Cruz Pedregon is the top qualifier in Funny Car heading into Sunday's final eliminations of the NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Pedregon (FC), Langdon (TF), Connolly (PS) and Ray (PSM) lead way into Sunday’s NHRA Gatornationals eliminations

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NHRA Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon may be a California native, but there’s something about Gainesville, Fla., that just seems to bring out the best in him.

Pedregon posted a 4.068 second run (at 308.21 mph) to earn the No. 1 qualifying position for Sunday’s final eliminations of the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway.

“I looked at the time slip at the finish line and noticed that it ran really well to each increment,” Pedregon said of his 55th career No. 1 qualifying position. “It gave me the confidence to say, ‘I don’t think anybody is going to run this.’

“From what I could see, we pretty much got all of it that we could. It had good splits, fast speed through the middle, and ran to the finish line. That was basically like, ‘If you want some, come get some.'”

It’s the third straight year in a row and the fifth overall that Pedregon has been the Gatornationals’ No. 1 Funny Car qualifier. He’s looking for his second career event win at Gainesville, having done so the first time in 1998.

Pedregon will face 16-time and defending 2013 Funny Car season champion John Force in the first round Sunday. In earning No. 1 honors, Pedregon snapped Force’s string of five consecutive top qualifying positions dating back to last season.

The 1992 and 2008 Funny Car world champ is looking to bounce back from a disappointing start in the 24-race season’s first two events at Pomona (Calif.) and Chandler (Ariz.).

“We changed maybe one thing too many in the offseason,” Pedregon said. “We made one good run out of five in Pomona and blew up for our troubles. In Phoenix, the component we changed in the clutch management system told us in no uncertain terms that it was going to take too many races to figure it out. We went back to our regular setup.”

Other top qualifiers heading into Sunday’s eliminations – which begin at 11 a.m. ET – were Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock) and Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

With the best overall performance in Friday’s first round of qualifying, Langdon was even better Saturday, with a 3.776 second run at 320.58 mph. It was Langdon’s first No. 1 spot at Gainesville and the 14th of his career.

“We were able to take our 3.78 from yesterday and make a couple small, minor adjustments to go 3.77,” said Langdon, who is in pursuit of his first career Gatornationals event win. “Brian [Husen, crew chief] did an excellent job this weekend of making the right calls.”

In Pro Stock, Connolly earned his first No. 1 qualifying spot since 2008 (eighth overall in his career) with a career-best run of 6.476 at 213.98 on Friday that held through Saturday’s two sessions.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Ray saved his best for last, earning the No. 1 spot in his final qualifying attempt with a career-best run of 6.793 at 197.74 mph.

“We hadn’t shown our potential until then but we knew it was out there,” Ray said. “It wasn’t a bunt or even a hard single. George [Bryce, team owner and crew chief] decided to swing for the fences and he connected.

“He told me that if I would hold low gear for another ten feet it would go 6.7s and he wasn’t lying. I went as far as I could before hitting the [shift button] and had my career-best E.T.”

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 45th annual Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville, the third of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.  Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs are listed below pairings.

Top Fuel — 1. Shawn Langdon, 3.776 seconds, 325.37 mph  vs. 16. J.R. Todd, 3.936, 304.74; 2. Antron Brown, 3.804, 320.43  vs. 15. Sidnei Frigo, 3.920, 301.00; 3. Richie Crampton, 3.816, 322.34 vs. 14. Morgan Lucas, 3.867, 319.45; 4. Doug Kalitta, 3.819, 321.04  vs. 13. Brittany Force, 3.865, 315.93; 5. David Grubnic, 3.823, 312.78  vs. 12. Clay Millican, 3.861, 308.71; 6. Bob Vandergriff, 3.831, 320.51  vs. 11. Spencer Massey, 3.861, 320.36; 7. Tony Schumacher, 3.839, 323.19  vs. 10. Leah Pritchett, 3.843, 317.64; 8. Steve Torrence, 3.839, 319.22  vs. 9. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.840, 316.97.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Pat Dakin, 4.015, 240.98; 18. Terry McMillen, 4.315, 206.86; 19. Ike Maier, 4.448, 186.98.

