NHRA: Schumacher clinches 8th Top Fuel championship; Funny Car, Pro Stock and Motorcycle to be decided Sunday

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Tony Schumacher is a firm believer in not putting off until tomorrow what he can do today.

Schumacher didn’t wait until Sunday’s final eliminations of the season-ending and 50th anniversary AutoClub NHRA Finals at AutoClub Raceway.

Rather, the suburban Chicago native took care of wrapping up his record eighth NHRA Top Fuel championship during Saturday’s final day of qualifying.

Clinching his first championship since 2009, Schumacher earned enough points by qualifying ninth to put the crown out of reach of his closest challenger, Spencer Massey.

“It is much more difficult now than it ever has been,” Schumacher said in a NHRA media release. He has won championships in 1999, 2004 through 2009 and now 2014, making him the most successful Top Fuel pilot in NHRA history.

“The key to winning these (championships) is to come on at the right time,” Schumacher said. “This is a great sport but there is some luck involved. You’ve got to fight the battle and like (drag racing legend John) Force says, ‘You’ve got to be part of the battle to win it.’ ”

Australian native and rookie Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of 2014 heading into Sunday’s final eliminations with a run of 3.711 seconds at 316.30 mph. Crampton is seeking his third victory of the season.

“I came here as a spectator to this race in 1999 and sat in the grandstands with my family,” Crampton said. “I was just in awe of the sport, lining up to get autographs from the drivers.

“To be in this position now is just a dream come true. I am probably the most spoiled rookie in the history of NHRA because I race with a team that gives me such great equipment. Just like Indy (he won this year’s U.S. Nationals in Top Fuel), this is a huge race where we wanted to do well. It’s looking good so far and hopefully it will translate into some round wins tomorrow.”

In Funny Car, Alexis DeJoria earned the No. 1 qualifying spot with a run of 3.998 seconds at 311.41 mph.

“To be No. 1 right now is great for our whole team, and they’re hungry,” said DeJoria, who is seeking her fourth win of the season on Sunday. “I’m so excited and it’s with a three-second run. It was an incredible session. It’s great to be a part of it.”

But the real attention is on the battle for the championship between defending and 16-time champ John Force and arch-rival Matt Hagan.

After slightly closing the gap on Hagan during Friday’s qualifying, Force slipped back slightly after Saturday’s final two qualifying rounds. Hagan now leads Force by 23 points heading into Sunday’s final eliminations.

That’s why it’s crucial for both Hagan and Force not to make any mistakes and to make it to the final round, and ultimately win the race.

Force has his work cut out for himself. He needs to advance two rounds more than Hagan to win his 17th Funny Car title. Hagan is seeking his second career title, having won in 2011.

In the other closely watched championship battle, Jason Line earned his 38th career No. 1 qualifying spot in Pro Stock (6.517 seconds at 212.19 mph), but still trails points leader Erica Enders-Stevens by 19 points.

Enders-Stevens, who qualified third, is seeking to become the first female to ever win an NHRA Pro Stock championship.

“The way the (elimination) ladder worked out, it should set up for a phenomenal day (Sunday) if she and I race in the final,” Line said of Enders-Stevens. “Whoever wins that would win the championship.

“This is a cool place. This is where champions are crowned. I’ve always said I like (the season-opening race at) Pomona at the beginning of the year because you’re ready to get back to racing, and at the end of the year (the season finale) you’re done, you’re worn out. I have one more day before I’m worn out, though.”

Hector Arana Jr. earned his third No. 1 qualifying position (6.832 seconds/197.62 mph) and will lead the way in Pro Stock Motorcycle in Sunday’s eliminations.

However, the real show will be for the PSM championship. Andrew Hines leads teammate Eddie Krawiec by a fairly stout 89 points. If Hines wins his first round elimination race, regardless of what Krawiec does, Hines will earn his fourth career NHRA PSM world championship.

