Photo: IndyCar

IndyCar: Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach recap

Leave a comment

Sunday’s 44th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the third race of the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season, was also the middle weekend in a strong of three straight races for IndyCar in the month April.

Last week’s Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix kicked off the month of April with a bang, and that momentum continued in Long Beach, with the race winner adding yet another crown jewel to his still young IndyCar career, a slew of late-race dramatics creating a few surprises in the finishing order, and even a couple strong comeback drives.

Below if a recap of the major stories that surfaced exiting IndyCar’s weekend at “The Beach.”

Alexander Rossi Confirms Status as IndyCar Star

Alexander Rossi celebrates his victory at the 2018 Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Photo: IndyCar

It’s hard to believe that Alexander Rossi is only 26 years old. The California native got his first taste of Formula 1 in 2009 with the old BMW Sauber F1 Team (now the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team) as a reward for winning the 2008 Formula BMW Americas championships.

Fast forward to 2015 and Rossi, a long-established race winner in what is now the FIA Formula 2 championship, got his crack at an F1 race seat with the Manor Marussia F1 Team.

In 2016, his first in the IndyCar ranks, he captured the sport’s biggest crown jewel, winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500. In 2017, he followed that up with a victory at Watkins Glen International, another iconic racing venue in the U.S. that confirmed his status as a budding star.

And this past weekend, he confirmed that he has moved past the “budding star” moniker and is becoming as high-profile a driver in IndyCar as anyone currently on the grid.

Rossi’s weekend at Long Beach was one of absolute dominance. He was fastest in two of the first three practice sessions – the one he didn’t lead was opening practice on Friday, in which he ended up third – captured the pole for Sunday’s race, was fastest in the final warm-up, and led 71 of 85 laps on his way to victory.

Further, he only surrendered the lead during cycles of pit stops, and at times held a lead of over nine seconds, with the field only closing up during a string of late-race caution periods. Yet, despite losing his enormous lead multiple times due to the aforementioned yellows, Rossi always managed to power away on every restart, and made his charge to victory look seemingly easy.

And to win in California, his home state, made his triumph all the sweeter.

“It’s pretty hard to put into words honestly what it means,” Rossi revealed in the post-race press conference. “This one, even though it’s not my true home race, it really feels like one, and the crowds here and just the whole atmosphere is so welcoming and inviting that it’s no surprise that this race has been on the calendar for so long. It’s a pleasure to be able to come here and race, first of all, and to be able to win here is pretty special.”

What’s more, Rossi now leads the championship with 126 points, 22 ahead of second-place Josef Newgarden, doing so on the back of finishes of third, third, and first in the opening three races.

While the season is only three races old, Rossi has asserted himself as an early championship contender, and such competitors as second-place finisher Will Power have taken notice.

“I think (Rossi) is going to be tough to beat in the championship,” Power said. “He’s definitely what I’d call a standout of the field right now in every respect.”

There is still plenty of racing left in 2018 (14 more races), but Alexander Rossi has quickly asserted himself as a championship favorite.

Surprises and Comeback Drives Abound in the Top 10

It was hardly a surprise that Alexander Rossi and Will Power, two of the best drivers on the IndyCar grid, finished first and second in Long Beach.

Behind them, however, a number of surprises came to the surface, especially in the Top 10.

Ed Jones and Zach Veach had quiet but solid races that also saw strategy and cautions fall their way, resulting in finishes of third and fourth for the pair of IndyCar young guns.

Graham Rahal rebounded from an early-race, drive-through penalty – incurred after contact with Simon Pagenaud on Turn 1, Lap 1 – to finish fifth after going off strategy and demonstrating strong race pace, along with being on the receiving end of some timely cautions to help he and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s strategy.

Marco Andretti started a lowly 20th, but also capitalized on strong pace and timely cautions that helped his strategy to finish a strong sixth.

However, just as many drivers suffered misfortune that dropped them from contention.

Sebastien Bourdais had the speed to finish on the podium, and he may have had the pass of the car in getting by then second-place runner Scott Dixon and the lapped cars of Spencer Pigot and Matheus Leist in one move.

But Bourdais was ordered to give the spot back to Dixon after it was determined he crossed into the pit exit lane to complete the pass, and while he quickly regained the position, a Lap 60 caution for a crashed Zachary Claman DeMelo saw him fail to enter pit lane before it was closed, this after contenders like Rossi had already pitted, forcing him to drive through and complete his full-service stop under caution.

Bourdais restarted in 11th, and ended up getting spun off the nose of Jordan King in the Turn 11 hairpin with 14 laps remaining, and he dropped to 13th at the end.

Dixon, too, was bitten by the Lap 60 caution, and a miscommunication saw his No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing team complete a pit stop under a closed pit lane, netting them a penalty when racing resumed. Dixon ultimately finished 11th.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, meanwhile, had a day to forget. Despite showing speed that could have seen him battle for a podium finish, Hunter-Reay was saddled with a string of misfortune. He clipped the left-rear of Dixon entering Turn 1 after the race start, damaging his front wing and forcing a nose change.

He climbed all the way back into the Top 5 before suffering a cut right-rear tire after a Lap 47 restart, and his day finally came to an end with four laps remaining after he made contact with the wall.

All told, Long Beach as its typical chaotic self, which resulted some new names finishing near the front, while expected contenders were left wanting for more.

Notes:

  • After a stellar opening two races, Robert Wickens came back to Earth somewhat in Long Beach. He qualified a somewhat disappointing tenth, suffered gearbox problems on Lap 25, and the No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson motorsports team spent a total of six laps in the pits repairing the problem. He finished 22nd.
  • Jack Harvey finished a solid 12th in the second race for the newly renamed Meyer Shank Racing effort in partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. Their next event will be the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500 in May.
  • While IndyCar is famous for its international driver flare, three American drivers currently lead the championship in Alexander Rossi, Josef Newgarden, and Graham Rahal.

IndyCar’s busy month of April continues this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, with the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

 

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

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
Leave a comment

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.”

****************************************
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.

****************************************
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.