than Perez in a bid to make up for his inexperience, the Mexican boasting an additional five-and-a-half seasons of grand prix racing on his resume.

“We respect the targets that we set at the start of the season, which means scoring points at every race. And that is pretty much what I am doing,” Ocon told the official F1 website.

” I have to work very hard! I have a lot less experience than Sergio, so I have to catch up on so many details that come naturally to him.

“Before and after each race I am mostly in the factory for simulator work. I think that is what makes a big difference.”

When asked how much more time he was putting in than Perez, Ocon said: “I don’t want to say a number, so let’s put it this way: a lot more!”

Ocon said he hoped to have been a ‘big surprise’ to Perez so far this season, adding: “I am not here to stay behind him all the time. I want to push very hard.”

Notable drivers still looking for wins in 2017

Photo: IndyCar
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Counting this Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), four races remain in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season. And while the season has seen nine different winners, there remain a handful of very prominent drivers who have yet to grace Victory Lane this year, with some even enduring winless streaks that go back several years.

Perhaps most prominent in this group is Chip Ganassi Racing’s Tony Kanaan. The 42-year-old fan favorite has not signed with a team for 2018 and beyond, meaning he’ll be keen to make an impression in the final four races of 2017.

Currently ninth in the championship, Kanaan’s best 2017 finish is second at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, and given that he was also strong at the Indianapolis 500, perhaps Pocono represents Kanaan’s best chance for a victory, which would end a winless streak that dates back to Auto Club Speedway in 2014, before the year closes.

“Pocono is definitely the type of track that I normally thrive at, and the ‘Tricky Triangle’ is such an interesting place to race with the three completely different corners,” said Kanaan, who has led 115 laps in his four prior starts at Pocono. “You have to get so many little things right to suit each corner, before you can really be successful. The No. 10 NTT Data Honda is definitely due for a win and Pocono would be a great place for that to happen.”

However, Kanaan is hardly alone as a driver with something to prove before the year ends. Andretti Autosport’s Marco Andretti has enjoyed an uptick in form over last year, and his speed has been evident on Friday and Saturday practice sessions quite often in 2017.

Yet, Andretti’s strong practice pace has rarely translated into strong race results. A fourth-place finish at the Honda Indy Toronto remains his only top five of 2017, with sixth at Texas, seventh at St. Petersburg, and eighth at the Indianapolis 500 his only other top ten finishes, leaving him 13th in the championship.

Marco Andretti has shown better speed in 2017, but race results have still been hard to come by. Photo: IndyCar

With Pocono his home race, and one he has previously excelled at (he sat on the pole in 2013 and led 88 laps before fuel strategy left him in tenth at the end), the 30-year-old Andretti is keen to break through at the 2.5-mile triangular oval.

“Pocono is an important race to me as it is a home race, and I will have a lot of family and friends at the track cheering us on,” said Andretti ahead of the weekend. “United Fiber & Data is also based nearby, and it would be great to have a good result for Bill (Hynes), Chad (Taylor) and the whole UFD family. We’ve sat on the pole at Pocono but (have not finished) on the podium, so I can’t help but feel like I have unfinished business in Long Pond.”

Teammates Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay, too, head into Pocono looking for race wins, which would end long winless droughts for both drivers.

Alexander Rossi and Ryan Hunter-Reay have run better than their results would indicate. Photo: IndyCar

This season, Hunter-Reay has been riddled with bad luck and mechanical problems that leave him languishing in 12th in the standings with only five finishes in inside the top ten, a pair of third-place finishes being his best results and only podium results so far.

Hunter-Reay won this race in 2015 and may have repeated the feat last year if not for a mysterious electrical problem that surfaced late in the race. He eventually rebounded to finish third.

As a result, Hunter-Reay enters the weekend with something of a chip on his shoulder. “I’ve really been looking forward to getting back to Pocono. There’s no doubt the DHL Honda has been very strong here the past few years. Last year’s unfortunate electrical issue that occurred while (we were) leading sent us to the back of the field, yet we were still able to come all the way back through the field to finish third. As a team, we feel like we have unfinished business at Pocono. Certainly, one of our best chances at a victory over the past year slipped away, so we’re looking for redemption,” he asserted.

Rossi, meanwhile, has not won a race since winning the last year’s Indianapolis 500. However, finishes of second at Toronto and sixth at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course see him building momentum late in the year, and place him eighth in the standings at the moment.

He showed impressive speed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway as well, meaning Pocono offers a strong possibility of Rossi battling for a win.

“Pocono is one of my favorite tracks on the calendar, and it is a special one with the whole Andretti family being from the area. We have some unfinished business to take care of this weekend from last year when our day ended prematurely after we felt like we had a car to win. This team always has something special for the superspeedways and since it is our last one of the year, we want to make sure to close this portion of the schedule out with a win for the No. 98 team,” Rossi said of his chances.

As previously mentioned, IndyCar has seen nine different winners in an already ultra-competitive 2017 season. And given the prowess of the four aforementioned drivers – or say if the pair of Ed Carpenter Racing drivers, or another surprise first-time winner this year emerges –  it would hardly be a surprise if that number hit double digits at the end of the weekend.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.