Tony Schumacher

Photo courtesy NHRA

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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

 

NHRA: Sponsorship woes sideline former Top Fuel champ Shawn Langdon

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As the NHRA prepares to begin its new season in three weeks, a bit of distressing news has emerged.

According to Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com, former champion Shawn Langdon and his Top Fuel dragster have been parked by team owner Don Schumacher due to lack of sponsorship to start the season.

Langdon’s car was one of four Top Fuel dragsters that Don Schumacher Racing fielded last season. The other three – Tony Schumacher, two-time defending champ Antron Brown and Leah Pritchett – will start the season as planned.

But because enough sponsorship for the entire 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has not materialized, Langdon will be parked until more funding is found.

“I am working on some things that will hopefully work out and give me the funding to run the car as soon as possible,” Don Schumacher told Bennett.

This is the second time in a year and a half that Langdon has been sidelined due to a lack of funding. He raced through the 18-race 2015 regular season, but team owner Alan Johnson parked Langdon when the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs began because money ran out.

Langdon almost immediately hooked up with DSR to finish out the 2015 season, and then raced the full season in 2016, winning three races and finishing fifth in the final standings.

“At this point, there’s really no other option than just to get back at it and just start talking with companies that we feel would be a good fit over here at Don Schumacher Racing,” Langdon told Bennett.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

2016 NHRA season in review: Those that fell short

Photos courtesy NHRA
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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.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

2016_Leah_Pritchett headshot

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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2016_tony_schumacher

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:

2016_allen_johnson

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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2016_erica_enders-3

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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2016_jeg_coughlin_jr

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:

2016_matt_smith

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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2016_le_tonglet

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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2016_hector_arana_jr-1

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.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

NHRA 2016: Those that fell short; beat adversity; pleasant surprises

(All photos courtesy NHRA)
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The 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season has been one of lots of excitement, surprises and upsets in the four top professional classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Drivers that many thought would have great seasons didn’t, while others surprised by having unexpected outstanding campaigns.

As the season wraps up with this weekend’s Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, here are some of those that fell uncharacteristically short, those that overcame adversity and some of the most pleasant surprises of 2016:

(All photos courtesy NHRA)

TOP FUEL:

2016_tony_schumacher* WHAT HAPPENED, TONY SCHUMACHER? The eight-time champion and winningest driver in Top Fuel history anticipated a strong season when the 2016 campaign began. He did reach the winner’s circle twice (Denver and Indianapolis) and had one semifinal finish (St. Louis). Unfortunately, Schumacher’s championship hopes imploded at the worst time: In the first five (of six) Countdown to the Championship races, Schumacher suffered three first round losses in eliminations. Meanwhile, teammate Antron Brown had an outstanding Countdown and clinched his second consecutive Top Fuel championship and third in the last five seasons at last weekend’s race at Las Vegas.

2016_leah_pritchett-1* OVERCAME ADVERSITY: Leah Pritchett’s season may not have wound up like she hoped, but at the same time she endured one of the most trying seasons, too. Things started great, signing a full-time deal with Bob Vandergriff Racing, having a major sponsorship with Quaker State and then won the second race of the season at Phoenix. Unfortunately, Vandergriff abruptly closed up shop April 11, forcing Pritchett and teammate Dave Connolly to find new rides – not an easy thing to do four races into a season. To her credit, Pritchett went on to race for three other teams, including Don Schumacher Racing and has come on strong of late with two semifinal appearances in the last three Countdown races. Pritchett is seventh in the Top Fuel standings heading into Pomona. If she can reach the final round and potentially win, she could wind up finishing the season as high as second, which would be one heck of a comeback after all she’s gone through in 2016.

2016_brittany_force-2* PLEASANT SURPRISE: Brittany Force – The union of John Force’s Top Fuel driving daughter with legendary tuner Alan Johnson this season has been nothing short of outstanding. Not only did Brittany win three races, but also she led the Top Fuel point standings at one point, coming into her own. She comes to Pomona ranked fourth in the standings and can finish as high as second. Given how good Force looked this season, she’s likely going to be even better and more successful in 2017.

FUNNY CAR:

2016_cruz_pedregonWHAT HAPPENED, CRUZ PEDREGON? 2016 is a season the two-time Funny Car champion would rather forget. It seemed nothing went right: 18 first-round exits, reached the second round only four times, made just one semifinal appearance, failed to qualify at the biggest race of the season (U.S. Nationals) and failed to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship. Pedregon comes to Pomona 12th in the standings, which is likely where he’ll finish up the season. Expect Pedregon to get back on track in 2017. He’s too good of a driver to go through another rough campaign like he has this year.

2016_alexis_dejoriaOVERCAME ADVERSITY: Alexis De Joria has had a tough season, but she never stopped battling. After winning early in the season at Las Vegas, she managed just one semifinal finish the rest of the way (Bristol). Even worse, she has had 10 first-round exits. Then, she crashed hard at Sonoma, causing her to miss Seattle and Brainerd recuperating from her injuries. Still, De Joria overcame adversity by managing to qualify for the Countdown after many thought she might have been done for the season after her Sonoma wreck.

