IndyCar’s “nearly” man, Justin Wilson, set to overachieve once more


Justin Wilson remains IndyCar’s “nearly” man heading into 2014. “Nearly” everyone acknowledges he is a true top-five talent, and top-two or three guy in terms of character.

Yet he’s “nearly” the best driver. He’s “nearly” in victory lane. He’s “nearly” with the best team.

So goes the story again for 2014. Despite Team Penske adding a car for Juan Pablo Montoya, and Chip Ganassi Racing needing to fill two new spots but going with Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe, once again Wilson has “nearly” missed out on a top drive as his contract option was picked up for one more year by Dale Coyne Racing.

Once Champ Car was folded into IndyCar in 2008, Wilson’s never had the true top-flight ride his talent deserves. He’s overachieved with Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Coyne, and Dreyer & Reinbold, but in 2013 wasn’t able to crack victory lane.

As 2014 beckons, he’s “nearly” with the same group of people. Engineer Bill Pappas departs, with fellow veteran Michael Cannon entering his stead.

But on the bright side, the lanky Englishman says the Coyne team has made “nearly” all the improvements over the winter to be considered a top-flight organization on merit, rather than by Wilson and crew overachieving.

“We’re generally just working away on things, trying to get used to the new personnel,” Wilson said at IndyCar media day in Orlando. “We’ve had a lot of changes at Dale Coyne Racing. I’m now working with Michael Cannon, my new race engineer. He’s got a lot of experience, and that’s great.”

Also great has been Wilson’s frequency of seat time in the new year, beyond his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America/Sonny’s BBQ Honda for DCR. That’s important considering where he was in October.

Wilson suffered a fractured pelvis and pulmonary contusion at the season finale at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, which was his second major injury in three years. He also sustained a compression fracture to his T-5 vertebra to his back in 2011 at Mid-Ohio.

But through it, Wilson recovered quickly, and was back in a car by January. He’s alternated between the IndyCar and Michael Shank Racing’s Ford EcoBoost Riley, for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship’s opening rounds at Daytona and Sebring.

As Wilson’s gained track time, he feels optimistic that the team can improve on its sixth place in the championship in 2013.

“We didn’t expect that at the start of the year. Obviously now this year we want to build on it,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that have got to happen.  We have to make sure we don’t make any mistakes.  Trying to get the most out of the car in qualifying, trying to get the car to work over a full stint in the race, that’s just part of it.

Wilson scored four podium finishes, with a best of second at Sonoma. He’s planning a return to victory lane in 2014, to build on his two prior wins (Watkins Glen 2009, Texas 2012) with Coyne.

“It’s easy to go down a path and get trapped and lost. That’s our focus,” he said. “Hopefully we can build on that and win races. That was the one thing last year, we came close to winning a couple races. There were a few races that something happened and I thought, We should have won that one. We didn’t. Want to change that around this year and at least win one, if not multiple.”

Considering Wilson, Cannon and the Coyne team have nearly 60-plus years of combined open-wheel experience between them, they should punch above their weight once more.

They don’t want another year of “nearly” missing out on wins and a potential top-five championship finish.

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