INDYCAR: Alexander Rossi roars to pole for Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach

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Alexander Rossi was a man on a mission, wasting little time to capture the pole for Sunday’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach during Saturday’s qualifying on the 1.968-mile, 11-turn street course on the streets of Long Beach.

But then again, there wasn’t really a lot of time left to waste for Rossi and his Honda to record the top elapsed time of the field (1:06.5528).

While other drivers went out on-track earlier in the Firestone Fast Six session, Rossi waited until less than two minutes to go to take to the track for his pole attempt, hoping to capitalize on the track cooling off in the later stages of the afternoon – and that strategy worked.

It was Rossi’s second career IndyCar pole position. In his previous pole (at Watkins Glen last year), he went on to win the race. Will history repeat itself on Sunday?

“The team’s just doing a great job,” the Andretti Autosport driver told NBCSN. “Hats off to all of them, to Honda, to everyone who’s put in so much effort. The big job is tomorrow, so we have to execute that. We feel like we’ve given up two potential wins (in the first two races of the season), so let’s not to try and do that tomorrow.”

Will Power qualified P2 (1:06.9054), followed by teammate Simon Pagenaud (1:06.9107), Scott Dixon (1.07.0483), Graham Rahal (1:07.1275) and Josef Newgarden (1:07.1922).

“I’m happy to be on the front row,” Power said. “You almost have to scrape the wall on every exit to get the most out of the car. It’s a lot of fun, the car’s moving around, who needs downforce (he said with a chuckle).”

Added Pagenaud, “That’s the first time I’ve had the car I want it to be (in the first three races). We’re creeping up and slowly learning the limits. I think there’s a little bit more lap time in there. We’re right there. If we take care of the tires in race time, I think it’ll be an exciting race.”

Dixon said, “It’s been a tough weekend for us. We started really well and then had a few issues through the other sessions and made some pretty big wholesale changes to the car. … I think we were looking good for second, maybe shooting for the pole, but locked up going into (Turn) eight and lost all the time and had to abort the lap. I’m looking for a good result tomorrow.”

Rahal had a much better qualifying effort than his last-place start in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg last month. His effort Saturday gave him his best qualifying start at Long Beach since his first-ever race there back in 2007, when he also started fifth.

“Yeah, it’s been a while,” Rahal told NBCSN. “We obviously were awful at St. Pete. If that’s your last baseline on a street course, you never know what you’re going to get when you come into a weekend like this. We didn’t have the ultimate pace like others did, but we have tires for days tomorrow.

“Strategy-wise, I think the race will be a lot more fun for fans to watch. This isn’t going to just be a fuel mileage race as it historically has been. This new car is so much more fuel efficient, you’re going to be able to do this thing on two stops. So I think it’s going to be a lot more fun and we’ll be able to go to battle right away.”

Late in the final Fast Six session, Newgarden hit the wall ahead of Rossi, bending his suspension, but wisely moved out of the way to allow Rossi to go by.

“I just ran out of talent momentarily,” Newgarden told NBCSN. “I was trying to maximize that first lap, even though I knew the second lap was really the lap we needed to hit. I got a bit of a slide in the entry and tried to stay in it, which was a mistake, and then I clipped the left rear. The toe was bent and we had to pit.

“It’s tough making mistakes. We just have to try and work a little bit harder tomorrow. I made it a little bit tougher for where we have to start. … As long as we’re smart at the start and execute our pit stops, I think we’ll be fine.”

Also during the qualifying rounds:

* Rookie Robert Wickens fell short of making the final six for the Firestone Fast Six after grazing the wall. “I just pushed a little too hard and pressed the wall at the exit of Turn 4 and bent the rear toe-link, so we had to bring it back in,” Wickens told NBCSN. “It’s a shame but when you’re pushing on the limit trying to get into the Fast Six, you risk everything. We went a little bit too far on that one.”

* During qualifying for the Firestone Fast Six, veteran driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, who has had one of the quickest cars of the weekend, received a penalty for failure to go over a transponder for the timing loop while exiting pit lane.

* During Group 2 qualifying, rookie Kyle Kaiser hit the Turn 9 wall and caused significant damage to his suspension, including leaving debris on-track.

* At the end of Turn 1 during his qualifying turn, Marco Andretti spun with less than a minute to go and failed to make the 12-car field to run for the Firestone Fast Six. Former Andretti Autosport teammate Takuma Sato was not happy with Andretti, blaming him for Sato being unable to make the 12-driver field for the Firestone Fast Six qualifying.

* During the start of qualifying for the Firestone Fast Six, Will Power was not happy at how Rossi appeared to jump the crowd to get out on-track. Power and Team Penske reportedly called for a penalty, but none was issued.

The 44th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach takes place Sunday. The final driver warmup occurs at 12 p.m. ET/9 a.m. PT.

The green flag for the event is expected to drop around 4:40 p.m. ET/1:40 p.m. PT.

Catch all the action on NBCSN, starting with the pre-race show at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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.