High drama unfolds as O’Connell, Aschenbach win GT, GTS titles

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The 2013 Pirelli World Challenge championships in the GT and GTS classes went down to the final laps of the season yesterday at Houston’s Reliant Park, but in the end, it was Johnny O’Connell (GT) and Lawson Aschenbach (GTS) that clinched the titles in their respective categories with race wins.

James Sofronas entered the race with a slim edge over O’Connell in GT points, but after leading early on, his Audi R8 faltered as the 1.7-mile street circuit began to dry out from earlier rains.

Randy Pobst and O’Connell would get past Sofronas for first and second on Lap 23, and then on Lap 25, things went from bad to worse for Sofronas when he suffered a left tire puncture and was forced to pit; one of the drivers he’d been racing with at the time, Andy Pilgrim, was tagged later with a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact.

O’Connell would then take the lead from Pobst on Lap 26, and go on to claim the win in the No. 3 Cadillac Racing CTS-V.R, marking a successful defense of the GT title he won in 2012. Sofronas finished fifth in the race.

“Coming down to the wire, I lost a lot of sleep over it,” said O’Connell, who had lost the GT points lead in the previous event at Sonoma Raceway. “That’s really the way a championship should be decided. When you have a great car, it makes things a lot easier. I’m emotionally tired just because your guys, they’re counting on you.”

In GTS, Jack Baldwin held the championship lead going into Houston. But Aschenbach (No. 10 Blackdog Speed Shop Chevrolet Camaro) took the point from Baldwin on Lap 3 and would keep it for the remainder of the race.

However, he still needed Baldwin to finish outside the Top 2 to stand a chance at the title. Then, as the final minutes ticked away, Baldwin – who had been running in second – was passed by seven-time Pirelli World Challenge champ Peter Cunningham, as well as Mark Wilkins.

As a result, Aschenbach was able to claim the GTS crown by a mere 12 points over Baldwin, who finished fourth in the race.

“I have to say to everybody at Blackdog Speed Shop, ‘Job well done this year’ – they flat out worked their butts off from November last year, when this deal came together, to today and we’re champions,” Aschenbach said.

“That shows you how much hard work, patience, late nights – everything – that they did to make this happen.”

You can watch the 2013 PWC finale from Houston on Oct. 20 at 4 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.