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PWC: Johnny O’s last stand as GT champ?

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Johnny O’Connell has won four straight Pirelli World Challenge GT championships for Cadillac Racing, first in the venerable CTS-V.R and now in the new ATS-V.R GT3.

Down over 100 points this weekend, he needs to win and hope the two drivers in front of him, Alvaro Parente and Patrick Long, don’t score any points.

It’s a longshot, but it’s not impossible. Here’s more from the series:

Sports car driving legend Johnny O’Connell enjoyed a wild finish in last year’s Pirelli World Challenge Championships at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca when the Cadillac Racing driver scored his fourth consecutive GT point title.

O’Connell recalls that it was not easy as he was in a fierce battle with former Corvette Racing teammate Olivier Beretta, who was driving a Ferrari last year.

“I got a great start last year and I knew Olivier would be coming up to challenge after he had a disappointing qualifying run,” said O’Connell, the four-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion. “He made a wild move entering the ‘Corkscrew’ and his car hit mine from behind. I wasn’t sure if my Cadillac was damaged but I had to keep going to finish the race. He felt he had to win the race to win the championship. He made another wild move later in the race and he didn’t finish. But I did finish and we won our fourth straight crown. It was a crazy race.”

Now, the Flowery Branch, Ga., driver needs another crazy race this weekend (Oct. 7-9) in the PWC season finale at the famous 2.238-mile, 11-turn Northern California permanent road racing circuit. Johnny is in third in the current GT point standings behind leader Alvaro Parente and second place Patrick Long.

“I’m in a ‘must-win’ situation this weekend,” said O’Connell, who trails Parente by 104 points entering Sunday’s 50-minute GT sprint event. “It will be hard to match the drama of last year with Olivier, but we aren’t mathematically out of the title chase yet. We’ll need some luck to win the title but, hey, I’m Irish. Who knows?”

O’Connell, who’s tied with his Cadillac Racing teammate Michael Cooper at 1451 points, vaulted back into the GT points hunt with a sensational double win weekend last month at Sonoma Raceway. Now Johnny needs another win for a shot at a spectacular fifth straight GT championship in the highly-competitive Pirelli World Challenge.

“We had a very strong car at Sonoma and (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca has always suited me very well,” he said. “I have won there and have been on the podium a lot over my racing career. We’ll need that performance again and some tough luck for the point leaders. But it’s racing and anything is possible.”

At age 54, O’Connell proved at Sonoma that age is not a factor as he defeated a driver three times younger in talented Austin Cindric (age 18). And the New York native is looking to add to his PWC victory total of 20 when the green flag drops this Sunday (Oct. 9) at 1:05 p.m. PDT.

“It has been a season of some great competition and I am proud of how everyone at Cadillac Racing has risen to the challenge all year,” said Johnny. “Michael and I have five wins for Cadillac this year and I thought I had another one at Long Beach. We both want one more before the 2016 campaign is complete.”

With O’Connell attempting to continue his title reign this weekend, Parente and Long, two factory drivers with solid operations behind them, are just nine points apart (1554 – 1545) when official practice runs begin Friday (Oct. 7) at 10:15 a.m. PDT.

Parente, the factory McLaren driver with K-PAX Racing, has been sensational as a GT rookie in PWC with five wins and six pole positions in 2016. And the 31-year-old racer from Porto, Portugal had not seen any of the PWC tracks previously except for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. In 2007, Parente drove in the A1GP event at MRLS.

“I was in a single seater at Laguna Seca several years ago,” said Parente. “It was a A1GP race back in 2007. Then I drove to Las Vegas to see that city. Until this year, I had never been at another race track in U.S. It will be fun to return to (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca now.”

For Long, the 2011 PWC GT champion, he returned to the GT series for a full season for the first time since his title run and scored three wins despite a mid-season team switch.

After winning at the Circuit of the Americas in March for Effort Racing, the Manhattan Beach, Calif., factory driver for Porsche saw his team close down operations in May. But the determined two-time 24 Hours of Le Mans champion was able to join Wright Motorsports later in the month and continue his championship fight.

“The level of competition in the Pirelli World Challenge has vaulted since I was here in 2011,” said Long. “The drivers, cars and teams are so competitive now and it has been a real fight to race for wins and championship points. I look forward to returning to (Mazda Raceway) Laguna Seca for the season finale and the battle for the championship.”

With Parente, Long, O’Connell and Cooper all still with a chance for the GT title, other GT drivers could throw a wrench in their quest for the crown this weekend.

Nissan and Always Evolving brings the duo of Bryan Heitkotter of Fresno, Calif., and Australian JD Davison to the GT action at MRLS along with the Acura and RealTime Racing pair of Ryan Eversley and Spencer Pumpelly both of Atlanta.

