Dale Earnhardt Jr’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, joined NASCAR America on Thursday to talk about the different feeling that Bristol Motor Speedway has and goes over the strategy his team has for the race.
Antron Brown has a new nickname.
Instead of being known as “AB” for his two initials, you can call him “Countdown Brown.”
It’s a moniker that is most appropriate. In the last 10 races in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship – six last season and four thus far in 2016 – Brown has won six of those events.
“That’s called teamwork, that’s called when the pressure gets up,” Brown said. “I think that’s what brings out the best in our team.
“Our team thrives on pressure. Where some teams might crack or fold, some teams get better. When the higher the pressure gets, it seems like it dials our knob up even more and we put that extra focus in. We all feel it.
“We can look at each other without even talking about it and know where we need to be. Every time we go down that racetrack, it’s like alright now, we have the next round. This is the coolest part that I think makes our team so good, we never look at the whole race. We take it one step at a time.
“Every step that we take we try to be efficient with it and make the best out of it. I think that’s what pays big dividends when we look back. We look at all the baby steps we made and all the right ones that got us where we needed to be.”
There’s another significant type of countdown for Brown in this weekend’s Toyota NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The New Jersey native holds an almost insurmountable 150-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta, 172 points over third-ranked Shawn Langdon and 191 points over fourth-ranked Brittany Force.
Brown merely has to leave Las Vegas with between a 96 to 110-point lead to clinch his second consecutive Top Fuel championship and third in the last five seasons.
But don’t let that massive points lead coming into Sin City fool you. Like a savvy gambler, Brown is not letting the odds sway him. He’s most definitely keeping his cards close to the vest.
“We are going into Vegas, we have a little bit of a points lead but it’s anybody’s game,” Brown said. “Our main focus is to stay humble, keep our heads down and continue the hard work that’s got us here.
“That is a crucial moment for us right now. We’re still not done working. We can’t wait for Vegas and the Toyota Nationals.”
Brown is looking to extend his outstanding run thus far in this year’s Countdown at Las Vegas by claiming his fourth win in the first five races of the playoffs. That would make him 7-for-11 in his last 11 Countdown races, including last year’s three Countdown wins.
Given his large lead on Kalitta and the others chasing him, you’d think Brown would come into Vegas with a defensive mindset, to protect what he has so far.
If you indeed thought that, you thought right. As the artist formerly known as AB, it’s all about the offense and the win, baby.
“Our heads are really focused on the end and the end is not until they say this is the 2016 world championship winner,” Brown said. “We’re in a great situation right now, but we don’t feel comfortable yet and our work is not done yet.
“We’re not going in defensive mode and we’re just going to try to keep doing the same things we’ve done to get to this point.”
There’s a lot of wisdom in Brown’s strategy. Back in 2012, before he ultimately won his first Top Fuel crown, he also almost lost it.
Brown came into Las Vegas with a 136-point lead over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher. But with uncharacteristic first-round losses in final eliminations at both Vegas and the season finale at Pomona, Brown barely held on to deny Schumacher his ninth career Top Fuel championship by a mere seven points, one of the closest finishes in NHRA history.
“It would be great to close this out in Vegas and that’s our hope,” Brown said. “We want to win it and we want to win it as quick as possible. But you can’t take any of this for granted and that’s why we all work so hard to get to this point.”
TOYOTA NHRA NATIONALS
WHAT: 16th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals, the 23rd of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and the fifth of six playoff races in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. Drivers in four categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – earn points leading to 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championships.
WHERE: The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas. Track is located approximately 15 miles north of Las Vegas off I-15. COURSE: Championship drag strip; Track elevation is 2,100 feet above sea level; Track direction is south to north.
WHEN: Thursday through Sunday, Oct. 27-30
THURSDAY, Oct. 27 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying
FRIDAY, Oct. 28 – LUCAS OIL SERIES qualifying; NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 11:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m.
