Life’s a drag: NHRA kicks off 2014 season with this weekend’s Winternationals

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Like the swallows that return to nearby Capistrano every year, the early bird will likely catch the worm as the NHRA Mello Yello Series kicks off its 24-race 2014 season this weekend.

The Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif., have traditionally been where championships begin.

Defending Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon is the perfect example of that: he began his quest for his first NHRA pro title by winning last year’s Winternationals.

And then, as if to add emphasis – if not to clinch the championship – Langdon returned to his home track (he grew up about 20 miles away in Mira Loma) last November to win the season-ending finals.

Judging by preseason testing, Langdon is prepared to maintain his stranglehold on that championship trophy in 2014, as well. Once you get a taste of being the best of the best, it grows on you, and that’s certainly the case with Langdon.

Even if you’ve won a record 16 championships, as Funny Car legend John Force has done, the hunger for No. 17 hasn’t changed one iota. If anything, Force may be more determined than ever to win yet another Funny Car crown for several different reasons.

First, he’ll turn 65 in May. He became the NHRA’s oldest champion across all pro classes when he won the Funny Car title last season, his first since 2010, but also his 16th in 24 seasons.

Even though he’s a senior citizen, Force is still driving like a 20-something. And that should be no different this season, which leads to the second reason why this year will be one of the most significant and poignant of his career.

Force will part ways at the end of the season with long-time sponsor Castrol GTX motor oil, as well as car manufacturer Ford. Both companies announced in the offseason that they would be ending sponsorship of Force’s car and will likely allocate those resources in other areas.

Given his fierce loyalty to Castrol and Ford, Force would like nothing better than to have them go out in style with yet another championship.

And, who knows, if his bid to find a new primary sponsor and new manufacturer doesn’t go as smoothly as he hopes – he said in a recent NHRA teleconference that his yearly racing budget for all the teams under the John Force Racing umbrella is $24 million – it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to think Force may also end his relationships with Ford and Castrol by also going out as a champion.

In other words, 2014 could potentially be Force’s last season as arguably the greatest drag racer the NHRA has ever known. He’s at a point in his life that watching daughters Brittany and Courtney build their own respective drag racing careers has become his top priority.

Brittany Force is coming off a Rookie of the Year season in Top Fuel.

There’s also a chance that John Force may switch rides with daughter Brittany next season: she would drive a Funny Car and he would compete in a Top Fuel dragster for the first time in his career.

It wouldn’t be the first time a driver has switched classes. Don “Snake” Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Gary Scelzi and Tommy Johnson Jr. (who returns to a full-time ride this season in Funny Car for the first time in five seasons) are among only 15 drivers that have won national events in both fuel categories.

Of all the things he’s done in his career, that’s one thing Force has not achieved, and could provide incentive – not to mention possibly start him writing yet another chapter of his life story – if business reasons (i.e., sponsorship) dictate such.

If Force foregoes a possible switch to Top Fuel – which he’s thought about off and on for more than 15 years – there is also the possibility (dare we even think it, let alone say it) that Force may not be at the 2015 Winternationals … as a participant, that is.

In the Pro Stock ranks, defending champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., is already on the hunt for his sixth championship. Winning two races in last year’s Countdown to the Championship clinched the title for the Ohio native, who amassed four wins overall in the season.

One driver Coughlin won’t have to worry about, at least early in the season, is four-time Pro Stock champ Greg Anderson, who surprised the sport earlier this week when he announced he would miss the first three months of the season (likely six events) to undergo and recuperate from non-life threatening heart surgery.

The Winternationals kicked off Thursday and will continue with two rounds of qualifying for pro drivers on Friday and Saturday, with final eliminations set for Sunday.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Rossi discharged from hospital after motorcross accident

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MotoGP star Valentino Rossi has been discharged from hospital after suffering injuries in a motorcross accident earlier this week.

Nine-time motorcycling world champion Rossi was diagnosed with “mild thoracic and abdominal trauma” after the accident on Thursday morning, resulting in his admission to the Ospedale Infermi in Rimini, Italy.

The hospital noted in a statement that there were “no fractures detected in any part of the body and no serious traumatic pathologies”, with Rossi recovering overnight with pain relief.

On Friday, a further statement was issued confirming that Rossi had been discharged from hospital.

“Valentino Rossi has returned home from the Ospedale Infermi in Rimini, having successfully completed routine diagnostic tests that were scheduled earlier on Friday,” the statement reads.

“With the attending doctors confirming the findings shared in this morning‘s medical bulletin, the nine-time World Champion left the hospital at 5.30pm, accompanied by his staff.

“He will now continue the recovery process at home.”

The Yamaha rider’s next racing engagement comes next weekend with the Italian Grand Prix at Mugello.

Recapping the proper Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel rivalry (VIDEO)

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Lewis Hamilton and Sebastien Vettel are the two most decorated drivers currently on the Formula 1 grid, with seven World Championships between them (four for Vettel, and three for Hamilton).

However, their paths have rarely crossed on the track, and only in 2010 did both drivers battle each for a World Championship in the same year. They also battled Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber that year, with Vettel emerging on top to claim his first World Championship.

However, the 2017 season sees Hamilton and Vettel in the two best cars on the grid, and they have gone head-to-head multiple times already this year, with each claiming two victories through the first five races. Currently, Vettel leads Hamilton 104-98 in the world championship, and the two men are developing a strong on-track rivalry.

Monaco Grand Prix coverage continues with FP3 and qualifying on Saturday. Full times are linked here.

 

Take a look behind the scenes of Fernando Alonso’s Indy 500 qualifying runs (VIDEO)

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In Friday’s NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special on NBCSN, we take you behind the scenes during F1 superstar Fernando Alonso’s qualifying runs for the Indy 500, including when he was on the pole for a brief period. He’ll eventually start fifth. 

Simulator ride tells what Fernando Alonso can expect in Indianapolis 500 (VIDEO)

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On Friday’s NASCAR AMERICA Motorsports Special on NBCSN, Parker Kligerman and his backseat driver, Kyle Petty, took to the iRacing simulator to make a mock run around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in preparation for Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

They look at the challenges of IMS, as well as the challenges two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso will face in the first oval track race in his illustrious career. Alonso is among the favorites in the race and will take the green flag from the middle of Row 2 (fifth position).

Check out the above video.