Parente’s K-PAX teammates, Cindric of Charlotte and Colin Thompson of Doylestown, Pa., figure to be in the GT mix on Sunday as well as Canadian Kyle Marcelli with Audi, Gunnar Jeannette of Salt Lake City, Utah, with the WeatherTech/Alex Job Racing Porsche and Switzerland’s Fabian Hamprecht in the popular Team Absolute Bentley.

Practice for the 122 Pirelli World Challenge (8 classes) entries begins Friday morning (Oct. 7) with racing set for Saturday and Sunday (Oct. 8-9) to complete the 26th season for North America’s leading production-based sports car series.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix

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Here’s what the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers had to say, courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations, after Saturday qualifying for the KOHLER Grand Prix (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “It’s nice when you have the car to do it. We had the speed on Friday, so to finish it off today is nice. It’s only goal one. Two races; one for pole, one for the race. We need to close it out. Verizon has been very good to us, and Team Chevy as well. Engine package has been phenomenal to get the most out of it. You see how well we work together with Team Penske and Team Chevy. We just have to be smart and get through the first couple laps. Save the tires, save some fuel and be smart if a caution comes out in the middle of the race. We’ll see what we have for tomorrow.”

MATHEUS LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Tough qualifying today. We’ve been struggling a little bit finding the best setup for the car. We need to concentrate for tomorrow so that we have a great car for the race. It’s a long race and you never know what can happen. We will keep working, improving and doing our best and will try to have a top 10 tomorrow.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “We’re struggling a little bit with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) – we just didn’t find the gain like everybody else did. I’m not entirely sure, honestly. Obviously, Robbie (Wickens) is doing well, so it’s a bit of a mystery for us. We went more towards his (Wickens’) setup and the balance kind of went out the window for me. It’s weird because we’ve been able to copy and paste setups all year long between the two of us and it just didn’t work here. I feel bad for the Arrow Electronics boys – obviously, the car’s capable of more. We just didn’t get it today.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “Overall, it’s been a good weekend – we’ve still never been out of the top five in every session. Hopefully, me and the Lucas Oil boys can keep chipping away and come up with a slightly better car for the race tomorrow.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): 
“I just didn’t think we had great space to work in out there on the track. There were about five other guys before us and they are all trying to get their spacing right, as well. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just there’s a tight window for everything. Maybe we should have waved off a third lap on the black (Firestone primary) tires and got ourselves better time on the reds (Firestone alternate tires). It is what it is, though, and we only really had one lap to try and get something going. Then, we had people starting to back up in front of us and never got to show our speed. I think the PNC Bank car had enough for the Firestone Fast Six, but we’ll have to show that speed tomorrow in the race.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda):
 “The guys on the First Data car made some great changes today after we struggled a little bit early on in the weekend here at Road America. That was the most confident I’ve felt with the car so far this weekend and I felt we were going in the right direction. We were capable of being in the Firestone Fast Six today, but we got held up a bit. On the upside, we have a really fast First Data car and something we can use to improve on up the grid for tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “That was close. We were off the whole time. I gave it everything the last lap. A surprise front row. I keep getting front rows every weekend. Not the pole, but yeah, I’m pretty happy. But only five hundredths off, come on. I think I did a really neat lap. Josef (Newgarden) did a great lap. That was all I had.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): 
“I got traffic on my fast lap, but it would have just put us in the top 13, not enough to advance. The car is understeering all weekend. We tried something overnight that didn’t work, so it put us behind a session and we’re back to the car we had yesterday. It was the same car, so we were going to do the same lap time as yesterday when we tried the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but getting traffic didn’t help. But it wasn’t going to change a lot – maybe a few positions, which always helps, but we’ve got a little bit of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “We wanted to be further up and get the GEHL Honda in the top six. We’ve started in the top six every year, but there was nothing more in the car today. For maybe the first time this year, I’m confident saying that; there was nothing more. We only lacked one-tenth (of a second) over four miles from fourth (place), but that’s what Indy car racing is now. Yeah, we qualified ninth, but when you think that a tenth of a second over four-plus miles can move you five spots, it’s crazy, but that’s the reality of Indy car. We’ve just got to try to find a little more improvement for tomorrow, make the car a little more consistent for the race, and hopefully, we can go out there and attack. I think a lot of people have a lot of questions for the race. There is no warmup this year, so we’ll see how it goes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): (About if he feels he’s in a good position to win tomorrow): “Yeah, I don’t know. I’d like to say so, but I’m not sure I believe it myself. It’s been a bit of a tough day. I thought after yesterday we thought we had everything under control, and things were looking good, and this morning we rolled out and struggled with grip and then we went into qualify and really struggled for good. I think I only did one good lap to be honest with you in Q2 on that new set of option tires. Everything was really scrappy and really difficult to put anything together. In (the Firestone Fast Six), I really didn’t get anything done properly. We tried one lap on both sets, but I’m not convinced it was the right thing to do – hindsight 20/20. Just one of those where you come out of the car and you’re not quite sure what else you should or would have done, but not super happy with the way things have gone. The guys did a really good job, but I just — yeah, I’m struggling to read anything that’s happening out there, it’s up and down, making a lot of mistakes, so don’t really feel great about it.

