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NHRA: Top Fuel leader Leah Pritchett goes for 3-straight in Gainesville

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Over the last 20 years or so, it’s been very common to see a Don Schumacher Racing car atop the NHRA Top Fuel ranks.

After all, Antron Brown has won the last two Top Fuel championships and three of the last five. And then there’s teammate and Don’s son, Tony, an eight-time Top Fuel champion.

But if you look at what has taken place in the first two races of the 2017 national event season, there’s a potential new DSR champ in the making.

Leah Pritchett won both races (Pomona, California and Phoenix) and goes for three in a row in this weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida.

In terms of status and importance among NHRA national events, the Gatornationals is considered among the top four or five races in the 24-race season.

And like Brown, Schumacher and her other teammates at DSR, Pritchett is ready to prove that she’s for real and that she will be a force to be dealt with in the remainder of the 2017 season.

“What we did in the first two races wasn’t a fluke,” Pritchett said. “We want to prove it to ourselves and everyone else.”

Pritchett has been on fire thus far this season. And with the significance of the Gatornationals at this early point of the season, she’s determined to keep things going and continue doing what she’s been doing thus far.

“We’ll have the same routine at Gainesville that we had at Pomona and Phoenix,” she said. “We’ll keep our noses to the grindstone and show we are worthy of what we have accomplished so far this year.”

Even though she earned her first career Top Fuel win, Pritchett still had somewhat of a rough season early on in 2016. She began the season driving for Bob Vandergriff Jr. Racing, only to have the team unexpectedly fold out from under her. She raced for a couple of other teams before Schumacher signed her.

That’s when things started to get a lot better. That she made the Countdown to the Championship was a testament to Pritchett’s never-give-up attitude.

Of course, having arguably the best overall team in drag racing behind her didn’t hurt. And now that she has full sponsorship for 2017 from Papa John’s Pizza, along with the best minds in the sport at DSR, Pritchett isn’t letting her chance in the sun go to waste.

“My mindset is the same as when we went to Pomona after we ran the quickest time and fastest speed ever (3.654 seconds at 331.85 mph) in testing the week before (at Phoenix),” she said. “We had a nice test session and felt we had to do something to prove that our 3.65 was real.”

Pritchett comes into this weekend’s race holding a hefty 92-point lead in the Top Fuel standings over her teammate, Tony Schumacher. Brittany Force, who won her first career Top Fuel race at Gainesville last year, is 94 points behind Force, while Brown is 102 points back and Doug Kalitta is 105 points behind in fifth place in the Top Fuel standings.

Knowing the significance of Gainesville, as well as to keep on the roll that began at Pomona, Pritchett is ready to go for the jugular in the first qualifying session on Friday. There are four qualifying sessions this weekend, two on Friday and two more on Saturday.

“Qualifying is still important,” Pritchett said. “Being No. 1 at the first two races enabled us to have bye runs in the first round because we only had 15 cars.

“I’m sure we’ll have 16 this weekend but qualifying always is our top priority. Our focus is extending the gap (her points lead) over the field.”

Not surprisingly, success on the drag strip has kept the 28-year-old Pritchett equally as busy off-track over the last month and during her current winning streak, with heightened media attention and fan outreach.

“I’ve been busier this week and this month than I’ve ever been before,” she said. “I was on the road for 31 days before I finally got home to (Indianapolis) last week.”

But that’s okay, Pritchett said. She’s having the ride of her life both in her dragster and with the fans. And given how she’s started, don’t look for things to drop off anytime soon.

“I don’t know how to stop,” Pritchett said.

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Ferrari teammates Vettel and Raikkonen fastest in rainy final practice at Australian GP

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen went one-two in the final practice session ahead of qualifying at the water-logged Australian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Vettel set a best-lap time of 1 minute, 26.067 seconds, more than 2.4 seconds faster than his teammate in second.

Both Ferrari drivers switched from their intermediate tires to the super-fast, ultra-soft tires for the final few laps of the session, testing conditions on the track after a day-long downpour left it slick and filled with small puddles.

Mercedes drivers Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton did not opt to try out their soft tires, sticking to the intermediates for the entire session. They had the seventh- and eighth-fastest times, after topping the leaderboard in practice in dry conditions on Friday.

The heavy rains subsided by early afternoon, allowing the track to rapidly dry during the third practice session and making conditions safe for drivers to test their soft tires.

Still, only a few drivers completed a timed lap with the softer compounds, with Mercedes, Red Bull and most of the others staying with their intermediates.

Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson had the third-fastest time of the session on ultrasoft tires, followed by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on intermediates.

Hamilton remains the favorite to capture his fifth straight pole position at the Australian Grand Prix in qualifying later Saturday. He had the fastest laps on ultrasoft tires in the two practice sessions on Friday, though Verstappen was right behind him.

Verstappen and Vettel both slid on the slick track early in the third practice session, but maintained control and completed their runs without incident.

Verstappen’s teammate, Daniel Ricciardo, had the sixth-fastest time of the session. The Australian’s chances of winning his fifth career Grand Prix on his home track in Melbourne took a hit late Friday when he was assessed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

The Australian driver was penalized for driving too fast under red-flag conditions during Friday’s second practice session because of debris on the track.