Rahal’s reboot will take more time

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The engineering reboot at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing didn’t immediately pay dividends at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend.

As part of a team restructuring effort, Graham Rahal’s engineer Gerry Hughes was reassigned to be the team’s Head of Development, with ex-Dragon Racing hand Neil Fife brought in to help stem the tide of a frustrating season.

Initial signs from the weekend weren’t promising. Rahal lost a day of testing on Wednesday due to fuel issues, his second lost test day this year (Barber open test). He qualified only 22nd and finished only 18th in the No. 15 Midas/Big-O Tires Honda on a day he and his home fans in Columbus would rather forget.

“It was a struggle all day. The car was loose from the get-go, really loose.  Here, where you have these high commitment corners when you are loose it’s a struggle and unfortunately we never really came to grips with that,”  he said. “Obviously I’m disappointed. We wanted to show better at my home race but unfortunately this is all we had today. We’ve just got to keep soldiering on. Nothing is coming easy to us right now. We’re just not competitive so we have to just keep working hard. We are looking forward to the test day in Sonoma, without a doubt. Hopefully we can get out there and get a lot done.”

James Jakes continues to punch above his weight in the second RLL car, the No. 16 Acorn Stairlifts Honda. The affable Englishman outqualified Rahal for the eighth time in the last 10 races, with a respectable 10th place effort. That said, 13th wasn’t a result to write home about on his 26th birthday.

“It was a pretty frustrating race really,” said Jakes. “We started tenth, lost a spot on the start. Everyone else was on red tires and the three guys that were on blacks in front of us Marco, Pagenaud and ourselves all caught up to each other and I thought we were in a good position.  We had pretty good laps going and I was quite happy with the balance of the car but then we just got stuck behind the guys that were doing the two stop race and that just killed us. It was difficult to overtake and we struggled from then on.”

NHRA: Antron Brown on verge of earning 50th career Top Fuel win this weekend at Phoenix

Photo courtesy Toyota Racing
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When you’re used to winning championships – like three in the previous five seasons – any other season finish is disappointing.

That’s kind of how NHRA Top Fuel dragster driver Antron Brown looked at his fourth-place showing in the 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

“At the end of the day, we had a very competitive season last year and made it to 10 final rounds,” Brown said. “But we got into the Countdown (NHRA’s six-race playoffs) and our timing was off.

“We struggled with a lot of problems we don’t usually have. Now it’s time for a new chapter for this team and time to get better. This is a new beginning for us and it’s going to be fun and exciting and we’re coming after them.”

Antron Brown hugs the NHRA Top Fuel championship trophy after winning it in 2016. (Photo by David Allio/Icon Sportswire)

Brown had a good start to 2018, reaching the semifinals before losing to Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

“We had a great performance at Pomona and I couldn’t be more proud of what our Matco/Toyota guys did,” Brown said. “Now we are going to Phoenix where we’ve won three times (2009, 2012 and 2014, and was runner-up in 2011) and we’ll just try to hit it hard and get a fourth.”

Next up on the NHRA 24-race national event circuit is the second race of the season, this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix (Chandler, Arizona).

Brown has definite plans to make it four wins in Phoenix. And if he does that Sunday, he’ll set a significant career milestone: it would be his 50th career win driving a Top Fueler and the 66th win overall (he won 16 races in Pro Stock Motorcycle before shifting from two to four wheels).

In so doing, Brown would become only the fourth Top Fuel driver in NHRA history to hit the 50-win mark. The others are Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62) and Joe Amato (52).

This will be the second time Brown has been racing in Phoenix this month. He was part of the preseason test there for Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock cars a week before the season began.

“Testing went really well there,” said Brown, leaving him optimistic that he can reach victory circle once again. “I love going back to Phoenix.”

Brown has been the most dominant driver in NHRA Top Fuel competition since 2012, winning more than twice the number of races (34) than the next most successful Top Fuel driver (16 by Schumacher) in that time period.

He also has a 71 percent overall win percentage, which exceeds both eight-time Top Fuel champ Schumacher and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force.

“I’m just pumped up, feeling like we’ve got some unfinished business from last year,” Brown said. “We had a good outing but didn’t close the deal, so this year, we’re looking forward to getting back there and getting off to a great start.”

NOTES: Brown will serve as honorary pace car driver for the March 4th Pennzoil 400 NASCAR Cup race at Las Vegas. He’ll be joined by teammates Matt Hagan and Leah Pritchett in a weekend full of activities that they’ll all be involved in.

“I’m really excited,” Brown said. “It’s going to be my first experience as a pace car driver, and I’m just super stoked to go out there and drive the Camry pace car for Pennzoil and start those NASCAR boys off the right way. Throttle down, pedal to the metal. I just want them to get off to a great start.”

Brown has won four times at The Strip, the drag strip adjacent to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“I couldn’t be more excited to have the opportunity,” he said. “It’s an honor to be out there with such talented drivers, and I know I’m going to really enjoy watching our NASCAR counterparts.”

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