Photo: Gateway Motorsports Park

PREVIEW: Bommarito Automotive Group 500

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The Verizon IndyCar Series comes to its sixth and final oval race of the year at Gateway Motorsports Park this weekend with five drivers covered by 42 points for the championship, a number of silly season dominoes yet to fall and a number of questions about how the repaved 1.25-mile oval will race.

Add it all up and you have the ingredients for an interesting two-day affair as IndyCar comes back to the greater St. Louis area in Madison, Ill., for Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

Here’s what to look for ahead of this weekend’s race:

2017 Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline – Talking Points

Penske’s fearsome foursome might dominate… again

It seems weird that Team Penske didn’t win either short oval race in 2016 at Phoenix or Iowa based on the amount of trepidation the remaining 17 drivers in the 21-car field have about Penske and its fearsome foursome heading into this weekend.

Going back to Phoenix in April, race winner Simon Pagenaud (116 laps), polesitter Helio Castroneves (73), Will Power (59) and Josef Newgarden (2) combined to lead all 250 laps between them, and finished first (Pagenaud), second (Power), fourth (Castroneves) and ninth (Newgarden). Only JR Hildebrand stuck his Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet into the proverbial knife fight to break up a perfect 1-2-3-4 sweep, banking his first podium in six years a week after sitting out due to a wrist injury.

“St. Louis is where we’ve been at our best from a competitiveness standpoint at short ovals,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports. “But again it’s a bit of an unknown, in terms of what to expect from the new surface. The track grip coming up and with us as good as we were at Phoenix, that should bode well.”

A Hildebrand maiden win would be a surprise, but welcome, interruption to a recent period of Penske dominance that has surged over recent races.

Through the first eight races, Team Penske had three wins (one apiece for Newgarden, Pagenaud and Power in succession), as the field had seven different winners from five different teams.

Since, Team Penske has won five of the last six races to boost their total to eight wins overall, including the last four in a row, the first time the team has done so in five years.

One quick oval points note: Power actually leads all competitors with 220 points in the five oval races thus far this year, with Castroneves second on 219, Pagenaud fifth with 190, and Newgarden lagging a bit in 14th with 145.

You’d be a brave individual to pick against a Penske driver winning on Gateway’s return, but, as we’ve seen occasionally in IndyCar in the past, strange things can happen.

About that repaved surface…

Rahal on revised surface. Photo: Gateway Motorsports Park

A test in May produced a number of warning signs for the series with a lot of cut tires and a lot of bumps. But since the Gateway Motorsports Park staff (led by Curtis Francois and Chris Blair) has shown nothing but willingness to promote the heck out of this race and do whatever it can to ensure the first IndyCar race here in nearly 15 years is a success, the decision was made to repave the track prior to August.

A second test occurred to rave reviews, as drivers hailed the billiard table smooth surface and sets the stage for a grippy, fast 248 laps under the lights on Saturday night. Graham Rahal, who drives a revised livery with Fifth Third Bank primary sponsorship this weekend, has said he expects this to be the best short oval IndyCar race of the year.

“We went and did the tire test; it’s huge credit to everyone there,” Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe told NBC Sports. “The repave was really nice. They did a great job. It’s nice and smooth, tons of grip. Longer straightaways give a greater opportunity to get a run. It’s a big improvement for the facility and everyone involved in the organization.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay added to NBC Sports, “I don’t think it’ll be more than one groove, but you’ll have enough grip to follow closely, and make it potentially very racy. No one really ran in traffic because it was cut short due to rain. It’s certainly very smooth. I thought about it when I left; is it gonna be one of those racy shows, or will be several car lengths apart? It depends on dirty air. I’m not really sure, but I believe it’ll be racier than the Phoenix show.”

