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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.

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.