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Texas polesitter Kimball optimistic luck will turn after rough stretch

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Charlie Kimball enters the second half of the Verizon IndyCar Series in a weird place – exactly double the position he ended last year’s season in the championship.

But the drop from ninth, a career-best in the standings in 2016, to 18th through the first nine races of this year, has been due to an almost freakish cartoon of bad luck that has consistently struck the No. 83 Tresiba Honda, through almost no fault of his own.

Kimball’s best result is eighth, twice in nine events. After first-lap collisions at St. Petersburg and Long Beach put Kimball under the microscope for all the wrong reasons, a cartoon anvil has come attacking him and this portion of the Chip Ganassi Racing team since.

Three Honda engine issues have hit him at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil after leading five laps, and then most recently at Texas Motor Speedway with an oil leak that took him out early after winning an overdue first career pole.

Those issues, coupled with Kimball getting caught out behind Conor Daly’s engine issue at Detroit race one, have limited the improvements in his camp since an earlier switch from Eric Cowdin to Todd Malloy as Kimball’s lead engineer.

Kimball explained what has happened to him the last month or so, while being part of a four-car Firestone tire test at Watkins Glen along with Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Max Chilton and Team Penske’s Will Power and Simon Pagenaud.

“We had an oil leak… they looked for the culprit and they thought they found it,” Kimball told NBC Sports. “By the time they thought they fixed it, we were too many laps down to make it back up and make it worthwhile.

“The important thing is, frankly, that we got the pole. The luck will come good.

“We’ve had multiple engine issues and when one wasn’t in our car, it was in the 4 car (Daly), when his engine cut out in front of us. At Detroit one, I was pretty close behind him through Turn 3 and he didn’t accelerate, he had no power, so he was decelerating. So when I tried to get out and around him, that caught my (front wing) end fence, and put me into the wall.”

Kimball’s unexpected sideline role at Texas as the only car out of the race not from crash damage provided him a bit of insight into how the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 race, ran.

As Kimball explained – and the seventh-year driver from California is generally pretty good at doing so – rather than the simple “pack race” terminology, multiple factors contributed the crash-fest.

“I think for me, it was interesting to watch,” he explained. “Part of it was I don’t think people expected it to race like that in Turns 1 and 2. Part of it was we hadn’t run much in those conditions. And then at least to me, I didn’t hear about the repave until middle of summer. So when it’s that late in the game, it leaves Firestone and the other manufacturers with less time to come up with a plan to test. So we came there, and there were still unanswered questions.”

Just 116 points separate the top 13 in the standings (Scott Dixon has 326 points to Marco Andretti’s 210). Then after a several point drop from 14th through 17th (Ryan Hunter-Reay is 14th on 194 while Carlos Munoz is 17th on 180), Kimball is a further 37 points back just of Munoz, on 143 for the year.

Stat-wise, Kimball has been fine in qualifying this year, although could be better. His average grid position through nine races is 11.4, down only one spot from the same time last year when it was 10.4 – and with more Hondas up front this year than in the past two years, that’s not really a significant drop-off.

However it’s his finishes that have nosedived and contributed to the year-to-year decline. Through nine races last year, Kimball had eight finishes in the top 12, and two fifth-place results with a worst result of 16th. This year, the two eighth places are his only finishes better than 15th, and with five finishes of 21st or worse, Kimball’s average finish has plunged year-on-year through nine races from 8.8 to 17.6.

All that may make climbing up the points standings a tall order but for Kimball, keeping the faith the Ganassi team and the No. 83 crew has entrusted in him – it’s not like he’s forgotten how to drive – is what keeps him motivated going into the second half of the season.

“I draw a lot of support from my crew, the 83 crew and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. That helps a lot. You keep working your process and keep working with the crew. There’s times you carry them, and others they carry you. The luck will come good. Because if not for bad luck this year, we’d have no luck. The pendulum will come towards the good luck swing.

“I think a lot of people miss the opportunity to seize that chance. They get stuck in a rut of bad luck after bad luck, so when it does come good, you need to take it.”

Kimball is optimistic going into next week’s KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, June 25, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), where he finished sixth last year and after the Watkins Glen tire test.

Despite the “weird schedule” of sleeping in until 9 a.m., getting to the track at 1 or 2 p.m. before running from 4 to 8 p.m. local time at the Corning, N.Y. circuit, Kimball has excelled knowing he’s entrusted to be part of a Firestone test.