PLEASANT SURPRISE (three-way tie):

2016_ron_capps1) Ron Capps: After more than 20 years of chasing the quarter-mile, Capps is on the verge of finally capturing his first NHRA Funny Car championship. He comes into Pomona with just two drivers having any chance of catching him, and their chances aren’t all that good to begin with. Capps has an 86-point lead over Matt Hagan and a 113-point lead over Tommy Johnson Jr. If Capps can reach the semifinals, he’ll have clinched the title (he actually could clinch it as early as the quarterfinals if Hagan and Johnson both go out). It’s been a great season for Capps, with six wins and one runner-up showing. If there’s anyone deserving of a title after 20-plus years, it’s definitely Capps.

2016_tommy_johnson-jr2) Tommy Johnson Jr.: You have to give a great deal of credit to Johnson, who was one of the hardest competitors to beat in 2016. He comes into Pomona third in the standings with three wins and one runner-up. While that’s likely where he’ll end the season, it’ll still be one of the best seasons of his career. After returning to the sport last season, he’s continued to climb, grow and improve both as a driver and with his team. If he’s been this good in 2016, imagine how much better he’ll be in 2017.

2016_john_force-13) John Force: The winningest driver in NHRA history, with 147 race wins (including last weekend’s race at Las Vegas), Force won four times this season (his best performance since winning four times en route to his 16th championship in 2013), including twice thus far in the Countdown. Unfortunately, he faltered too many times along the way – including three straight first-round exits in the first half of the season and nine overall – forcing him to play catch-up too often. Had he been able to advance past the first round a few more times, we could be talking about Force potentially capturing a record 17th Funny Car championship. He still has the potential to finish the season as high as runner-up, which wouldn’t be all that bad for a guy who is 67 years old.

PRO STOCK:

2016_erica_enders-2WHAT HAPPENED, ERICA ENDERS? – This is by far the most befuddling question of the season overall in the entire sport. How can a driver who was so dominant – winning back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015, as well as earning six and nine wins respectively in each of those seasons, have such a nightmarish 2016 season? How bad was it? Heading into Pomona, Enders has yet to win a race this season, has 14 first-round exits (in 23 races), failed to qualify at Charlotte (the opening race of the Countdown to the Championship), reached the quarterfinals six times and the semifinals just twice (Brainerd and Las Vegas). What’s more, her teammate Jeg Coughlin didn’t fare much better, which will likely leave the two of them finishing ninth and 10th this season (their present places in the standings). Big changes are in store at Elite Motorsports. Expect a major announcement next week that could put the team back on the winning track in 2017.

2016_shane_grayOVERCAME ADVERSITY: Shane Gray has had a roller-coaster season that appears to be ending on a very high note. After eight first-round exits prior to the start of the Countdown – including five in a row from Gainesville to Atlanta and failed to race at Phoenix – he’s bounced back strongly in the Countdown, including a win at Las Vegas and three straight semi-final finishes at St. Louis, Reading and Texas. Gray still has a mathematical chance to win the Pro Stock championship, but will finish no lower than third in the season standings. After struggles early on, Gray has come up with a strong season finish – and it couldn’t come at a better time, as he announced recently that he’ll step aside and not race in 2017. Rather, his son, Tanner, will drive the Gray family Pro Stock car next season. The elder Gray isn’t retiring as a driver, just taking a hiatus. But at the same time, he’ll be as involved as ever with his son’s racing exploits.

2016_greg_anderson-22016_jason_linePLEASANT SURPRISE: KB Racing teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson have been the most dominant drivers in the series this season. Line, who comes into Pomona with a 19-point edge over Anderson in the Pro Stock standings, has eight wins this season, while Anderson is right behind with seven. Both drivers are former Pro Stock champions and one will add yet another crown at Pomona. Kudos also to their other teammate, Bo Butner, who has had a strong season as well.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:

2016_hector_arana_jrWHAT HAPPENED, HECTOR ARANA JR.? When 2016 rolled around, the younger Arana (his father, Hector, also races PSM) looked like he might have a breakout season. Unfortunately, he struggled unmercifully in the first half of the season, failing to qualify at the spring race at Charlotte, as well as wracking up five first-round losses in the first seven races. Then after a second-round showing at Sonoma, a semi-final finish at Brainerd and a runner-up in the prestigious U.S. Nationals, the younger Arana looked like he could become the surprise of the Countdown. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, as he had three first-round and two second-round losses in the playoff that have dropped him to 10th (last) in the PSM playoffs.

