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Scott Dixon crushes field for Indy 500 pole

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INDIANAPOLIS – Inarguably the best all-around driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series delivered inarguably one of his finest performances of his career.

Scott Dixon crushed qualifying for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, with a four-lap average at 232.164 mph in the No. 9 NTT Data Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Dixon’s is the fastest run at IMS since Arie Luyendyk’s record four-lap average of 236.986 mph in 1996.

Dixon was the third-to-last car to run and held off the final two bullets in the gun, Takuma Sato and Ed Carpenter, in order to secure the top spot for the greatest spectacle in racing, 2017 edition.

“It feels so good,” Dixon told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl. “I did have to lift, but that first lap was just huge. This season has started so great. The emotions are so crazy. Hopefully we can repeat 2008, when we won from pole.”

Carpenter, who was fastest Saturday in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, came up second at 231.664 mph while defending Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi, in the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda, has his first front row start in IndyCar in third place at 231.487 mph, a four-lap average fast enough to briefly hold the pole before Dixon toppled it.

Meanwhile two-time Formula 1 World Champion Fernando Alonso will start fifth in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry after the first 231-plus mph in qualifying, at 231.300 mph.

The Fast Nine shootout took place under sunny skies and with a big question of whether anyone could topple Saturday pacesetter Carpenter, or the armada from Andrett.

Marco Andretti was first out but was only able to unleash an average of 230.474 mph in the No. 27 United Fiber & Data Honda, quickly supplanted by Tony Kanaan in the No. 10 NTT Data Honda at 230.828 mph – a four-lap average quicker than the 2016 pole speed of 230.760 mph set by James Hinchcliffe.

That left it next to Fernando Alonso, the two-time Formula 1 World Champion in his first Fast Nine shootout. In the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry, with a new engine in the back (more on that in a bit), Alonso went 231.113, 231.440, 231.475 and 231.171 mph in his four laps for a four-lap average of 231.300 mph. While that was good enough for provisional pole, the question was where it would land with six drivers to run.

Will Power was first to take a shot at that mark but came up short, with only a 230.200 mph average in the No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet.

Next up was the defending Indianapolis 500 race champion, Alexander Rossi. In the No. 98 NAPA Auto Parts/Curb Honda, Rossi uncorked a four-lap average of 231.487, which knocked Alonso off the pole. His four laps were 231.843, 231.153, 231.479 and 231.475 mph.

While Power ran a left rear winglet off his rear wing assembly, JR Hildebrand did not in the No. 21 Preferred Freezer Chevrolet. With a major slide in Turn 2 on his final lap, Hildebrand’s first three laps of 230.9 or higher dropped to a 230.081 on the fourth, which dropped the average to 230.889 mph and slotted him behind the Andretti teammates.

But next up was Scott Dixon, and Scott Dixon is good.

With four incredible laps of 232.595, 232.135, 232.018 and 231.907 mph, Dixon posted a four-lap average of 232.164 mph. And that would not be beat.

RUNNERS 10-33

After being a victim of a bad qualifying position early on Saturday, Ryan Hunter-Reay was unable to make the Fast Nine shootout. But the driver of the No. 28 DHL Honda made up for it in a big way with a four-lap average of 231.442 mph, which was the fastest of qualifying to date until the shootout.

“That was crazy,” Hunter-Reay told ABC’s Rick DeBruhl. “It was white knuckle; I don’t think I took a breath. It’s a shame we’re not in the Fast Nine. But it doesn’t matter. It’s the Indy 500 next Sunday. The 28 crew, DHL, everyone at Andretti Autosport.

“We’ve had a great car all week. Let’s transfer that. Hi to the family at home, type of thing. Next Sunday is what matters. I want Andretti Autosport to get a pole even if I’m not part of it.”

Another driver unable to make the Fast Nine in disappointing fashion was rookie Ed Jones, who’s had a quietly great week in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. The Dubai-based Brit will start 11th with a four-lap average of 230.578 mph, one of only two drivers in this group (Hunter-Reay) who ran all four of their laps over 230 mph. And from a historical perspective, rookie Alexander Rossi won this race from 11th last year. Jones will, at a minimum, be looking to supplant Alonso as Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year, and has delivered Coyne its best ever Indianapolis 500 starting position. The late Justin Wilson started 14th in both 2013 and 2014.

Completing Row 4 with a solid improvement from Saturday to Sunday was Oriol Servia in the No. 16 Manitowoc Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. The Catalan leapt from 227.150 mph to 230.309 mph in one day. Servia is set for his 200th career Verizon IndyCar Series start next Sunday.

Team Penske’s struggles stood out from there. Both Simon Pagenaud and Josef Newgarden were slower today than they were yesterday, two of only four drivers in this group who were slower on average (Sebastian Saavedra endured a weird 211 mph lap and Jack Harvey hit the Turn 2 wall, but kept his foot planted). With starting positions of 18th (Juan Pablo Montoya), 19th (Helio Castroneves), 22nd (Newgarden) and 23rd (Pagenaud), four of the Team Penske five-pack of cars have their work cut out for them next Sunday.

Elsewhere Pippa Mann bounced back nicely after a 219.282 mph run up to 225.008 mph in the third Dale Coyne Racing car and will start 28th. Buddy Lazier improved his speed by a full two mph and will start 30th – his first time off the last row in five starts since 2007 – and Zach Veach made it out for his first qualifying attempt in the rebuilt third AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet.

The No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, now set to be driven by James Davison, did not make a qualifying attempt. INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye confirmed to NBC Sports that although there was no completed attempt, Sebastien Bourdais’ attempt on Saturday counted for qualifications.

It presents a slight oddity whereby the 33rd starting car will not have a qualifying speed for a second straight year. After a crash in qualifying last year, Alex Tagliani did not post a speed, and rolled off stone last.

Speeds are below for this group.

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.

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