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NHRA: As 2017 season begins, will it be able to top 2016 for excitement and drama?

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As the 24-race 2017 NHRA national event season kicks off this weekend at the Circle K Winternationals in Pomona, California, it’s going to be hard to write a better script than how the 2016 season ultimately played out.

When the final race ended in November, we saw two three-time champions emerge across the sport’s four pro categories: Top Fuel pilot Antron Brown (won three titles in the last five seasons, including the last two) and Pro Stock winner Jason Line.

But it was the two first-time champs in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle that stole the show.

After trying for 20 years and finishing runner-up several times over the years, Ron Capps finally broke through with his first career Funny Car championship.

It was one of the best feel-good stories the NHRA has seen in years – only to see yet another great feel-good story emerge at the same time in the person of first-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie.

Savoie could wind up going down in NHRA history as having one of the most unique paths to a championship of any driver or rider.

First off, Savoie was an aspiring motorcycle drag racer in his teens and early 20s, only to abruptly end racing at the age of 23 when he began to raise a family and grow his business.

And what a unique business it is: Savoie is an alligator “farmer” that oversees a herd of 60,000 gators in the Louisiana bayou.

After nearly 30 years away from racing, Savoie began his comeback of sorts in 2011 and finally reached the pinnacle of his sport last season in dramatic fashion.

After trailing the points leaders for the first 23 races, Savoie roared to win the championship in the season’s final race, holding off multiple championship winners such as Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec and Angelle Sampey (who used to babysit for Savoie’s children before beginning her own racing career).

But 2016 is gone and it’s time to focus on 2017.

Where do we start? How about five questions or things to watch in 2017 for each of the top four pro classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle?

Here goes:

Top Fuel:

  • Can Antron Brown make it three championships in a row and four in the last six seasons?
  • After coming so close to his first championship, can Doug Kalitta finally do so in 2017?
  • Can the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, eight-time champion Tony Schumacher, win his ninth title (and first since 2009)?
  • After overcoming adversity in 2016, including losing her ride early in the season (only to bounce back and catch on with Don Schumacher Racing), could this be the breakout season for Leah Pritchett?
  • And what about Brittany Force, who had a breakout season in 2016? Can she do even better and be a bonafide championship contender?

Funny Car:

  • 16-time champ and the winningest driver in drag racing history, John Force, turns 68 in May. He came close to another championship in 2016, but fell short in the playoffs. Can he capture title No. 17 in 2017?
  • Can former two-time champion Cruz Pedregon bounce back from the worst season of his career and become a championship contender again?
  • Courtney Force struggled in last season’s playoffs. Can she finally earn her first championship in 2017?
  • Tommy Johnson Jr. had an outstanding season in 2016. Can he keep it going in 2017?
  • After more than 20 years of trying, Ron Capps finally earned his first Funny Car championship in 2016. Can Capps do it again in 2017?

Pro Stock:

  • After winning a combined 15 races and back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, Erica Enders failed to win even one race in 2016 and was all but eliminated from the championship after failing to qualify for the first of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Her team goes back to Chevrolet power after one year with Dodge/Mopar. Will that be the ticket to return to the prominence and domination of 2014-15?
  • Will KB Racing continue to dominate Pro Stock like it did in 2016 with series champion Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson, who combined to win 16 of the season’s 24 races?
  • Shane Gray finished third in 2016 and then promptly turned over the keys to son Tanner for 2017. How will the younger Gray fare?
  • Four drivers appear to be ready for breakout seasons in 2017: Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile, Chris McGaha and Bo Butner. Which one breaks through?
  • Enders’ Elite Motorsports teammate, Jeg Coughlin, is a five-time Pro Stock champion. But in his return to full-time racing last season, Coughlin struggled just as much as Enders, finishing 10th in the standings. With Elite’s return to Chevrolet after a one-year stint with Dodge/Mopar, will Coughlin be able to get his game back to the way it used to?

