IndyCar title contenders to start up front at Sonoma

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A concern for all the Verizon IndyCar Series championship contenders was that qualifying could see any of them slip down the starting grid due to any one of a number of different issues. However, that ultimately proved not to be the case.

The top five in championship standings all advanced to the Firestone Fast Six for Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Below are quick reports on where the championship contenders will start.

JOSEF NEWGARDEN – POLE

Josef Newgarden’s second career came at an opportune time, as he increases his points lead over Scott Dixon to four and gives him a nice shot of momentum heading into Sunday’s race as he looks to secure his first career IndyCar championship.

On the surface, the momentum comes at a critical time for Newgarden, who looks to counter an error at Watkins Glen that saw him hit the pit exit wall after his final pit stop. However, this was something he downplayed.

“It helps for the start of the race, I think. You got to think it helps. But how many IndyCar races have you seen where being on the pole wasn’t the right thing for the race with the way yellows fall or whatever it is?” Newgarden quipped in the post-qualifying press conference.

Ultimately, Newgarden is hoping for a clean, smooth race on Sunday. “I hope it’s straightforward (on Sunday). That would make our job a lot easier. We just have to focus on making a fast race car that lasts. But you never know,” he added.

SCOTT DIXON – SIXTH

Scott Dixon will start Sunday’s race in sixth. Photo: IndyCar

Scott Dixon qualified the worst of the all the main title contenders, ending up sixth at the end. Dixon explained afterward that, while his No. 9 NTT Data Honda felt solid, it just lacked sufficient speed, especially through the corners, to make a run at the pole.

“As a team, I think this is always one of our most difficult circuits that we come to,” Dixon explained. “This morning, we made some good gains, but the conditions this afternoon, we just didn’t have the grip. It was kind of strange. The balance felt good. The car was kind of decent to drive, but just couldn’t carry the speed through the corners.”

Granted, Dixon is not surprised to be outqualified by the Team Penske Chevrolets, given the aero advantage they possess. “The other manufacturer’s aero kit is going to be strong at this track. We know the deficits that we have. But we can still as a team overcome those, whether it’s strategy or a car on the long run that’s hopefully going to be good,” he added.

All told, Dixon remains confident, even noting that he won this race in 2015 after starting ninth, a feat that saw him clinch that year’s championship. “Sixth position, you can definitely make lots happen from there,” he asserted. “I think in ’15 we started ninth when we won that race. Definitely you’d want to be a little further up. But that’s the way it goes.”

HELIO CASTRONEVES – FOURTH

Helio Castroneves qualified the worst of all four Penske cars. Photo: IndyCar

Castroneves qualified fourth, the worst of the Penske cars. He revealed that setup problems at two specific corners ultimately doomed his chances of fighting for the pole.

“Unfortunately, I was having some issues in Turn 2 and Turn 6, so I was losing quite a lot of time,” he detailed. “We made some changes for the last one, the last qualifying. Unfortunately, this place is so much of a commitment, I had only one lap. I made that lap, in fact. The second one I was actually even a little bit faster, about 2/10ths faster, but still not quick enough for those guys. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the corner.”

Still, Castroneves believes he has a car that can fight for the race win, which could put him in position to secure his first IndyCar title. “The Hitachi Chevy was actually really good. The entire Team Penske did a phenomenal job. Today was Josef’s day. I’m happy for him today, but prefer have the win actually than the pole position,” he added.

SIMON PAGENAUD – THIRD

Simon Pagenaud made a gutsy run at the pole, but came up a little short. Photo: IndyCar

Simon Pagenaud made no bones about it: he was going for the pole and threw everything he had at it during qualifying. “I went all in, as hard as I could. Made a little bit of a mistake in turn six, asking for too much. But that’s how you get pole positions. Today it just wasn’t my way,” he discussed in the post-qualifying press conference.

In the end, Pagenaud starts third, a result he feels happy with, and noted that tire wear is expected to be a significant factor on Sunday’s race, and that anything could happen.

“Quite satisfied. I mean, overall it’s awesome for Team Penske, 1-2-3-4 once again here. A testament to the team doing such a good job. Nothing’s lost. Tomorrow is a long race. Lots of tire wear. I’m hoping for a really strong showing,” he added.

WILL POWER – SECOND

Will Power fell three hundredths of a second short in his effort for the pole. Photo: IndyCar

Will Power’s championship hopes suffered a little on Saturday. At 69 points off the lead (counting the point Newgarden gets for securing the pole), his best chance was to maximize his point total this weekend, which of course starts with securing the bonus point for the pole.

Power made a valiant run at Newgarden, but his lap of 1:15.5556 fell three hundredths of a second short of Newgarden’s 1:15.5205.

Despite missing out on that valuable championship point, Power knows he is still in the hunt, and that bad days for his title rivals would open the door for him.

“It’s absolutely possible,” he said of his title chances. “I mean, you know, if Scott and Josef have a bad day, I mean, I can be right there. Yeah, see how it all plays out.”

Of note: Alexander Rossi, who is also still mathematically eligible, will start eighth.

Follow @KyleMLavigne

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.

In a final session Thursday night, Matt Campbell was fastest (1:35.802) in the No. 7 Porsche Penske Motorsports Porsche 963 but still was off the times set by Westbrook and Taylor.

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)

Click here for Session III (by class)

Combined speeds