Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson is off to a great start in the 2014 season, with wins in the last two events. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Breaking down NHRA pro ranks after first three races of 2014 season

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Sure, we’re only three races into the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, but a lot has happened already.

And if that’s an indication of even more to come, 2014 could go down as one of the bigger seasons in recent memory.

Following this past Sunday’s Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., let’s take a look at who’s strong, who’s struggled and anything in-between among the four primary pro classes:

TOP FUEL:

Three-time Gainesville winner Doug Kalitta, including this past Sunday, is off to one of the best starts ever in his career.

Racking up his first win of the season and 34th overall this past Sunday, the Michigan native now has a win and a runner-up in the first three events.

Ditto for Antron Brown, who lost in Sunday’s finals to Gainesville after winning two weeks before at Phoenix.

Not surprisingly, Kalitta leads the Top Fuel standings, with Brown second, Steve Torrence third and season-opening race winner at Pomona, Khalid alBalooshi.

On the flip side, what’s happened to seven-time champ Tony Schumacher? “The Sarge” has not won a dragster championship since 2009 and is off to an uncharacteristically slow start in 2014.

Schumacher is eighth after the first three events, an already distant 163 points behind the front-running Kalitta.

FUNNY CAR:

The ageless wonder, John Force – who turns 65 in May – is intent on winning a record 17th Funny Car championship in 2014 for several reasons.

First, longtime sponsors Castrol Oil and Ford will be leaving at the end of the season.

Second, although Force is diligently looking for new sponsorship for 2015, he hasn’t made any significant announcements yet.

Third, although we find the likelihood of it happening very unlikely, the rumor mill has Force potentially retiring at season’s end if he doesn’t find enough funds to replace what he’ll lose from Castrol and Ford.

And then there’s the other predominant rumor we keep hearing: Force may be forced – no pun intended – to switch to Top Fuel in 2015 if his hopefully new potential sponsors want it.

Force has veteran TF tuner Jimmy Prock – who has the colorful nickname of “Go For the Jugular” – as crew chief for son-in-law and fellow FC driver Robert Hight this season.

But if Force were to move up to Top Fuel next season, don’t be surprised if he takes Prock with him.

Thus far in 2014, Force is off to a great start. He won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., setting new national event records for speed and elapsed time.

Then at the Gatornationals, Force qualified poorly (last of the 16-car field), but rallied to finish runner-up to Hight – who is also off to a great start himself with a win and runner-up (at Phoenix).

Other drivers that have enjoyed a great start thus far include Alexis DeJoria, who became the first female Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier in the Pomona season opener, and then followed that up with her first national event win at Phoenix.

After a year’s layoff, Tommy Johnson Jr. is solid in sixth, as well.

But very conspicuous by their absences in the top 10 are brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, who have a combined four FC championships between them (two each).

PRO STOCK:

In Pro Stock, it was out with the old and in with the new at Gainesville for Allen Johnson, and he didn’t miss a beat.

The 2012 PS champ jettisoned his trustworthy Dodge Avenger and brought a brand new 2014 Dodge Dart with him to the Gatornationals (as did fellow competitor Jeg Coughlin).

The change made no difference whatsoever, as Johnson roared to his second win in the first three races.

Vieri Gaines (more commonly known as just V. Gaines) is off to one of the best season starts of his career, ranked second behind Johnson in the points standings after Gainesville.

Pomona winner Jason Line is a close fourth, as well.

Coughlin has struggled somewhat in the first three races, ranked eighth, but the five-time and 2013 defending Pro Stock champ is still well within striking distance to get on a hot streak and make a big jump in the rankings in the next several races.

If there’s one driver in the PS ranks you can never count out, it’s Coughlin, indeed.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:

Okay, there’s really not much you can gauge in the bikes, as Sunday’s race at Gainesville was only the first on the 16-race PSM calendar in 2014.

Still, veteran rider Steve Johnson deserves special recognition. Johnson earned his first win on the circuit since 2008.

The 53-year-old Birmingham, Ala. native became the first Suzuki rider to win an NHRA national event since 2011.

And to top it all off, Johnson finds himself leading the PSM points for only the second time in his lengthy career, and the first time since 2005.

Others that looked good in the season opener included Scotty Pollacheck (second in points) and third-ranked Hector Arana Jr.

In an interesting twist, three members of the Arana family are in the top nine in the standings: Hector Jr., family patriarch Hector Arana Sr. and other son Adam Arana (the latter two are part of a four-way tie for ninth-place with Shawn Gann and Katie Sullivan).