Hunter-Reay, whose unlucky run of results for really two-plus years came to a head last week at Pocono when he crashed in qualifying and went to the hospital before rallying to race on Sunday, has along with Tony Kanaan been an incredible driver to watch on short ovals – particularly in the manufacturer aero kit period where the more draggy Honda kit has been at a disadvantage to the slipperier Chevrolet package. Few would begrudge him breaking his winless run this weekend, even if based on car performance, it’s a long shot.

The new track should be lightning fast. Conor Daly led on the old surface with a best time of 25.4371 seconds, 176.907 mph. But unofficial reports from the new surface earlier this month saw the times in the mid-24 second range.

The last pole speed and time, Castroneves’ 25.5732 seconds and 175.965 mph in 2003, will be shattered. The question is whether the outright one-lap record, Raul Boesel’s 24.324 seconds and 187.963 mph set in May 1997 for the inaugural race, will fall. That race was won by NBCSN IndyCar analyst Paul Tracy.

Bourdais back in action

More on Sebastien Bourdais’ surprise but welcome return to action here, and while expectations might not be the highest for him or the Dale Coyne Racing team this weekend, don’t count them out. Bourdais has accumulated a number of oval wins throughout his career in Germany, Las Vegas and Milwaukee, and if his car’s dialed in, he could surprise on track beyond already making the big news that he’s racing at all.

Five for fighting in the title tilt

The top five drivers are separated by just 42 points in the championship battle. Newgarden leads Scott Dixon by 18 points, Castroneves by 22, Pagenaud by 26 and Power by 42.

Penske faces a weird scenario this weekend at Gateway depending on how the order falls for its quartet, as invariably, one or more of its four drivers will take points off the other depending on how high up he can finish.

Dixon, by contrast, will have the entire Chip Ganassi Racing team behind him supporting him – although at Pocono, Dixon may have lost two critical points by finishing sixth behind Kanaan in fifth. Expect this to be a weekend of damage limitation for Dixon, who doesn’t expect the Honda package will be able to match the Chevrolets. However, if he makes inroads on the Penske quartet this weekend, it will be a huge boost in the pursuit of his fifth title.

INDYCAR provided these couple points nuggets heading into the weekend:

  • The driver who has led the championship with three races to go has failed to win the championship in five of the last seven seasons. Will Power in 2014 and Simon Pagenaud in 2016 are the exceptions.
  • The 18 points which separate Josef Newgarden and Scott Dixon is the third smallest margin with three races to go since 2010. Will Power led Helio Castroneves by four points in 2014 and Ryan Hunter-Reay by five points in 2012. The average deficit with three races to go since 2010 is 22.6 points.

Four possible spoilers

Daly on the old surface in May. Photo: IndyCar

In the other four Chevrolet drivers in the field – the pair of Ed Carpenter Racing drivers, Carpenter and Hildebrand, and A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly – the hope is both teams could be strong enough to make inroads into the top-10 and surprise on a track where their package is better.

Daly, in particular, is one to watch. He led the test here on the old surface (first session wrap, second session wrap) and even after the repave, is still bullish on his chances. He’s been better since team director Larry Foyt moved over to his box to call his race strategy, and it’s not out of the realm of possibility Daly could sneak a low-to-mid top-10 finish this weekend.

“I’ve been looking forward to the Gateway race since our first test there in May,” Daly said. “I’ve really enjoyed the testing we’ve done there this year, and we’ve been quick every time on track, so I have high expectations for the weekend. It’ll be supremely close as INDYCAR weekends normally are, but I hope to be fighting at the front end of the field all weekend long.”

Three veterans with Gateway IndyCar experience… plus one other

Although the repave is new to everyone, three drivers – Castroneves, Kanaan and Dixon – have raced at Gateway before. Castroneves is the track’s most recent winner in 2003. Carpenter doesn’t have an IndyCar start there, but did bank top-five finishes in Indy Lights races at Gateway in 2002 and 2003; prior to that, he raced on the 1.25-mile oval in USAC Silver Crown events.

