(Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Le Mans: Rolling blog for the 2017 24 Hours

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Updates from the 85th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will follow throughout the day in this post.

HOURS 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 (2 hours to go, back to Tony)

7 a.m. ET – After a sleep and a long stint by Kyle, picking this back up… and there’s no good idea where to start.

So Porsche looked set to win Le Mans overall, and they may still do so, but with a different car.

The No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid of Andre Lotterer, Nick Tandy and Neel Jani had the lead, but lost oil pressure with a lead of more than 13 laps on track in Hour 21.

So that brought the No. 2 Porsche into contention, with the sister car of Brendon Hartley, Timo Bernhard and Earl Bamber, despite having lost more than an hour earlier in the race with its front axle issue.

With under two hours to go, that car was less than a lap behind the new overall leader – the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson LMP2 car with Oliver Jarvis, Thomas Laurent and Ho-Pin Tung.

The LMP2 fight sees the Nos. 38, 35, 13 and 37 Orecas (35 being an Alpine A470) all in the overall top five before sixth-place United Autosports with the first of the Ligier JS P217s.

Five manufacturers run in the top five spots in GTE-Pro with the No. 63 Corvette, No. 97 Aston Martin, No. 91 Porsche, No. 67 Ford and No. 71 Ferrari.

In GTE-Am, the Nos. 84, 55, 62 and 61 Ferraris run in the top four positions in class.

Elsewhere, more cars beyond the remaining LMP1 entries have had further issues.

  • Richie Stanaway crashed out the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8, one of the GTE-Pro contenders.
  • Radiator damage has taken the No. 51 AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE out of the race.
  • Both Vaillante Rebellion Orecas have had issues, a starter motor issue affecting the No. 13 car and a gearbox issue affecting the No. 31 car.
  • A crash for the No. 28 TDS Racing Oreca at the Porsche Curves took that car out of the race.

The race will now be a crazy fight to the finish, with no idea who will win overall.

HOURS 13 AND 14 (via Kyle Lavigne)

11 p.m. ET – Sunrise on Sunday morning closes in at the 85th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The class leaders are as follows:

  • LMP1: 1-Nick Tandy, Porsche 919 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 38-Oliver Jarvis, Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 95-Nicki Thiim, Aston Martin Vantage V8
  • GTE-AM: 84-Will Stevens, Ferrari 488 GTE

The No. 1 Porsche 919 Hybrid continues its lead overall and in LMP1, with three-time Le Mans winner André Lotterer at the helm now. The No. 2 Porsche continues its charge forward, with Brendon Hartley now sitting second in class and 13th overall. The No. 8 Toyota TS050 is also still in the fight, with Kazuki Nakajima now running 30th overall, but still third in class.

Oliver Jarvis has moved to the lead in the LMP2 class and sits second in the overall running order in the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson. Nelson Piquet Jr. runs second in the No. 13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson, while the No. 31 entry experienced brief problems at the beginning of Hour 13 and spent a couple laps in the garage area. It quickly rejoined the fight, and sits third in class, with Julien Canal now at the wheel, albeit a lap down to class-leader Jarvis.

Aston Martin Racing continues to head GTE Pro, with Nicki Thiim leading the way in the No. 95 Vantage V8 and teammate Darren Turner running second in the No. 97. However, with eight cars on the same lap in GTE Pro, their lead is far from comfortable. The GTE Pro field did see another retirement in the form of the No. 92 Porsche GT Team 911 RSR, with driver Michael Christensen spinning and crashing at the beginning of Hour 14.

In GTE Am, the No. 84 JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 GTE continues to pace the class, with Will Stevens now its pilot.

 

HOURS 11 AND 12 (via Kyle Lavigne)

9 p.m. ETFollowing a chaotic four-hour stretch, Hours 11 and 12 during the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans were remarkably calm. The leaders are as follows:

  • LMP1: 1-Nick Tandy, Porsche 919 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 13-David Heinemeier Hansson, Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 95-Richie Stanaway, Aston Martin Vantage V8
  • GTE-AM: 84-Dries Vanthoor, Ferrari 488 GTE

 

Nick Tandy assumed the lead following the troubles of Toyota Gazoo Racing and continues to lead overall and in the LMP1 class, now ten laps ahead of the second-place David Heinemeier Hansson in the Rebellion Racing No. 13 Oreca 07 Gibson. Teammate Nico Prost had been leading, but was forced to pit after reporting on the radio that something on the car had broken, possibly involving the gearbox. The team rolled it back into the garage immediately to begin repairs. Their problems also moved Ho-pin Tung, in the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07 Gibson, to second in the LMP2 class.