SATURDAY, Oct. 29 – LUCAS OIL SERIES eliminations; NHRA J&A SERVICE PRO MOD SERIES qualifying at 1:30 p.m. Round 1 of eliminations at 5:30 p.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES qualifying at 11:45 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
SUNDAY, Nov. 1 – Pre-race ceremonies, 10:15 a.m.; MELLO YELLO SERIES eliminations begin at 11 a.m.
TELEVISION: Friday, Oct. 28, FOX Sports 1 (FS1) will televise one hour of live qualifying coverage at 6 p.m. (ET).
Sunday, Oct. 30, FS1 will air one hour of qualifying coverage at 10 a.m. (ET).
Sunday, Oct. 30, FS1 will televise three hours of live finals coverage starting at 4 p.m. (ET).
2015 LAS VEGAS EVENT WINNERS: Doug Kalitta, Top Fuel; Robert Hight, Funny Car; Erica Enders, Pro Stock; Andrew Hines, Pro Stock Motorcycle.
MOST CAREER VICTORIES AT LAS VEGAS: Andrew Hines, PSM, 5; Greg Anderson, PS, 4; Ron Capps, FC, 4; Tony Schumacher, TF, 4; John Force, FC, 3.
LAS VEGAS TRACK RECORDS: Top Fuel – 3.722 sec. by Antron Brown, Oct. ’15 and 332.67 mph by Shawn Langdon, Oct. ’15. Funny Car – 3.931 sec. by Tommy Johnson Jr., Oct. ’15 and 325.92 mph by Del Worsham, Oct. ’15. Pro Stock – 6.559 sec. and 210.28 mph by Erica Enders, Oct. ’15. Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.852 sec. by Jerry Savoie, Oct. ’15; 196.56 mph by Eddie Krawiec, Oct. ’11
NATIONAL RECORDS: Top Fuel – 3.671 sec. by Steve Torrence, July ’16, Sonoma, Calif.; 332.75 mph by Spencer Massey, Aug. ’15, Brainerd, Minn. Funny Car – 3.822 by Matt Hagan, Aug. ’16, Brainerd, Minn.; 335.57 mph by Hagan, May ’16, Topeka, Kansas. Pro Stock – 6.455 sec. by Jason Line, March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.; 215.55 mph by Erica Enders, May ‘14, Englishtown N.J. Pro Stock Motorcycle – 6.728 sec. by Andrew Hines, Oct. ’12, Reading, Pa.; 199.88 mph by Hector Arana Jr., March ’15, Charlotte, N.C.
Top Fuel — 1. Antron Brown, 2,504; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,354; 3. Shawn Langdon, 2,332; 4. Brittany Force, 2,313; 5. Steve Torrence, 2,307; 6. Tony Schumacher, 2,295; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,260; 8. Leah Pritchett, 2,250; 9. Richie Crampton, 2,195; 10. Clay Millican, 2,168.
Funny Car — 1. Ron Capps, 2,465; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,401; 3. Matt Hagan, 2,377; 4. Jack Beckman, 2,334; 5. Del Worsham, 2,320; 6. Robert Hight, 2,278; 7. John Force, 2,267; 8. Courtney Force, 2,238; 9. Tim Wilkerson, 2,228; 10. Alexis DeJoria, 2,151.
Pro Stock — 1. Jason Line, 2,454; 2. Greg Anderson, 2,428; 3. Vincent Nobile, 2,340; 4. Shane Gray, 2,320; 5. Bo Butner, 2,314; 6. Drew Skillman, 2,269; 7. Chris McGaha, 2,222; 8. Allen Johnson, 2,213; 9. Jeg Coughlin, 2,146; 10. Erica Enders, 2,135.
Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Eddie Krawiec, 2,425; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,408; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,376; 4. Angelle Sampey, 2,365; 5. Chip Ellis, 2,328; 6. LE Tonglet, 2,288; 7. Cory Reed, 2,229; 8. Hector Arana, 2,211; 9. Matt Smith, 2,202; 10. Hector Arana Jr., 2,183.
