Photos courtesy NHRA

2016 NHRA season in review: Those that fell short

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MotorSportsTalk continues its season-ending reviews of the top drivers of the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

From Dec. 12 through Jan. 2, we’ll feature one daily in-depth review of a driver that finished in the top-five in each of the four professional classes (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle), as well as a compendium of select other drivers that did not finish in the top-five.

Select drivers that fell short in 2016 in Top Fuel include:

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Brittany Force: 30 years old, John Force Racing, Monster Energy Top Fuel Dragster, crew chief Brian Husen (with special consultant Alan Johnson).

2016 season finish: Sixth in Top Fuel.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 3 wins, 2 runner-up, 2 semifinals, 12 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 2 times. Round-by-round record: 33 wins, 21 losses.

What happened in 2016: Brittany earned the first three wins of her Top Fuel career, but her undoing was in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, with one first-round loss and four quarterfinal exits.

What to expect in 2017: Force has to become stronger in first-round matches (she lost 12 times in 2016’s 24 races). At the same time, the confidence this past season she gained should pay even greater dividends next season. It would not be a surprise if she challenges for the championship.

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Leah Pritchett: 28 years old, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), Papa John’s Dragster, crew chief Mike Guger.

2016 season finish: Seventh in Top Fuel.

2016 season statistics: 23 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 4 semifinals, 7 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 19 wins, 22 losses.

What happened in 2016: Pritchett had both success (win at Phoenix) and adversity (lost her ride when team folded in April). Still, she showed resilience both on and off the racetrack and finished higher than some may have picked her to do.

What to expect in 2017: Pritchett, who is quickly becoming a fan favorite, has found a home at DSR. She has the resources and talent to have a breakthrough season in 2017.

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Tony Schumacher: 47 years old, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR), U.S. Army Dragster, crew chief Mike Green.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Top Fuel.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 2 wins, 3 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 11 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 34 wins, 22 losses.

What happened in 2016: It was not a typical year for the winningest driver in Top Fuel history (8 championships, 82 wins). Schumacher struggled far too much, including 11 quarterfinal exits. Two first-round losses in the Countdown all but sealed his championship hopes.

What to expect in 2017: Schumacher has watched teammate Antron Brown win the last two and three of the last five Top Fuel titles. An argument can be made that Brown has overtaken Schumacher as the most dominant driver in Top Fuel today. Schumacher has everything he needs to win more races and championships, but he has to improve his consistency and go more rounds in 2017 than he did in 2016.

Select drivers that fell short in 2016 in Funny Car include:

2016_Courtney_ForceCourtney Force: 28 years old, John Force Racing, Traxxas Camaro SS, co-crew chiefs Dan Hood, Ronnie Thompson.

2016 season finish: Sixth in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 3 runner-up, 6 semifinals, 10 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 35 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Courtney had an excellent first two-thirds of the season, including leading the Funny Car points for several weeks. Unfortunately, Force’s season fell apart in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff, suffering two first round and two second round losses in the first four races. She bounced back to lose to her father at Las Vegas, but it was too little, too late.

What to expect in 2017: Force has to gain better consistency – she had 14 early exits in either the first round (4) or quarterfinals (10) in 2016 – more than half the 24-race season. She missed the Countdown entirely in 2015 and second-half season struggles in 2016 were an issue. A new sponsor (Advance Auto Parts) may help with better resources.

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2016_Del_Worsham headshotDel Worsham: 46 years old, Kalitta Motorsports, DHL Toyota Funny Car, co-crew chief Jon Oberhofer and Nicky Boninfante.

2016 season finish: Seventh in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 4 runner-up, 6 semifinals, 8 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 3 times. Round-by-round record: 36 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Try as he may, Worsham could not repeat his Funny Car championship from 2015. Two stretches stand out: In the six races from Gainesville through Topeka, he suffered one first-round loss and four second-round defeats. Also, during the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff, two first-round and two other second-round losses did him in, dropping him from second after Charlotte 2 to seventh after the season finale at Pomona.

