IndyCar title chase may shape up as a battle of mental chess match

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Some years, luck determines the Verizon IndyCar Series championship outcome. Some years, it’s runs of success over a certain period.

This year, it might be who can keep their head in check best after overcoming adversity.

For all of the series top drivers and presumptive title contenders – Will Power, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Scott Dixon, Helio Castroneves and Simon Pagenaud – managing both their own expectations and their view of their competitors could determine who emerges ahead once this season is over.

The Chevrolet Indy Dual in Detroit Presented by Quicken Loans weekend kicked off a stretch of 13 races over three months, and begun the crucial “summer stretch” between now and the last doubleheader weekend, the Honda Indy Two in Toronto July 18-20, that will go a long way towards determining this year’s championship.

From Detroit to Toronto, the series will race nine times in eight weekends. There’s a two-week gap in-between Texas next Saturday night and the Houston doubleheader June 27-29, which is many weeks off as the series will have the rest of the season after Houston (the Sundays of July 27 and August 10 represent the remaining off weekends).

This stretch includes all three doubleheader weekends (Detroit, Houston, Toronto) plus Pocono, which is a double points, 500-mile race. Only Texas next weekend and Iowa the second weekend of July will be one qualifying, one race weekends with the standard points structure.

Just in the last month, we’ve seen how drivers are starting to handle themselves as we head into this mental stretch of races.

The Grand Prix of Indianapolis to kick off the month of May saw Pagenaud and the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Hamilton Motorsports team at the forefront, quickest car on the weekend and smartest too, in terms of nailing their fuel strategy to make it home over Hunter-Reay and Castroneves.

Then RHR and Castroneves engaged in an epic scrap for the win at the Indianapolis 500… neither giving an inch and RHR ultimately making two brilliant passes for the win. He was elated; Castroneves did well to hide his frustration publicly, but you know he was gutted to finish second by that little a gap, and lose out on his fourth ‘500 win.

This weekend saw Power take on the role of the villain, the masked avenger who made contact with Pagenaud on Saturday (no penalty, just as he also did not receive one in Long Beach) but did make contact with Josef Newgarden and Graham Rahal on Sunday (which did trigger a penalty).

Meanwhile Castroneves came out revitalized with arguably his best weekend in the series in years. He’s won races with the DW12 before, yes, but not with as much “he’s still got it” pace and gusto as he delivered both races this weekend, particularly Sunday. It was a seriously impressive mental bounce back after losing out in Indy.

Power’s mind has long been hard to decipher. He’s consistently been IndyCar’s out-and-out fastest driver since he joined Team Penske, but he’s never been fully able to keep it all together over the course of the season, and hasn’t yet captured an elusive championship. This year, he’s not making any friends, and he’s not focusing on points – only on driving the best he can every race. It remains to be seen whether that mindset will ultimately pay dividends.

Hunter-Reay is arguably IndyCar’s most versatile driver, as he excels on any of road courses, short ovals and big ovals. If he has even the tiniest of weak points, it’s on street courses, where he’s been plagued either by mechanical issues or slight mistakes the last year and a half. After Indy, RHR had a weekend nearly as bad as AJ Allmendinger’s last year in Detroit, and now must find a way to recover in Texas.

Pagenaud and Dixon are similar in that they both have a seriously steely resolve and exterior, and haven’t let issues get to them this year, at least publicly. Dixon’s Sunday drive from 22nd and last to fourth was one of those classic “don’t forget how good the Iceman/defending champion is” type-performances. Pagenaud, too, came back on Sunday following a rough Friday and Saturday.

What about Castroneves? He might have the best mindset going forward. At 39, he’s closer to the end of his career than the beginning. He nails the game outside of the cockpit; he’s still IndyCar’s most recognizable star on a national level and he’s won everything he’s ever needed to in IndyCar. Except, of course, that elusive first championship.

The Brazilian is basically IndyCar’s walking, talking version of Pharrell’s “Happy!” but there’s still a burning desire to be the best when he straps his helmet on. He’s driving so much calmer, cooler and consistently than he was three years ago.

If Power and/or Hunter-Reay self-destruct around him, Dixon can’t make up the 140-plus point deficit (he’s 142 back now, and we’ll know likely by Pocono whether he still has a shot) and Pagenaud isn’t consistent enough to match the “big teams,” Castroneves may well samba into this year’s title.

Marco Andretti’s the remaining driver in the top five still with a shot at the title, but he’s at the point where he has to win – particularly at Pocono, given double points there – before you can really begin to factor him into title contention. Given his results consistency level though, you can’t rule him out of it, either.

How drivers and teams manage this summer stretch, both on-track and in their heads, will be fascinating to watch.

