NHRA: John Force rolls to No. 1 Funny Car qualifier in first race without former crew chief Jimmy Prock


It wouldn’t be a total surprise if John Force thought to himself “Jimmy who?” after Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying of the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In his first race without now former crew chief Jimmy Prock, Force, a record 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ, stepped up his game to grab the provisional No. 1 spot in Friday’s first day of qualifying.

Joining Force at the top of their respective classes were Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Erica Enders-Stevens (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

The final two rounds of qualifying for Sunday’s eliminations takes place Saturday.

Having parted ways with veteran crew chief Prock on Oct. 22 after Prock announced he had accepted a job with rival Don Schumacher Racing at seasons end, Force called upon longtime friend and team safety director John Medlen to step in and tune his Funny Car for this weekend’s race.

Medlen will likely continue in that role both this weekend and next week’s season-ending race at Pomona, Calif., as Force attempts to extend his own NHRA record of championships to 17 this season.

Medlen won the Funny Car championship with former Force driver Tony Pedregon in 2003. He left John Force Racing two years ago but returned earlier this year in his new safety director role.

But when Medlen took over for Prock, it was a seamless transition, and Friday’s results speak to that.

Force and his Ford Mustang led all Funny Cars with a pass of 4.039 seconds at 318.54 mph.

Ironically, Force likely gained some additional satisfaction by knocking rival Jack Beckman (4.045 seconds at 318.84 mph) off the top spot on the qualifying ladder, because Prock is now Beckman’s crew chief.

“We got down there so we feel good about the run,” Force said in an NHRA media release. “You’ve got to get every point you can. (Points leader Matt) Hagan picked up points too. When it gets down to the end, points do count. He picked up a point the last session and I don’t want him to get another round ahead of me.”

MORE: NHRA: John Force to announce new sponsor Saturday, new manufacturer Tuesday

The 2011 NHRA Funny Car champ, Hagan was second-fastest in qualifying at 4.044 seconds at 318.02 mph. Hagan still leads Force by 36 points.

In Top Fuel, Crampton shot to the top of the qualifying ladder with a stout run of 3.764 seconds at 322.42 mph. If he can hold on to the top spot after Saturday’s final two rounds of qualifying, Crampton will earn the first No. 1 qualifying spot of his career.

“It’s pretty exciting to leave here Friday night sitting on the top of the ladder,” Crampton said. “We’ve done that before but ended up getting bumped on Saturday.

“We’ll see how tomorrow pans out. I think we are going to have fantastic weather to lend itself to some great elapsed times. We will see how we do.”

Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champ Larry Dixon was the second-fastest Friday (3.766 seconds at 326.71 mph). It was announced earlier this week that Dixon, who has been running part-time this season for Bob Vandergriff Racing, will assume a full-time driving role next season as team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. steps aside to focus solely on his ownership duties.

In Pro Stock, Enders-Stevens covered the 1,000-foot drag strip in 6.647 seconds at 208.01 mph. Enders-Stevens picked up three points Friday, but still trails points leader Jason Line by 32 points heading into Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions.

“Those baby points are going to matter,” Enders-Stevens said. “They’re very significant especially with as tight as Jason, myself and Dave [Connolly] are right now.

“We were really conservative the first session. If you look at our 60 foot time, we were ninth and then went straight to the top of the page. We’ll throw something at it tomorrow and see what happens.”

Defending Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin was second-quickest Friday (6.653 seconds at 207.69 mph).

And in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Savoie, who earned his first career win in the class last month at St. Louis, roared to the top of the heap with a run of 6.946 seconds at 192.55 mph.

“We struggled at the first of the year,” Savoie said. “Fuel injection is a really funny thing. It can help you and it can hurt you. Beginning of the year we were hurting and now it’s helped. It’s a good thing, we’ve been blessed.”

Michael Ray was second-fastest in PSM (6.956 seconds at 193.82 mph).

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Top Fuel — 1. Richie Crampton, 3.764 seconds, 322.42 mph; 2. Larry Dixon, 3.766, 326.71; 3. Doug Kalitta, 3.772, 322.81; 4. Tony Schumacher, 3.784, 326.63; 5. Shawn Langdon, 3.787, 320.66; 6. Spencer Massey, 3.802, 325.45; 7. Leah Pritchett, 3.806, 317.42; 8. Billy Torrence, 3.809, 326.24; 9. Steve Torrence, 3.820, 323.04; 10. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.824, 313.95; 11. J.R. Todd, 3.833, 322.58; 12. T.J. Zizzo, 3.835, 316.15.  Not Qualified: 13. Troy Buff, 3.836, 309.77; 14. Brittany Force, 3.893, 314.90; 15. Clay Millican, 3.934, 306.46; 16. Noah Stutz, 3.970, 298.14; 17. Antron Brown, 3.976, 248.98; 18. Bob Vandergriff, 3.988, 302.82; 19. Terry McMillen, 4.218, 206.76; 20. Steve Faria, 4.357, 203.52; 21. Steven Chrisman, 5.003, 153.58; 22. Kebin Kinsley, 6.104, 107.53.

Funny Car — 1. John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.039, 318.54; 2. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.044, 318.02; 3. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.045, 318.84; 4. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.058, 318.62; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.065, 311.41; 6. Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, 4.076, 308.35; 7. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.089, 316.52; 8. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.090, 311.13; 9. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.122, 310.55; 10. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.145, 290.69; 11. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.147, 306.88; 12. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.160, 309.13.  Not Qualified: 13. Cruz Pedregon, 4.164, 294.05; 14. Tony Pedregon, 4.192, 278.98; 15. Paul Lee, 4.273, 279.73; 16. Terry Haddock, 4.309, 284.33; 17. John Bojec, 4.415, 232.51; 18. Jeff Diehl, 4.536, 199.58; 19. Jon Capps, 4.790, 194.72.

Pro Stock — 1. Erica Enders-Stevens, Chevy Camaro, 6.647, 208.01; 2. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.653, 207.69; 3. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.655, 207.75; 4. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.655, 207.72; 5. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.659, 207.59; 6. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.662, 207.62; 7. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.667, 206.92; 8. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.670, 207.15; 9. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.671, 207.46; 10. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.676, 207.43; 11. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.683, 206.86; 12. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.696, 207.85.  Not Qualified: 13. Matt Hartford, 6.698, 206.32; 14. Larry Morgan, 6.731, 205.38; 15. Aaron Stanfield, 6.746, 204.79; 16. Deric Kramer, 6.794, 203.31; 17. Steve Schmidt, 6.930, 199.64; 18. Jeff Isbell, 6.944, 196.56.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.946, 192.55; 2. Michael Ray, Suzuki, 6.956, 193.82; 3. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.974, 193.02; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.979, 191.59; 5. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.989, 194.07; 6. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.992, 192.30; 7. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.010, 191.95; 8. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 7.015, 190.92; 9. Adam Arana, Buell, 7.016, 192.08; 10. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.025, 189.10; 11. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.035, 188.41; 12. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 7.040, 188.70.  Not Qualified: 13. John Hall, 7.048, 190.62; 14. Shawn Gann, 7.050, 188.38; 15. Freddie Camarena, 7.057, 191.67; 16. Steve Johnson, 7.080, 189.50; 17. Scotty Pollacheck, 7.099, 188.86; 18. Mike Berry, 7.104, 186.85; 19. Redell Harris, 7.115, 190.22; 20. Elvira Karlsson, 7.125, 183.74; 21. Angelle Sampey, 7.127, 187.05; 22. Rhett Lougheed, 7.413, 165.19; 23. Lance Bonham, 7.787, 172.94.

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Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500