Photos: IndyCar

For IndyCar, it’s out with the old and in with the new: car, champion and season

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There was a time when Americans dominated the Verizon IndyCar Series.

When the originally named Indy Racing League began in 1996, seven of the first eight champions (including co-champions Scott Sharp and Buzz Calkins in the first season) and eight of the first 12 champs were from the U.S.

But since Ohio native Sam Hornish Jr. captured his third Indy car title in 2006, there was been only one other U.S.-born driver that earned an IndyCar title over the following 10 seasons: Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2014.

That is, until 2017 when Tennessee native Josef Newgarden, in his first season with Team Penske, earned a series-high four wins en route to capturing the championship.

It marked Team Penske’s third IndyCar crown in the last four seasons.

Last season was a storybook campaign for Newgarden. But that’s all past history as the new season starts Sunday in St. Petersburg. (Photo: IndyCar)

Now, as the IndyCar world prepares for Sunday’s 2018 IndyCar season opener, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, one of the biggest questions is whether the 27-year-old Newgarden can earn his second straight title.

Things are somewhat different this season than last, not only for Newgarden but also for all the returning veterans as well as the nearly 10 full- and part-time rookies on the circuit.

First and foremost is a brand new race car, one that has been dramatically improved with significantly lower downforce. The last few seasons, the downforce and aero packages on what is now the former IndyCar body became the bane for many, if not most drivers.

The design of this year’s new car and its more vibrant aero package that has reduced downforce places more control back in drivers’ hands, while they pilot one of the sexiest and bold-looking open-wheel cars in at least the last two decades.

The new Dallara looks like a race car should: sleek and most importantly, racy. It’s would not be an overstatement to say that Formula One has nothing on IndyCar’s new ride for 2018.

And while F1 and NASCAR have continued to lose at-track attendees and TV viewers over the last several seasons, IndyCar at the same time has been on an upswing.

With the new car and a defending U.S. driver as champion, that upswing is likely to continue this season, starting on this weekend’s traditional temporary street course along St. Pete’s bayfront.

Newgarden says he could get used to this kind of moment a lot more often. (Photo: IndyCar)

Without question or rival, Newgarden and his Team Penske counterparts were the best organization in the series last season, capturing 10 of the 17 races, led by Newgarden (4 wins), Will Power (3 wins), 2016 champ Simon Pagenaud (2 wins) and Helio Castroneves (1 win).

But Team Penske has downsized this season, going from four to three teams. Castroneves has joined former IndyCar driver Juan Pablo Montoya as the leaders of the new Penske IMSA sports car effort.

However, Castroneves won’t be a complete stranger to the IndyCar ranks. He’s the Grand Marshal for Sunday’s race, and will rejoin the team for a single-race effort in the Indianapolis 500 on May 27.

Penske’s No. 1 nemesis in IndyCar, Chip Ganassi Racing, has also downsized, going from three to two cars.

Several other teams are likely to once again be contenders this season, including Andretti Autosport, which has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s, and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing with Graham Rahal and 2017 Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato, who was lured away from the Andretti camp after last season.

As if that isn’t enough, there will be three new teams on the circuit this season, including full-time efforts from Carlin Racing and Harding Racing, and a part-time effort from Juncos Racing.

“I do think it will equalize things,” Rahal said of the new race car and how the dynamic of some teams has changed for 2018. “If you do your job and you nail the setup, you will be right there contending for wins.

“Before, there were certainly cases and tracks where that wasn’t the way it was for us, and it is nice now to feel like we can be rewarded for lots of hard work.”

Rahal could very easily have spoken for many, if not all IndyCar drivers when asked his thoughts about this weekend’s race.

“We are all refreshed,” he said. “We are all anxious and excited for what’s to come.”

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Let’s get back to Newgarden more specifically.

He knows he has a target on his back; that all 20-plus fellow competitors will be gunning to dethrone him.

Can Newgarden make it 2 championships in a row this season? (Photo: IndyCar)

Heck, even Newgarden still has a hard time believing he comes into this weekend as the series’ defending champion.

“I still have to pinch myself when I think about going to St. Pete as the Verizon IndyCar Series champion,” he said. “Any driver that gets an opportunity, like the one I got with Team Penske, will tell you they expect to win right away.

“I certainly did as well, but I think we were all surprised at how quickly we gelled together and made it happen. But that is last year. The drive for the 2018 championship starts at St. Pete, and it’s a track where I’ve never won before. That is our only thought this weekend: going to Victory Lane.”

But at the same time, having a brand new car could present a bit of a challenge getting used to, especially at St. Pete.

“I think street courses will be the biggest change,” Newgarden said. “Short ovals I would say will probably be right behind that. Those are the two biggest places.

“There’s a lot going to be different. You have to look out for the cars differently, you have to drive the car different.”

Newgarden is ready for the green flag to wave for the first time in 2018 on Sunday. (Photo: IndyCar)

But that doesn’t mean Newgarden expects neither he nor many of his fellow competitors will need long learning curves to get used to the new ride.

“I think with the good drivers, they do it pretty fast,” he said. “You’re always sort of evolving your style, whether it’s the tire that’s changing or the engine just changing.

“This year, it’s a big change, quite a big change. … (It) really depends on the circuit. So street circuits and certain places you go, I think your driving style will change a lot, but you adjust very quickly.

“I’ve always told people, too, when they ask about the car, you can’t just watch St. Pete and see where everyone stacks up, get a snapshot for the year. I think you’re going to have to watch all year to see how it evolves because people are going to be figuring things out as the year goes on, getting better and better.

“It will be fun to watch who figures it out the quickest. As far as like the broad strokes, figuring out driving style, yeah, really quick, then it’s just down to the little details throughout the year, refining. Whoever gets those little details quicker is the one who is better at the end of the year.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

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NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. Courtney Force; 4. J.R. Todd; 5. Robert Hight; 6. Jack Beckman; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 8. Cruz Pedregon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Del Worsham; 11. Jonnie Lindberg; 12. Shawn Langdon; 13. Jim Campbell; 14. Matt Hagan; 15. John Force; 16. Jeff Diehl.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

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