What to watch for: IndyCar at Pocono (VIDEO)

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LET’S COMPROMISE

Pocono’s three distinct turns make for a tremendous challenge in setting up the car. Turn 1 is banked at 14 degrees, Turn 2 (modeled after the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) at nine degrees, and Turn 3 (modeled after the Milwaukee Mile) at six degrees. If a team can hit solidly on a set-up that can have their driver excel in two of those corners, that’s about as good as they’ll get here at the “Tricky Triangle.” There’s also the matter of having the right amount of gearing on the car, as Pocono’s relatively long straightaways will force drivers to work the shifter as they try to close in on their rivals and make passes.

TRIPLE CROWN WATCH

We all know a Triple Crown would be a shot in the arm for horse racing, but you’d think IndyCar racing would also benefit nicely if Tony Kanaan could achieve its own version. Kanaan has one part of it down after winning the Indianapolis 500 in May, and now he’ll seek to claim the second leg (and a $250,000 bonus) at Pocono from the inside of Row 2 (fifth position). He’ll have to go through the Andretti Autosport gang, led by pole sitter Marco Andretti, in order to do that, but should he come through, Kanaan will get the chance at a $1 million prize in October at the season finale in California. Watch out for him today.

MARCO READY FOR A BREAKTHROUGH

Speaking of the aforementioned Andretti, he’s been atop the charts throughout the weekend on what now qualifies as his home track (we miss you, Nazareth Speedway). But you know that the third-generation racer won’t be satisfied unless he can claim victory at Pocono, where his grandfather Mario won back in 1986 for the legendary Newman-Haas outfit. And you have to believe with Andretti Autosport teammates James Hinchcliffe and Ryan Hunter-Reay having claimed five wins between them already this season, he’s getting anxious for a checkered flag of his own.

CHAMPIONSHIP PICTURE

As a new track on the circuit, Pocono could turn out to be a “wild card” in the current title fight between Helio Castroneves and Hunter-Reay, who trails the Brazilian by nine points going into today’s race. Both competitors are starting toward the front today – RHR from second, Castroneves from sixth. Will one of them be in position to capitalize if the other makes a costly error? Or will we see a relative “draw” between the two instead going into the Toronto doubleheader next weekend?

Cadillac, Acura battle for top speed as cars back on track for Rolex 24 at Daytona practice

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The new hybrid prototypes of Cadillac and Acura battled atop the speed chart as practice resumed Thursday for the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

Chip Ganassi Racing driver Richard Westbrook was fastest Thursday afternoon in the No. 02 Cadillac V-LMDh with a 1-minute, 35.185-second lap around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course at Daytona International Speedway.

That pace topped Ricky Taylor’s 1:35.366 lap that topped the Thursday morning session that marked the first time the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was back on track since qualifying Sunday afternoon that concluded the four-day Roar Before The Rolex 24 test.

Punctuated by Tom Blomqvist’s pole position for defending race winner Meyer Shank Racing, the Acura ARX-06s had been fastest for much of the Roar and led four consecutive practice sessions.

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But the times have been extremely tight in the new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) category that has brought hybrid engines to IMSA’s premier class. Only 0.9 seconds separated the nine LMDh cars in GTP in qualifying, and though the spread slightly widened to 1.378 seconds in Thursday’s practices with teams on varying strategies and preparation, Westbrook still pooh-poohed the importance of speeds.

“It’s always nice to be at the top, but I don’t think it means too much or read too much into it” Westbrook said. “Big fuel tanks in the GTP class this year, so you have no idea what fuel levels people are running. We had a good run, and the car is really enjoyable to drive now. I definitely wasn’t saying that a month ago.

“It really does feel good now. We are working on performance and definitely unlocking some potential, and it just gives us more confidence going into the race. It’s going to be super tight. Everyone’s got the same power, everyone has the same downforce, everyone has the same drag levels and let’s just go race.”

Because teams have put such a premium on reliability, handling mostly has suffered in the GTPs, but Westbrook said the tide had turned Thursday.

“These cars are so competitive, and you were just running it for the sake of running it in the beginning, and there’s so much going on, you don’t really have time to work on performance,” he said. “A lot of emphasis was on durability in the beginning, and rightly so, but now finally we can work on performance, and that’s the same for other manufacturers as well. But we’re worrying about ourselves and improving every run, and I think everybody’s pretty happy with their Cadillac right now.”

Mike Shank, co-owner of Blomqvist’s No. 60 on the pole, said his team still was facing reliability problems despite its speed.

“We address them literally every hour,” Shank said. “We’re addressing some little thing we’re doing better to try to make it last. And also we’re talking about how we race the race, which will be different from years past.

“Just think about every system in the car, I’m not going to say which ones we’re working on, but there are systems in the car that ORECA and HPD are continually trying to improve. By the way, sometimes we put them on the car and take them off before it even goes out on the track because something didn’t work with electronics. There’s so much programming. So many departments have to talk to each other. That bridge gets broken from a code not being totally correct, and the car won’t run. Or the power steering turns off.”

Former Rolex 24 winner Renger van der Zande of Ganassi said it still is a waiting game until the 24-hour race begins Saturday shortly after 1:30 p.m.

“I think the performance of the car is good,” van der Zande said. “No drama. We’re chipping away on setup step by step and the team is in control. It’s crazy out there what people do on the track at the moment. It’s about staying cool and peak at the right moment, and it’s not the right moment yet for that. We’ll keep digging.”


PRACTICE RESULTS:

Click here for Session I (by class)

Click here for Session II (by class)

Combined speeds