Rookie Richie Crampton paced the Top Fuel field in the first day of qualifying on Friday at the NHRA SpringNationals in Baytown, Texas.  (Photo courtesy: NHRA)

Richie Crampton (TF), Del Worsham (FC), Allen Johnson (PS) lead after first day of NHRA qualifying in Houston

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Rookie Richie Crampton (Top Fuel) and veterans Del Worsham (Funny Car) and Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) were the top qualifiers after the first of two days of qualifying for the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown, Texas (a suburb of Houston) on Friday.

In the sixth event of the 24-race national Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule, Crampton – also making only his sixth career Top Fuel start – covered the track in 3.807 seconds at 322.11 mph.

“We’ve been working hard this season and haven’t quite qualified the way we like to,” Crampton said. “To get into the No. 1 spot tonight was just a payoff for all that hard work.”

Crampton is competing in just his sixth career NHRA national event, having replaced team owner Morgan Lucas, who retired from driving after last season.

“It’s still surreal that I get to do this,” said Crampton, a native of Adelaide, Australia. “I don’t know what to say apart from that it’s a great deal.”

Spencer Massey was second-quickest at 3.809 seconds/320.13 mph.

Worsham, who won the 2011 championship in Top Fuel, is back in Funny Car – where he’s spent most of his NHRA career. Friday’s best run of 4.051 seconds at 314.68 mph was impressive despite the humid conditions at the suburban Houston racetrack.

“I’ve been coming here since the track opened up,” Worsham said. “I was with my dad with his Funny Car in 1989, and we were in the semi-finals against Scott Kalitta when he won his first Funny Car race.

“I was 18 years old. … We came back here in 2001, and we were also the No. 1 qualifier. That kind of got my whole career jump-started. We won some races before then, but that was the first one where we won by qualifying No. 1 and running low E.T. of a couple rounds.”

Worsham is seeking his fourth career win at Royal Purple Raceway (two wins in Funny Car, one in Top Fuel), and his second career No. 1 qualifying spot.

Jack Beckman, who won the 2012 NHRA Funny Car championship, was the second-quickest in Funny Car with a run of 4.063 seconds at 314.09 mph.

As for Johnson, he led all Pro Stock drivers with a run of 6.555 seconds at 211.63 seconds. He’s seeking his first-ever win at Royal Purple Raceway.

“We’ve been very fortunate to win at a lot of tracks, and this is one that’s slipped through our fingers many times,” Johnson said. “It presents a challenge to us that we want to win. Tomorrow is April 26, and that’s Happy Hemi Day, so we got a good start towards Happy Hemi Day.”

Johnson, who has wins this season at Phoenix and Gainesville (Fla.), drives a Hemi-powered Dodge Dart.

Erica Enders-Stevens was second-quickest: 6.563 seconds at 211.59 mph.

Qualifying continues Saturday at 12:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. CT with eliminations to take place Sunday at 11 a.m. CT.

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Here are Friday’s results after the first two of four rounds of qualifying for the 27th annual O’Reilly NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway:

Top Fuel — 1. Richie Crampton, 3.807 seconds, 322.11 mph; 2. Spencer Massey, 3.809, 320.13; 3. Doug Kalitta, 3.819, 324.51; 4. Larry Dixon, 3.828, 319.14; 5. Leah Pritchett, 3.830, 317.72; 6. J.R. Todd, 3.834, 315.42; 7. Tony Schumacher, 3.839, 324.12; 8. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.841, 319.22; 9. Brittany Force, 3.846, 321.27; 10. Antron Brown, 3.869, 316.75; 11. Bob Vandergriff, 3.878, 313.29; 12. Clay Millican, 4.057, 250.55.

Not Qualified: 13. Shawn Langdon, 4.489, 172.70; 14. Troy Buff, 4.861, 150.53; 15. Steve Torrence, 5.186, 132.52; 16. Terry McMillen, 5.504, 121.74.

Funny Car — 1. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.051, 314.68; 2. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.063, 314.09; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.068, 312.21; 4. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.079, 310.34; 5. Chad Head, Camry, 4.119, 308.78; 6. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.131, 305.77; 7. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.213, 245.36; 8. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.231, 291.45; 9. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.280, 268.44; 10. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.300, 241.15; 11. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.413, 213.50; 12. Gary Densham, Chevy Impala, 4.443, 220.91.

Not Qualified: 13. Terry Haddock, 4.477, 203.52; 14. Todd Simpson, 5.008, 162.53; 15. Robert Hight, 5.403, 135.08; 16. John Force, 5.416, 143.64; 17. Alexis DeJoria, 6.476, 104.39; 18. Jeff Arend, 7.221, 88.47.

Pro Stock — 1. Allen Johnson, Dodge Dart, 6.555, 211.63; 2. Erica Enders-Stevens, Chevy Camaro, 6.563, 211.59; 3. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.574, 211.03; 4. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.582, 210.44; 5. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.585, 210.57; 6. Jeg Coughlin, Dart, 6.592, 210.47; 7. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.595, 210.14; 8. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.599, 211.26; 9. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.605, 210.70; 10. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.605, 211.16; 11. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.607, 210.54; 12. Larry Morgan, Ford Mustang, 6.610, 209.56.

Not Qualified: 13. Steve Kent, 6.612, 209.75; 14. Rodger Brogdon, 6.615, 209.88; 15. Greg Stanfield, 6.641, 208.49; 16. Deric Kramer, 6.649, 209.30; 17. Matt Hartford, 6.671, 208.59.

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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.

Nico Rosberg’s F1 retirement came as no surprise to Lewis Hamilton

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Lewis Hamilton says he was not surprised by Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 World Champion Nico Rosberg’s retirement announcement on Friday.

Hamilton lost out to Rosberg in the battle for the 2016 drivers’ championship, finishing five points shy of a fourth title in Abu Dhabi last weekend.

Rosberg announced on Friday ahead of the FIA prize giving in Vienna that he would be retiring from F1 with immediate effect, sending shockwaves through the sport.

However, Hamilton said that the news came as little surprise to him, given he has worked with Rosberg throughout his career and knows the German well.

“The sport will miss him but I wish him all the best,” Hamilton said at the press conference in Vienna, as quoted by F1i.

“I’m sure it was a surprise to many people. I’m probably one of the many people that it was not a surprise for but that’s because I’ve known him for a long, long time. But this is motor racing.

“This is the first time he’s won in 18 years, hence why it was not a surprise that he decided to stop. But also he’s got a family to focus on and probably wants to have more children. Formula 1 takes so much of your time.”

Rosberg’s decision brings an end to his fierce rivalry with Hamilton during their four years together as Mercedes teammates.

The two enjoyed a number of clashes both on- and off-track, but Hamilton said that he would miss not having Rosberg to go up against.

“We started karting when we were 13 and we would always talk about being champions,” Hamilton said.

“When I joined this team Nico was there which was something we spoke about when we were kids.

“It’s going to be very, very strange and for sure it will be sad to not have him in the team next year.”