Funny Car — 1. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.068, 308.21  vs. 16. John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.380, 246.98; 2. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.103, 304.39  vs. 15. Blake Alexander, Dodge Charger, 4.292, 287.84; 3. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.108, 305.15  vs. 14. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.212, 286.74; 4. Chad Head, Camry, 4.115, 300.46  vs. 13. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.162, 299.60; 5. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.121, 308.85  vs. 12. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.144, 295.01; 6. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.121, 302.14  vs. 11. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.139, 301.54; 7. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.127, 285.41  vs. 10. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.132, 303.78; 8. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.128, 307.23  vs. 9. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.130, 309.20.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Dave Richards, 5.070, 161.15.

Pro Stock — 1. Dave Connolly, Chevy Camaro, 6.476, 213.98  vs. 16. Matt Hartford, Dodge Avenger, 6.591, 211.39; 2. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.483, 214.69  vs. 15. Robert Patrick, Ford Mustang, 6.568, 211.06; 3. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.484, 214.62  vs. 14. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.558, 212.53; 4. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.487, 214.04  vs. 13. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.554, 212.16; 5. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.495, 213.60  vs. 12. Steve Kent, Camaro, 6.536, 212.43; 6. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.510, 212.56  vs. 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.533, 214.04; 7. V. Gaines, Avenger, 6.518, 213.30  vs. 10. Larry Morgan, Mustang, 6.529, 212.66; 8. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.525, 213.20  vs. 9. Jimmy Alund, Camaro, 6.525, 212.90.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Shane Tucker, 6.617, 211.53; 18. Kenny Delco, 6.634, 210.24; 19. Lewis Worden, 6.639, 210.83; 20. Mark Hogan, 6.653, 208.39.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Michael Ray, Buell, 6.793, 197.74  vs. 16. Fredrik Fredlund, Suzuki, 6.979, 193.99; 2. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.800, 196.96  vs. 15. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.919, 194.38; 3. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.806, 196.47  vs. 14. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.895, 196.02; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.813, 195.68  vs. 13. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.892, 194.46; 5. John Hall, Buell, 6.830, 196.27  vs. 12. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.891, 196.53; 6. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.846, 195.96  vs. 11. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.882, 195.48; 7. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.849, 196.62 vs. 10. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 6.874, 196.96; 8. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.858, 195.36  vs. 9. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.868, 195.22.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Eddie Reed, 6.996, 190.35; 18. Mike Berry, 7.004, 191.81; 19. Freddie Camarena, 7.026, 193.57; 20. Elvira Karlsson, 7.028, 190.06; 21. Joe DeSantis, 7.071, 189.07; 22. James Surber, 7.082, 187.26; 23. Odolph Daniels, broke.

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Ricciardo: Rosberg has given someone an amazing Christmas present

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Daniel Ricciardo says that Nico Rosberg has given someone “an amazing Christmas present” by announcing his shock retirement from Formula 1 and opening up a seat at Mercedes for the 2017 season.

Ahead of Friday’s FIA prize giving in Vienna, Rosberg announced his retirement from F1 with immediate effect less than a week after winning his first World Championship.

The news sent shockwaves through F1, as well as sparking speculation as to who will replace him at Mercedes, the team that has won every championship in the past three seasons.

Following the FIA gala where he received his trophy for finishing third in the drivers’ championship, Ricciardo spoke about the news in a video posted to his Instagram account.

“We had the FIA gala last night, the end of year awards. It was good, it was really beautiful, but I think the big news was Nico announcing his retirement,” Ricciardo said.

“That was pretty unexpected I guess. He’s given someone an amazing Christmas present, whoever gets that seat, I hope they appreciate what they’re getting.

“But good on him for having the nuts to say that’s enough, he achieved what he wanted. Fair play.”

👋🏼🇦🇹

A video posted by Daniel Ricciardo (@danielricciardo) on

Ecclestone shocked by Rosberg exit, thinks Alonso could move to Mercedes

BAKU, AZERBAIJAN - JUNE 16:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP and F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone talk in the Paddock during previews ahead of the European Formula One Grand Prix at Baku City Circuit on June 16, 2016 in Baku, Azerbaijan.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images,)
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Bernie Ecclestone was shocked to learn of Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire with immediate effect, announced on Friday.