Two more races after Gateway

This race in Gateway provides the final tight turnaround of the season, with teams arriving to setup on Thursday for the two-day show, with afternoon and evening running set for Friday and Saturday. Watkins Glen and Sonoma, the last two road course races, are back to the traditional three-day weekend schedule.

The final word

From Castroneves, the track’s most recent winner and a driver who needs a result to keep his elusive title hopes alive: “I’m really excited to go back to Gateway. Last time I was there, it was a really fun crowd and I can’t wait to see them all again. I’m one of the few in the Verizon IndyCar Series who have actually raced there since it’s been awhile since the series has been there. I feel that we have an advantage since we won there when we used to race there. However, with a new track surface, it’s anyone’s game. The No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Chevy team and I know we have a lot of work to do to gain back some points, but we’re ready to perform well and make it happen.”

Here’s the IndyCar weekend schedule: 

At-track schedule (all times local):

Friday, Aug. 25
4 – 5 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series practice #1, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)
6:30 p.m. – Qualifying for the Verizon P1 Award (single car/cumulative time of two laps), RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)/NBCSN (Taped, 7:30 p.m. ET Aug. 26)
9 – 10 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series final practice, RaceControl.IndyCar.com (Live)

Saturday, Aug. 26
7:15 p.m. – Verizon IndyCar Series pit stop competition
8:01 p.m. – Driver introductions
8:40 p.m. – Command to start engines
8:45 p.m. – ABC Supply 500 (248 laps/310 miles), NBCSN (Live)

Here’s Gateway’s most recent top 10 (2003):

1. Helio Castroneves (pole)
2. Tony Kanaan
3. Gil de Ferran
4. Tomas Scheckter
5. Dan Wheldon
6. Sam Hornish Jr.
7. Tora Takagi
8. Greg Ray
9. Vitor Meira
10. Scott Sharp

NHRA: Pritchett, C. Force, Kramer, Krawiec all No. 1 going into Denver eliminations

Leah Pritchett was one of the four no. 1 qualifiers. Photos and videos: NHRA
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NHRA Media Release

MORRISON, Colo. – Leah Pritchett raced to her third No. 1 qualifying position of the season at the Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals and set the Top Fuel track speed record during her final qualifying pass on Saturday at Bandimere Speedway.

Courtney Force (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are also No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the 14th of 24 events on the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

Pritchett earned her second consecutive No. 1 with a run of 3.799-seconds at 327.19 mph in her Mopar Dodge 1320 dragster as she prepares for Terry Totten in eliminations. This is her 10th career No. 1, she has one win this season, one runner-up finish and is fourth in points. She was the No. 1 qualifier at this event last season and raced to a runner-up finish.

“We were putting the coals to it for sure, licking our chops,” said Pritchett. “We are on the mountain and this is our sponsor’s race, and we are giving it everything we got. We got a new front half on our dragster and I’m sure glad we did. About halftrack I wasn’t sure if the front wheels were on the ground that thing was dancing, dancing, and dancing. I knew we were cooking it and getting it.”

Brittany Force qualified second and will face Jim Maroney and points leader Steve Torrence is third and will race Bill Litton.

In Funny Car, Courtney Force was able to improve on her qualifying from Friday night and earned her ninth No. 1 of the season in her final pass of the evening with a run of 3.949 at 309.91 in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro. She is the currents points leader and will face Terry Haddock in the first round.

“It felt awesome and we had nothing to lose,” said Force. “We were watching the cars ahead of us and knew that it would be my dad to take us out of the top spot or we would improve. It was a solid pass for us and we picked up a number of bonus points.”

Kramer, a resident of Sterling, Colo., earned his first No. 1 qualifying position at his home track of Bandimere Speedway with his pass of 6.929 at 197.57 during the final qualifying session in his American Ethanol Chevrolet Camaro. This is his third No. 1 of the season, his last coming in Topeka where he parlayed it to his first national event victory. He will square off against Alan Prusiensky in eliminations.

“It is a great feeling coming at your home track and doing as good as we did today,” said Kramer. “I have a ton a laps here so I feel that probably helped a little bit. It was a lot of fun and something that I will remember for a long time.”

