NHRA reveals Countdown points tweaks for 2017

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Even though the 24-race 2017 season doesn’t start for a month, the National Hot Rod Association is already thinking about the end of the season, revealing significant changes for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

On Wednesday, the NHRA Competition Committee announced changes to qualifying and the amount of points that can be earned, particularly for the season-ending Auto Club Finals in Pomona.

Here’s how things break down:

* Drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle that compete in the Auto Club Finals will race for increased points that could ultimately result in some surprising come-from-behind championship finishes.

First, the amount of points that can be earned by a single driver in the Finals will increase from 130 to 191 points. The winner of the Finals in each professional class will receive 150 points, runner-up will earn 120 points; semifinalists will earn 90 points apiece; second-round finishers will earn 60 points each; and first-round finishers will all claim 30 points.

Also, qualifying points will increase from 10 to 15 for the Finals.

Ultimately, the maximum of 191 points that can be earned will be based upon the 150 points earned for winning the race, 15 points for qualifying, and additional 10 points for earning overall No. 1 qualifying honors and a maximum total of 16 bonus points for the four quickest runs of each of the four qualifying sessions prior to the final day’s round of eliminations.

The new points system for the Auto Club Finals looks like this:

Auto Club NHRA Finals points

Winner                               150
Runner-up                        120
Third-round loser            90
Second-round loser         60
First-round loser              30

Points for qualifying positions at the Auto Club NHRA Finals

1st – 10
2nd – 9
3rd – 8
4th – 7
5th and 6th – 6
7th and 8th – 5
9th through 12th – 4
13th through 16th – 3

Qualifying bonus points at the Auto Club NHRA Finals are awarded after each qualifying session for the first-, second-, third- and fourth-quickest passes of each session:

1st — 4
2nd — 3
3rd — 2
4th — 1

* The start of the six-race Countdown will also see changes. The driver who is leading their respective class after the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis will be crowned “regular season champion” and will receive a 20-point bonus over other Countdown contenders.

In other words, when points are reset for the Countdown, the regular season champ will start with 2,100 points, while No. 2 through No. 10 will start the playoffs with 10-point increments ranging from 2,080 (for No. 2) down to 2,000 points (for No. 10).

* Another change to the Countdown structure is “if a driver who qualified for the playoffs and is eligible for the championship does not qualify at a Countdown event in which two qualifying sessions were not completed, said driver will be guaranteed a qualifying position in the event’s final 16-car field.

“That driver will be inserted into the (16-driver elimination) ladder in the position of the non-championship eligible driver with the least amount of points entering the event.”

“We believe the changes for the 2017 season will increase the level of competition in all the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series categories. The points-and-half up for grabs at the Auto Club NHRA Finals will bring a heightened level of excitement for the fans and the racers at the conclusion of the thrilling race season,” Graham Light, NHRA senior vice president of racing operations Vice President, said in a statement.

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IndyCar’s 2018 full-field grid nearing completion

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Following Wednesday’s confirmation of the all-Canadian tandem at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, each of the eight full-time teams in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season have announced at least one driver for 2018, leaving very few remaining question marks.

What stands confirmed is below:

CONFIRMED

  • Team Penske (3, Chevrolet): Josef Newgarden, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power
  • Chip Ganassi Racing (1, Honda): Scott Dixon
  • 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 (1, Chevrolet): Tony Kanaan
  • Dale Coyne Racing (1, Honda): Sebastien Bourdais
  • Harding Racing (1, Chevrolet): Gabby Chaves

There are four additional drivers confirmed for selected races or an month of May program:

  • Team Penske (1, Chevrolet): Helio Castroneves
  • Andretti Autosport (1, Honda): Stefan Wilson
  • Calmels Sport with SPM (1, Honda): Tristan Gommendy
  • Team TBD (1, TBD): Kyle Kaiser

All told that’s 17 full-season driver and team combinations confirmed and four additional part-time programs, at least, that are set. Several of those driver/team combinations will have engineering and strategist changes, as well.

In a minor note since our last update at Sonoma, Marco Andretti confirmed he won’t run No. 27 next year. Of note, Bryan Herta served as Andretti’s race strategist this year, although the car he was an entrant on was Alexander Rossi’s No. 98 car. Herta will continue his relationship with Andretti Autosport again next season.

WHAT’S LEFT TO SORT? NOT MUCH

Elsewhere, there’s only a handful of remaining question marks as the series hits mid-October, a rarity from past years and an illustration of the urgency to fill seats to get as much preparation time in testing with the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit as possible.

NBC Sports expects 2016 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IndyCar rookie-of-the-year Ed Jones to be confirmed soon as second driver in Dale Coyne Racing’s No. 19 Honda alongside Sebastien Bourdais, with team personnel and Bourdais both having indicated a preference in keeping the Dubai-based Brit for a second year.

NBC Sports also expects Jones’ successor as Indy Lights champion, Kyle Kaiser, to have his future announced shortly in terms of which team he’ll step up to IndyCar with. It would not be a surprise if Kaiser does graduate along with Juncos Racing, although Kaiser is known to have talked to multiple teams. The Mazda Motorsports scholarship nets him $1 million for a three-race program, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, with the driver then needing to secure additional funding for further races, as Jones and Pigot both have each of the last two years.

The status of Brendon Hartley has now been thrown up as a slight question mark dependent on how his Formula 1 debut with Scuderia Toro Rosso goes at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix, and if Toro Rosso provides him a further race opportunity in one of the remaining three Grands Prix thereafter. Having been all-but-earmarked for Chip Ganassi Racing’s second seat in 2018, if an F1 offer comes, Hartley’s potential IndyCar bow could get delayed.

A McLaren-named entry competing either in the Indianapolis 500 or full-time seems further off than realistic for next year, McLaren’s Zak Brown told reporters on a teleconference this week. McLaren maintains an IndyCar technical presence though, via its McLaren Applied Technologies outfit.

What’s left then are the dominoes of whether Carlin’s IndyCar plans officially come to fruition as the team has gotten closer than it ever has to doing so, and who emerges in the second seats at A.J. Foyt Enterprises and Ed Carpenter Racing (road and street courses), respectively.

A number of young IndyCar veterans – Max Chilton, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz and Conor Daly namely – are yet to land for 2018 and there’s no guarantee all four of them will be back in IndyCar next season.

There’s also a handful of young drivers, namely RC Enerson, Jack Harvey, Esteban Gutierrez, Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman DeMelo, Sage Karam and Matthew Brabham among others, who could well emerge in the frame for seats.

Gutierrez’s status seemed dependent on Mexico City being added to the 2018 calendar, and although the race still could be added, the fact neither is in place at this point doesn’t inspire as much confidence about his presence as a regular on the grid as it did earlier this summer.

All told, there’s not nearly that much to sort out as IndyCar’s grid for 2018 is looking very much close to set at this early stage of a long offseason.