Ageless drag racing wonder John Force sets national record in Winternationals qualifying

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Choose your adjective: Whoa! Damn! Unbelievable! Incredible!

All of those words would definitely fit the bill to describe how ageless wonder and 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force powered to a national elapsed time record during Friday’s qualifying for the season-opening Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

Force, who will be 65 in less than three months, made it very clear that he intends on winning a record-breaking 17th Funny Car championship this season by flying down the dragstrip in a record time of 3.966 seconds at 324.12 mph.

While he has pretty much rewritten almost all of NHRA’s record books, it’s the first time in more than a decade that Force’s name has been attached to a national elapsed time or speed record in the Funny Car class.

“(Crew chief) Jimmy Prock has his stuff together,” Force said. “I never thought it would run 96. That impressed me. I told ’em, check the clocks. When we saw (teammate) Robert (Hight) run that 99 (3.999 seconds), Jimmy knew it was there.”

Force laid the groundwork for the record-setting run Friday evening by covering the track at 3.983 seconds on his first qualifying run earlier in the day.

Antron Brown led Top Fuel qualifying with a time of 3.731 seconds at 326.00 mph, while Allen Johnson led Pro Stock drivers with a top qualifying effort of 6.517 seconds at 212.53 mph.

Two more pro qualifying sessions take place Saturday at 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. PT. Sunday’s final eliminations start at 11 a.m. PT.

Here are Friday’s results after the first two of four rounds of qualifying for the season-opening 54th annual Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif.

Top Fuel — 1. Antron Brown, 3.731 seconds, 326.00 mph; 2. Shawn Langdon, 3.746, 328.70; 3. Doug Kalitta, 3.753, 328.38; 4. Bob Vandergriff, 3.761, 322.58; 5. Spencer Massey, 3.775, 321.50; 6. Steve Torrence, 3.781, 324.05; 7. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.788, 322.73; 8. Tony Schumacher, 3.808, 322.73; 9. David Grubnic, 3.830, 321.96; 10. Leah Pritchett, 3.843, 319.98; 11. Terry McMillen, 3.863, 322.58; 12. Troy Buff, 3.866, 303.50. Not Qualified: 13. Sidnei Frigo, 3.899, 312.57; 14. Brittany Force, 3.916, 279.15; 15. Clay Millican, 4.084, 249.76; 16. Steve Faria, 7.441, 81.87; 17. Scott Palmer, 8.246, 94.55; 18. Richie Crampton, 8.582, 89.46; 19. Steven Chrisman, 12.623, 70.60.

Funny Car — 1. John Force, Ford Mustang, 3.966, 324.12; 2. Robert Hight, Mustang, 3.996, 317.94; 3. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.014, 304.67; 4. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.040, 317.27; 5. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.046, 320.13; 6. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.077, 316.01; 7. Chad Head, Camry, 4.079, 303.23; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.082, 314.75; 9. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.104, 309.06; 10. Gary Densham, Charger, 4.199, 289.20; 11. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.303, 236.46; 12. Paul Lee, Charger, 4.306, 244.43. Not Qualified: 13. Terry Haddock, 4.358, 224.77; 14. Bob Tasca III, 4.577, 194.63; 15. Jeff Diehl, 4.617, 182.85; 16. Jack Beckman, 5.409, 103.74; 17. Tim Wilkerson, 6.454, 113.40; 18. Cruz Pedregon, 6.531, 103.66; 19. Phil Burkart, 7.955, 90.47; 20. Alexis DeJoria, 8.285, 82.74; 21. Bob Bode, 8.396, 73.27.

Pro Stock — 1. Allen Johnson, Dodge Avenger, 6.517, 212.53; 2. Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.528, 212.29; 3. Jeg Coughlin, Avenger, 6.541, 212.39; 4. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.541, 211.79; 5. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.543, 211.53; 6. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.547, 211.79; 7. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.547, 211.73; 8. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.549, 212.36; 9. V. Gaines, Avenger, 6.554, 211.96; 10. Greg Stanfield, Camaro, 6.569, 210.60; 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.573, 211.26; 12. Jimmy Alund, Camaro, 6.574, 211.39. Not Qualified: 13. Larry Morgan, 6.576, 210.73; 14. Deric Kramer, 6.593, 210.05; 15. Matt Hartford, 6.634, 208.78; 16. Paul Pittman, 7.338, 143.05; 17. Shane Tucker, 9.059, 99.25.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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