The official pre-race quotes from Mercedes AMG Petronas offers more of the same from Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton in terms of their mentality and psychological status heading to this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix.
Hamilton scored a key victory on Sunday in the United States Grand Prix to keep his title hopes alive, but with Rosberg capitalizing on his team’s smart strategic play to get him a de facto “free stop” under a Virtual Safety Car period, he came second and so Hamilton only gained seven additional points.
Rosberg’s metronomic, one-race-at-a-time mentality has served him well all season and up 26 points heading to a race he won last year, he’s sticking to that focus this weekend.
“I came into Sunday with a good chance of winning but it didn’t work out,” Rosberg reflected in Mercedes’ pre-race advance. “That’s the way it is, so I accept that and now it’s on to the next one in Mexico.
“My goal is to try and win there just as it has been in every race. Of course, to be in a championship battle at the end of the year is awesome and I’m excited about that.
“But my approach is to keep it simple. There are so many things that can happen during a race weekend which are out of your control, so it’s best to just block all that out and focus on the job at hand. That’s what’s worked best for me and how I feel at my strongest.”
Hamilton, as you might also expect, is in a nothing-to-lose mode and looks to add Mexico to the list of countries and the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez the list of circuits where he won. A win this weekend would be his 51st, and tie him with Alain Prost for second all-time.
“It was great to finally get that 50th win after a couple of tough weekends,” he said. “I’ve just continued to keep a positive frame of mind, avoid dwelling on the past, work and train hard and I knew eventually the result would come.
“The moment you give up is the moment you lose. I’ve never been one to give up and I don’t plan on starting now. There are still plenty of points available and anything is possible.
“Next up it’s Mexico, which was a great experience last time out. It’s crazy how slippery the circuit is with the altitude giving you so little downforce from the car. It’s a big challenge, so even though last year’s race was a bit frustrating for me, I actually had a lot of fun out there. I’m looking forward to giving it another go and hopefully going one better this time.”
As expected, the same quartet of IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship 2016 Prototype champions Dane Cameron and Eric Curran, and the previous two-time champs Christian Fittipaldi and Joao Barbosa, will be back with Action Express Racing in 2017.
Cameron and Curran (No. 31) and Fittipaldi and Barbosa (No. 5) will be in the same car numbers as they’ve been in the past couple years.
As General Motors has not publicly announced or confirmed its Daytona Prototype international program for 2017, the formal reveal of its car – expected to be a Cadillac-branded DPi entry – will come at a later date.
The Corvette DP program ended in 2016 as IMSA phased out the Daytona Prototype platform finishing with this year’s Petit Le Mans.
Cameron and Curran will be together for the third straight season, with Fittipaldi and Barbosa continuing on for a fourth straight season since the GRAND-AM/American Le Mans Series merger fusion into IMSA prior to 2014.
“It’s been a great experience working with everyone at Action Express Racing over the past two years and it’s exciting to be able keep some continuity with the same drivers and teammates,” said Cameron, who’s one of the proper stars of sports car racing.
“I think the relationship between the four drivers has been great over the past two years, and things really started to come together well over the past six months.”
Barbosa, the team’s longest-serving driver having been with Action Express Racing since the team’s winning debut in the 2010 Rolex 24 at Daytona, added, “I’ve been with Action Express Racing since the team started in 2010 – which is a long time. We have grown together as a team and all our years of working together have definitely paid off as we have had some great success as a race team. It’s very exciting to continue with the race team and I’m looking forward to another season together.”
On Sunday, Sven Mueller secured the 2016 Porsche Mobil 1 Supercup at Circuit of The Americas, thus becoming the third driver who’s clinched the title at the Supercup season finale in Austin since the track first hosted the series in 2014 (Earl Bamber won in 2014, Phillip Eng last year).