NHRA: Force power — Courtney, Brittany — dominates 1st day of qualifying at Norwalk

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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NHRA Media Release

NORWALK, Ohio – Both Brittany and Courtney Force are the current No. 1 qualifiers in their respective nitro categories after one qualifying session due to inclement weather at the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park.

Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) is also a current No. 1 qualifier at the 12th event of 24 on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule. Weather did not allow for Pro Stock to take to the track during Friday’s qualifying.

Force piloted her Monster Energy / Advance Auto Parts dragster to a 3.776-second pass at 324.44 mph which took her to the top of the Top Fuel category Friday evening. She looks to secure her second No. 1 qualifier of the season and 10th of her career.

“That pass was very important for our team,” B. Force stated. “With the rain you don’t know how many laps you’re going to get in before race day. The conditions were great, and we just went straight down there.”

Eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher is in second after his U.S. Army ran a pass of 3.792 at 324.44. Points leader Steve Torrence is third with a 3.792 at 327.82 in his Capco Contractors dragster.

Funny Car points leader Courtney Force leads qualifying with her run of 3.935 at 327.66 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS. She is coming off a No. 1 qualifying position in Bristol and seeking her eighth No. 1 of the season.

“Going up there I was a little surprised we were going to lay down a number like that,” C. Force said. “With the rain coming in I was just looking for a clean run from point A to B. The car went straight down there and it felt like a good run.”

Ron Capps is in second after his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T ran a 3.961 at 320.28 and teammate Matt Hagan is third with a 3.981 at 325.22.

Smith holds the Pro Stock Motorcycle top spot after running as 6.866 at 195.39 on his Victory Magnum. He looks to lock-in his first No. 1 qualifier of the season.

“It was good to get the first run down,” Smith stated. “We have a top three bike every weekend. I’ve just got to do my job, be focused and hurt some feelings.”

Angelle Sampey rode her Team Liberty Racing Victory Magnum to a 6.899 at 193.24 and Andrew Hines rounds out the top three with a 6.911 at 194.58.

Qualifying for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals continues at 12:45 p.m. Saturday at Summit Motorsports Park.

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NORWALK, Ohio — Friday’s results after the first one of three rounds of qualifying for the 12th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, 12th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Qualifying will continue Saturday for Sunday’s final eliminations.

TOP FUEL: 1. Brittany Force, 3.776 seconds, 324.44 mph; 2. Tony Schumacher, 3.792, 330.63; 3. Steve Torrence, 3.792, 327.82; 4. Clay Millican, 3.800, 329.91; 5. Antron Brown, 3.805, 323.27; 6. Mike Salinas, 3.818, 313.07; 7. Pat Dakin, 3.833, 328.86; 8. Doug Kalitta, 3.871, 309.13; 9. Leah Pritchett, 4.099, 271.73; 10. Scott Palmer, 5.854, 116.34; 11. Richie Crampton, 6.073, 104.42; 12. Blake Alexander, 7.041, 82.72; 13. Dom Lagana, 7.105, 85.82; 14. Terry McMillen, 7.432, 91.70; 15. Luigi Novelli, 7.996, 75.45; 16. Chris Karamesines, 9.544, 59.37. Not Qualified: 17. Kyle Wurtzel, 10.731, 64.88; 18. Audrey Worm, 12.635, 56.10.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.935, 327.66; 2. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.961, 320.28; 3. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.981, 325.22; 4. John Force, Camaro, 3.991, 325.22; 5. Robert Hight, Camaro, 4.017, 322.27; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.032, 314.61; 7. J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.044, 315.27; 8. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.101, 308.57; 9. Dale Creasy Jr., Dodge Stratus, 4.143, 313.95; 10. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.148, 279.73; 11. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.198, 298.21; 12. Jeff Diehl, Camry, 4.258, 304.67; 13. John Smith, Camry, 4.302, 277.66; 14. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.997, 185.92; 15. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 5.409, 152.64; 16. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 6.489, 101.17. Not Qualified: 17. Shawn Langdon, 6.512, 106.74; 18. Cruz Pedregon, 10.971, 44.80.

PRO STOCK: Class did not race due to rain.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Matt Smith, Victory, 6.866, 195.39; 2. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.899, 193.24; 3. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.911, 194.58; 4. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.915, 192.85; 5. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.917, 195.39; 6. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.929, 190.92; 7. Hector Arana Jr., Buell, 6.938, 196.64; 8. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.938, 194.66; 9. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.952, 193.63; 10. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.954, 193.85; 11. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.975, 195.70; 12. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.990, 191.51; 13. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.066, 191.13; 14. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.074, 190.92; 15. Ron Tornow, Buell, 7.158, 188.75; 16. Mark Paquette, Buell, 7.209, 187.29. Not Qualified: 17. Marc Ingwersen, 7.428, 187.29; 18. Joey Gladstone, 12.376, 63.63; 19. Kelly Clontz, broke.