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IMSA: Crucial stretch run to finish 2017 begins at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – After three races in July, two for the Prototype classes and three for both GT classes, the full IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship reconvenes this weekend at Road America for the Continental Tire Road Race Showcase, a critical two-hour, 40-minute tilt that kicks off the final three months of the season.

There’s been a lot of news about IMSA’s future in the last month or so, primarily related to a number of exciting announcements.

But as it sits now with races at Road America, VIRginia International Raceway, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Road Atlanta to go, the championship chases come into view in at least three of the four classes.

With rain also in the forecast on and off this weekend, that may add another degree of difficulty to the weekend as teams master either the Continental or Michelin rain tires.

PROTOTYPE: TAYLORS SEEK REBOUND; CAMERON GOES FOR THE QUARTET

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The No. 10 Konica Minolta Cadillac DPi-V.R opened the year with five wins in as many races, as Jordan and Ricky Taylor ran the gamut of wins between the “36 Hours of Florida,” a pair of 100-minute street races, and a standard length race at Circuit of The Americas in-between.

Then reality hit that going a perfect 10-f0r-10 in the No. 10 car wasn’t the case. Action Express Racing, via its No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing and No. 31 Whelen Engineering Racing Cadillacs, has now won the last two races, and moved into title contention with both its pairs of drivers. The Taylors are on 226 points and lead Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa by 19 points, with 207, while defending Prototype class champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran sit fourth on 199.

Cameron and Curran have streaks to uphold this weekend. As a pairing, they’ve won here the last two years and for Cameron, he’s won here the last three, having won the GT Daytona class with Turner Motorsport’s BMW Z4 GT3 in 2014. A “Cameron quartet” would be something to behold.

Elsewhere, it’s the No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson “Banana Boat” that has been the top interloper in the Cadillac-dominated campaign. Now a podium regular, it’s only been due to a bit of bad luck that the pairing of Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg hasn’t yet won this season. They’d make for a popular winner this weekend, in what would be the first LMP2 car victory this season in IMSA. The pairing sits third in points with 200.

The other four cars in class are Ligier-based, in the pair of Tequila Patron ESM Nissan Onroak DPis and then the pair of Ligier JS P217 Gibsons from PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports and VISIT FLORIDA Racing, respectively. The latter team debuts its Ligier this weekend after switching from the Riley Multimatic, hoping for a bit of form after what’s been a tough season.

With the Mazda RT24-Ps now out of competition the remainder of the field, it drops the Prototype field to just eight cars.

GT LE MANS: A YEAR ON FROM SHOOTOUT, FIVE-WAY TITLE FIGHT BECKONS

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Last year’s GT Le Mans finish was one of the craziest in recent memory, as Tommy Milner completed a miraculous comeback inside the final five minutes to go from fifth to the win for he and Oliver Gavin; another highlight en route to the pair’s title-winning season in their No. 4 Corvette C7.R.

It’s the sister Corvette Racing car, the No. 3 car of Antonio Garcia and Jan Magnussen, that will look to carry the title torch for the “Bow ties” this weekend into the final four races. Although the pair has not won since Circuit of The Americas a full two months ago, Garcia and Magnussen still lead the GTLM points by seven – 211 to 2014 – over the surging BMW Team RLL pair of Bill Auberlen and Alexander Sims, the latter driver having done impressively well all season considering it’s his first full-time U.S. campaign.

Three other pairings from two other teams and manufacturers are also in the hunt. Both Ford Chip Ganassi Racing Ford GTs pairings are next, Dirk Mueller and Joey Hand at 196 points with Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe on 195. Ford, which received a Balance of Performance break this weekend, has not won since the season-opening Rolex 24 at Daytona; and it was Westbrook who lost a sure win in the final stages last year, in what was a tough blow for their own title hopes. Also hanging in is Porsche’s lone full-season pairing, Dirk Werner and Patrick Pilet, who enter this weekend on the heels of the 911 RSR’s first U.S. victory at Lime Rock Park two years ago. They’re fifth on 194 points.

That leaves Gavin and Milner, the second BMW and the second Porsche to play spoilers in the title fight if they can win or take points away.

Beyond the driver fight, the manufacturer battle is tight as well. Chevrolet (223) leads Ford by four (219), BMW by seven (216) and Porsche by 14 (209).

GTLM always seems to deliver at Road America because there has been no rhyme or reason to victories. Corvette won last year, Porsche in 2015, Risi Ferrari in 2014, the SRT Viper in 2013 and BMW in 2012, making it five manufacturers in as many seasons. Ford could make it six-in-six if they pull off a win this weekend. Ferrari won in 2011 and BMW won back-to-back in 2009 and 2010.

GT DAYTONA: NIELSEN, BALZAN CONSISTENCY FUELING TITLE DEFENSE PUSH

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Neither Christina Nielsen nor Alessandro Balzan has won yet this year in their No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3, but after their impressive run of six straight podiums from Sebring through Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, they have moved into a solid – but not entirely secure – championship lead in GTD as they look for their second straight title.

They podiumed here last year as well, ending third while the Riley Motorsports Dodge Viper GT3-R won with Jeroen Bleekemolen and Ben Keating. That pair, now in the Mercedes-AMG GT3, sustained a broken left-rear suspension at Lime Rock Park which was a big hit to them in the title fight. They now sit 17 points behind (228-211); the No. 63 car has outscored the No. 33 car by 41 points in the last four races.

It’s still likely to come down to those two cars for the title with third-placed car, the No. 93 Michael Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 of Andy Lally and Katherine Legge, 23 points back at 2015. That’d take a few good results and tough issues for the two cars ahead to close the gap.

At 31 points back, the mountain is likely too tough to climb for Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow in their No. 48 Paul Miller Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, and the same is true at 33 points back for Lawson Aschenbach and Andrew Davis in the No. 57 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS.

The GTD manufacturer battle though is quite tight. Ferrari (238) holds a three-point lead on Mercedes-AMG (235), with Acura (232) very close and Porsche (225), Audi (221) and Lamborghini (219) all close-ish.

Several others in the 16-car class look to play spoiler, including the No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R which won last time out at Lime Rock Park and with Joerg Bergmeister

PROTOTYPE CHALLENGE: TITLE CLINCH POSSIBLE FOR PERFORMANCE TECH

Photo courtesy of IMSA

With the pairing of James French and Pato O’Ward, Performance Tech Motorsports has been perfect this year in PC – six-for-six in victories to open the year. A seventh straight win would lock up the championship with one race remaining.

The maximum points achievable is 36, and French and O’Ward enter with a 34-point lead over Don Yount, the only other driver with a mathematical shout.

Performance Tech switches up the qualifying order with O’Ward qualifying and French, the Sheboygan native, finishing his home race this weekend. BAR1 has Buddy Rice back alongside Yount, Rice having missed the CTMP race owing to a GRC Lites conflict, while the team hadn’t yet confirmed its latest pairing for the second car as of Wednesday.

The race takes place this Sunday at 1:35 p.m. CT and local time.

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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