Surprises, struggles: NHRA at one-third mark of ’15 season

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With the completion of the Kansas Nationals this past Sunday, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has reached the one-third point of the 2015 season.

Not surprisingly after eight races on the 24-race schedule, there have been some significant surprises and disappointments.

With this weekend off before the middle part of the season begins June 4-7 with the Toyota Summernationals at one of the most popular tracks on the circuit, Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., let’s break down the four major pro classes to see who’s hot and who’s not.

Top Fuel: Don Schumacher Racing has made a big statement in the first eight races. Teammates Antron Brown (1st), defending 2014 champ and eight-time champ Tony Schumacher (2nd) and Spencer Massey (4th) have been leading the way.

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Antron Brown leads the Top Fuel points standings. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

One of the biggest surprises is the driver sandwiched among the three DSR drivers, namely Australian native Richie Crampton. With his win at Kansas, Crampton is now up to 3rd in the standings.

Crampton (Las Vegas, Topeka) and Brown (Charlotte, Atlanta) are the only two-time winners thus far this season.

Shawn Langdon, racing for Alan Johnson Racing, is a respectable seventh in the standings, despite the fact the team had its sponsorship pulled by former benefactor Al-Anabi just a month before the start of the season. Langdon won the season-opening Circle K Winternationals in storybook fashion, but has trailed off of late.

As for drivers who have struggled, Brittany Force, who signed with Monster Energy three weeks ago, is sitting 11th and continues in search of her first career Top Fuel win.

And Dave Connolly and Terry McMillen are 13th and 14th respectively, certainly not off to the kind of season start either expected.

Race winners thus far this season:

Pomona: Shawn Langdon
Phoenix: Tony Schumacher
Gainesville: Spencer Massey
Charlotte: Antron Brown
Las Vegas: Richie Crampton
Houston: Doug Kalitta
Atlanta: Antron Brown
Topeka: Richie Crampton

Top Fuel standings
(Following event 8 of 24 events)
(Includes events through Topeka, Kan.)
Position  Driver   Points   PB   Change Make
1    Antron Brown  628 0 DSR
2    Tony Schumacher  575 -53 DSR
3    Richie Crampton  547 -81 MLR
4    Spencer Massey  530 -98 DSR
5    Doug Kalitta  502 -126 Hadman
6    Larry Dixon  476 -152 Hadman
7    Shawn Langdon  473 -155 Hadman
8    J.R. Todd  411 -217 Hadman
9    Clay Millican  395 -233 Hadman
10    Steve Torrence  392 -236 Hadman
Drivers that have struggled thus far this season:
11    Brittany Force 384 -244 Force
12    Leah Pritchett 315 -313 Hadman
13    Dave Connolly 274 -354 Hadman
14    Terry Mc Millen 228 -400 MLR
15    Troy Buff 126 -502 Bill Miller

 

Funny Car: It’s a very tight battle in the Funny Car ranks as we head into the middle third of the season.

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Ron Capps is the current points leader in Funny Car. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Three drivers have won six of the first eight races – two each: Defending 2014 champ Matt Hagan (Pomona, Phoenix), Jack Beckman (Charlotte, Topeka) and Ron Capps (Gainesville, Houston).

The resurgent Capps is off to one of the best season starts of his career and holds the points lead in the standings. But Hagan is only five points back and Beckman, with former John Force crew chief Jimmy Prock, is 49 points behind Capps.

Perhaps the biggest positive surprise is series veteran Del Worsham. Even though he hasn’t won a race yet in 2015, Worsham is in fourth place in the standings, 73 points behind Capps and just five points ahead of fifth-ranked and 16-time Funny Car champ John Force, who has just one win this season (Las Vegas) thus far.

Force’s daughter, Courtney, is having a difficult time of it this season, currently ranked 11th. But perhaps having the toughest time among the top 15 drivers in the Funny Car ranks is former champion Tony Pedregon, who is 14th in the standings, already a massive 325 points behind Capps.