What to expect in 2017: Worsham surprised the sport when he announced a few weeks ago that he was leaving Kalitta Motorsports and returning to his family’s Funny Car team for 2017, with father Chuck Worsham serving as crew chief. Del will be replaced in the DHL Toyota Funny Car in 2017 by J.R. Todd.

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2016_robert_hightRobert Hight: 47 years old, (president of) John Force Racing, Auto Club Chevy Camaro SS, crew chief Mike Neff.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 6 semifinals, 11 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 2 times. Round-by-round record: 27 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Much like teammates John and Courtney Force, Hight struggled in early rounds. Of the 24 races in the season, Hight exited 17 times in early rounds: six times in the first round and 11 times in the second round/quarterfinals. While he qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship, he failed to get past the second round in five of those races.

What to expect in 2017: Since capturing his first and only NHRA Funny Car championship in 2009, one of Hight’s biggest goals has been to win a second title. There will be several personnel changes within John Force Racing for 2017 and some of that change is bound to trickle down to Hight’s team. Change could be good and may be the thing Hight needs to return to championship contention.

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2016_alexis_dejoriaAlexis DeJoria: 39 years old, Kalitta Motorsports, Tequila Patron Toyota Camry Funny Car, crew chief Tommy DeLago.

2016 season finish: 10th in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 21 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 1 semifinal, 7 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 13 wins, 20 losses.

What happened in 2016: DeJoria got off to a strong start with a win in the fourth race (Las Vegas 1). But from that point on, she struggled far too much, including 12 first round losses in 21 starts. She missed two races (Seattle and Brainerd) after sustaining a broken pelvis in a violent wreck at Sonoma, the worst wreck of her career. She also sat out the season-ending race with a concussion.

What to expect in 2017: Coming into the 2016 season, DeJoria was very optimistic that she could contend for the championship – until fate intervened. But DeJoria is one of the toughest competitors in Funny Car – and she’ll likely use 2016’s disappointments as incentive and motivation to mount a championship bid in 2017. She’ll have nearly three months to get healthy and could very well be a walking, talking example of the old saying, “What doesn’t hurt me only makes me stronger.”

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2016_cruz_pedregonCruz Pedregon: 53 years old, Cruz Pedregon Racing, Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry Funny Car, crew chief Cruz Pedregon.

2016 season finish: 12th in Funny Car.

2016 season statistics: 23 (plus one DNQ) races, 0 win, 1 runner-up, 0 semifinals, 4 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 6 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: The former two-time NHRA Funny Car champion (1992, 2008) went through the most trying and difficult season of his lengthy career. Of the 23 races he qualified for in the 24-race national event schedule, he got past the first round just five times. He failed to make the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff for the first time ever. His most difficult time was failing to qualify for the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the biggest race of the season and one Pedregon has won three times in his career.

What to expect in 2017: Things can’t get much worse than they did in 2016, so it’s hoped that the only way for Pedregon to go in 2017 is up. What fans saw in 2016 was definitely an aberration. Pedregon hasn’t won a race since 2014; he’s long overdue to visit the winner’s circle. Don’t be surprised if the extensive off-season work he’s been doing on his car pays quick dividends in the first few races of the season. More than anything, he needs to show his fans and fellow competitors that he still has a lot of success left in him. He has to go for the jugular right from the start and not let go until the season is over.

Some of the more notable drivers that fell short in 2016 in Pro Stock include:

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Allen Johnson: 57 years old, Allen Johnson Racing, Marathon Petroleum Dodge Dart, crew chief Adam Hornberger.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Pro Stock.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 1 win, 2 runner-up, 4 semifinals, 10 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 28 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: Johnson has long been a Mopar driver, including being earning a Pro Stock championship in 2012 and finished third in 2015. But with NHRA mandating a switch in Pro Stock in 2016 to Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) and doing away with monster hood scoops, Mopar/Dodge cars struggled. Johnson was the highest finishing (eighth) of the three full-time Mopar/Dodge-powered drivers this past season, finishing just ahead of two-time champion Erica Enders (ninth) and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin (10th). The biggest problem for Johnson came in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff, when he suffered five first round defeats and a quarter final round loss. Other than his fourth career win and 10th overall final round appearance at Denver in the Mopar-sponsored race, and runner-up finishes at Epping and Indianapolis, it was difficult for him to gain on some of the higher-performing, Chevrolet-powered Pro Stock rivals.

