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Zach Veach looking to get back into a rhythm in 2018

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In the immediate aftermath of the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Andretti Autosport’s Zach Veach gave a highly critical assessment of his debut race with the team, describing it as “messy.”

Now a couple weeks removed from St. Pete, Veach’s analysis has softened somewhat, and he explained that the weekend had its positives, especially leading into the race.

“Our goals going into the weekend were to try and transfer to the Fast 12 in qualifying and then just work our way to get a top 15 finish and just get the first race out of the way,” he explained to NBC Sports. “We missed out on transferring by four hundredths of a second after a little bit of contact on my fast lap, so I feel pretty good about (that). We would have definitely transferred to the Fast 12 if that didn’t happen.”

However, he continued to assert that his race not as clean as he wanted, highlighting early-race contact with A.J. Foyt Racing’s Tony Kanaan as an example.

“The race was just a little messy on my part,” Veach said. “I made a mistake there with Tony (Kanaan) thinking…he got off Turn 8 a little slow so I figured I had an opening there, but that didn’t work out well for either of us.”

Veach added that spending time away from racing – he ran only two races in 2017 – was a big factor in his rustiness.

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was Zach Veach’s first Verizon IndyCar Series race since the 2017 Indianapolis 500. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m trying to hone everything in again,” Veach revealed, adding that a pair of recent tests at Barber Motorsports Park and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course are evidence of progress.

“I think St. Pete was kind of the transition on that, because since then we’ve had two really strong tests (at Barber and Indianapolis), both kind of half days from weather, but we were tenth quick at Barber and had the speed to be in the Top 5 at the Indianapolis road course and made a small mistake. So, it’s getting easier and the progression is where we want it to be.”

Breaking back into the regular routine of racing has not been an easy task for Veach, whose career has been start-and-stop in recent years

In 2014, he was a race winner and championship contender in the Firestone Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship with Andretti Autosport, but did not have a full-time race seat in 2015.

He returned to Indy Lights in 2016, with Belardi Auto Racing, winning another three races on his way to fourth in the championship, but again could not secure a full-time seat in 2017, doing one-off races with Ed Carpenter Racing – he subbed for JR Hildebrand at Barber Motorsports Park, and A.J. Foyt Racing at last year’s Indianapolis 500.

In terms of getting back into a rhythm, Veach thinks his 2016 Indy Lights season gives a hint about how long it could take.

“I noticed it firsthand in 2016 when I came back to Indy Lights with Belardi,” Veach said. “We kind of struggled until we got our first win of the season and pole at Road America at the halfway point, and then from that point on we were leading laps and challenging for wins, going on to win two more races at the end of the year.”

However, Veach is hopeful that the greater number of race weekends for the Verizon IndyCar Series means that progression will go much more quickly.

“I’m expecting, because we have a lot more races in IndyCar, that time should be about the quarter-way through the season than the half, but it definitely a takes a little bit of work to try to get that ball rolling again once it’s been stopped,” he expressed.

And that process has multiple layers.

“It’s getting that physical condition,” he said. “Just understanding how long these races are. It’s getting that mindset that you need for long races. Just like your body, you have to have that mental conditioning, just getting into the habits of it.”

He added, “And a lot of it comes down to that muscle memory. When you’re driving the car, you’re not necessarily thinking about driving the car when things are flowing perfectly. And I think, before you really get that momentum on your side, you’re still thinking about driving a little too much. And that tends to hold you back a little bit, because you’re just trying to reprogram all the reactions and the timing of brake releases and turn-ins and such. It’s just sharpening everything.”

Veach has been hard at work on the physical side for a while now and dramatically increased his muscle mass – he was previously one of the lightest drivers in the paddock – in preparation for 2018.

“We were able to gain close to 20 pounds (between) the Indy 500 and the very first test in January. It’s taking less of my maximum effort to get the car around, which is helpful. All through testing, we felt great.”

Veach’s progress could also be helped by the nature of the 2018 aero kit, which he explains makes the car feel more like an Indy Lights car, in that it gives the driver much more feedback than the previous aero kits from Honda and Chevrolet.

“The new car races a lot like the Indy Lights car,” he said. “And I say that from a standpoint of the old IndyCar was really hard to get that ultimate lap time out until you just had a lot of seat time in it because you had so much downforce, it was really hard to feel where the limit was.”

He continued, “The new car, much like the Lights car, it’s always dancing around from the get-go. So it’s giving you a lot more feedback from the sense of you really kind of know where that line, that limit is. And you’re just trying to manipulate it the best way possible.”

As for expectations, Veach is using 2018 as a learning year, but does have some tangible goals he’d like to achieve by the end of the year. His next step in that direction is Saturday night’s race at Phoenix and at Long Beach a week later.

“The big expectation is trying to just get that time and get that ball rolling again,” he said. “But the end of the year goal is I want to at least have a couple of (Firestone Fast Sixes) under our belts. I’d like to finish in the Top 5 or even get a podium by the end of the year.”

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NHRA shocker in Houston: John Force fails to qualify for first time since 2008, snaps 221-race streak

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Sunday’s eliminations in the 31st annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in suburban Houston  just won’t be the same without John Force.

In one of the most stunning turn of events seen in the last decade-plus in NHRA drag racing, the legendary 16-time Funny Car champion and the sport’s all-time winningest driver on Saturday failed to qualify for Sunday’s main event of the race weekend.

It marks the first time Force, who turns 69 on May 4, failed to qualify for a race since Sept. 13, 2008 in Charlotte race, snapping a string of having made the eliminations in each of the subsequent 221 races until failing to do so Saturday.