“It’s apples to oranges, really, with last year’s kit to the Honda this year,” Kimball explained. “The grip still feels awesome. The track is a blast to drive. Really rewards commitment and a great balance. We didn’t do much tuning on the car.”

Kimball also could afford to laugh at one flashback moment, as he and Power were sat together in a circuit car surveying the track before running on Tuesday. The two collided in last year’s Watkins Glen race, Power having blamed Kimball for the contact but Kimball calling it a racing incident.

“We got back, and Simon was like, ‘You guys OK?’ I got back to my timing stand and had to laugh… it was funny. I’ve moved on.”

After a rough year that has not matched his talent, Kimball must be hoping the results move on as well.

Alonso, Vandoorne’s Azerbaijan GP grid drops grow through Saturday

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Stoffel Vandoorne and Fernando Alonso’s Formula 1 grid penalties for Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix grew through Saturday as the stewards confirmed both McLaren drivers had taken additional power unit parts ahead of qualifying.

Vandoorne and Alonso entered the Baku race weekend anticipating grid penalties after replacing parts on their Honda power units, which have lacked both reliability and performance throughout the season.

Both drivers were handed 15-place drops on Friday ahead of practice due to initial changes, only to receive further drops in the lead up to qualifying.

Alonso currently sits with a 40-place drop to his name after an overhaul of his power unit, while Vandoorne is to drop 35 places after also taking a gearbox change before qualifying.

McLaren ailed to its worst qualifying display of the season so far in Baku as both Alonso and Vandoorne dropped out in Q1, finishing 16th and 19th respectively.

However, Alonso was not too disheartened by the result, saying it has set McLaren up nicely for the race on Sunday.

“We did a good job today in terms of preparing for the race: we only used one set of tires, put in low fuel and did some checks,” the Spaniard said.

“We know we’re not competitive around here, but the race is going to be long and demanding. We’ve seen many mistakes from almost every driver, and we need to avoid making any of those tomorrow.

“In these kinds of grands prix, we need to try and finish the race, get some data for the team, and keep developing the car.

“We need to make sure we keep away from the walls tomorrow. Let’s also hope we can end up in the points.”

Due to a strange quirk in the regulations, Alonso and Vandoorne will not share the back row of the grid in Baku – and the latter will, in fact, gain a place.

As Renault’s Jolyon Palmer failed to post a time during Q1 and therefore did not qualify for the race, he will start P20.

By virtue of having a greater grid drop than Vandoorne, Alonso will take 19th on the grid, with the Belgian starting just ahead in P18.

Stroll feeling ‘comfortable’, ‘confident’ in car after Baku Q3 run

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Lance Stroll delivered the most impressive qualifying run of his fledgling Formula 1 career so far in Baku on Saturday, charging to eighth place on the grid for Williams.

Stroll, 18, made his F1 debut at the beginning of the year with Williams after stepping up from Formula 3, but endured a baptism of fire as he failed to score any points through his opening six outings.

The Canadian charged to his maiden points finish last time out at his home race in Montreal, finishing ninth overall, and carried that momentum through to qualifying for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Stroll reached Q3 for the second time, beating his Chinese Grand Prix display by taking eighth spot, as well as outqualifying teammate Felipe Massa for the first time.

“It was a good day, and it has been a good weekend. I am comfortable and confident in the car,” Stroll said.

“I like the circuit and today everything fell into place. I missed a bit in Q3, and I think there was some more that was possible there, as we were four-tenths off compared to my lap in Q2.

“In Q3, because the track temperatures had dropped, it was hard to get the tires ready in one lap and also because of the red flag, we only had time to do one push lap.

“Sometimes around here it is better when you do one push lap, then another prep lap and then another push lap. But it is still a great result and I am just happy for the team.”

Red Bull’s high hopes come down to earth in F1 qualifying

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BAKU, Azerbaijan (AP) Red Bull’s high hopes for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix came crashing down in qualifying on Saturday.

Max Verstappen qualified in fifth and teammate Daniel Ricciardo only 10th after clipping a barrier near the end coming out of Turn 6 on a hazardous Baku street circuit that has been causing problems all week.

“I’m not blaming the car. The rear went away a bit,” Ricciardo said. “Just the consequence of trying to get a bit more out of the car. I guess I was just chasing that little bit too much.”

It was disappointing for the team, considering that Red Bull had been showing promising speed, with Verstappen fastest in both practice sessions on Friday.

“The 10th (place) today doesn’t reflect it, but it’s definitely been a positive weekend in terms of the car feel and the progress we’re making,” Ricciardo said. “Relative to Ferrari it looks like we’ve closed the gap (in terms of speed).”