The GTE Pro class remains wide open, with the top six cars all on the same lap. As of writing, Richie Stanaway leads in the No. 95 Aston Martin Racing Vantage V8, ahead of teammate Johnny Adam in the No. 97 entry.

In GTE Am, Dries Vanthoor maintains his lead in the No. 84. JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 GTE, with Euan Hankey running second in the No. 90 TF Sport Aston Martin Vantage V8.

Of note: the No. 2. Porsche 919 has been steadily working its way back forward following front axle problems early on. With Brendon Hartley now its pilot, the No. 2 entry sits 16th overall at the moment (second in the LMP1 class), and is on pace to reach second in the overall running order prior the race’s end.

 

HOURS 9 AND 10 (via Kyle Lavigne)

7 p.m. ET – Huge drama has it the 24 Hours of Le Mans as Hour 10 concludes. The class leaders are below:

  • LMP1: 1-Nick Tandy, Porsche 919 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 31-Nico Prost, Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 92-Dirk Werner, Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR
  • GTE-AM: 84-Dries Vanthoor, Ferrari 488 GTE

 

Most notably, the No. 7 Toyota TS050, in the hands of Kamui Kobayashi and the dominant overall leader through the first 10 hours, slowed dramatically on course following a safety car period near the end of Hour 10. Kobayashi was reportedly unable to accelerate when racing resumed and was coasting slowly around the track on its way back to the pits. As of writing, it is unknown what the exact problem is, but the team indicated it may be a clutch problem. Kobayashi ground to a halt before the Porsche curves.

 

The troubles for Toyota have moved the No. 1 Porsche to the overall lead, with Nick Tandy at the helm. This comes after a clumsy moment for the No. 1 machine, as driver Neel Jani spun under the safety car while entering the pits for a driver change. However, he quickly recovered and the car suffered no damage.

The aforementioned safety car was for a spin involving the No. 66 Ford GT of Oliver Pla, who subsequently dropped gravel onto parts of the circuit. The long cleanup necessitated a safety car.

Meanwhile, the No. 9 Toyota TS050 encountered problems of its own that forced it to retire. Following contact with another car, the No. 9 machine suffered a left-rear puncture and incurred irreparable damage, highlighted by a small fire at the rear of the machine, while driver Nicolas Lapierre tried to nurse it back to the pits. Shortly after arriving, the car was retired and garage doors shut.

The No. 31 Rebellion moves back into the lead of LMP2, with Nico Prost behind the wheel now, while Dirk Werner has cycled to the front in GTE Pro in the No. 92 Porsche GT Team Porsche 911 RSR. Dries Vanthoor continues to lead GTE Am in the No. 84 Ferrari 488 GTE.

 

 

HOURS 7 AND 8 (via Kyle Lavigne)

5 p.m. ET Just over a fourth of the way into the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans, the leaders at the end of Hour 8 look like this:

  • LMP1: 7-Mike Conway, Toyota TS050 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 13-Nelson Piquet Jr., Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 97-Daniel Serra, Aston Martin Vantage V8
  • GTE-AM: 84-Will Stevens, Ferrari 488 GTE

Several frontrunners across all classes have encountered problems, however. While the No. 7 Toyota TS050 continues to lead, the sister No. 8 entry, with Sébastien Buemi at the wheel, suffered mechanical problems, with smoke coming from the right-front brake. Buemi drove the car into the pits, where it was promptly wheeled into the garage for repairs, and it remains there as of writing.

In GTE Am, the No. 98 Aston Martin Vantage V8, in the hands of Pedro Lamy, suffered a major right-front tire failure that ripped the right front corner off of the car. Somehow, Lamy managed to keep control of the car and navigated it back into the pits. However, the car lost four laps as the team made repairs and allowed Will Stevens in the JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 GTE into the class lead.

Also, the No. 64 Corvette, in the hands of Tommy Milner, suffered a huge crash in the Porsche curves when the left-rear wheel and tire fell off, causing him to spin and back into the barrier. Despite also spinning at the pit entry, Milner returned the No. 64 to the pits, where the team made quick repairs and the car has returned to the race, albeit four laps off the class lead.

