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Dixon Wins Pole, Shreds Track Record At Watkins Glen

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 3 2016
Scott Dixon will start Sunday's IndyCar from the pole thanks to a record smashing run in qualifying on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

Scott Dixon will start Sunday’s IndyCar from the pole thanks to a record smashing run in qualifying on Saturday. (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR)

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Scott Dixon’s first Verizon IndyCar Series pole at Watkins Glen International was a run for the record book, on a Saturday when interference penalties and tire compound selection factored into knockout qualifying for the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen.

Continuing a run of dominance that covered all three practice sessions, Dixon toured WGI’s repaved and smooth 3.37-mile/11-turn natural-terrain layout in 1 minute, 22:5259-seconds and 147.008 mph during the Firestone Fast Six.

Dixon, the four-time/reigning series champion from Target Chip Ganassi Racing, secured his second pole of 2016 and the 25th of his stellar career. In doing so, Dixon and his twin-turbocharged Chevrolet V-6 relegated Ryan Briscoe’s seven-year-old numbers _ 1:28.1322-seconds and 137.657 mph in a Dallara/Honda V-8_ into ancient history by a massive 5.6063-seconds.    

“Yeah, I was expecting it (the gap) to be over six seconds, so I think all of us were a little shocked,” said Dixon, who ran the Fast Six on Firestone’s black (hard) compound tires after nearly failing to transfer into the finale on red (soft) compound rubber. “The track was really fast this morning in the cooler conditions, and then we automatically thought you’d pick up eight-tenths to a second on the reds, which didn’t play through for some reason, which I think we’ll work out later.”

The pole tied “Dixie” with Paul Tracy for 11th on the all-time Indy car chart and delivered Chip Ganassi Racing Teams its 87th Indy car P1.

“Obviously, the black that we’re running here is a new tire I think for Firestone, and the red is from another track, so the separation is going to be interesting to see how the tire deg (degradation) is,” Dixon said. “But yeah, it’s just so fast. I don’t know what the average speed is, but it’s got to be just below 150 miles an hour, which is almost race-pace at like Milwaukee or something. So it’s pretty crazy to be averaging those speeds. The G-loads _ especially in Turn 10, 11, Turn 5 _ I haven’t seen that for quite some time on any road-course.”

A three-time winner here (2005-07), Dixon is the first open-wheel driver to crack the 147 mph barrier. He will start alongside Team Penske’s Will Power, who hot-lapped at 1:22.5742-seconds and 146.922 mph during the Fast Six. The remaining Fast Six qualifiers _ Sebastian Bourdais of KVSH Racing, Helio Castroneves of Team Penske, Tony Kanaan of Chip Ganassi Racing and rookie Max Chilton of Ganassi’s organization all qualified at over 146 mph.

Dixon nixed the suggestion that the high downforce aero packages being run here and the track’s short braking zones might lead to a procession during Sunday’s scheduled 60-lap/202.2-miler.

“It’s an IndyCar race; I don’t think it’s ever really going to be processional,” said Dixon, driver of the No. 9 TCGR Chevrolet. “I think the fuel windows look a little tougher than I thought they would have been to get the mileage, so that’s going to open up some strategy difference right there. The red tire is _ we’ve never run it before, we haven’t been here for five years or six years (2010). It’s a very big unknown, and that could really also add to how the race plays-out.

“Tire choice is going to be quite interesting tomorrow, too, which we’ll have to wait until after the morning practice to see where that goes. The reds I think were definitely not what everybody was expecting, so that’s going to be an interesting choice to see how that plays out strategy-wise.

“Obviously, the first corner with the steep uphill climb here (through the Esses), you know, when you can get a little less drag and when you’re in the slipstream there is going to give you a ton of acceleration, and in the past I think that’s really helped the races we’ve been in where we’ve trimmed out a little bit more and gone on to win at this place. I think the first few laps, like anywhere, it’s going to be pretty interesting. But I think the first big long straight here is the tough one going into the Bus Stop.

“I guess the easiest thing is just to say it’s a lot of unknowns, and I think you’ll see a pretty good mix-up.”

Power’s front-row spot opposite Dixon has him five slots ahead of Penske teammate and point-leader Simon Pagenaud, who failed to qualify for the Fast Six for the first time this season. Power, the 2014 series champion, trails Pagenaud by 28 points with only this race and the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix at Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway on Sept. 18 remaining.

“Yeah, it’s very important to start up-front, definitely, considering the championship situation,” said Power, who missed out on the top spot by less than five-hundredths of a second in his No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. “I felt pretty comfortable around here. Really enjoy the track. Obviously I was really grateful to get in the Fast Six there and have a shot at it. You know, unfortunately on my final lap, starting it, my engine just died in the last corner there. Definitely cost us some time, but starting on the front row is definitely better than where we were.”