Red Bull was not the only team struggling on the sinewy, hard-braking track, which made its F1 debut last year.

“We’re all still experimenting,” Ricciardo said. “Still trying to find the sweet spot.”

Verstappen thought he found it on Friday, driving with his customary confidence to lead P1 and P2, then got a reality check on Saturday when his car packed up near the end of the third practice due to a hydraulics issue.

“We had to wind the engine down, which cost me quite a bit of lap time,” the Dutchman said. “It’s a bit unfortunate that we couldn’t extract more out of the car.”

Verstappen was second fastest behind Lewis Hamilton in the first part of qualifying, before fading in Q2 and Q3.

“We should be ahead (of Ferrari) without all those things that happened,” said Verstappen, who believes Red Bull can match Ferrari. “It’s looking a lot better. Mercedes is a bit too quick but with the Ferraris, for sure, we can fight.”

Verstappen could do with a good result in Baku on Sunday.

Last year, he became the youngest F1 driver to win a race and to qualify on the front row. But this season he has only one podium and failed to finish three races including the last, the Canadian GP two weeks ago.

Honda working on IndyCar engine fix following parts issue

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – The blessing and curse of Honda Performance Development (HPD)’s improved performance and horsepower this year has been a tradeoff in the reliability department.

With now double digit failures over the last month or so, in Indianapolis and elsewhere, it’s been a season where reliability has become more of a story line than normal.

This has arisen though Honda’s on-track performance this year has seen the manufacturer deliver five wins (three more than in all of 2016) including the Indianapolis 500, with four of its five teams winning races thus far in nine races.

HPD President Art St. Cyr addressed both the failures and the recent successes Honda has achieved in the last month during a media availability Saturday at Road America, noting it was a parts processing issue that has contributed to some, if not all, failures.

“We had a couple engine failures over the last month or so,” St. Cyr said. “We have done a lot of analysis. It was actually pretty deep in our engine and the part that failed is one that we’ve been using for quite a while. Ultimately, it came down to a parts processing issue for that. So we have been able to identify the part that is failing.

“We have some fixes in place for the rest of this year. As it stands right now, we’re getting those parts into HPD at this point and we’re starting to build new engines with those parts in it. Unfortunately, the durability plan that we always had, going 2,500 miles, it’s going to take a while to cycle those engines into our pool.

“We hope to have those engines into our spares pool, optimistically by Iowa, but more realistically by Toronto.”

HPD does not plan to do a wholesale changeout of engines, St. Cyr intimated.

“There is no plan right now to a wholesale change out engines,” he said. “It happens in about one out of every eight engines, and if it does fail, it fails early. So when that problem arises, it shows up pretty quick.

“So, our expectations are that, once we get the engines in the spares pool, we will continue the engines that are in the cars throughout the remainder of their lives. And then those will be replaced with new engines.

“Knock on wood, hopefully we can get some of them in at Iowa, but more realistically, probably Toronto is when they’ll really start to show up.”

St. Cyr confirmed HPD has made a horsepower increase this year though would not be pressed on how much that increase has been.

“When you make more horsepower, you do expose parts to more stresses. That’s the fundamental thing about it,” he said.

“In this particular case, what it did was reduced our safety factor on that particular part. It still should have been fine, but the problem is that part of the process in the engine is the stress riser. It’s not in every engine, but it on a handful of engines.

“Yes, the increase in power is a contributing factor to that, because obviously there’s more stress on the engines, but the way the part if designed it should have been able to sustain that stress.”

He also said the company was happy with the tradeoff that has come with Takuma Sato’s win in the Indianapolis 500. That win made him a “popular winner” both in America and Japan as a result of his victory, helping both Honda arms.

“In general, our main goal is to win the Indy 500. We knew that, even if we ran the engines at full power, that the majority of our engines were going to make it,” St. Cyr explained.

“So, in that case, we were willing to make that tradeoff on that. If it was going to fail every engine, then maybe not, but ever circumstance is different. But, in this particular case, we were willing to make that.

“You risk that every year. Typically, both manufacturers have about two mechanical failure. That’s about what had this year anyway. We’ll make those judgments on a case-by-case basis.”

Heading into Road America this weekend for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN), Honda leads Chevrolet, 737 to 698, in the Manufacturer’s Championship. Chevrolet has won all five in a row from 2012 through 2016 since the reintroduction of manufacturer competition.