Hight (FC), Brown (TF), Gray (PS), Arana Jr. (PSM) provisional No. 1 qualifiers for NHRA race in New Hampshire

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Robert Hight is back at it again, recording the first sub-four second Funny Car run in New England Dragway history during Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying for the NHRA Auto-Plus New England Nationals in Epping, N.H.

In the hunt for his fifth win of the season, Hight  powered down the 1,000-foot dragstrip at 3.988 seconds and 321.58 mph to become the early No. 1 qualifier in the Funny Car class. There are two more qualifying rounds on Saturday prior to Sunday’s final eliminations.

Ironically, even though he has four wins thus far in 2014 and leads the NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car points standings, Hight has not earned a No. 1 qualifying position yet this season. Coming into this season, he’s been No. 1 45 times.

“That was pretty awesome,” Hight said. “We made a nice run the first run. Mike Neff told me going up there we’re not going to be cowards tonight. We’re going to get after this thing. He honestly figured there were going to be others in the threes.”

Cruz Pedregon was second-quickest in Friday’s qualifying rounds with a top run of 4.026 seconds at 307.44 mph. Courtney Force is qualified No. 3 heading into Saturday’s two final rounds of qualifying.

Force recorded the fifth-fastest speed for a Funny Car run in HRA history with a clocking of 323.45 mph.

In other categories, Antron Brown was the No. 1 qualifier in Top Fuel, Shane Gray was No. 1 in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. was No. 1 in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Brown drove his dragster to a time of 3.770 seconds at 323.58 mph.

“The track definitely had some teeth in it,” Brown said. “The first session we were actually on a good run, and we came back and just wanted to improve upon it. We definitely wanted to run lower than a .77. We wanted to run a low 3.7, but the track was so good. It had such great teeth on it that it sucked some of the tune-up out of the race car on the starting line.”

Brown, who is looking for his second NHRA Top Fuel championship in the last three seasons, is also looking for his fourth win and second No. 1 qualifying position this season. Points leader Doug Kalitta was No. 2 qualifier (3.773 seconds at 323.89), while Brittany Force reset the track record in speed at 323.35 mph and qualified fourth.

Gray sat atop the Pro Stock ladder with a track record time of 6.485 seconds at 212.79 mph.

“I’m not really used to this,” Gray said of qualifying No. 1 for only the second time in his career (he also was No. 1 last weekend at Bristol, Tennessee). “But, I’m real proud of [crew chief] Justin Elks, Paul Hoskins, and all the boys at the shop. Obviously, they’ve done their work and my job is easy.”

All told, all eight track records — elapsed time and speed — were set in the four pro categories on Friday, with a potential for even more track records on Saturday or in Sunday’s eliminations.

Erica Enders-Stevens has continued her momentum from her win in Bristol by posting a performance of 6.489 at 213.98 in her Elite Motorsports Camaro to claim the second spot. Defending world champ Jeg Coughlin is fifth, having set the track record speed at 214.25 mph in his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Dart.

Arana led PSM with a top qualifying run of 6.807 seconds at 195.05 mph and is seeking his first No. 1 qualifying effort of the season.

“This Lucas Oil Buell has been amazing,” said Arana Jr, who also set the track speed record at 197.57 mph on his first qualifying attempt. “We won the crank lotto. There are issues with cranks right now, and every once and a while you find a good one. Luckily, we found a good one.”

Reigning PSM champ Matt Smith was second-quickest in Friday’s qualifying with a time of 6.816 seconds at 194.49 mph.

 

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Here’s Friday’s results after two of four rounds of qualifying for the Second annual Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway and Motorsports Park:

Top Fuel — 1. Antron Brown, 3.770 seconds, 323.58 mph; 2. Doug Kalitta, 3.773, 323.89; 3. Richie Crampton, 3.774, 69.61; 4. Brittany Force, 3.776, 325.45; 5. J.R. Todd, 3.778, 324.83; 6. Spencer Massey, 3.796, 319.90; 7. Leah Pritchett, 3.812, 318.77; 8. Steve Torrence, 3.817, 81.21; 9. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.819, 320.81; 10. Tony Schumacher, 3.820, 322.50; 11. Bob Vandergriff, 3.877, 76.43; 12. Dom Lagana, 3.915, 319.29.  Not Qualified: 13. Clay Millican, 6.300, 77.40; 14. Todd Paton, 8.040, 76.28; 15. Shawn Langdon, 8.129, 83.32; 16. Terry McMillen, 8.215, 90.00.

Funny Car — 1. Robert Hight, Ford Mustang, 3.988, 321.58; 2. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.026, 307.44; 3. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.031, 323.35; 4. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 4.033, 318.24; 5. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.053, 315.27; 6. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.061, 313.80; 7. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.083, 297.61; 8. John Force, Mustang, 4.092, 311.70; 9. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.102, 77.81; 10. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.110, 84.75; 11. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.134, 68.27; 12. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.221, 278.92.  Not Qualified: 13. Jeff Arend, 4.537, 193.65; 14. Dave Richards, 4.653, 158.07; 15. Mike Smith, 7.535, 89.57; 16. Tony Pedregon, 9.552, 80.10.