Up front, the No. 7 Toyota TS050 remains in the lead, with Mike Conway now at the helm, despite incurring a black and white flag for abusing the track limits. In LMP2, the No. 13 Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson, in the hands of Nelson Piquet Jr., moves to the lead following a drive through penalty on the No. 31 of teammate Bruno Senna for overtaking in a slow zone.

 

 

HOURS 5 AND 6

3 p.m. ET – This year’s Le Mans has reached the one-quarter distance mark, and completed the length of a standard FIA World Endurance Championship race (six hours). Here’s your Hour 6 leaders:

  • LMP1: 7-Stephane Sarrazin, Toyota TS050 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 31-Bruno Senna, Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 97-Darren Turner, Aston Martin Vantage V8
  • GTE-AM: 98-Paul Dalla Lana, Aston Martin Vantage V8

Further updates are below. The No. 2 Porsche has returned to the track but has lost 19 laps, and will now have a fight the rest of the race to make its way up the order. At current lap projections, the LMP2 leaders might be 24 to 25 laps off the overall pace, so there’s an outside shot at an overall podium for this car if there’s no further issues.

The concern over increased speeds in LMP2 bore fruit when Mathieu Vaxviere attempted to pass two GT cars while using the runoff area on the Mulsanne Straight going into the first chicane. Vaxviere thought he’d cleared both of them but instead came up and crashed into Pierre Kaffer’s No. 82 Risi Competizione Ferrari 488 GTE, destroying the team’s brand new chassis on entry into the chicane. Kaffer was OK but the car was not, which ends the car’s race.

That brought out a couple slow zones for barrier repairs and slowed the overall pace of the race.

David Cheng had a spin in his No. 37 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca 07, exiting the Porsche Curves, near the end of the sixth hour.

In the fifth hour, the third Toyota had an issue when the passenger’s side door of Yuji Kunimoto’s No. 9 Toyota TS050 Hybrid came open.

HOURS 3 AND 4

1 p.m. ET – The race is through the four-hour mark, with 20 to go at 7 p.m. local time. Here’s your Hour 4 leaders:

  • LMP1: 7-Kamui Kobayashi, Toyota TS050 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 13-David Heinemeier Hansson, Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 71-Miguel Molina, AF Corse Ferrari 488 GTE
  • GTE-AM: 84-Dries Vanthoor, JMW Motorsport Ferrari 488 GTE

A handful of updates to note. First off, the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid has stopped and gone into the garage, with Earl Bamber driving, courtesy of what Bamber called a front axle issue to Radio Le Mans. That’s cost the car several laps and has taken it out, in all likelihood, of any sort of win contention.

A tattered left rear tire has also slowed, but not completely stalled out, prior GTE-Pro class leader Marco Sorensen in the No. 95 Aston Martin Vantage V8. Sorensen limped the car into the pits and lost a couple minutes, but have recovered.

The sister No. 97 Aston, in the hands of Daniel Serra, fought off a hard-charging Harry Tincknell in this stint. Tincknell was in the No. 67 Ford Chip Ganassi Team UK Ford GT, with Tincknell handing the car off to Pipo Derani at the most recent pit stop.

IndyCar star Tony Kanaan is into the No. 68 Ford, meanwhile, for his first race stint at Le Mans. Ryan Briscoe was currently in the No. 69 Ford and due to hand off to Scott Dixon shortly thereafter. Like Kanaan, fellow Brazilian rookie Rubens Barrichello has made his Le Mans race debut in the No. 29 Racing Team Nederland Dallara P217 Gibson, and told Radio Le Mans his first stint was “wonderful.”

Ben Keating also had a moment at the start of the fourth hour. In his No. 43 Keating Motorsports Riley Mk. 30 Gibson, Keating and a GTE-Pro Porsche 911 RSR collided at the Dunlop Chicane, with Keating then losing control of his car and crashing into a couple signs. Both he and the car were OK and resumed after the incident.

Up front, while the No. 7 Toyota in Kamui Kobayashi’s hands pulled away, Nick Tandy ran a stronger stint to get ahead of Anthony Davidson by a significant margin for second in his No. 1 Porsche vs. Davidson’s No. 8 Toyota.