Pro Stock Motorcycle:

  • Jerry Savoie had one of the most inspiring seasons – and stories – that NHRA has seen in the last 20 to 30 years. Will Savoie once again roar to win a second consecutive championship?
  • What happened to former champs Andrew Hines and teammate Eddie Krawiec last season? How is it they couldn’t hold off Savoie? Will they bounce back this year and battle each other for the title once again?
  • In her first full-time season back after a long hiatus, Angelle Sampey showed she hasn’t forgotten how to ride, finishing fourth in the championship battle. Could Sampey return to championship form again in 2016?
  • Veteran rider Chip Ellis had one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, finishing fifth in the PSM standings. Can Ellis have a similar – if not better – season in 2017?
  • Veteran Steve Johnson, one of the most popular riders on the circuit, failed to make the Countdown in 2016. Can Johnson reach back in 2017 and give fellow riders like Hines, Krawiec, Sampey and Savoie a run for their money?

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Michael Andretti looking forward to new Australian Supercars venture

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If it seems like Michael Andretti is out to conquer the world, he is – kind of.

The former IndyCar star turned prolific team owner has won three of the last four Indianapolis 500s and five overall, second only to Roger Penske’s 16 Indy 500 triumphs.

Along the way, in addition to expanding his own IndyCar and Indy Lights operation, the son of Mario Andretti and the primary shareholder of Andretti Autosport has also branched out into Global RallyCross and Formula E racing in recent years.

And now, Andretti has further expanded his brand internationally, following Penske to the world down under — as in the world of Australian V8 Supercars.

Andretti has teamed with Supercars team owner Ryan Walkinshaw, along with veteran motorsports marketer and executive director of McLaren Technology Group and United Autosports owner and chairman, Zak Brown.

Together, the three have formed Walkinshaw Andretti United, based in suburban Melbourne, Australia. The new team kicks off the new season with the Adelaide 500 from March 1-4.

“It’s just extending our brand and putting it out there,” Andretti told NBC Sports. “The Supercars are such a great series.

“It all started with Zach Brown calling me and said ‘You have to talk to Ryan Walkinshaw. He’s got something interesting to talk to you about.’

“We talked and literally in like a half-hour, we said, ‘Let’s figure out how we’re going to make this work.’ And then Zack was like, ‘Hey, what about me?’ And then Zack came in as a partner and it’s cool now that we have the Walkinshaw Andretti United team.

“I’m really excited about that program, the guys at the shop are excited about it, we’ve been doing a lot of things to try and help it because it’s such a cool series and the cars are so cool.

“I went down there to Bathurst, which was to me one of the coolest tracks in the world. I wish I could have driven it, I really do. It looks like a blast.

“It’s amazing how big that series is when you go down there. It’s one of the biggest sports in Australia. It was just a great opportunity for us to extend our portfolio.”

Admittedly, Andretti had some extra incentive to want to get involved in the Supercars world: Penske joined forces with legendary Dick Johnson Racing in September 2014.

The organization came together quickly and the rebranded DJR Team Penske went on to win the 2017 V8 Supercars championship.

“Roger was down there the last few years,” Andretti said, adding that fact as incentive to get his own organization into the series. “So it’s cool to go race head-to-head with Roger. That was also in the back of our minds.”

This is no start-up venture for Andretti. The roots of the new venture began in 1990 as the Holden Racing Team, which went on to become one of the most successful organizations in Australian V8 Supercar racing, having won the drivers’ championship six times and the Virgin Australia Supercars Championship’s top race, the Bathurst 1000 (essentially Australia’s version of the Indy 500), seven times.

Last season, Holden Racing team morphed into Triple Eight Race Engineering and was renamed Mobil 1 HSV Racing.

And now the company has been renamed once again for the 2018 campaign under the Walkinshaw Andretti United banner.

The team will be composed of two Holden ZB Commodores with drivers James Courtney and Scott Pye, as well as a Porsche 911 GT3-R in the Australian GT championship.

What’s next for Andretti’s motorsports portfolio? Right now, it’s pretty full, but you can bet running for championships from Australia (Supercars) to globally (GRC) to Indianapolis (Indy 500) to the U.S. (Verizon IndyCar Series) are at the top of this year’s list.