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Marco Andretti paces first practice at St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Marco Andretti led a Honda sweep of the top four in the opening 45-minute practice session for this weekend’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening round of the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season.

Andretti, in the rebranded No. 27 hhgregg Honda for Andretti Autosport, set a best time of 1:03.7559 around the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit. It’s a good start for the team, which made some operational changes where Eric Bretzman is the team’s new technical director and Bryan Herta is Andretti’s new race strategist.

“We’re off to a good start. It’s still early and we need to stay with it,” Andretti told IndyCar Radio after the session.

Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon were second and third for Chip Ganassi Racing in their first official race weekend sessions back in Hondas, with James Hinchcliffe fourth ahead of defending series champion Simon Pagenaud the top Chevrolet in fifth.

Pagenaud’s teammate, Will Power, had another practice crash – as he did here last year at the Turn 9 kink. On this occasion, Power lost the back end coming through Turn 10 and knocked the rear wheel guard out of alignment, but was able to make it back to the pits under his own power.

Times were a bit slower than last year to start, owing somewhat in part to a last-minute track change this morning at Turn 3. The corner angle was changed from a sweeping right hander to a more angled turn with a new curb on driver’s right. A crest was there following a track repave prior to the weekend and cars were hitting the crest, then getting airborne during Thursday’s practice sessions for other series competing here this weekend. Temperatures were 81 ambient and 108 track to start the session, per Firestone.

Times are below. The second practice is scheduled to start at 3 p.m. This session was delayed a bit by accidents in previous sessions, qualifying for both the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Pirelli World Challenge races.

Female racer makes history with record finishes in dirt national midget events

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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Holly Shelton is riding high after setting a milestone for a female driver in a national midget series feature event on dirt this past weekend.

The Sacramento, California-area resident recorded the highest finish ever for a female dirt national midget series driver with a runner-up finish last Friday at the POWRi Lucas Oil National Midget League double-header weekend at Valley Speedway in Grain Valley, Missouri.

Shelton broke her own national record for top finish by a woman in a national dirt event – she finished third in a USAC race at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, last year.

One night after setting her new national record, Shelton and her Keith Kunz Motorsports Toyota roared back Saturday to finish third (started on the outside pole) in the second half of the weekend double-header, making her the first female dirt driver ever on the national midget circuit to earn back-to-back podium finishes.

“It’s cool making history as a female, but my number one thing is I just want to win,” said Shelton, who will be graduating from Cal-State Sacramento with a B.A. in Criminal Justice this fall. “Truthfully, on the track I don’t even remember that I’m a girl. I’m just racing all the guys with the same goal they have – to win.”

Only one other woman has finished second in either a USAC or POWRi midget feature – Sarah McCune at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway in 1999 – but that was on pavement, not dirt.

The record-setting weekend was great consolation for Shelton, who missed three races earlier this season due to surgery and then sat out three other races last month after suffering a race-related concussion.

“It felt good,” she said of her back-to-back podium finishes. “It builds up my confidence. The car is fast and we keep getting better and we want to build on it.”

Shelton was one of four women that competed in midget competition this weekend. The others were 19-year-old Maria Cofer and 16-year-olds Holley Hollan and Presley Truedson.

“It’s awesome seeing all the little girls come up to me excited to see me at the track,” Shelton said. “Hopefully, it encourages them to pursue their dreams as well and, as the years go on, more girls will get into it.”

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