Mueller, in his third year in the Porsche Junior program, claimed a double title this year with both the Supercup and Porsche Carrera Cup Deutschland championships.
He entered the weekend only two points ahead of fellow Junior driver Matteo Cairoli (135-133), but a second-place finish coupled with a DNF for Cairoli following Saturday’s first race left him needing only to score one additional point to win the title on Sunday. He finished in eighth place on the road, and that was enough for the Lechner MSG Racing Team driver to do it.
Mueller won three races and scored eight podium finishes in 10 races, to beat Cairoli 162-151 in points despite Cairoli winning four races. The third Porsche Junior competing in Supercup, Mathieu Jaminet, used a weekend sweep of the two races at COTA to finish third in the standings with 146 points, and having scored three wins.
We caught up with Mueller, who’s also raced in the U.S. in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship on a couple of occasions this year in a GT Daytona class Porsche 911 GT3 R (Frikadelli Racing in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Alex Job Racing at Road America), prior to Sunday’s race where he ultimately clinched the title.
For the 24-year-old who lives near Frankfurt, the Supercup title could well be a springboard to bigger things (more here from Porsche Newsroom):
MotorSportsTalk: This is your third year. What have you learned this year that has allowed you to take that next step as a driver compared to previous seasons?
Sven Mueller: “I feel my evolution as a driver is huge. In my first year in a Porsche, I also had quite good speed, but to finish the race was not always the goal. The speed was there, but the consistency and all this stuff, I learned from year-to-year. And especially in my third year, the important things that were around the track and racing, yeah, I also improved a lot. This year, my goal is the championship. Last week, I had already won championship in Porsche Carrera Cup and I was working three years to get this, and hopefully I can get my second championship today.”
MST: How has the competition level been this year with some of the new drivers?
SM: “Every year, you have new drivers. I think because now I’m at a really good level and I see that Matteo and Mathieu they are also really good. For me, this year is the hardest season I’ve ever had. I won only three times, Matteo won four times, Mathieu twice (before this weekend). We’re always on the podium and in qualifying, we’re always within a thousandth of a second. This shows how close the championship is.”
MST: How nice is it knowing driver talent makes so much of a different in this championship?
SM: “It does. This is a one-make Cup, it’s the same type of car, but also the teams they put quite a lot of effort to build up the car set-up wise that is the quickest for quali-simulation and also for quali-runs (qualifying runs). To have a really good car, it’s easier for a driver to handle this. To have a good car and a good driver, that’s the whole package. You can’t win with a bad car and good driver. The package always has to be perfect. For example, in qualifying, if you miss one of these parameters – being not 100 percent focused or the set-up is not 100 percent right – you can’t get the pole position. In Super Cup, to get the pole position or to win the race, everything has to be 100 percent.”
MST: What do you like about this track?
SM: “In 2014, I was here, so I had some experience in the dry. But Austin, or COTA, is by far the most difficult track at first for the driver because you have 21 corners and it’s so technical. For example, Turns 2 through 5 are really quick and all the corners are building up to the next corner. So if you start wrong entering the first corner, you’re going to end up in a mess. And the second thing is the car. It’s very difficult. The car and tires cannot rest, so they’re always under pressure. You only have one straight where the tire pressure and temperature can go down a bit, but Austin is really, really difficult. Yesterday, we had 14 laps and it felt really, really long – by far the longest race we’ve had in the season so far.”
MST: You’ve raced here now on multiple occasions. What do you like of the atmosphere of racing in the U.S.?
SM: “I really like racing in America. Daytona, I think, was not the best result I’ve ever had, but the whole week in Daytona, it was crazy and really nice. The racing and all the strategy with the team, it’s complex and difficult and you have to understand it. But with all the different manufacturers, to do proper racing, I really like it. And the fans, you can speak with them; in Europe, it’s a bit different. It’s also nice, but the Americans are really open and they’re not scared about asking questions or doing photos. I really like that.”