Photo courtesy NHRA

NHRA U.S. Nationals: Plenty of surprises, good and bad, in final eliminations

Leave a comment

Monday’s final eliminations of the 63rd annual NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals produced a number of surprises both good and bad.

Here’s some of the highlights – and lowlights:

* Three of the four winners were first-time U.S Nationals champions: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car) and Drew Skillman (Pro Stock). Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Eddie Krawiec won his second U.S. Nationals title.

* The most pleasant surprise was the Cinderella story of Top Fuel driver Kebin (yes, not Kevin) Kinsley. The Texas driver grabbed the final (16th) qualifying position before rolling all the way to the final round against No. 1 qualifier and fellow Texan Steve Torrence. Kinsley had never reached the final round of any NHRA national event, but he did Monday. Unfortunately, he smoked the tires (lost traction) in the final round matchup vs. Torrence. But coming home runner-up in the sport’s biggest race of the year is nothing to be sad about. Congrats to Kinsley on an outstanding weekend.

* J.R. Todd earned his second career Funny Car win in fine fashion, and did so with an extra bonus: the Indianapolis-area native did it in front of numerous family members and friends at his home track. Todd began racing in the NHRA Junior Dragster program over 20 years ago, and to win the sport’s biggest race, and to do so on home turf, it was the biggest day of Todd’s racing career.

* The Gray family – grandfather Johnny, father Shane and son Tanner – became the first family to ever have three members compete in an NHRA race in the same category. Tanner finished third, Johnny 11th and Shane 12th.

* John Force Racing had a difficult Monday. Patriarch and 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force lost in the first round to Del Worsham and finished 13th, daughter Courtney lost to Cruz Pedregon also in the first round, Robert Hight lost in the quarterfinals to Tim Wilkerson and in Top Fuel, Brittany lost in the first round to Shawn Langdon. JFR needs to rebound in a big way when the Countdown starts in two weeks.

* Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson had a heartbreaking semifinal round. He easily had Todd beaten, but wasn’t able to keep his car under control and crossed the centerline, drawing immediate disqualification. If that had not happened, Todd would not have gone on to win the event in the next round.

* In a rarity of sorts, not one Don Schumacher Racing car emerged with a win. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown lost in the quarterfinals, while Leah Pritchett and Tony Schumacher lost in the semifinals. In Funny Car, Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr. lost in the first round. Jack Beckman reached the semifinals, while Ron Capps made it all the way to the final round, but lost to Todd.

* Speaking of Capps, he’s been competing at the U.S. Nationals for over 20 years. Even though he’s the second-winningest driver in Funny Car annals, and won last season’s championship, he continued a dubious mark of still never having won the U.S. Nationals.

* Appearing in her first U.S. Nationals, rookie Top Fuel driver Ashley Sanford showed strong promise, although she lost to Torrence in the first round Monday. If you’re going to lose to anyone, it might as well be the best driver in the class, right?

* Veteran Pro Stock driver and former champion Allen Johnson, who announced Friday that he would be retiring as a driver at season’s end, had hoped to win Monday, but fell short, being eliminated in the quarterfinals by Tanner Gray.

* Defending 2016 Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie looked like he would have a good chance of winning his second straight U.S. Nationals, but fell short in the semifinals to Hector Arana Jr. In an ironic twist, Savoie’s teammate, LE Tonglet, lost in the quarterfinals to Krawiec, who would go on to meet and beat Arana Jr. in the finals.

* Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, who has endured a rough couple of seasons, was the final qualifier to make the Countdown. The two-time world Funny Car champ secured his spot in the playoffs with his first round win over Courtney Force. Pedregon then lost in the quarterfinals to Todd.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

F1 2017 driver review: Lance Stroll

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Team: Williams

Car No.: 18
Races: 20
Wins: 0
Podiums: 1
Best Finish: P3 (Azerbaijan)
Pole Positions: 0
Fastest Laps: 0
Points: 40
Championship Position: 13th

Lance Stroll’s arrival in Formula 1 at the start of the 2017 was a far from smooth one despite a significant private testing program being undertaken in the months leading up to his grand prix debut.

Even with older hand Felipe Massa at Williams, Stroll looked uneasy behind the wheel of the FW40 car through the opening run of races as he failed to reach the checkered flag in any of his first three starts.

The Canadian was left deflated after his first decent effort in Bahrain was cut short after a clash with Carlos Sainz Jr., calling it his “rock bottom” moment – but things would turn around on home soil.

Stroll produced a stunning fight through the field to take an excellent P9 in Canada, proving his talent seen in Formula 3 the previous year and shushing many of his critics.

Better would follow two weeks later in Baku when Stroll became the youngest rookie in F1 history to score a podium, dodging a crazy race to finish third. It would have been second had he not lost a drag race against Valtteri Bottas to the line.

Stroll’s form then fluctuated greatly. He was sublime on occasion, the best examples being Monza, when he started a remarkable P2 on the grid and ended as the top midfielder in P7, or Mexico where he took a brilliant sixth.

But there were too many weekends he was a little anonymous. Sure, Williams didn’t have the best car this year, but perhaps a little better was expected from Stroll.

2018 will be an even bigger challenge as he looks to the lead the team when a new teammate arrives – and at only 19, it is a lot to handle. Nevertheless, there are positive signs to be found; you just need to look for them a little.

Season High: Taking a shock podium in Baku after dodging chaos in front.

Season Low: A poor opening two races in Australia and China.