“That is hard for me,” Force said after failing to go any faster than 222.29 mph in the four qualifying rounds for the race, two on Friday and the other two on Saturday. “You earn what you get. We didn’t put it in the show. We couldn’t get to half-track.

“We have had a lot of problems all year. At least I got my final shot to get in and I didn’t make it. I will be here tomorrow rooting on Robert, Courtney and Brittany (teammates Robert Hight and daughters Courtney and Brittany Force). I’ll be signing autographs for all the fans. I am sorry to all of you fans that I didn’t make it.”

Saturday’s failure to qualify marked only the 22nd time he’s DNQ’d in his 40-year professional drag racing career. He set a drag racing record by qualifying for 395 consecutive events from 1988 until April 2007.

“I am bummed that the boss didn’t get in. That was quite a streak he had going,” Hight said of hoss and father-in-law. “There is nobody better at rallying a team and leading a comeback than John Force.

“He loves the fight and he will do whatever it takes to get his team back on top. It really isn’t something to worry about because two of our Chevys are No.1 and No. 2 right now.

“We have good combinations and we just have to duplicate one of those set ups for John’s PEAK Funny car. He’ll be back next week in Charlotte.”

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As for the other classes (information courtesy NHRA Media Relations):Leah Pritchett set a new Top Fuel track record during the final qualifying session on Saturday to secure the top spot in Top Fuel heading into Sunday.Hight (Funny Car) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the fifth of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Defending event champion Pritchett raced her Mopar Dodge dragster to a pass of 3.680-seconds at 326.00 mph. This is her first No. 1 qualifier of the season and eighth of her career.

“We’ve been developing our confidence the last couple of races,” Pritchett stated. “To be able to put it on the track is phenomenal. We know we need to be exceptional because our competition is exceptional.”

Pritchett will line up against Terry Brian in round one of eliminations on Sunday. Defending world champion Brittany Force locked-in the No. 2 spot after a 3.701 at 313.80 in her Monster Energy dragster. Tony Schumacher is seeded third and will face William Litton.

Hight’s final qualifying pass of 3.894 at 317.27 in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro took him to the top of the Funny Car category. This is his first No. 1 qualifier of the season, second at Houston and 58th of his career.

“This is going to be a new ball game tomorrow,” Hight said. “With fresh asphalt and the sun being out; these cars are going to spin. It’s definitely going to be fun. Two of our Chevy’s are one and two (in Funny Car) which shows we have good combinations.”

Hight will face-off against Todd Simpson Sunday morning in the first round. Teammate Courtney Force sits in the No. 2 position with a pass of 3.911 at 295.14 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro and two-time world champion Matt Hagan rounds out the top three.

Anderson, four-time Pro Stock world champion, remained atop the field Saturday with his pass of 6.492 at 213.00 in his Summit Racing Equipment Chevrolet Camaro from the first qualifying session on Friday. He notched his third consecutive No. 1 qualifier of the season and is seeking his first victory of the year.

“I haven’t had great Sunday’s yet,” Anderson stated. “I know I’m going to break through one of these days though. The weather is going to be great again tomorrow. I feel good about it, I’m excited and so far it’s just been a great weekend.”

Anderson will race Steve Graham in the first round of eliminations. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified in the No. 2 position with a pass of 6.504 at 212.36 in his JEGS.com/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro and Tanner Gray is third.

Eliminations at the NHRA SpringNationals begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday at Royal Purple Raceway.

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SUNDAY’S FIRST-ROUND PAIRINGS FOR ELIMINATIONS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.680 seconds, 326.00 mph vs. 16. Terry Brian, 4.275, 284.62; 2. Brittany Force, 3.701, 320.20 vs. 15. Terry Haddock, 4.081, 287.17; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.703, 322.73 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 3.927, 306.60; 4. Billy Torrence, 3.737, 317.87 vs. 13. Kebin Kinsley, 3.819, 313.51; 5. Antron Brown, 3.740, 324.98 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.783, 314.31; 6. Clay Millican, 3.746, 315.78 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.766, 313.73; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.748, 320.05 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.766, 316.23; 8. Scott Palmer, 3.754, 318.17 vs. 9. Steve Torrence, 3.759, 313.88. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Totten, 4.636, 216.34.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.894, 317.27 vs. 16. Todd Simpson, Dodge Charger, 4.318, 288.33; 2. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.911, 313.58 vs. 15. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.151, 283.49; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.913, 311.85 vs. 14. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.077, 305.77; 4. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.918, 317.42 vs. 13. Richard Townsend, Camry, 4.026, 308.99; 5. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.918, 301.94 vs. 12. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.017, 307.51; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.925, 311.41 vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.994, 311.34; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.926, 313.00 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.989, 313.37; 8. Jonnie Lindberg, Camry, 3.927, 316.52 vs. 9. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.938, 314.09. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 4.341, 273.05; 18. John Force, 4.625, 222.29.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.492, 213.00 vs. 16. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.775, 205.60; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.504, 212.36 vs. 15. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.621, 208.65; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.507, 211.99 vs. 14. John Gaydosh Jr, Chevrolet Camaro, 6.592, 210.93; 4. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.513, 212.29 vs. 13. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.548, 210.67; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.518, 211.99 vs. 12. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.545, 210.50; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.79 vs. 11. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.532, 212.73; 7. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.527, 212.29 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.532, 211.79; 8. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.528, 211.93 vs. 9. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.530, 211.33.