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Kvyat: Current F1 struggles feel ‘never ending’

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Daniil Kvyat made no secret of his frustration after qualifying a lowly 19th for the German Grand Prix on Saturday, continuing his disappointing run of form.

Since being demoted to a seat at Toro Rosso from parent team Red Bull for the Spanish Grand Prix, Kvyat has scored just two points, struggling to match the pace of teammate Carlos Sainz Jr.

Kvyat’s return to Toro Rosso was facilitated following two crashes in the Russian Grand Prix, leading to questions about how he was handling the pressure of racing for Red Bull.

Kvyat cast a despondent figure after qualifying, having asked his team over the radio after the session: “What the f*** is going on?”, venting his frustration.

“Little bit of a crazy lap, with many mistakes,” Kvyat said of his qualifying lap.

”I don’t feel great. It’s not a good period for me and it seems like it’s never-ending now. I’m trying every weekend, but nothing is working so far.

“It’s not like I’m having the most pleasant time in the world, it’s not easy but it’s not an excuse.”

Kvyat told TV reporters after the session that he needed to go away and refocus over the summer break following Hockenheim, but said that his real issue lies with the STR11 car.

“I don’t know what I need, I don’t know. I just need that feeling from the car. If it comes back I should be much better,” Kvyat said.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It seems like my window of working is very narrow, I need to work on expanding it, but it’s not easy.

“I feel like solutions are not far away, even if it looks really bad on paper. We had a good Friday yesterday for the first time in a while.

“Tomorrow is the race, we need to try to fight our way back. The pace was not bad on Friday in the long runs.

“I have not much to lose anyway, so I’ll just try to go for it tomorrow.”

Kvyat’s future with Toro Rosso looks increasingly uncertain after the recent upturn in form of Red Bull junior driver Pierre Gasly.

Toro Rosso team principal Franz Tost previously said he wanted to keep Kvyat for 2017, but with Gasly winning two GP2 races in the past three weeks and completing a tire test for Red Bull, he looks more and more likely to become Sainz’s teammate next season.

Acura working toward NSX homologation; team timeframe TBD

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Photo: Tony DiZinno
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LEXINGTON, Ohio – This weekend’s been an important one for Acura and Honda, with the new Acura NSX GT3 turning its first public laps during Thursday’s Pirelli World Challenge test session, although plans for it to run in practice on Friday were scrubbed owing to heavy rains that canceled the session.

Inevitably though while the public debut is nice, the next steps for the NSX GT3 are determining – officially – the series in which it will compete and the teams with which will campaign it across the global spectrum of sports car racing.

Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr and NSX project leader Lee Niffenegger outlined more details about the NSX today in a brief media availability.

“We have some further private tests planned coming up in the next few weeks. We have FIA homologation testing coming up in September (at Ledoux in France) that’s a fixed week every year,” Niffenegger said. “So between now and then we have several different types of tests as well as on‑track tests.”

Niffenegger expanded a bit on the homologation process.

“Homologation, for those of you not familiar, there’s a dynamic test where they measure downforce, horsepower. Basically they set the basic vehicle parameters,” he explained.

“But there also can be a long process of documentation and inspection that takes place. Even though you go to a test in September, it can be one, two, three months, depending on what the FIA is looking for as far as documentation, any things they want you to change on the car for safety, could be anything.”

While the car is anticipated to run in both of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Pirelli World Challenge, St. Cyr declined to confirm either of those details today.

“We don’t have a specific timeframe when we’re going to do that,” St. Cyr said. “Obviously we’re evaluating the different series it’s legal to run this car in.

“As I mentioned before, there’s a lot of interest in running this car. We’re evaluating that. It’s pretty much an independent schedule for homologation. We will decide the teams. We want to get them as soon as possible, right, to start testing the car and start running the car.

“Pretty much as soon as possible for us is when we want to start announcing our teams on that. But I don’t have a solid date for that.

“We don’t have a fixed deadline, By this date we’re going to have a team. When we’ve checked all the boxes, that’s when we’ll announce the teams.”

Niffenegger added, “I don’t think it’s necessarily involved with homologation.”

Michael Shank Racing has been rumored as a possible team to campaign the NSX GT3, and Shank, who’s a Columbus local and whose shop is based in nearby Pataskala, Ohio, has been on site this weekend to survey and view the car.

RealTime Racing has housed the test NSX GT3 this weekend and while it would seem to be a strong candidate to race the car next year, it has not been formally confirmed.

Testing has occurred for the car at at least four U.S. circuits besides Mid-Ohio but this weekend marked its formal public debut. No further public tests are planned for the rest of this year, but they haven’t been ruled out entirely.

Ricciardo: Red Bull gaining ground on Mercedes

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 30:  Top three qualifiers Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP, Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP and Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing in parc ferme after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 30, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo believes that Red Bull is gaining ground on Mercedes at the front of the pack in Formula 1 after locking out the second row of the grid for the third race in a row on Saturday in Germany.

Ricciardo and teammate Max Verstappen qualified third and fourth respectively at Hockenheim, finishing four-tenths of a second off pole-sitter Nico Rosberg.

“In Q3 I knew I had to find some more time and I put a really good lap together in the first run,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“Then I knew there wasn’t much more for the second run so I probably tried a little bit too hard and made a few mistakes, but in the end it was a nice qualifying.

“Third is a good place to start. Hopefully we can look at Mercedes tomorrow and have a good battle with them and not focus on what’s happening behind us.”

Red Bull spent the first half of the season embroiled in a close battle with Ferrari, but now appears to have pulled clear in the battle for second in the F1 pecking order.

“The feeling in the team is very good at the moment,” Ricciardo said.

“In the last three races now both Red Bulls have been in front of Ferrari and it seems like we’re getting a little bit closer to Mercedes.

“Everyone in the team is happy and it’s nice standing here knowing that I’m in the top three. Tomorrow I think we’ll have a good chance.

“The long runs yesterday looked a bit better than they did in Budapest so let’s see. I’ll start the race on slightly older tires because I had to do two laps in Q2, which means they are not as fresh for the start but it’ll be fine.

“I’ll go hard and hopefully get in front and at least lead some of the race.”

Verstappen echoed Ricciardo’s thoughts on the battle at the front, saying that although Red Bull’s main competitor was still Ferrari, Mercedes is in its crosshairs.

“The main target is to be in front of the Ferraris and that is what we have done,” Verstappen said.

“That said, we know they will be quick in the race as we saw last week.

“Mercedes look pretty strong but we are not that far away so I think we can be very happy with that.

“It’s my first time here in a Formula 1 car and not an easy track to learn so I’m really pleased with today. We can both be satisfied to be on the second row as this track wasn’t expected to be the best for us.

“Race pace is looking very good for the moment. We definitely want to be challenging for a podium tomorrow, I think a win might be difficult though.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday from 7am ET.

Hulkenberg gets one-place grid penalty for tire mix-up

HOCKENHEIM, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany drives the 7 Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 29, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Nico Hulkenberg has been given a one-place grid penalty for Sunday’s German Grand Prix after a tire mix-up during qualifying at Hockenheim.

Hulkenberg qualified seventh for Force India, but used a set of super-soft tires in Q1 that should have been returned to Formula 1 tire supplier Pirelli ahead of the session.

“The team returned electronically the wrong set of tires and used these during Q1,” a short statement from the FIA stewards in Germany read, confirming Hulkenberg’s one-place grid drop.

With the penalty, Hulkenberg will now start eighth in Germany behind Williams’ Valtteri Bottas, who finished narrowly behind.

“I’m feeling pretty happy to qualify in seventh for my home race – it’s best of the rest behind the top three teams and a good effort by the whole team,” Hulkenberg said after qualifying.

“Our objective is always to maximize our potential and it feels like we achieved that today. Most of my laps in the session came together nicely and my final effort in Q3 was spot on.

“We can expect a tough fight for good points tomorrow, but we are in a good starting position and we’ve looked strong here in all the sessions. The long run pace is competitive, too, so we’ve got every chance of getting a great result this weekend.

“There is talk of some rain tomorrow and to be honest I would not mind a shower during the race, but let’s wait and see what happens.”

Teammate Sergio Perez qualified ninth on Saturday, reaching Q3 for the first time at Hockenheim.

“It was a fun and very intense fight with Nico and the two Williams cars throughout qualifying, and in the end it was really close between the four of us,” Perez said.

“It was crucial to get through Q1 on one set of tires because some other teams had to use two sets and this gave us a small advantage in Q2, which helped us make the top ten.

“On my last lap of Q3 I struggled a bit through some of the right-hand corners; I think I may have picked something up on my front wing – maybe some debris – and that cost me some time, but it’s something I will analyze with the team.

“In the end, it was so close and just a few hundredths of a second made the difference. Tomorrow is going to be interesting.

“We are starting on the super-softs on which we qualified and we will need to work well as a team to make the strategy work and score some important points.”

The German Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports app from 7am ET on Sunday.