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s so competitive out there. I thought we had a really good chance at doing better in qualifying, but we ended up on the wrong end of the timing sheet. We just missed making it to the second round by a few tenths, so that’s a bit disappointing. That said, tomorrow is a long race and a lot can happen. I’m confident we can move up the field and get that good result we’ve been chasing the last few races.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “We’ve been making progress throughout the weekend, little steps at a time and qualifying was our best session yet. The car is now performing within that half-second window of the front of the field. There’s always that last hundredth of time left to get, so I’m a bit annoyed that we didn’t get it, but it was still a pretty good lap. I got as much as I could out of the car. There was just a little bit of oversteer out of Turn 12 and that’s probably the half a tenth that we needed to transfer. I would have liked to have got through to the next round, but it was still a decent effort considering how much progress we’ve made.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “Qualifying was definitely a solid improvement. It’s nice to have the Direct Supply car in the top 10 to start the race tomorrow. We’ve been making pretty big changes every session and we hadn’t really found anything that worked until qualifying. We were struggling with the front of the car in some places and the rear of the car in other places, we just had to try and tack it down a little bit. Obviously, it helped being on new tires and the reds (Firestone alternate tires), but the car has come alive – certainly a step in the right direction. To only be a tenth or so off the Firestone Fast Six, compared to where we were in practice, is a really good improvement. I’m happy with that, but we want to be higher up and we’ll try for that tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “That’s not the result that we’re all here for, obviously, and I think everyone here at Carlin is disappointed with that qualifying result, but at the same time I know Max (Chilton) and I both have a lot of confidence in this team and our engineering staff. We’ll look at all of the data tonight and learn from each other and try to come up with a plan for tomorrow’s race. The nice thing is that we’re still learning and we’re still constantly making progress, so it’s not like we’re out of options. We still have a lot left to try and a lot left to learn, so we’ll just keep moving forward.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “This weekend so far has been really good for us just confidence-wise. To show the speed that we have, I think we deserve to be in the top six – the car definitely does. I just made a mistake and just overdrove the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the top 12 trying to make into the Firestone Fast Six. I calmed myself down and gathered it up, but I could only get us up to 11th. We have a great race car and I’m excited to see what we can do on race day.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “We can do a lot from fourth. It’s always disappointing when you lead your two groups and miss out on the pole, but it’s so close. It’s amazing that around a four-mile track, it’s so tight. It’s just a testament to get to the championship, but huge hats off to the whole NAPA Know How team. We really struggled yesterday afternoon and made some good decisions overnight that paid off.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We didn’t test here, so we were a bit behind the 8-ball, but we made the right changes and I think we put a good effort out today. I was hoping to go one better at practice and be P2, but starting third is somewhere we can work from tomorrow in the race. It’s going to be interesting with no warmup tomorrow and trying to get the right setup on the race car, but it’s the same for everybody. We have an idea with where we are with older tires, so we’ll try and estimate where we need to be with the setup and put our best effort out there. To fight at it from third is a good thing, so we can do it from there.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was definitely a good day. The entire team worked extremely well. The No. 30 boys always have, but it is great to give them back a nice position in qualifying. We were just four hundredths (of a second) off from the top six (in Round 2) and that shows how competitive the field is. I’m extremely happy to start seventh, which is the best position here so far. It’s a long race. We believe we have a strong car for the race, so I’m looking forward to having a strong result.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today we had no issues, which was important. Yesterday was for sure a setback, as we needed to run the whole day so that we could experiment with the red (alternate) Firestone tires and the softer compound. So not being able to run on the red tires yesterday really did not help our qualifying effort today. It is what it is at this point, so we will come back tomorrow and be ready to run a good race.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “Even though the results might not have shown it, I think we made a lot of progress here today at Road America. We definitely closed the gap from the beginning of the weekend and I really felt like I got everything out of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet that I could. With us starting where we are tomorrow, we’ll have the freedom to try a completely different strategy, and hopefully, we can come away from a track I love with a decent result.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Yet another tough qualifying session for us as we search to find the speed we need to get. We’re going to take a look overnight, and hopefully, we can figure something out for the race. Hopefully, we set ourselves up for a fun race and get to pass a lot of cars.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “We’ve been slipping backward ever since Practice 1 on the time sheets and just missed it. We’re a little bit loose there. I don’t think I got the most out of Lap 1 and we’re outside looking in by three tenths (of a second), so it’s not like we were that close. Hopefully, we’re better with (tire degradation) than we were with new tires. The race is obviously a different pace, but you still want to start further up than 15th.”

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