What to expect in 2017: With Enders and Coughlin returning to Chevrolet motors, Johnson is expected to be the only full-time Pro Stock driver to carry Mopar/Dodge power in 2017. While it may be difficult not having any other Mopar/Dodge drivers to share information with, there’s also the possibility that Johnson may have learned so much in 2016 that he could be a big surprise in 2017 – if he can find the horsepower that was lacking last season. And given how much of a veteran Pro Stock racer Johnson is (he’s made 480 career starts), if anyone can find that elusive power, he can.

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Erica Enders: 33 years old, Elite Motorsports, Elite Motorsports Dodge Dart (Chevrolet in 2017), co-crew chiefs Rick Jones, Rickie Jones.

2016 season finish: Ninth in Pro Stock.

2016 season statistics: 24 races (including one DNQ), 0 wins, 0 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 6 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 12 wins, 23 losses.

What happened in 2016: After winning back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015 – and a total of 15 wins in those two seasons – Enders suffered her worst season ever in Pro Stock in 2016, not even making it to one final round and just three semifinal showings. She suffered 14 first-round losses in the 24-race season, including 10 in the first 15 races. Her worst showing was failing to qualify in the opening race of the Countdown to the Championship playoff (at Charlotte).

What to expect in 2017: Enders and teammate Jeg Coughlin will return to Chevrolet motors after just one season with Mopar/Dodge. If her luck is anything like 2014 and 2015, she should be right back in the thick of the championship battle. One other thing to note: co-crew chief Rickie Jones has left the team, but father Rick Jones will assume all crew chief duties.

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Jeg Coughlin: 46 years old, Elite Motorsports, Magneti Marelli Dodge Dart (Chevrolet in 2017), co-crew chiefs Rick Jones, Rickie Jones, Mark Ingersoll, Brian Self.

2016 season finish: 10th in Pro Stock.

2016 season statistics: 24 races, 0 wins, 0 runner-up, 1 semifinals, 8 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 10 wins, 24 losses.

What happened in 2016: Returned to full-time competition in Pro Stock for the first time since 2014, only to suffer one of the worst seasons of his career, failing to even reach one final round all season. Coughlin’s biggest problem was 15 first-round losses, including five in the six-race Countdown to the Championship events.

What to expect in 2017: Look for a big rebound by the five-time Pro Stock champ as his team returns to Chevrolet power. As dominating as Pro Stock champ Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson were in 2016, Coughlin and teammate Erica Enders could be equally as dominant in 2017. This could be one of the best season-long battles between two teams that Pro Stock has seen in years. And don’t forget to watch out for some of the young up-and-comers like Bo Butner, Drew Skillman, Chris McGaha and Vincent Nobile.

Select riders that fell short in 2016 in Pro Stock Motorcycle include:

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Matt Smith: 44 years old, Smith Racing, Victory Motorcycles, crew chief Matt Smith.

2016 season finish: Sixth in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

2016 season statistics: 16 races (2 DNQ), 1 win, 0 runner-up, 2 semifinals, 7 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 1 time. Round-by-round record: 15 wins, 13 losses.

What happened in 2016: The two-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ (2007, 2013) earned his first win since 2013 and (18th of his career) in the season-ending race at Pomona, California. It was Smith’s only final round appearance of the season (he also had two semifinal finishes). … Smith failed to get past the quarterfinal round seven times, and had four first-round exits, as well. … He also failed to qualify for two races: the season-opener at Gainesville and also at Englishtown.

What to expect in 2017: Winning the final race of 2016 should give Smith some momentum heading into 2017. But equally important, he has to perform better early in the season, as opposed to the two DNQs he racked up in the first four races of 2016. … Smith has good power with his Victory motorcycle, but he’ll continue to be challenged by the Suzuki of defending champ Jerry Savoie and the Harley Davidson’s of five-time champ Andrew Hines and three-time champ Eddie Krawiec.

