Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) qualify No. 1 in Las Vegas

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Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Courtney Force (Funny Car) on Saturday rocketed to the top qualifying spots for Sunday’s NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Meanwhile, Jeg Coughlin, who was the top qualifier on Friday in Pro Stock, held on to his advantage in Saturday’s two additional qualifying rounds and will hold the top position in his category on Sunday.

Final eliminations for the fourth race on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule begin at 11 a.m. PT on Sunday.

Brown earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season – and 35th of his career – with the quickest run in Top Fuel at 3.768 seconds at 325.14 mph, earned in his final qualifying attempt against points leader Doug Kalitta.

“Doug put that 3.77 on the board right in front of us, so I knew it was time to get to work,” Brown said. “We had just been picking at it, but I saw my boys go into the box and make some adjustments I just said, ‘Uh oh, here we go. This is where it gets good.’

“It’s going to be a fight like this all year. It’s not going to be just the fastest car, but the most efficient car that makes great laps the most often. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”

Brown is seeking his third career win at Las Vegas, including his triumph there last fall. He faces Mike Strasburg in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.

In Funny Car, Courtney Force smashed both ends of the track record in her category, covering the racing surface in 4.006 seconds at 325.37 mph, which was also the fastest speed overall of the day (including Top Fuel).

“When I got out of the car, I didn’t realize the speed was 325 mph,” Force said. “It’s pretty [amazing to see] the 325 mph run was not only the best in Funny Car, but Top Fuel, as well.”

The daughter of 16-time Funny car champ John Force, who qualified No. 2, Courtney Force earned her first top qualifying position of the season and fourth of her young career.

The younger Force will square off with Jon Capps in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin’s Friday run of 6.625 seconds at 208.78 mph held up during Saturday’s two qualifying sessions, earning him the 20th No. 1 starting spot of his career and his first No. 1 of the season.

“I’m really proud to hold onto the No. 1 position,” said Coughlin, who faces Mark Wolfe in Sunday’s first round of eliminations. “I think it really shows quite a bit from our team. We’ve been hustling the last month-and-a-half getting these new cars ready.”

Also of note in Pro Stock, Erica Enders-Stevens won the K&N Horsepower Challenge and its $50,000 first prize, defeating fan-vote winner and her former crew chief Dave Connolly, covering the track at 6.646 seconds and 208.39 mph.

“Part of being a professional athlete is having to put personal things aside for business, and it is a true challenge and something I work hard on,” Enders-Stevens said. “It’s about me getting up on the wheel and the guys putting a great race car underneath me to get from Point A to Point B.”

Connolly’s car broke just past the starting line and he was never a factor as Enders-Stevens streaked to the win.

It was the second straight year that Enders-Stevens reached the final round of the Challenge, and by virtue of winning it Saturday, becomes the first woman to ever do so in its history.

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Here are Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 15th annual NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the fourth of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.  Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings.

Top Fuel — 1. Antron Brown, 3.768 seconds, 325.14 mph  vs. 16. Mike Strasburg, 4.138, 279.85; 2. Doug Kalitta, 3.775, 323.19  vs. 15. Steve Faria, 4.038, 289.63; 3. Steve Torrence, 3.779, 324.28  vs. 14. Terry McMillen, 3.936, 309.98; 4. Spencer Massey, 3.794, 323.81  vs. 13. Clay Millican, 3.874, 295.59; 5. Tony Schumacher, 3.797, 324.28  vs. 12. Troy Buff, 3.858, 305.08; 6. Richie Crampton, 3.798, 320.13  vs. 11. J.R. Todd, 3.841, 310.34; 7. Brittany Force, 3.799, 315.86  vs. 10. Bob Vandergriff, 3.831, 319.52; 8. Shawn Langdon, 3.815, 324.05  vs. 9. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.824, 313.22.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Steven Chrisman, 4.209, 280.95; 18. Scott Palmer, broke.

Funny Car — 1. Courtney Force, Ford Mustang, 4.006, 325.37  vs. 16. Jon Capps, Chevy Impala, 4.245, 278.23; 2. John Force, Mustang, 4.017, 317.87  vs. 15. Paul Lee, Dodge Charger, 4.124, 306.81; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.023, 317.87  vs. 14. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.115, 310.13; 4. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.041, 315.71  vs. 13. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.100, 309.77; 5. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.046, 318.17  vs. 12. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.090, 309.84; 6. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.052, 315.34  vs. 11. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.090, 312.13; 7. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.059, 317.49  vs. 10. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.081, 311.70; 8. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.067, 313.00  vs. 9. Chad Head, Camry, 4.076, 309.20.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Gary Densham, 4.248, 290.88; 18. Jeff Diehl, 4.287, 293.98; 19. Bob Tasca III, 4.411, 307.30.

Pro Stock — 1. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.625, 209.17  vs. 16. Mark Wolfe, Ford Mustang, 6.724, 205.76; 2. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.625, 208.46  vs. 15. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.699, 206.95; 3. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.627, 209.04  vs. 14. Larry Morgan, Mustang, 6.696, 206.99; 4. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.627, 208.26  vs. 13. Matt Hartford, Dodge Avenger, 6.695, 207.46; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.630, 208.94  vs. 12. Deric Kramer, Avenger, 6.686, 207.59; 6. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.632, 208.94  vs. 11. Steve Kent, Camaro, 6.657, 207.56; 7. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.632, 209.17  vs. 10. V. Gaines, Avenger, 6.657, 209.07; 8. Jimmy Alund, Camaro, 6.639, 208.49  vs. 9. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.647, 207.72.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski


F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.