J.R. Todd takes over NHRA Top Fuel ride for team owner Connie Kalitta

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Legendary former Top Fuel driver and veteran team owner/crew chief Connie Kalitta has always been somewhat of a maverick.

It’s how he’s built a very successful airline and shipping business, and also how he has run his drag racing operation for more than three decades.

But replacing your driver in the middle of a race weekend? That’s something you don’t see every day.

Kalitta, however, did just that this past weekend at Las Vegas, pulling Australian native David Grubnic out of the Optima Batteries Top Fuel dragster after the first two rounds of qualifying and replaced him with J.R. Todd.

Todd eventually lost in the second round of Sunday’s final eliminations, but it must have been enough to impress Kalitta, as the team announced Todd will remain behind the wheel going forward for the rest of this season.

The move appears to be amicable, as Grubnic, 51, will remain with the team as a technical consultant.

“We knew we were eventually going to move Grubnic into a more technical role,” Jim Oberhofer, vice president of operations for Kalitta Motorsports, said in a statement. “It just so happened that the timing was right for Connie and the team to do that now.

“We are very confident that J.R. will represent our team, Optima Batteries, and all of our sponsors to the utmost of his ability. We’re extremely excited to see what he can do driving for Kalitta Motorsports.”

Todd, 32, a resident of suburban Indianapolis, is a six-time career winner and two-time runner-up in the Top Fuel ranks. He joins new teammate Doug Kalitta, who leads the Top Fuel points standings after the first four of 24 national events this season.

Todd became the first African-American driver in NHRA history to earn a win in the Top Fuel class in 2006. His last win was in 2008.

“To say I’m excited to be a part of Kalitta Motorsports is a huge understatement,” Todd said in a press release. “Driving for Connie Kalitta is a great honor.

“Connie’s commitment to success is one of the big reasons he’s considered one of the best owners to work for. He’s been drag racing for over 50 years so I’m sure I will learn a lot from him, and hopefully drive his car to a lot of winner’s circles.”

The next NHRA national event is the fifth annual NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, N.C., April 11-13.

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Here’s who were picking to win the Indy 500 — who are YOU picking?

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Several members of the NBC Sports motorsports staff have made their predictions on who will win Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Of the six voters, two are going with 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champ Josef Newgarden, while two others are going with Helio Castroneves to win a fourth 500, which would tie him with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.

Here’s our picks. Who are YOU picking?

Leigh Diffey: Helio Castroneves — He drives the place better than anyone else. For me (for what its worth) he deserves a fourth 500 ring for the frustration he went through never getting the IndyCar title!

Townsend Bell: Josef Newgarden

Nate Ryan: Simon Pagenaud — All of his 2018 misfortune on the track has disappeared in May, and it culminates in the biggest victory of his career.

Jerry Bonkowski: Helio Castroneves – There’s no pressure as he pursues his fourth Indy 500 win. All Helio has to do, as late NFL owner Al Davis would say, is “Just win, baby!” (But if Helio falls short, watch for Marco Andretti)

Kyle Lavigne: Josef Newgarden — I think he has everything he needs to get it done this year.

Dan Beaver: Robert Wickens – Has driven like anything except a rookie and his second-place finish at Phoenix proves he’s just as good on an oval as the road courses.

Follow: Jerry Bonkowski