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LE Tonglet IV: 27 years old, Tonglet Racing, NitroFish Suzuki GSX-R, co-crew chiefs Gary Tonglet, GT Tonglet.

2016 season finish: Seventh in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

2016 season statistics: 16 races, 1 win, 0 runner-up, 5 semifinals, 4 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 18 wins, 15 losses.

What happened in 2016: The 2010 Pro Stock Motorcycle champion earned his first victory since he won four races in 2011. … Qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship and earned two semifinal, two quarterfinal and two first-round appearances.

What to expect in 2017: Tonglet needs to improve his overall consistency and performance if he wants to make a concerted effort for a second PSM championship. He’ll get a big boost toward that goal as he will spend the season as teammates with 2016 PSM champion and fellow Louisiana native Jerry Savoie.

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Hector Arana Jr.: 27 years old, Arana Racing, Lucas Oil Buell, crew chief Hector Arana Sr.

2016 season finish: Eighth in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

2016 season statistics: 16 races, 0 wins, 1 runner-up, 3 semifinals, 8 quarterfinals. No. 1 qualifier 0 times. Round-by-round record: 12 wins, 15 losses.

What happened in 2016: It was a season-long struggle for Arana. He failed to win even one race for the first time since 2012, and managed to reach a final round just once (U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis). While he qualified for the six-race Countdown to the Championship, he failed to get past the second round three times and made first-round exits in two other events (he reached the semifinals in the season-ending race at Pomona, California).

What to expect in 2017: Arana has the talent, genes (father and fellow PSM rider Hector Sr.) and experience to be a champion. From his rookie season in 2011 through 2015, he’s finished second, fourth, fourth, third and fifth. Obviously, 2016 was an off-year, as he recorded his worst season finish of his PSM career. One thing that has marked Arana Jr. during his career is when he suffers adversity or defeat, he finds a way to bounce back. Don’t be surprised if he does just that in 2017 and gives riders like Jerry Savoie, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec a strong challenge for the title.

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Daniel Ricciardo frustrated to crash out of home F1 qualifying

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Daniel Ricciardo made no secret of his frustration after crash out of Formula 1 qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix, resigning himself to a 10th-place start for his home race on Sunday.

Ricciardo entered the Melbourne weekend aiming to become the first Australian to finish on the podium at his home race since the event became part of the F1 world championship in 1985.

Despite struggling with the setup on his RB13 car on Friday, Ricciardo looked poised to claim a top-five grid slot for Sunday’s race, only to lose control of his car at Turn 14 in Q3 and end the session in the wall.

“That was a tough one today. I don’t crash into the barriers often and the last place I want to do that is at home,” Ricciardo said after the session.

“But I feel I crashed for the right reason, as I was basically pushing and trying to find the limit and these things happen, so let’s say I’m not disappointed by the approach, it was just more of a frustrating outcome, starting 10th instead of being under the top five.”

Ever the optimist, Ricciardo said the difficult qualifying will only serve as greater motivation to fight back up the order and give his home fans a result to celebrate on Sunday.

“I knew the crowds would have also preferred to see me further up the grid and it would have been nice to put on a better performance than that but tomorrow is where the points are,” Ricciardo said.

“It’s a chance to create a bigger headline if I have a good race so that’s what will motivate me to do better tomorrow. I made it a bit more difficult for myself but it’s going to be alright.

“To get a good start in the race will be the key. I saved a set of ultra-softs in Q2, I know that not everyone in front of me has, so maybe that gives me a chance.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Valtteri Bottas disappointed with P3 start for Mercedes F1 debut

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Valtteri Bottas came away from qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix feeling disappointed despite securing third place on the grid for his first Formula 1 race as a Mercedes driver.

Bottas joined Mercedes over the winter following world champion Nico Rosberg’s decision to retire from racing, and made his first official race weekend appearance for the Silver Arrows on Friday.

The ex-Williams driver made a splash in qualifying by running teammate Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel close, but was left to settle for third on the grid after finishing three-tenths of a second off the pole time.