Rosberg clinched his first drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi last Sunday, ending Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton’s reign as World Champion.

Ahead of the FIA prize giving in Vienna on Friday, Rosberg announced that he would not be defending his title in 2017, retiring from racing with immediate effect.

The racing world has been shellshocked by the news, with F1 CEO Ecclestone revealing that he had no idea that the sport would be without its champion for next season.

“It was just as big a shock to me as you,” Ecclestone told Reuters.

“I had dinner with Toto [Wolff, Mercedes team boss] last night and he obviously couldn’t say anything to me.

“[Rosberg] needs more time to spend his money, that’s all.”

Following Rosberg’s announcement, speculation has been rife regarding a possible replacement at Mercedes for 2017, with names such as Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Pascal Wehrlein being linked with the seat.

Ecclestone was open to the idea of Alonso leaving McLaren with one year to spare on his contract, suggesting that the recent management changes could allow the Spaniard to walk away.

“It’s possible I suppose, let’s see,” Ecclestone said.

“They’ve got new management now at McLaren. Maybe he’s fed up being there and they’re fed up having him.”

When asked if Vettel might be an option for Mercedes, Ecclestone said: “I think not. I don’t think Seb would want to be with Lewis.”

2017 will be the first year since 1994 that the defending World Champion has not raced in F1, with Alain Prost retiring at the end of his championship year in 1993.

Strategist shuffle set to take place in Andretti’s 2017 lineup

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 29:  Alexander Rossi of the United States, driver of the #98 Andretti Herta Autosport Honda Dallara, poses with team owners Michael Andretti and Bryan Herta during a photoshoot after winning the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 30, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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With the four-car lineup confirmed for Andretti Autosport’s Verizon IndyCar Series program following Takuma Sato’s official announcement, attention turns to the personnel fielding those cars.

With the signings of Eric Bretzman and Jeremy Milless to bolster the overall engineering side of the team, and with Milless replacing the departed Tom German as Alexander Rossi’s race engineer, there’s also a strategist shuffle that appears set to take part.

Although team principal Michael Andretti stopped short of formally confirming he’ll step off the box for son Marco in his No. 27 hhgregg Honda next year, he said barring any unexpected changes that’s what’s going to happen.

Since Andretti Autosport has multiple race programs in other series – the team has won the last two Red Bull Global Rallycross titles with Volkswagen, then has a two-car FIA Formula E and at least three, possibly four-car Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires effort – Andretti said he needs to be available to miss IndyCar weekends occasionally if there’s conflicts.

“It hasn’t been 100 percent confirmed, but it looks like it’s going that way,” Andretti told NBC Sports.

“It’s been a real challenge being a strategist and team owner; not only being a team owner in other series, but it never gave me the flexibility to miss an IndyCar race. There were a couple times where I couldn’t get to other events. It’s important for the overall team.”

As a case in point even though this isn’t directly IndyCar-related, the FIA Formula E new season opener was in Hong Kong the weekend of October 8-9, while the Red Bull GRC season finale was in Los Angeles the same weekend.

Andretti opted to be in LA there to watch Scott Speed edge Tanner Foust for his second straight Red Bull GRC program, while JF Thormann was Andretti’s lead team representative in Hong Kong at FE. Andretti expects to attend the next FE round in Buenos Aires, which isn’t until February 18, 2017.

With FE’s season shifting into the spring and summer of 2017, there are several IndyCar/FE conflicts. Red Bull GRC is yet to release its 2017 calendar.

Anyway, with Andretti set to step off the strategist box, he all but indicated Bryan Herta will move over to Marco Andretti’s car, and that Rob Edwards (director of race operations and engineering) would move to Rossi’s No. 98 car. Edwards was on the No. 26 car for Carlos Munoz this year, and his departure there, if it’s confirmed, would leave a vacancy on the No. 26 box for Takuma Sato.