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Sunday’s first-round elimination pairings:

Top Fuel — 1. Richie Crampton, 3.711 seconds, 325.45 mph vs. 16. Troy Buff, 3.834, 314.90; 2. Antron Brown, 3.720, 322.58 vs. 15. Clay Millican, 3.825, 312.64; 3. Morgan Lucas, 3.738, 323.35 vs. 14. Billy Torrence, 3.799, 321.12; 4. Doug Kalitta, 3.745, 328.30  vs. 13. Steve Torrence, 3.790, 324.83; 5. J.R. Todd, 3.745, 325.06  vs. 12. Bob Vandergriff, 3.774, 321.42; 6. Spencer Massey, 3.748, 326.48  vs. 11. Shawn Langdon, 3.768, 323.50; 7. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.751, 325.85 vs. 10. Dom Lagana, 3.763, 322.42; 8. Larry Dixon, 3.760, 327.03  vs. 9. Tony Schumacher, 3.761, 323.81. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry McMillen, 3.836, 321.04; 18. Brittany Force, 3.917, 306.26; 19. Steve Faria, 4.064, 286.38; 20. Steven Chrisman, 4.220, 284.75; 21. Jenna Haddock, 4.440, 216.65.

Funny Car — 1. Alexis DeJoria, Toyota Camry, 3.998, 314.39  vs. 16. Gary Densham, Chevy Impala, 4.136, 306.46; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 4.003, 317.34  vs. 15. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.134, 306.12; 3. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.005, 318.02  vs. 14. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.126, 287.05; 4. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.011, 311.77  vs. 13. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.102, 313.73; 5. John Force, Mustang, 4.015, 316.60  vs. 12. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.072, 312.93; 6. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.016, 319.60  vs. 11. Chad Head, Camry, 4.070, 313.88; 7. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.029, 313.29  vs. 10. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.062, 314.97; 8. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.036, 317.87  vs. 9. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.055, 316.60. Did Not Qualify: 17. Jeff Diehl, 4.196, 266.27; 18. John Bojec, 4.235, 298.47; 19. Jon Capps, 4.693, 187.34; 20. Shane Westerfield, 5.107, 233.20; 21. Terry Haddock, 8.246, 84.68; 22. Bob Bode, 18.203, 721.92.

Pro Stock — 1. Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.517, 212.19  vs. 16. Jeff Isbell, Camaro, 6.724, 206.80; 2. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.522, 211.79  vs. 15. Greg Stanfield, Camaro, 6.601, 209.39; 3. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.526, 212.03  vs. 14. Larry Morgan, Ford Mustang, 6.583, 209.85; 4. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.534, 211.89  vs. 13. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.577, 211.43; 5. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.538, 211.96  vs. 12. Matt Hartford, Pontiac GXP, 6.562, 211.06; 6. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.539, 211.33  vs. 11. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.550, 211.36; 7. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.543, 211.83  vs. 10. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.548, 211.00; 8. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.547, 211.89  vs. 9. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.547, 211.73. Did Not Qualify: 17. Joey Grose, 6.948, 198.85.

Pro Stock Motorcycle — 1. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.832, 197.62  vs. 16. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.974, 194.63; 2. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.834, 195.76  vs. 15. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.962, 191.57; 3. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.842, 195.99  vs. 14. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.05; 4. Matt Smith, Buell, 6.863, 195.17  vs. 13. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.945, 192.17; 5. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.884, 193.02  vs. 12. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.940, 191.40; 6. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.888, 195.62  vs. 11. Elvira Karlsson, Suzuki, 6.937, 190.73; 7. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.924, 193.68  vs. 10. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.936, 195.31; 8. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.931, 192.49  vs. 9. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.933, 193.60. Did Not Qualify: 17. Redell Harris, 7.055, 189.82; 18. Rhett Lougheed, 7.092, 186.77; 19. Gert-Jen Laseur, 7.114, 183.15; 20. Lance Bonham, 7.344, 181.62; 21. Bill Burkhart, 7.490, 181.13; 22. Michael Ray, 10.856, 177.88.

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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.