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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Robert Hight extends Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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MORRISON, Colo. (AP) Robert Hight beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on Sunday in the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway to extend his Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons.

Hight topped Johnson with a 3.995-second pass at 317.57 mph in a Chevrolet Camaro SS for his 38th career victory.

“We definitely struggled through the first few rounds and we were lucky to get those round wins, but I have a great team who figured things out and helped get me to the winner’s circle,” Hight said. “It’s definitely a long-time coming and we hadn’t had much luck, but today we had some luck and we hope this continues throughout the Western Swing.”

Antron Brown won in Top Fuel, Drew Skillman in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Brown edged teammate and No. 1 qualifier Leah Pritchett with a 3.792 at 319.82. He has three victories this season to push his career total to 64.

Skillman raced to his second straight victory and the fifth of his career, beating points leader Bo Butner with a 6.916 run at 198.15 in a Camaro.

Krawiec topped Matt Smith with a 7.145 at 188.28. The Harley-Davidson rider has two victories this season and 38 overall.

Sauber confirms Matsushita for Hungary test as well

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Honda junior driver Nobuhiro Matsushita will have a run with Sauber F1 Team on the second day of the Hungarian Grand Prix post-race week test, in the team’s C36 chassis.

Sauber’s engine selection for 2018 is up in the air. While the team announced a switch from year old Ferraris to Hondas, this was done under prior team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and rumors have persisted the deal may be off, or wasn’t fully done in the first place.

That Matsushita is running at this test for his first day in an F1 car – Gustav Malja will run on day one – could indicate the Honda switch isn’t yet a dead topic.

“When I was four years old, I was fascinated by Michael Schumacher, watching him racing in Formula 1. Since then my dream was to become a Formula 1 driver,” he said. “I am very excited about my first Formula 1 test and I am really looking forward to driving the Sauber C36-Ferrari at the Hungaroring – it is a great opportunity for me. I hope it will be a productive day for the team as well as for myself, so that I can learn as much as possible. I would like to thank the Sauber F1 Team for making this happen.”

New team boss Frederic Vasseur, formerly of Renault, gave his take on the test.

“I am pleased that Nobuharu has this great opportunity. He deserves the experience of his first test in a Formula 1 car. Ever since his debut in Formula 2 with ART Grand Prix, I have been following his progress closely, and have watched him advance his performance from year to year. With this Formula 1 test, he comes one step closer to his dream of becoming an F1 driver one day.”

Renault confirms Robert Kubica will test in Hungary

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Renault Sport F1 Team has confirmed Robert Kubica will make his return to a current Formula 1 car in the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test, which will only continue to fuel the hype train for a possible race return.

The Pole has undertaken two tests in recent weeks with older cars but this day in the Renault R.S.17 will provide the team a chance to evaluate him in current machinery to gauge his race level fitness.

It’s a story that has got the F1 world buzzing in recent weeks as Kubica, injured in a rally accident before the 2011 season, has made a comeback to restart his racing career.

Poor Nicholas Latifi, also confirmed for the test that runs the Tuesday and Wednesday after the Hungarian Grand Prix, will be undoubtedly overlooked as a result.

Jolyon Palmer will race in Hungary this weekend at least but whether the Brit continues beyond the summer break that follows afterwards remains a question mark.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.