Power led Group 1 qualifying with a then track-record lap in 1:22.3927-seconds. Originally seventh and out of luck at the conclusion of Round 3, Power was moved up one spot when Mikhail Aleshin of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was penalized his two fastest laps for impeding the progress of Penske’s Juan Pablo Montoya.

Pagenaud, a four-time winner this season, will start seventh after a best lap of 145.353 mph in his No. 22 Hewlett Packard Enterprise Chevrolet. “We missed the Fast Six by just a little, but that’s how competitive the Verizon IndyCar Series is,” Pagenaud said. “If everything is not practically perfect, then someone else will be a little faster. I like our prospects for the race, though. We’re in good shape.”

In addition to Aleshin, the series’ first Russian-born driver, the cars driven by Takuma Sato of A.J. Foyt Racing and Graham Rahal of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing had their two best times invalidated by INDYCAR for interference-based infractions.

Similarly, James Hinchcliffe, named earlier this week to the Season 23 competition cast of “Dancing with the Stars,” lost his fast lap and didn’t advance when he was penalized by race stewards for spinning and causing a local yellow that impeded one of Power’s qualifying laps. A ticked-off “Hinch” will start 13th.

Rahal was sixth-fastest when Group 2, Round 1 went to a red flag for Sato’s accident; Graham would have advanced to Round 2 to set the top-12 positions. But INDYCAR withdrew Rahal’s two fastest laps, ruling he impeded the lap time of Jack Hawksworth of A.J. Foyt Racing.  Rahal’s third-fastest lap put him P10 in his group and 20th overall.

“I’m very disappointed with the ruling,” said Rahal, driver of the No. 15 RLL Honda and winner of last Saturday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. “We obviously have a fast race car but we’re going to have to put our heads down and try to come from behind. There’s a lot of work to be done.”

Rahal and Sato were the only drivers in the field of 22 to not hammer Briscoe’s former qualifying record.

Power, meanwhile, was pleased to offer a remedy to the spate of penalties. “Yeah, just need (INDYCAR) to extend the qualifying time,” said Power, winner of the most recent race here in 2010. “Everyone comes in and does their two laps, and they all go out at the same time. If you had a bit more time, you could pick and choose where to put your driver out on the track. You know, it’s not the drivers’ fault, it’s the amount of time we have, and the teams sending them out have no choice.

“I think just a little bit more time in the qualifying session, and you could pick better gaps and there would be less penalties.”

A half-hour warmup session scheduled for 10:30 a.m. (EDT) Sunday will be carried by RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Race coverage will begin at 2 p.m. on NBC Sports Network and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. The command to start engines is set for 2:30 p.m. with the green flag scheduled for 2:37 p.m.

Responding to one last question, Dixon said he planned to remind Power that any risks he might take at the start could derail his point-pursuit of Pagenaud.

“You know, I think you can see that Will has evolved a lot I think as a driver, especially this championship,” said Dixon, sixth in the standings but 132 points behind Pagenaud. “And it was funny, we chatted at Road America about the runaway championship that Simon was having, and I was like, ‘You wait, man, it’s going to flip. One of us will be in the chase again to try and hunt him down,’ and obviously Will has had a spectacular latter part to the season. But yeah, no, I’ll definitely remind him that he’s got a lot more to lose.”

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Zach Veach drove to a comfortable win while championship leader Santiago Urrutia struggled in Saturday’s Mazda Grand Prix of Watkins Glen, as the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires point race tightened-up.

Veach started fifth in the No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing entry but stormed to the lead on the first of 25 laps and was never challenged. He won by 3.6268-seconds over Carlin’s Ed Jones.

Urrutia started on-pole in the No. 55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian car after setting the track record in qualifying, but dropped to fifth before a tire he flat-spotted earlier in the race went down, forcing him off -course and to the pits for new rubber. The reigning Pro Mazda champion finished last in the 12-car field and saw his lead dwindle to one point over Jones, 23 over Dean Stoneman and 31 over Veach with only next weekend’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca doubleheader remaining.

“Today we lost, but we are still leading the championship by one point,” Urrutia said. “Everything is going to finish at Mazda Raceway next week, so we are going to go with the same mindset that we came here and that’s to win. So we are going to go for pole position and try to win both races.”

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IndyCar rookie Max Chilton qualified a career-best sixth Saturday, sporting a black paint scheme on his helmet in tribute to fellow-Englishman James Hunt, the flamboyant 1976 Formula One World Driving Champion with Team McLaren.

“It was actually a friend of mine that suggested it,” said Chilton, who hot-lapped at 146.157 mph in his No. 8 Gallagher Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. “He races Classic Formula 1 cars, and he said, ‘You know, you’re going to The Glen; it was 40 years ago that James Hunt won his world title and they raced at the Glen that year.’  He stuck it on-pole, won the race and got fastest lap, and it doesn’t get much more dominant than that, so I thought he deserved some credit for that.