“Third position is not ideal. In general I’m not happy with the result,” Bottas admitted after qualifying.

“But what I’m really happy about and proud about [is] what the team has done again with this car. I only saw a very small part of the preparation with the new car and the new era of Formula 1, and it’s really nice to see that all the work has paid off and we’re fighting at the very front.

“It seems to be very close this year, especially here. Myself I didn’t get any perfect laps in, so not that satisfied.

“Tomorrow’s the day that matters. It seems like in the race starts we’ve been quite strong. If we can keep that form I had in practice, and have a nice and clean race and get some really good points.”

Bottas’ best finish in Australia currently stands at fifth place in 2014 with Williams, with the Finn never qualifying any higher than sixth at Albert Park in his four previous attempts.

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET.

Vettel: Front-row grid slot for Australia proof of Ferrari’s progress

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Sebastian Vettel believes that his charge to second place on the grid for Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix acts as proof of the progress Ferrari’s Formula 1 operation has made over the winter.

Vettel arrived in Australia as one of the favorites to take pole following an impressive showing in pre-season testing, prompting three-time champion Lewis Hamilton to name Ferrari as the leading team.

Hamilton rallied in qualifying to take pole position for Mercedes, beating Vettel by two-tenths of a second, but the Ferrari driver managed to fend off Valtteri Bottas in the second Silver Arrow and clinch a front-row berth.

The result marked Ferrari’s best qualifying result since the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix – Vettel’s and Ferrari’s last pole and victory in F1 – and the German was encouraged by the result.

“I think we have a good car. I think we are working well as a team,” Vettel said.

“Things are improving. Obviously it’s nice to see that things are working, the car is working. I had a mixed day yesterday, but the confidence in the car was there from testing and I think we showed that again today.”

Vettel conceded that he felt his final lap in qualifying could have been faster, but doubts it would have been enough to catch pole-sitter Hamilton.

“In the end I was not entirely happy with my lap. I was pretty happy with the end, maybe not so much with the opening of the lap where we lost a bit too much,” Vettel said.

“But I think Lewis did a very good lap. I would have loved to, but I don’t think pole was up for grabs. Tomorrow I think we can do something in the race. The car feels good, we’ve improved it so the pace should be much better than it was yesterday when we had practice.

“It’s been a big winter for us, lots of change we’ve gone through as a team in the last 12 months, and for the better. I think the team is getting stronger.

“Obviously everyone is pushing very hard and it’s not so easy to come here with a long journey to get to Australia, but I think people are fired up and we are motivated for tomorrow.

“I think it’s the first good opportunity.”

Hamilton buoyed by sixth Australia F1 pole, ready for tight race

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Three-time Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton was buoyed by his charge to pole position in Australian Grand Prix qualifying on Saturday, but is braced for a tight race at the front of the pack.

Hamilton saw off a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and new Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas to capture his sixth pole at Albert Park, and the 62nd of his F1 career.

Hamilton had doubts over Mercedes’ advantage over Ferrari heading into the new year, making his charge to pole all the more meaningful as he paid tribute to the team members after qualifying.

“It’s been a fantastic weekend so far. It’s quite amazing to come here for I think the 11th time, and it feels like it was only yesterday that I came here and had my first race here in 2007,” Hamilton said.

“I’m just incredibly proud of my team. This rule change has been huge and such a massive challenge for everyone. The guys have just worked so hard to make this car what it is today.”

Despite taking pole by almost three-tenths of a second in Q3, Hamilton is braced for a close fight on Sunday with Vettel and Bottas, the latter starting his first race for Mercedes from third on the grid.

“Valtteri did a fantastic job given it’s his first qualifying session with the team. He did a great job and it’s great for Mercedes,” Hamilton said.

“Looking forward to the race, it’s close between us all. As you can see, there’s going to be a tight race this year I think.

“I think tomorrow is about putting all the work that’s gone in over the winter, all the work that’s gone through testing and this whole weekend and really put it to work tomorrow.

“I’ll make sure I get a good night’s sleep and come back tomorrow stronger than ever.”

The Australian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App from midnight ET on Sunday.