2016_jerry_savoieOVERCAME ADVERSITY: After Ron Capps’ potential championship run, this is my pick for second-best story of the year in all of NHRA racing. Jerry Savoie drag raced motorcycles in his late teens and early 20s, only to spend the following 30 years raising a family and a multi-million dollar alligator in Louisiana. He went back to racing at 53 and now, at 57, he is poised to potentially win the PSM championship. Savoie enters this weekend just three points behind teammates Andrew Hines (defending season champion and five-time overall season champ) and former champ Eddie Krawiec, who are tied for first place in the standings. If Hines and Krawiec battle it out with each other, Savoie could potentially sneak past them and claim the championship.

2016_angelle_sampeyPLEASANT SURPRISE: Angelle Sampey is back in her first full-time season since 2008 (she ran limited schedules in 2014 and 2015) and has once again displayed the same form that led to over 40 career wins (most in PSM history) and three championships earlier in her racing career. Sampey has one win (Englishtown) and one runner-up (St. Louis) and will likely finish fourth or third in the season final standings after Pomona. Even though she was gone for quite a period of time, Sampey looks as good today as she did in her prime. But as good as she has been in 2016, don’t be surprised to see her do even better in 2017.

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NHRA: With 2 races left left in the Countdown, who’s next to be eliminated?

Photo courtesy NHRA
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For some drivers, the NHRA Countdown to the Championship is over early, as several were eliminated following Sunday’s final round of the AAA Texas FallNationals at Texas Motorplex.

Those who will not advance into the final two races of the season (Oct. 27-30 at Las Vegas and the season finale, Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California) are:

Top Fuel: Richie Crampton and Clay Millican.

Funny Car: Alexis DeJoria.

Pro Stock: Five-time champion Jeg Coughlin and two-time defending champ Erica Enders.

“We’ve had a tough year but I promise big things are straight ahead and we’ll be back better than ever in 2017,” Enders said after Sunday’s race.

The only major professional category that has not seen any Countdown contestants eliminated yet is Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Now teams have a weekend off coming up to regroup and try to make one last attempt for the championship.

However, several teams that are still mathematically eligible for the title (within the 260 total points – 130 points for each of the last two races on the schedule) are likely closer to elimination – particularly at Las Vegas – than to rallying back for the championship:

Top Fuel: Even though she qualified No. 2 at Texas this past weekend, eight-ranked Leah Pritchett (-254 points) and seventh-ranked J.R. Todd (-244) are on the verge of elimination. Also on the hot seat are eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher (ranked sixth, -209), fifth-ranked Steve Torrence (-197) and even fourth-ranked Brittany Force (-191).

“We really needed to win this one and we needed for the Countdown contenders ahead us in the standings to have problems,” Schumacher said. “It wasn’t shaping up that way, to begin with.”

While Schumacher isn’t giving up, if he can’t win a ninth championship, he’ll support his teammate’s quest for his second straight title and third in the last five seasons.

“Antron and his team have been lights out all year, and they’re peaking here in the Countdown,” Schumacher said. “They deserve to be on the verge of clinching the championship and, if we can’t be the ones to win the championship, we’re always rooting to keep it in the U.S. Army and DSR family.”

As for Force, she’s adamant that she is still in the championship hunt.

“I think doing well in Las Vegas will be a big factor for the championship,” Force said. “Our goal is to have a chance to win the championship when we get to the Auto Club Finals in Pomona.

“We are going to do everything we can to be in a position where we can win. We go into every race thinking we can win and it starts with the first round of qualifying. This has been an amazing season and these last couple of races will be even more exciting with the championship on the line.”

Funny Car: It’s not looking good for John Force Racing. Courtney Force is ranked eighth (-227), 16-time champ John Force is seventh (-198) and even though he had a strong weekend at Texas, sixth-ranked Robert Hight is -187. Early exits during much of the first or second rounds in the first four races of the Countdown have been the downfall for the three JFR drivers.

“I thought I needed a Hail Mary and now I need two,” said John Force, who uncharacteristically red-lit in his first round elimination race with Alexis DeJoria, immediately losing. “I didn’t do my job and they gave me a good race car. That is the bottom line.

“You can’t win championships by making that mistake. My brain just faded and I put a red light out there. I apologized to my team, my fans and the sponsors. That is all I can do.”

Added Hight, who is not giving up, “We are running with the top cars out here and there are two races left. I want to win those races and see what happens.”

As for Courtney Force, “We have two more races to go and we’re definitely motivated to go out there and continue to move up in the points and see if we can end this season on a high note.”

Pro Stock: While no one is ready to concede the championship to frontrunner Jason Line or teammate and second-ranked Greg Anderson (-26), it’s not looking good in Las Vegas for eight-ranked Allen Johnson (-241) or seventh-ranked Chris McGaha (-232). Drew Skillman, who won Sunday at Texas, is still a massive 185 points back in sixth-place.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: While none of the 10 Countdown riders have been eliminated yet, it’s likely three, four or even more could be knocked out of the playoffs at Las Vegas. Hector Arana Jr., who has struggled in the Countdown, is ranked 10th (-242). Matt Smith is ninth (-223), Hector Arana is eighth (-214) and Cory Reed is seventh (-196). Even sixth-ranked LE Tonglet IV isn’t safe (-137).

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