Chilton follows up strong qualifying with solid seventh at PIR

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – We noted prior to Saturday’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams’ Max Chilton is high on life with a series of good life events to go along with his best qualifying run in two Verizon IndyCar Series races.

He backed it up nicely Saturday night with a seventh place result, after a clean, smooth and mature beyond his years drive in his maiden oval start in an IndyCar.

The driver of the No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet had of course won in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Iowa Speedway last year, but Saturday night’s 250-lapper in an IndyCar was only his third ever oval race.

But he ran as high as fourth and never dropped below 11th, having stayed on the lead lap for all 250 laps. The only downside, he thought, was losing a couple positions on pit stop and at one point losing out to Ryan Hunter-Reay and Graham Rahal on Lap 153 following a restart – hardly room for blame.

As Chilton related post-race, it was almost a nice feeling to have known he’d not only done a great job, but felt it could have ended even better.

“I’m really, really happy with it,” Chilton told NBC Sports. “It’s weird that considering this was my first ever oval experience in IndyCar, I’m slightly disappointed with seventh. Because we could have easily done what (Simon) Pagenaud did, and he got second. We had a slight problem with getting into first gear on a stop. A half second is the difference in two places.

“But it’s different. I thought we’d got Rahal in the last stop. He was half a nose ahead of me. There was a lot to learn. And the restarts were pretty mental!”

Chilton wound up doing a better job of fuel saving than he realized throughout the race, which helped pay dividends – particularly as passing was difficult to achieve.

“It was difficult. The last stint was easier with new tires. (Tony Kanaan) made it look easy. But it wasn’t that easy! I was just happy to get the result. I never did a lap flat, today. I was literally just fuel saving.

“It wasn’t really fuel saving – the team weren’t telling me to do so – but it was to a point as you couldn’t follow. I was looking after my tires. The third stop, the Andretti guys all stopped early. I got lucky twice where we were just about to pit, and then there was yellow.”

It’s funny Chilton mentions that; he benefited whereas Hunter-Reay lost out, twice, pitting just before a yellow came out.

He also earned praise from Ganassi driver coach Dario Franchitti, who missed Phoenix due to his FIA Formula E Championship commentary commitments, and Ganassi managing director Mike Hull.

Chilton unfortunately had an issue post-Phoenix en route to Charlotte, as he posted a photo of his bag having taken a beating on par with a car into the Phoenix SAFER barrier.

Behind Chilton on Saturday night of the other oval first-timers, Alexander Rossi finished an unrepresentative 14th after running as high as sixth; Conor Daly got his car feeling better and was a solid 16th, despite losing time after running out of fuel at one point, and Luca Filippi ended 20th after an early spin to bring out the first yellow.

In total, the four oval debutantes completed 992 of a possible 1,000 race laps – no small achievement.

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