Greg Anderson, who is searching for his first win of the season, is second with his run of 6.930 at 196.70 and will face Joey Grose, while points leader Erica Enders is eighth and will face Chris McGaha.

Krawiec earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 40th of his career on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson with his run of 7.111 at 187.03 during the first session on Saturday. His elapsed time bettered the track record he set during qualifying on Friday. Krawiec has three wins on the season and is the current points leader. He will face Karen Stoffer in the first round on Sunday.

“I got a good bike and we went .711 both laps today and I think that is something to say about how good the program is being very consistent,” said Krawiec. “It makes me feel comfortable going into raceday, we have a good setup for both lanes no matter what, and I have a very consistent motorcycle.”

Hector Arana Jr. qualified second and will face Ryan Oehler and Andrew Hines is third matching up with Joey Gladstone.

Eliminations begin at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday at Bandimere Speedway.

***********************

MORRISON, Colo. — Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 39th annual Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, the 14th of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings.

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.799 seconds, 327.19 mph vs. 16. Terry Totten, 4.449, 216.13; 2. Brittany Force, 3.808, 321.50 vs. 15. Jim Maroney, 4.295, 261.88; 3. Steve Torrence, 3.811, 325.45 vs. 14. Bill Litton, 4.283, 218.65; 4. Clay Millican, 3.814, 326.71 vs. 13. Greg Carrillo, 4.129, 307.65; 5. Richie Crampton, 3.822, 318.09 vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.995, 301.67; 6. Blake Alexander, 3.834, 326.32 vs. 11. Mike Salinas, 3.865, 272.12; 7. Tony Schumacher, 3.834, 325.37 vs. 10. Doug Kalitta, 3.862, 310.91; 8. Antron Brown, 3.856, 318.47 vs. 9. Scott Palmer, 3.860, 317.27.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.949, 322.73 vs. 16. Terry Haddock, Toyota Solara, 4.466, 278.46; 2. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.973, 316.67 vs. 15. Todd Simpson, Charger, 4.462, 270.81; 3. Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.986, 321.58 vs. 14. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 4.287, 272.50; 4. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.992, 318.32 vs. 13. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.197, 302.08; 5. John Force, Camaro, 3.993, 322.27 vs. 12. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.093, 310.55; 6. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.003, 312.42 vs. 11. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.087, 306.74; 7. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.007, 320.81 vs. 10. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.083, 305.01; 8. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.048, 316.15 vs. 9. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.056, 293.41. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jim Campbell, 5.271, 149.07.

PRO STOCK: 1. Deric Kramer, Chevy Camaro, 6.929, 197.68 vs. 16. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 20.336, 65.35; 2. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.930, 197.19 vs. 15. Joey Grose, Camaro, 10.066, 94.07; 3. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.932, 197.10 vs. 14. Will Hatcher, Dart, 7.142, 191.87; 4. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.937, 198.12 vs. 13. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.978, 196.99; 5. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.937, 196.90 vs. 12. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.971, 196.93; 6. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.942, 197.57 vs. 11. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.962, 197.16; 7. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.943, 197.13 vs. 10. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.957, 196.82; 8. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.950, 196.96 vs. 9. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.953, 196.67.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.111, 187.81 vs. 16. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.310, 182.11; 2. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.135, 188.86 vs. 15. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.306, 183.57; 3. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 7.146, 188.04 vs. 14. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.288, 182.45; 4. Matt Smith, Victory, 7.158, 185.54 vs. 13. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.261, 182.95; 5. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.207, 185.77 vs. 12. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.259, 183.05; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 7.220, 183.87 vs. 11. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.243, 181.69; 7. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 7.230, 184.95 vs. 10. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 7.243, 185.46; 8. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.230, 184.60 vs. 9. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 7.234, 185.61. Did Not Qualify: 17. Kelly Clontz, 7.382, 180.69.