Breaking down NHRA pro ranks after first three races of 2014 season

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Sure, we’re only three races into the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, but a lot has happened already.

And if that’s an indication of even more to come, 2014 could go down as one of the bigger seasons in recent memory.

Following this past Sunday’s Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., let’s take a look at who’s strong, who’s struggled and anything in-between among the four primary pro classes:

TOP FUEL:

Three-time Gainesville winner Doug Kalitta, including this past Sunday, is off to one of the best starts ever in his career.

Racking up his first win of the season and 34th overall this past Sunday, the Michigan native now has a win and a runner-up in the first three events.

Ditto for Antron Brown, who lost in Sunday’s finals to Gainesville after winning two weeks before at Phoenix.

Not surprisingly, Kalitta leads the Top Fuel standings, with Brown second, Steve Torrence third and season-opening race winner at Pomona, Khalid alBalooshi.

On the flip side, what’s happened to seven-time champ Tony Schumacher? “The Sarge” has not won a dragster championship since 2009 and is off to an uncharacteristically slow start in 2014.

Schumacher is eighth after the first three events, an already distant 163 points behind the front-running Kalitta.

FUNNY CAR:

The ageless wonder, John Force – who turns 65 in May – is intent on winning a record 17th Funny Car championship in 2014 for several reasons.

First, longtime sponsors Castrol Oil and Ford will be leaving at the end of the season.

Second, although Force is diligently looking for new sponsorship for 2015, he hasn’t made any significant announcements yet.

Third, although we find the likelihood of it happening very unlikely, the rumor mill has Force potentially retiring at season’s end if he doesn’t find enough funds to replace what he’ll lose from Castrol and Ford.

And then there’s the other predominant rumor we keep hearing: Force may be forced – no pun intended – to switch to Top Fuel in 2015 if his hopefully new potential sponsors want it.

Force has veteran TF tuner Jimmy Prock – who has the colorful nickname of “Go For the Jugular” – as crew chief for son-in-law and fellow FC driver Robert Hight this season.

But if Force were to move up to Top Fuel next season, don’t be surprised if he takes Prock with him.

Thus far in 2014, Force is off to a great start. He won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., setting new national event records for speed and elapsed time.

Then at the Gatornationals, Force qualified poorly (last of the 16-car field), but rallied to finish runner-up to Hight – who is also off to a great start himself with a win and runner-up (at Phoenix).

Other drivers that have enjoyed a great start thus far include Alexis DeJoria, who became the first female Funny Car driver to break the four-second barrier in the Pomona season opener, and then followed that up with her first national event win at Phoenix.

After a year’s layoff, Tommy Johnson Jr. is solid in sixth, as well.

But very conspicuous by their absences in the top 10 are brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, who have a combined four FC championships between them (two each).

PRO STOCK:

In Pro Stock, it was out with the old and in with the new at Gainesville for Allen Johnson, and he didn’t miss a beat.

The 2012 PS champ jettisoned his trustworthy Dodge Avenger and brought a brand new 2014 Dodge Dart with him to the Gatornationals (as did fellow competitor Jeg Coughlin).

The change made no difference whatsoever, as Johnson roared to his second win in the first three races.

Vieri Gaines (more commonly known as just V. Gaines) is off to one of the best season starts of his career, ranked second behind Johnson in the points standings after Gainesville.

Pomona winner Jason Line is a close fourth, as well.

Coughlin has struggled somewhat in the first three races, ranked eighth, but the five-time and 2013 defending Pro Stock champ is still well within striking distance to get on a hot streak and make a big jump in the rankings in the next several races.

If there’s one driver in the PS ranks you can never count out, it’s Coughlin, indeed.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:

Okay, there’s really not much you can gauge in the bikes, as Sunday’s race at Gainesville was only the first on the 16-race PSM calendar in 2014.

Still, veteran rider Steve Johnson deserves special recognition. Johnson earned his first win on the circuit since 2008.

The 53-year-old Birmingham, Ala. native became the first Suzuki rider to win an NHRA national event since 2011.

And to top it all off, Johnson finds himself leading the PSM points for only the second time in his lengthy career, and the first time since 2005.

Others that looked good in the season opener included Scotty Pollacheck (second in points) and third-ranked Hector Arana Jr.

In an interesting twist, three members of the Arana family are in the top nine in the standings: Hector Jr., family patriarch Hector Arana Sr. and other son Adam Arana (the latter two are part of a four-way tie for ninth-place with Shawn Gann and Katie Sullivan).

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Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

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