Pro Stock — 1. Shane Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.485, 213.03; 2. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.489, 213.98; 3. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.493, 212.96; 4. Shane Tucker, Chevy Cobalt, 6.496, 213.94; 5. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.497, 214.25; 6. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.503, 213.40; 7. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.512, 213.10; 8. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.519, 213.77; 9. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.523, 213.70; 10. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.525, 212.86; 11. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.538, 212.79; 12. V. Gaines, Dart, 6.551, 212.49.  Not Qualified: 13. John Gaydosh Jr, 6.697, 206.57; 14. Larry Morgan, 6.939, 207.40; 15. Val Smeland, 6.998, 198.23; 16. Kenny Delco, 8.198, 115.42.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.807, 197.57; 2. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.816, 194.49; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.852, 193.65; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.858, 194.07; 5. John Hall, Buell, 6.876, 193.90; 6. Michael Ray, Buell, 6.895, 192.47; 7. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.901, 194.77; 8. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.901, 194.27; 9. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.908, 195.68; 10. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.938, 194.04; 11. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.942, 190.94; 12. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.970, 193.29.

Not Qualified: 13. Jerry Savoie, 6.973, 194.86; 14. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.025, 191.70; 15. Justin Finley, 7.064, 188.15; 16. Hector Arana, 7.328, 144.00; 17. Sam Hurwitz, 7.888, 178.76; 18. Brian Pretzel, broke.

Nearly 25 drivers already set for 2018 Indy 500… in mid-November

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Friday’s announcement that Danica Patrick would end her full-time driving career with a run in the 102nd Indianapolis 500, after also running the Daytona 500 in January, is another shot in the arm for the 2018 marquee event of North American open-wheel racing.

Surprisingly, it keeps the grid moving forward too to where nearly 75 percent of the 33 cars are already set… in mid-November, 2017.

Early confirmations of programs for the next year’s Indianapolis 500 aren’t new, but they’re seemingly coming earlier than normal this year, with a number of expected programs getting announced in the fall of 2017.

Coupled with the fact most of the IndyCar full-season grid for 2018 is set, it’s interesting to take a look at what’s already set for next year.

CONFIRMED FULL-SEASON (19)

The only things to add here are Dale Coyne Racing’s second driver in the No. 19 Honda, the road and street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing in its No. 20 Chevrolet who may or may not be able to get an Indianapolis 500 extra seat in a third car, and the expected confirmation of Carlin’s graduation into IndyCar after three seasons in Indy Lights.

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (2, Honda): Scott Dixon, Ed Jones
  • Andretti Autosport (4, Honda): Ryan Hunter-Reay, Alexander Rossi, Marco Andretti, Zach Veach
  • Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing (2, Honda): Graham Rahal, Takuma Sato
  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports (2, Honda): James Hinchcliffe, Robert Wickens
  • Ed Carpenter Racing (2, Chevrolet): Spencer Pigot, Ed Carpenter (ovals)
  • A.J. Foyt Enterprises (2, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan, Matheus Leist
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

CONFIRMED PARTIAL SEASON/INDY ONLY (4)

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Juncos Racing (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Danica Patrick

Here’s where it gets interesting. Castroneves is Team Penske’s confirmed fourth, and Juan Pablo Montoya could be a hypothetical fifth if the stars align – but it’s not in the immediate plans at this moment.

Patrick also makes her somewhat surprising Indianapolis comeback and with Penske, Andretti Autosport and Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing not fielding her, the stars are aligned for her to drive with Chip Ganassi Racing in what would be a third car. Neither Patrick nor Ganassi said it’s happening today, but Ganassi acknowledged discussions, via NASCAR Talk.

Wilson finally gets his Indianapolis 500 shot with Andretti a year later as its fifth car. The team ran six last year, with the two Indy-only entries coming in separate partnership efforts between McLaren and Honda (Fernando Alonso) and Michael Shank Racing (Jack Harvey).

Jack Harvey is a very intriguing story for how he’ll be racing next year. NBC Sports understands a working relationship is being hatched between Shank and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and with Harvey bringing a program on behalf of AutoNation/SiriusXM to grow his role into a third-to-half season of racing, this could slot in nicely as SPM’s third car. While not “officially” confirmed, it would not be a surprise to see news revealed from the concerned parties in December.

How could Harvey become SPM three when SPM three was already announced, you ask? With the Calmels Sport with SPM program reportedly on thin ice after negative press, the unlikely union of the French team owner Didier Calmels, one-time open-wheel driver turned-sports car veteran Tristan Gommendy and SPM appears set to join the “announced and dropped before ever turning a wheel” club.

Kaiser’s four-race program with Juncos Racing was announced last month and the Indy Lights champion will likely have Chevrolet power, given the team’s existing relationship from 2017.

WHAT’S STILL TO COME

Playing it out a bit with the usual, “how many engines can each manufacturer provide” story, we know Honda ran 18 cars this year and was stretched to capacity, leaving Chevrolet with the remaining 15.

Work the math from here. Provided Carlin officially announces its entry (it still hasn’t to this point, but is known to have hired IndyCar personnel) and with Honda already stretched between its 12 previously announced full-season cars (4 Andretti, 2 Ganassi, 2 RLL, 2 SPM, 2 Coyne), with a 13th engine available at some races, Carlin would have to be at Chevrolet.

For Indianapolis, Honda already begins to work its car count further beyond those 13 (if SPM 3 gets added for more races) with Ganassi 3 (a TBD, but would be Patrick if confirmed here) and Andretti 5 (Wilson) to get to 15, which leaves just three leases at play to get to 18… again, this is in mid-November.

Provided Pippa Mann can work towards her annual appearance with Coyne, factor in a possible sixth Andretti car and an 18th Honda lease – perhaps a third car at RLL or fourth at Ganassi, SPM or Coyne – and suddenly the Honda inn would already be booked up.

Chevrolet would have the rest, and you can figure out the math from there.

It may only be mid-November, but the race to secure a berth on the grid for next May is already well underway.