HOUR 2

11 a.m. ET – Here’s your leaders at the end of the second hour:

  • LMP1: 7-Mike Conway, Toyota TS050 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 31-Nicolas Prost, Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 69-Richard Westbrook, Ford Chip Ganassi Team USA Ford GT
  • GTE-AM: 62-Bill Sweedler, Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE

Of those four leaders though, the No. 69 Ford – a car driven by Westbrook, Ryan Briscoe and Scott Dixon – has had a long stop for a rear decklid change with a lighting issue. That adds to the car having lost its in-car camera earlier in the race, and it will drop back a bit as a result.

Meanwhile, three retirements have already popped up into the second hour.

Two cars have collided at the Porsche Curves, and both are out following that collision. Roman Rusinov’s No. 26 G-Drive Racing Oreca 07 contacted Khaled Al Qubaisi’s No. 88 Proton Porsche 911 RSR, with Al Qubaisi’s car suffering significant rear end and front end damage. Al Qubaisi, who was due to share the car with Klaus Bachler and Stephane Lemeret in an under-the-radar GTE-Am class lineup, only ran 18 laps.

Al Qubaisi told Radio Le Mans’ Nick Daman, “I was always contemplating something (bad) like this before the race. There’s only one line. You can’t open it up. He was too far away to make a proper dive.”

The No. 26 car’s race went from bad to worse after Rusinov was called to the stewards’ office for driving conduct, and then its chassis manufacturer, Oreca, confirmed the car’s retirement. This means polesitter Alex Lynn won’t be able to race in his Le Mans debut. The car completed only 20 laps.

ByKolles’ car is also out of the race, Oliver Webb confirming the car’s retirement after just 7 completed laps.

HOUR 1

10 a.m. ET – The race is underway with all 60 cars. First hour leaders are below:

  • LMP1: 8-Sebastien Buemi, Toyota TS050 Hybrid
  • LMP2: 31-Bruno Senna, Vaillante Rebellion Oreca 07 Gibson
  • GTE-Pro: 95-Nicki Thiim, Aston Martin Vantage V8
  • GTE-AM: 62-Townsend Bell, Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GTE

A spirit of unity was on the grid for the 2017 24 Hours of Le Mans between the Formula 1 and FIA World Endurance Championship, as evidenced by FIA President Jean Todt below. Chase Carey then waved the tricolore to get the race underway.

The first issue struck on the opening lap with an apparent left rear puncture for Oliver Webb in the No. 4 ByKolles ENSO CLM P1/01 NISMO, as he limped the car back to the pits. He then hit a cone, which required a nose change.

Quite a number of LMP2 cars have had issues in the first hour. To wit:

  • Gustavo Menezes, defending LMP2 class winner and WEC class champion, made a rare mistake running long in the Mulsanne Corner in the No. 36 Signatech Alpine A470 Gibson. He got out of the gravel and returned to the pits, but this brought out the first Slow Zone of the race.
  • The No. 22 G-Drive Oreca 07 (run by DragonSpeed) went behind the wall with an alternator belt issue, per FOX Sports’ Andrew Marriott. Ryo Hirakawa was driving.
  • The polesitting No. 26 G-Drive Oreca (run by TDS) required a change of nose after a spin at Ford Chicanes. Roman Rusinov was driving.
  • Graff’s No. 39 Oreca, driven by Eric Trouillet, limped back with a left front puncture.
  • A starter issue occurred to the No. 38 Jackie Chan DC Racing Oreca on its first pit stop with Oliver Jarvis driving, per Radio Le Mans.

Those issues came among a run of early pit stops for the LMP2 contingent, all pitting around or shortly after the 30-minute mark.

At 46 minutes into the race, Sebastien Buemi got his No. 8 Toyota ahead of Mike Conway in the No. 7 Toyota, following an arguably way too intense scrap for the first hour!

The GTE-Pro and Am races were pretty close through the opening hour and the field is through its first round of pit stops.

Weather looks good, but warm, the rest of the race!

PRE-RACE

8:30 a.m. ET – The cars are on the grid with the final preparations being made before the rolloff at 9 a.m. ET, 3 p.m. local time in France.

High temperatures are set to throw an added degree of unpredictability into this year’s race. You can view our preview here.

This photo from ACO President Pierre Fillon on the starting grid showcases the anticipation.

Here’s the final starting grid. TV coverage is split between FS1 and FS2 with full streaming via FOX Sports Go; Radio Le Mans also has full radio coverage on its website 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)

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

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

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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.