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 SummitRacing.com 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 SummitRacing.com 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.

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Red Bull GRC: Switched-up field seeks to topple Speed, VW, Andretti

Photo: Chris Tedesco/Red Bull Content Pool
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Red Bull Global Rallycross kicks off its season this week from Memphis, a new event on the calendar and the series’ fourth different kickoff site in as many years. It also starts a month earlier than the past, with Barbados (mid-May, 2014) Ft. Lauderdale (late May 2015) and Phoenix (third week of May 2016) having been the curtain-raisers in the past few years.

Race coverage is on NBC network on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET.

With the trip down South the first step in the 12-race championship, it again provides a first look at whether anyone can topple Scott Speed and Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, as the two-time champion looks for a three-peat in his latest iteration of a Beetle GRC beast.

Most of the field is switched; at least one driver or team per entry is different for all teams this year, with the exception of Andretti.

Here’s the tentative field breakdown (field may be subject to change and extra additions):

Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, Volkswagen Beetle GRC

34-Tanner Foust
41-Scott Speed

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” will be the mantra here, as Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross and Scott Speed seek their third straight title. Teammate Tanner Foust arguably had the better 2016 season – he won four races to Speed’s three – but lost the championship in a tough dynamic in the Los Angeles doubleheader, his weekend delayed a bit with the need to run an LCQ and thus losing track position if he’d make the final.

Speed’s enjoyed his time in GRC to this point, as he recounted in his first NBCSports.com blog of 2017, and has become one of the series’ marquee faces. While a three-peat would be good for him, it remains to be seen whether that is in the best interest of the series. Nonetheless, anything less than another round of victories and title contention from Red Bull GRC’s dynamic duo would be a surprise, and a disappointment.

Honda Red Bull Olsbergs MSE, Honda Civic Coupe

16-Oliver Eriksson (R)
24-Mitchell DeJong (R)
93-Sebastian Eriksson

Red Bull GRC’s version of “Name that Eriksson” sees the unrelated pair of Swedes, Oliver and Sebastian Eriksson, racing for the Andreas Eriksson-led team whose success is world renowned in rallycross – except last year. In a rare off year for OMSE, the team spent more time dialing in the setup of it early before contending on outright pace. They got there by the end of the year but despite preliminary wins, never won a main event.

That should well change this year with Sebastian Eriksson the undisputed team leader in now his third season. Having two hungry young chargers alongside in past GRC Lites champions Oliver Eriksson and DeJong, the latter of whom has one Supercars weekend under his belt at Los Angeles last year, will only serve to push this team forward.

Subaru Rally Team USA, Subaru WRX-STi

18-Patrik Sandell
55-Chris Atkinson

Two lackluster years and only a handful of decent results have forced a major course reset at Subaru, and one which should see them back on proper race win-contending form throughout the 2017 season. If the enhancements from the team weren’t coming, particularly with a new car, it’s likely they wouldn’t have convinced Patrik Sandell to have left Bryan Herta Rallysport, where he overachieved and won races each of the last two seasons.

Sandell’s an ace and past Subaru World Rally Championship driver Chris Atkinson brought a degree of pace to this program that was lacking previously when he came in for the final events of 2016. The Australian figures to be a frontrunner as well.

Loenbro Motorsports, Ford Fiesta

00-Steve Arpin

A change in ownership and branding sees the former Chip Ganassi Rallycross program, which popped up before 2015 and did a two-year entry, now under the Loenbro Motorsports umbrella albeit with nearly all the same staff and crew intact. It is a big step for the company and for driver Steve Arpin, the likable Canadian who now lives in Minnesota, to strike out on their own. Arpin won his first Supercars final last year but may find the sledding tougher against the factory efforts and other privateer teams.

Bryan Herta Rallysport, Ford Fiesta

2-Cabot Bigham (R)

For a second straight year, Bryan Herta will have the fun situation where his name and team are separate in Red Bull GRC from Michael Andretti’s even though the two work together in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In Bigham, Herta’s found a potential diamond in the rough. The Northern California native took a surprise, but well-judged, win in last year’s GRC Lites season and has found the necessary budget to come up to the next level. “The Big Ham” will need to get his feet wet the first couple events but should start playing with the big dogs as the season progresses.

Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Ford Fiesta

14-Austin Dyne

After striking out on his own last year with AD Racing, a year after running under the Herta tent, series CEO Colin Dyne’s son Austin will now work with another IndyCar outfit in RLL Racing, which makes its Red Bull GRC debut this year. The deep field has made it harder for Dyne to stand out – he has just three final round top-five finishes in the last two years – but with the RLL preparation behind him, it should see the series veteran improve this year.

John Force has a job for soon-to-be retired Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Photo courtesy John Force official Twitter page
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The battle for Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s post-retirement services has begun.

And leave it to none other than 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force to be the first to offer Junior a job.

As a Funny Car driver, of course.

Look at the plusses: they both drive for Chevrolet, they both like beer, Junior wouldn’t have to worry about turning left or right (on road courses) any more, he’d be able to stay on the straight and narrow (drag strip, that is) and …

Perhaps the best thing of all, he could ultimately become Force’s replacement as the most popular driver in NHRA drag racing when (or if) Force ever decides to retire himself.

Check out Force’s job offer:

Several current or former Verizon IndyCar Series drivers also took to social media to pay homage to Junior — including another member of the Force family, son-in-law Graham Rahal, who is married to drag racer Courtney Force.

 

 

 

Loftus Robinson Rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for Indy 500

Photo: Dreyer and Reinbold Racing
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Indianapolis-based real estate developer Loftus Robinson will rejoin Dreyer and Reinbold Racing for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. The relationship between Loftus Robinson and DRR goes back to 2015, when they first partnered for the “500.” The partnership continues for 2017, with Sage Karam piloting the effort for the second consecutive year.

“Being an Indianapolis-based company, we felt it has been important to partner with another local company, Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, in the famed Indy 500,” said Drew Loftus, co-principal of Loftus Robinson. “The Indianapolis Motor Speedway has served as a great backdrop for our business’ growth. We have enjoyed our relationship with Dennis and his racing team. They have built a tremendous infrastructure to assist us and our partners through the event. We’re anxious to see Sage back on track in the No. 24 DRR Chevrolet this May.”

Team co-owner Dennis Reinbold echoed Loftus’ enthusiam. “Loftus Robinson has been one of the Indianapolis area’s top young commercial real estate companies in recent years and we are very pleased to have them back in 2017 with our Indy 500 entry,” he explained. “Loftus Robinson has utilized our racing team’s participation in the world’s greatest auto race to formulate strong relationships with their business partners as well as developing new clients right at the track. We hope to put them in victory lane on May 28 with Sage at the wheel.”

Practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil begins on May 15.

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JR Hildebrand cleared to return for Phoenix

Photo: IndyCar
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After sitting out the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama last weekend, JR Hildebrand will be able to return to action for this weekend’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (Saturday, 9 p.m. ET, NBCSN), after being cleared Tuesday to drive.

The primary driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a final lap accident at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9, after a collision with Mikhail Aleshin. He was re-evaluated upon returning to Indianapolis and was not cleared to drive for the Barber Motorsports Park race.

Hildebrand was on site in Birmingham, Ala. in a driver coach role for Zach Veach, who filled in for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut. Veach started and finished 19th in his first start.

For Hildebrand, the return to Phoenix comes after he paced the series official preseason open test there in February, and comes as a great opportunity to come back from a challenging start to the year. Hildebrand had nondescript runs of 13th and 11th in the first two races but was 11th in points after Long Beach, although he fell to 21st when he missed Barber.

“It’s been a tricky couple of weeks working through this injury, I’m certainly anxious to get back in the car!” he said in a release. “I feel like I’m far enough along to be able to go for it this weekend in Phoenix. I know we’ve got a good program; I want to be able to come through for the team at an event where we should be strong. The competition there is tough, I expect we will really have to be on our game over the course of the weekend. I’m looking forward to getting back in the Fuzzy’s Vodka car! Everyone has been super helpful and I appreciate the hard work that everyone has put in to be able to get me back in.”

Meanwhile team owner Carpenter makes his first start of the season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Ultra Premium Vodka Chevrolet as part of his oval-only program.

Spencer Pigot will be back in the No. 20 car at the INDYCAR Grand Prix at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 13, before Carpenter’s back in for the rest of the month of May leading up to and into the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.