“I love having Bryan on board,” Michael Andretti said. “Having him there, if it works out that way, is that he and Marco are very close. It’d be really positive. I know Bryan would be up for the challenge in trying to improve that side.

“If that happens… then where we’re leaning is that it could be Rob on Rossi. That’d be good. Rossi would seem to be happy.”

Andretti said one of the challenges in being a strategist is that it’s one of the most important positions on a race weekend, and being split between strategist and team owner roles causes something of a loss of focus.

The rise of Graham Rahal and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing the last two years can be attributed to multiple things, including the fact Rahal’s dad Bobby Rahal stepped off the box in 2015 and let Ricardo Nault take over in that role.

“What would I miss about it? Not a lot, quite honestly!” Andretti admitted.

“It wasn’t my favorite thing to do. But I think, because of my experience, you can feel and see a race. Unfortunately there’s not a lot of guys out there that do that. We’re grooming guys to be in that place.”

Andretti did hail the immediate input Milless and Bretzman are having on the overall program. The team’s best road course performance of the year came at the Sonoma season finale in September, and it appears strides are following from there.

“It’s been great. I’m so excited and bullish on next year,” Andretti said. “In our first test with them, we’ve seen big results. There’s a lot more to come. I truly feel we’ll be a lot more competitive.

“We think we’re onto some things. We were onto some things going into Sonoma… and that wasn’t by mistake. We had found some things. We had the sense of where we needed to go. Getting these two in there, backed up where we were going, so that was a positive. I feel good about it.”

Takuma Sato formally confirmed with Andretti Autosport

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 27: Takuma Sato of Japan, driver of the #14 ABC Supply A.J. Foyt Racing Dallara Honda sits in his car during practice for the Verizon IndyCar Series Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix Of Houston at NRG Park on June 27, 2014 in Houston, Texas (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
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Takuma Sato will join Andretti Autosport for the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, and complete the team’s four-car full-season lineup.

The 39-year-old Japanese driver will begin his eighth season in IndyCar next year, in arguably his deepest opportunity yet driving the team’s No. 26 Honda.

“I am extremely excited that we were able to work out a deal with Michael and Andretti Autosport,” Sato said in a release. “With Honda an integral part of Andretti Autosport, it seemed like a great fit. The team has proven year after year that they are ultracompetitive on all types of circuits.

“Particularly the speed that team has shown in recent years at the Indy 500 were just incredible. I am also very impressed on how aggressively they have addressed their needs for 2017, and am really looking forward to working with my new environment and can’t wait to get started.”

Sato spent his first two seasons with the KVSH Racing team (then called KV Racing Technology), a year at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and the last four at A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Sato delivered Foyt its first win in more than a decade when he won at Long Beach, 2013, and also has scored five poles in his career. While he’s yet to finish better than 13th in points, Sato has long been one of the more enjoyable drivers to watch in the series for his aggressive, “no attack, no chance” style.

Sato joins the returning trio of Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Alexander Rossi within the team.

Team principal Michael Andretti said Sato’s results over his IndyCar career to date really haven’t done his talent, ability or development work justice.

“We’re excited to have Takuma; we think he’ll surprise and turn some heads,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “I think he’ll be in a situation that should help him a lot.

“With three good teammates, I think he is personally excited. This will be his best chance to get results since being in IndyCar.

“To me I really believe he’s one of the fastest guys in the paddock. When it comes to qualifying… it’ll help us in that area. It’ll be good in that feedback. I’m real happy with having him on board. He’s such a great kid, he won’t upset the chemistry. It’s a positive all the way around.”

Andretti also noted how key it was to have all four full-time entries confirmed this early in the offseason. The Rossi car with Andretti-Herta Autosport was only finalized in late February last year.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done since I’ve owned the team,” Andretti admitted. “Where we have all four cars this early, it helps us in terms of putting it together. It’s not a last-minute thing. That makes it a better effort.”

Garrett Mothershead, who worked with the departed Carlos Munoz at Andretti last year, will be Sato’s race engineer. Munoz now replaces Sato at Foyt next season.

Andretti said he expects to see commercial partnerships for Rossi and Sato’s cars announced in mid-January.