NHRA: John Force closes slightly on Matt Hagan in Funny Car, Erica Enders-Stevens adds to Pro Stock edge

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John Force cut two points off Matt Hagan’s lead in the Funny Car standings in Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying for Sunday’s season-ending and 50th anniversary AutoClub NHRA Finals at AutoClub Raceway in Pomona, California.

But Force still has a ways to go to overtake Hagan (pictured) and earn a record-extending 17th Funny Car championship. Hagan’s lead over Force shrank from 21 to 19 points after Friday.

There are two more rounds of qualifying Saturday, followed by the final four rounds of eliminations for the season on Sunday.

Tommy Johnson Jr. earned the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot with a run of 4.003 seconds at 317.34 mph.

“We were shooting for the threes (seconds),” Johnson said in an NHRA media release. “We had a tune up in there to run (a three-second time). We got close.

“I am having a good time, enjoying myself. The car’s running great. We have a very steady car that’s getting better and better. All season long we’ve got better. The team is starting to jell and the team chemistry is coming together.”

Ron Capps earned the No. 2 provisional qualifying spot (4.005/317.79), two-time champion Cruz Pedregon was No. 3 (4.011/311.77).

Force was the No. 4 qualifier (4.015 seconds at 316.60 mph), while Hagan was the No. 8 qualifier (4.063/314.83).

In the other closely-watched championship battle, in Pro Stock, points leader Erica Enders-Stevens added two points to what is now a 19-point advantage over Jason Line.

Enders-Stevens, who is attempting to become the first woman to ever win a NHRA Pro Stock championship, was second-fastest (6.526 seconds at 211.99 mph), just a tick behind provisional No. 1 qualifier Shane Gray (6.522 seconds at 211.26 mph).

Line qualified third (6.532/211.46), followed by Jeg Coughlin (6.538/211.13).

In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher is on target to clinch his record eighth championship, perhaps as early as during Saturday’s second day of qualifying.

But it was Doug Kalitta, who had led the Top Fuel standings for much of the regular season, who had the hottest speed in Friday’s qualifying, earning the provisional No. 1 spot with a run of 3.754 seconds at 326.87 mph.

Ironically, Kalitta was officially eliminated from championship contention Friday, even with the top elapsed time.

“The pressure is off, we’re just here to win this thing on Sunday,” Kalitta said. “It’s one of the best years we’ve had and we’ll keep at it. I’m real proud of my guys.

“There should be some good qualifying runs the rest of the weekend and it should be exciting for the fans. I love running at this place because it has so much history. We’ll try to qualify up front and let it all hang out on Sunday and see how it goes.”

Lastly, Hector Arana Jr. earned top qualifying honors in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a run of 6.832 seconds at 197.62 mph.

“It’s still not over since it is Friday,” Arana said. “There are a lot of bikes out there that can catch us. I still want to get a win since this is the last race of the season and finish on a good note.”

PSM points leader Andrew Hines qualified No. 3 (6.859/195.99) still maintains a 90-point edge over teammate and closest challenger for the championship, Eddie Krawiec, who qualified No. 2 on Friday (6.834/195.76).

The final two rounds of qualifying take place Saturday at 11:45 AM/PT and 2:45 PM/PT.


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Friday’s qualifying results:

Top Fuel — 1. Doug Kalitta, 3.754 seconds, 326.87 mph; 2. Spencer Massey, 3.770, 324.67; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.770, 323.81; 4. Antron Brown, 3.773, 318.62; 5. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.776, 322.58; 6. Larry Dixon, 3.786, 324.83; 7. Steve Torrence, 3.790, 324.83; 8. J.R. Todd, 3.790, 322.81; 9. Bob Vandergriff, 3.794, 321.42; 10. Billy Torrence, 3.805, 321.12; 11. Richie Crampton, 3.807, 319.82; 12. Morgan Lucas, 3.819, 272.34.  Not Qualified: 13. Terry McMillen, 3.827, 321.04; 14. Clay Millican, 3.830, 312.64; 15. Troy Buff, 3.852, 314.90; 16. Brittany Force, 3.856, 286.01; 17. Dom Lagana, 3.927, 286.19; 18. Steven Chrisman, 4.065, 284.75; 19. Jenna Haddock, 4.816, 151.14; 20. Shawn Langdon, 5.105, 139.86; 21. Steve Faria, 8.152, 71.09.

Funny Car — 1. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 4.003, 317.34; 2. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.005, 317.79; 3. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.011, 311.77; 4. John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.015, 316.60; 5. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.020, 314.39; 6. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.036, 317.87; 7. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.062, 314.97; 8. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.063, 314.83; 9. Chad Head, Camry, 4.078, 313.88; 10. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.126, 287.05; 11. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 4.196, 266.27; 12. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.199, 291.45.  Not Qualified: 13. Shane Westerfield, 4.229, 233.20; 14. Tony Pedregon, 4.259, 297.02; 15. John Bojec, 4.300, 287.78; 16. Jack Beckman, 4.409, 206.61; 17. Bob Bode, 4.465, 210.97; 18. Jon Capps, 4.837, 165.60; 19. Bob Tasca III, 7.495, 79.69; 20. Courtney Force, 8.095, 70.57; 21. Gary Densham, 8.348, 92.68; 22. Terry Haddock, 12.252, 77.59.

Pro Stock — 1. Shane Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.522, 211.39; 2. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.526, 211.99; 3. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.532, 211.46; 4. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.538, 211.13; 5. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.547, 211.49; 6. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.548, 210.70; 7. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.550, 211.03; 8. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.555, 211.46; 9. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.574, 210.37; 10. Matt Hartford, Pontiac GXP, 6.583, 210.67; 11. Larry Morgan, Ford Mustang, 6.583, 209.30; 12. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.589, 211.20.  Not Qualified: 13. Greg Stanfield, 6.600, 209.14; 14. Jeff Isbell, 6.747, 205.44; 15. Vincent Nobile, 6.785, 161.05; 16. Greg Anderson, 6.851, 163.89; 17. Joey Grose, 7.163, 194.21.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.832, 197.62; 2. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.834, 195.76; 3. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.859, 195.99; 4. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.863, 194.88; 5. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.888, 195.62; 6. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.27; 7. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.931, 192.49; 8. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.936, 193.24; 9. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.940, 188.89; 10. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.945, 192.17; 11. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.05; 12. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.966, 192.60.  Not Qualified: 13. Freddie Camarena, 6.968, 194.32; 14. Shawn Gann, 6.968, 191.57; 15. Elvira Karlsson, 6.970, 185.72; 16. Steve Johnson, 6.971, 188.86; 17. Michael Ray, 7.012, 177.88; 18. Rhett Lougheed, 7.076, 186.77; 19. Gert-Jen Laseur, 7.192, 180.45; 20. Bill Burkhart, 7.388, 180.16; 21. Lance Bonham, 7.455, 181.18; 22. Redell Harris, 11.459, 71.08.

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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