“I like my one-off schemes. I like to try and keep my helmet the same because I don’t like the ones when you can’t recognize the driver, but it seems to have gone down a treat with the older race fans. Yeah, very happy with it.”

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Retired IndyCar Series superstar Dario Franchitti made five starts at Watkins Glen during a career highlighted by three Indianapolis 500 wins and four driver’s championships. Franchitti extolled the virtues of WGI’s repaved layout with its “lovely, smooth surface” as well as the facility’s revered place in open-wheel history during a Q&A session with media and fans.

“If you get a chance, go out and stand in Turn 5 and watch the speed of the cars through there. It’s mind-blowing,” said Franchitti, whose best starts at WGI were thirds in 2005 and 2007 and whose best finish also was third in 2010. “This is the natural…Indianapolis is one for an oval, but for road-courses, this  is the natural habitat of an Indy car and it’s stunning to watch.

“This is even fun for me in a stock car, and that’s saying something.”

Franchitti’s brief NASCAR career included an XFINITY Series pole and fifth-place finish here in 2008 for car-owner Chip Ganassi.

Franchitti won the Indy 500 in 2007 for team-owner Michael Andretti and in 2010 and 2012 for Ganassi. Franchitti scored his championships in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011. He retired from open-wheel and Target Chip Ganassi Racing in November 2013 after suffering a concussion and severe back injuries Oct. 6 in a crash at the Grand Prix of Houston street race. Franchitti recorded 31 open-wheel wins in265 starts.

A motorsports historian, Franchitti also alluded to WGI’s place in Formula One, which included races from 1961 to 1980 and featured victories by Jim Clark _ a fellow Scot and Dario’s boyhood hero _ Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, Niki Lauda, Emerson Fittipaldi and James Hunt.

“And it’s not the track itself,” Franchitti said. “The wreath that Justin Wilson wore after he won here (for Dale Coyne Racing in 2009) is at The Glen Motor Inn (on Route 14 leading into downtown). I stayed in the room Jim Clark stayed in last time I was here. Who’s ever got that room is out of luck. The key is back in Scotland.”

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Maine-Endwell’s Little League World Series championship team will serve as grand marshals during Sunday’s pre-race ceremonies. Maine-Endwell followed up a 24-0 regular-season record with five LLWS wins, including a 2-1 victory over South Korea in the title game last Sunday. Maine-Endwell _ a 40-minute drive heading east from the track _ is the first New York State team to win the overall title at Williamsport, Pa., since 1964. The players and coaches also received the Jack Losch LLWS Team Sportsmanship Award, an honor voted on by tournament peers.

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Qualifying for Sunday’s INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen presented by Hitachi Verizon IndyCar Series event on the 3.37-mile/11-turn Watkins Glen International road-course, with qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, aero kit-engine, time and speed in parentheses:

1. (9) Scott Dixon, Chevrolet, 01:22.5259-seconds (147.008)
2. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 01:22.5742 (146.922)
3. (11) Sebastien Bourdais, Chevrolet, 01:22.7844 (146.549)
4. (3) Helio Castroneves, Chevrolet, 01:22.8748 (146.389) 
5. (10) Tony Kanaan, Chevrolet, 01:22.9158 (146.317)
6. (8) Max Chilton, Chevrolet, 01:23.0064 (146.157)
7. (22) Simon Pagenaud, Chevrolet, 01:23.4660 (145.353)
8. (2) Juan Pablo Montoya, Chevrolet, 01:23.5493 (145.208)
9. (41) Jack Hawksworth, Honda, 01:23.6392 (145.052)
10. (7) Mikhail Aleshin, Honda, 01:23.7744 (144.818)
11. (19) RC Enerson, Honda, 01:23.9907 (144.445)
12. (21) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 01:24.0983 (144.260)
13. (5) James Hinchcliffe, Honda, 01:24.0477 (144.347)
14. (83) Charlie Kimball, Chevrolet, 01:24.8928 (142.910)
15. (98) Alexander Rossi, Honda, 01:24.0908 (144.273)
16. (26) Carlos Munoz, Honda, 01:25.5560 (141.802) 
17. (18) Conor Daly, Honda, 01:24.2606 (143.982)
18. (27) Marco Andretti, Honda, 01:26.4285 (140.370)
19. (28) Ryan Hunter-Reay, Honda, 01:24.5254 (143.531)
20. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 01:58.1893 (102.649)
21. (20) Spencer Pigot, Chevrolet, 01:25.1826 (142.423)
22. (14) Takuma Sato, Honda, 02:12.3265 (91.682)

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 3 2016
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