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Vettel denies Webber pole with stunning qualifying display


Sebastian Vettel has given himself the best possible chance of winning for the first time in the United States by securing pole position for tomorrow’s race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin.

Red Bull dominated qualifying once again, but Mark Webber posed a stiff challenge to his teammate, and forced Vettel into producing a remarkable final lap to secure pole position as both Ferrari and Mercedes failed to bother the constructors’ champions.

Conditions had changed slightly in Austin from the final practice session with the temperature rising and the wind picking up slightly. The drivers hoped that the extra heat would aid their tires, but the backmarkers went for the softer compound as usual. Red Bull pulled their usual stunt of waiting in the pits for a while, allowing Max Chilton to post the first time and enjoy a few seconds at the top of the timesheets before Paul di Resta displaced him. Fernando Alonso was the first front runner to move to the front of the field, but Lewis Hamilton complained that he was struggling for grip before going half a second faster than his former teammate. Nico Hulkenberg was also surprised to find that his brakes had been changed without being informed, telling the team that it was “shocking”. With the track improving rapidly, it became a question of timing. Both Webber and Vettel eventually emerged from the pits on the hard tire as the rest of the field pitted and fitted mediums. The Red Bulls soon rose up to P1 and P2 – Webber ahead of Vettel – believing that it was enough to ensure a place in Q2. Valtteri Bottas eventually finished quickest on the medium tire ahead of Hamilton and Gutierrez, with the latter coming under investigation for blocking. However, Ferrari came under pressure in the final few minutes of the session, but Pastor Maldonado failed to improve and dropped out in eighteenth place, whilst Adrian Sutil was forced to stop out on track and came seventeenth as a result, with both drivers joining the usual suspects at the back of the grid.

Q2 got off to a quick start as a number of drivers went out early on with the medium tires fitted as Jean-Eric Vergne posted the first time of the session for Toro Rosso. However, Valtteri Bottas continued his good form to go third-fastest early on, just 0.035 seconds shy of Hamilton’s time at the top. Sergio Perez and Paul di Resta went closer still, but it was not until Romain Grosjean’s effort that was half a second quicker that the Briton was displaced. Mark Webber went faster still with his first effort, but Bottas and Alonso responded to move within a tenth of the Red Bull. Vettel soon resumed normal service to go quickest of all, but Heikki Kovalainen, Jenson Button and Felipe Massa all found themselves in the dropzone. Kovalainen was able to improve and get into Q3 on debut for Lotus, but Button and Massa were less fortunate. Nico Rosberg was also struggling and ended up in fourteenth place, whilst both Toro Rosso drivers and Paul di Resta were also eliminated.

Surprise package Valtteri Bottas got Q3 underway, but he only went for an exploratory lap before returning to the pits. However, Red Bull bucked the trend of leaving it late with both Webber and Vettel heading out early. However, Webber’s first effort was over one-tenth of a second faster than Vettel’s, giving him provisional pole. Romain Grosjean was their nearest challenger at first over one second back before the rest of the runners finally emerged from the pits. Webber managed to go faster still to enjoy provisional pole, and with Vettel losing time, he appeared to have it in the bag. However, Vettel proved his four-time world champion credentials to pull out a brilliant final sector and secure his second pole position in Austin.

Romain Grosjean finished ‘best of the rest’ in third, seven-tenths down on Webber, whilst Nico Hulkenberg performed brilliantly to finish in fourth place. Lewis Hamilton could only finish fifth ahead of Alonso, whilst Sergio Perez delighted his home fans in seventh place. Kovalainen did well on debut to end up eighth, whilst Bottas and Gutierrez both seemed pleased with their top ten positions in ninth and tenth respectively.

It may have been Webber’s for the taking, but Vettel’s final lap was simply remarkable to stop his teammate from taking a third pole position in four races. Now, the German driver will be looking to win for the first time in the US and make it eight wins in a row.

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

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NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski