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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INDYCAR reveals road course/short oval renderings of 2018 kit

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INDIANAPOLIS – INDYCAR has released the road course/short oval renderings of its 2018 new common aero kit, which follows the reveal of the super speedway kit earlier this year, shortly after the Verizon IndyCar Series’ season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March.

This is the third round of renderings for this year, as the initial drawings were revealed at the North American International Auto Show in January.

INDYCAR is yet to confirm the supplier of the common kit, and additionally has not formally announced its first scheduled on-track test date.

But NBC Sports understands that is likely to come in July, at a track to be determined. In discussions about the new 2018 common kit, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations Jay Frye has explained how he has worked hand-in-hand with the INDYCAR technical team on the design process.

The road course and short oval rendering is above with the superspeedway one below, for reference.

These renderings and a link to more information can be found here, via indycar.com.

NASCAR, not Indy 500, on Jenson Button’s radar after Fontana visit

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Jenson Button would like to enter a NASCAR event in the future after enjoying a visit to March’s Auto Club 400 at Fontana, but has no interest in following former McLaren Formula 1 teammate Fernando Alonso into the Indianapolis 500.

2009 world champion Button will make a one-off return to F1 this weekend while Alonso races in the Indy 500, with the Briton believing he had made his final Grand Prix start in Abu Dhabi last year.

Button has not raced in any discipline since the season finale at Yas Marina, instead preferring to focus on his triathlon training after qualifying for the upcoming world championships.

When asked if he would consider following Alonso’s lead and entering the ‘500 in the future, Button revealed he would prefer to try out NASCAR.

“Indy’s not really been something that I’ve ever thought about. Personally, I was surprised that Fernando was interested in doing it, but we all like different things,” Button said.

“I would like to race in NASCAR, I think that would be fun. I went along to one of the races this year, Jimmie Johnson invited me, and I had a great time.

“I loved seeing the show as it is, and it’s very different to other motorsports. Equally, it’s a challenge, it’s a massive challenge. Who knows?”

Button was a guest of Johnson at Auto Club Speedway back in March over the Australian Grand Prix weekend, with the Briton noting at the time that there was much F1 could learn from NASCAR.

Button added that he would also like to enter the 24 Hours of Le Mans one day, but only in a competitive seat such as the one Nico Hulkenberg had with Porsche when he won the race in 2015.

“We’re racing drivers, we’re not just F1 drivers, and we like trying different sports,” Button said.

“For me, I would like to do Le Mans one day. I think it would be a great experience, a great team atmosphere. Obviously it has to be the right opportunity like Nico had.

“And then there’s other motorsports that I love like rallycross as well. So there are many things. But Indy hasn’t been up there for me for many different reasons.”

Hamilton and Vettel’s friendly rivalry faces test in Monaco

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MONACO (AP) The chummy rivalry between Formula One champions Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel could be tested at this weekend’s Monaco Grand Prix, an unforgiving circuit where drivers are often pushed to the limit.

After five races, four-time F1 champion Vettel is six points clear of three-time champion Hamilton. They have two wins each and are relishing what is, surprisingly, their first championship tussle.

When Vettel was dominating for Red Bull, winning his titles from 2010-13, Hamilton lagged behind with McLaren. As Hamilton started dominating for Mercedes the following year, Vettel struggled with Red Bull. After switching to Ferrari in 2015, the German driver failed to significantly challenge Hamilton or his former Mercedes teammate, Nico Rosberg.

Although they share a total of 99 F1 wins, this is the first year Hamilton and Vettel have really gone head-to-head on track.

“You have to respect if other people do a good job,” Vettel said. “We’re very different. But I think we have a very strong connection.”

Hamilton has been equally praiseworthy.

“To have that close battle with him, with a four-time champ, is awesome,” the British driver said. “This is what the sport needs to be every single race.”

Fans are thrilled, and it is equally a relief for Hamilton to be challenging a driver he respects so much and, additionally, one from another team.

For the past three years, Hamilton was embroiled in a tense fight with Rosberg and their thorny relationship caused frictions within Mercedes.

An air of relief has swept through Mercedes since Rosberg retired after winning last year’s title. Not because he was unpopular, but because the team no longer has to deal with an ongoing saga that the media feasted on.

“This season I have re-discovered why I love the sport,” said Toto Wolff, the head of Mercedes motorsport. “We are in a massive fight with Ferrari.”

In other words, the fight has been taken outside of Mercedes itself and the rivalry with Vettel is more healthy.

However, an incident in Spain two weeks ago, where Hamilton won ahead of Vettel, suggested cracks could start appearing in the smooth facade of their relationship.

Vettel came perilously close to nudging Hamilton off the track as they fought for space heading into a turn. Hamilton had seemed somewhat irked by Vettel’s aggression – although it was exactly the kind of in-your-face driving Hamilton revels in.

With the F1 title shaping into a two-way race, neither can afford a slip.

That will heighten the pressure on both in glitzy Monaco, where F1 lovers mingle with millionaires, and which Wolff describes as “the crown jewel” of F1.

The smallest braking mistake on a tight and sinewy 3.4-kilometer (2.1-mile) circuit through the winding streets of Monte Carlo, past its famed casino and around its glittering, yacht-laden harbor, can send a distracted driver into the barriers.

“There is no such thing as a low risk lap in Monaco, it doesn’t exist if you want to be fast,” said Red Bull driver Max Verstappen, who crashed in last year’s race.

With overtaking notoriously difficult, pole position holds increased value. That makes qualifying crucial, where drivers juggle speed with not pushing the car too hard.

“It is a mentally exhausting weekend,” Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas said. “One mistake will cost you.”

But one advantage for drivers this year is that the Pirelli tires are far more durable, increasing time on track and limiting pit stops.

Still, that advantage is offset by another factor: the size of the cars.

F1 rule changes this year led to cars being made faster and wider. On a narrow track, this poses “a massive challenge” when pushing the car close to the limit, Hamilton said.

“It’ll be a real test of your awareness of where the car is,” the Englishman said. “You need to be sharp and clear.”

Ganassi team confident amid high expectations for Indy 500

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Chip Ganassi Racing was uncharacteristically quiet during last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Tony Kanaan was the only member of the team to lead laps, heading the field for 19 circuits. Charlie Kimball took advantage of a strategy similar to winner Alexander Rossi’s to finish fifth, while Scott Dixon was never in contention much of the day and finished eighth. Max Chilton, in his first “500,” soldiered home in 15th.

For the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the team has a much different outcome in mind. Once again partnered with Honda, which had the superior speedway package last year, Chip Ganassi’s outfit appears to be in a much stronger position heading into this year’s race.

Most notably, Scott Dixon captured the pole, with Tony Kanaan joining him in the Fast Nine shootout before qualifying seventh. And while Chilton and Kimball start 15th and 16th, they could easily be dark horses heading into race day.

Team owner Chip Ganassi was bursting with enthusiasm when asked about returning Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a May 19 press conference.

“I mean, I’m excited. I mean I think — you know, when you come back here to Indianapolis, it’s the real thing. It’s what we’re all about. It’s why we got in this sport in the first place, is because of the Indianapolis 500. We want to win this race, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he asserted.

Mike Hull, managing director of the Verizon IndyCar Series side of Chip Ganassi’s operation, detailed the team’s success, and potential for more success, is down to people and communication, and that on the driving front, he thinks they have all their bases covered.

“In order for race drivers to win races, they have to support their teammates and their teammates have to give very unselfishly to each other when you race at a major event like this one,” Hull explained. “And it’s really, really neat to see these four drivers interact with each other knowing full well that one of the other ones could win. That’s very special, and that’s what we have at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Dixon, the polesitter and holder of one of the fastest speeds Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen since 1996, is not only Ganassi’s longest tenured driver but the team’s best bet for success on race day, in tandem with engineer Chris Simmons. Dixon alluded to missed opportunities (such as in 2015, when an overheating problem dropped him from the lead late in the race, and in 2011, when fuel strategy put paid to his chances) as added motivation to secure his second “500” triumph.

Scott Dixon might be the favorite going into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Photo: Indycar

“I think we came up short in a couple where we could have maybe stolen a couple wins there which would have definitely helped that list. But yeah, you know, it’s all focused right now on this event and preparing as well as we can,” he said.

“I think the first couple of days were definitely trying in a lot of ways but I think we found some good headway, but it’s the goal. We finished second here a couple of times and it’s almost the worst place to finish when you come so close, especially under caution.”

One might assume that as a former winner, Dixon may hold a mental edge on most of the field. But, he later revealed that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Every year is very different. The target constantly moves. The situations change. How the race plays out changes,” he said. “I think because you’ve had the sense and the feeling of that victory, you want it that much more again. So I think it maybe even adds to it.”

Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won this race in 2013, echoed those sentiments. “To me every year it’s like the first year,” he added. “I mean, I don’t get to think that I won this thing until Monday. If everything goes wrong, I might, you know, just say ‘All right, at least I won one.’ That’s the way I really think. But up until then I still get as nervous as I was the first time. I still want to win as bad as if I hadn’t won.”

Tony Kanaan is looking for his second Indy 500 triumph. Photo: IndyCar

So far, Kanaan has endured a difficult 2017 campaign. With only two finishes inside the top ten, he languishes back in 11th in the championship. Still, he recognizes that this year presents as strong a chance as he’s ever had at Indianapolis, and the strength of Ganassi’s organization creates a heightened sense of pressure to perform.

“I got extremely lucky when after I won the “500” I got hired by Chip and Mike’s organization. I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. So they cut my work in half by doing that,” he added. “They give me great cars, great people, and it’s just an awesome place to be. So for me, you know, I think I have one of my best shots this year.”

Outside of Dixon and Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are often the overlooked men of Chip Ganassi’s four-car armada. However, each has shown the potential for success.

Kimball, a former IndyCar race winner, has very quietly established himself at the Indy 500 with consecutive finishes inside the top five (third in 2015 and fifth in 2016) to go along with two other finishes inside the top ten (eighth in 2012, ninth in 2013). Like Kanaan, Kimball has endured a difficult 2017 season, one in which he didn’t even make it through the opening lap in any race until Round 3 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Charlie Kimball has quietly put together a strong record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Kimball explained that his success is down to a simple love of the race track, and that the surrounding team may be the most vital component to ending the day in victory lane.

“I love racing around here. And on Race Day the fact that it’s a 500-mile event: it’s challenging mentally, physically, not just for us as drivers but especially for the teams, the guys on the stand, the engineers, the strategists, the guys, the crew that go over the wall. I mean, that focus that they need for those six, seven-plus stops is critical to the job we do on the racetrack,” he said.

And for Max Chilton, who has raced at such world-renowned events as the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competing at the Indy 500 left an indelible impression on him.

“I’ve done some big races, Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix a number of times, but this one stands out last year,” he said. “(It was) the 100th running of the biggest race we’ve ever had here. To me that was still very incredible.”

An Indianapolis 500 victory would the first career IndyCar win for Chilton. Photo: IndyCar

While a victory for him would be an upset of sorts, Chilton knows he has everything he needs to do so. “I’m going to work as hard as I can. I feel like we got the car in a good place (in practice) and I can’t wait to be here on the 28th of May and be zooming around,” said the Briton, who was fastest during Monday practice.

The team has moved a number of pieces around – Kanaan and Kimball swapped engineers with Eric Cowdin coming back to Kanaan and Todd Malloy going over to Kimball – and other crew members have also been rotated. But as Hull explained, that comes from the strength of depth within the organization based on Woodland Drive in Indianapolis.

“We’re lucky, we have quality people in all positions, so we can do that,” Hull said. “But what it does is it provides fresh thinking even though the thinking is in the same room. And it’s all about the interaction of people. That’s what teamwork is all about and teams of people are all about. They have to pinch each other every day to remember what the priority actually is, and our priority is to win. We try to match the people up that we think can do that.”

An Indy 500 victory in 2017 would be the fifth for Chip Ganassi Racing, the previous four coming at the hands of Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Scott Dixon (2008), and Dario Franchitti (2010, 2012).

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