Race winners thus far this season:

Pomona: Matt Hagan
Phoenix: Matt Hagan
Gainesville: Ron Capps
Charlotte: Jack Beckman
Las Vegas: John Force
Houston: Ron Capps
Atlanta: Tim Wilkerson
Topeka: Jack Beckman

Funny Car standings:
Position  Driver   Points   PB   Change Make
1    Ron Capps  580 0
2    Matt Hagan  575 -5
3    Jack Beckman  531 -49
4    Del Worsham  507 -73
5    John Force  502 -78
6    Robert Hight  460 -120
7    Tommy Johnson  456 -124
8    Tim Wilkerson  447 -133
9    Alexis De Joria  395 -185
9    Cruz Pedregon  395 -185
 Drivers that have struggled thus far this season:
11    Courtney Force 388 -192
12    John Hale 369 -211
13    Chad Head 347 -233
14    Tony Pedregon 255 -325
15    Jeffrey Diehl 82 -498

 

Pro Stock: Although she got off to a slow start at the beginning of the season, 2014 Pro Stock champ Erica Enders has rallied back to become the hottest driver not just in Pro Stock of late, but in all four major NHRA pro categories.

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Erica Enders leads the Pro Stock standings. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Enders (who recently shortened her name from Enders-Stevens for business reasons) has won three of the last four Pro Stock national events (Las Vegas, Houston and Topeka).

As a result, she’s taken a commanding lead over 2nd-ranked Jason Line (58 points back) and 3rd-ranked Greg Anderson (65 points back).

After that, Enders spread over the rest of the field gets massive: 4th-ranked Chris McGaha is 177 points back, while 5th-ranked and Phoenix winner Rodger Brogdon is 226 points in arrears.

It’s good to see veteran drivers like Anderson and Larry Morgan having comeback seasons. Both earned victories this season (Anderson at Gainesville, Morgan at Charlotte) after long dry spells in their careers.

One big name missing from the Pro Stock class is five-time champion Jeg Coughlin, who announced earlier this year that he will not compete on a full-time basis.

This is the second time Coughlin has taken a hiatus from NHRA racing, having sat out the entire 2011 season, as well.

As for drivers who have struggled thus far in 2015, the most notable names are 11th-ranked Jonathan Gray (364 points behind Enders) and 12th-ranked V Gaines (425 points back).

Race winners thus far this season:

Pomona: Jason Line
Phoenix: Rodger Brogdon
Gainesville: Greg Anderson
Charlotte: Larry Morgan
Las Vegas: Erica Enders
Houston: Erica Enders
Atlanta: Jason Line
Topeka: Erica Enders

Pro Stock standings:
Position  Driver   Points   PB   Change Make
1    Erica Enders  719 0
2    Jason Line  661 -58
3    Greg Anderson  654 -65
4    Chris McGaha  542 -177
5    Rodger Brogdon  493 -226
6    Larry Morgan  452 -267
7    Drew Skillman  424 -295
8    Vincent Nobile  421 -298
9    Shane Gray  401 -318
10    Allen Johnson  369 -350
 Drivers that have struggled thus far this season:
11    Jonathan Gray 355 -364
12    V Gaines 294 -425
13    Jimmy Alund 250 -469
14    Deric Kramer 155 -564
15    John Gaydosh 93 -626
15    Joey Grose 93 -626
15    Matthew Hartford 93 -626

 

Pro Stock Motorcycle: Because PSM riders compete in a 16-race schedule, there have only been three races to date. The majority of events (13 will be contested at all but three of the remaining NHRA national event weekends) start with next week’s Summernationals.

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Eddie Krawiec leads the way in Pro Stock Motorcycle. (Photo courtesy NHRA)

Thus far, the competition has been spread fairly even, with different winners in each of the first three races.

Not surprisingly, those three winners are all in the top five in the PSM points standings.

Former champ Eddie Krawiec, who won at Charlotte in late March holds a 74-point lead over defending series champ Andrew Hines. Hines has yet to win an event this season.

Veteran driver Hector Arana Sr., who is ranked third, 85 points behind Krawiec, won his first race since 2009 at Atlanta. Six points behind the senior Arana is his son, Hector Arana Jr., who like Hines is also seeking his first win of 2015.

Rounding out the top five is Karen Stoffer, who shocked the category by winning the season-opening race at Gainesville in March.

Race winners thus far this season:

Gainesville: Karen Stoffer
Charlotte: Eddie Krawiec
Atlanta: Hector Arana Sr.

Pro Stock Motorcycle standings:
Position  Driver   Points   PB   Change Make
1    Eddie Krawiec   286 0
2    Andrew Hines   212 -74
3    Hector Arana   201 -85
4    Hector Arana Jr   195 -91
4    Karen Stoffer   195 -91
6    Scott Pollacheck   175 -111
7    LE Tonglet IV  165 -121
8    Angelle Sampey   161 -125  Star Racing
9    Shawn Gann   155 -131
10    James Underdahl   128 -158
Riders that have struggled thus far this season:
11    Matt Smith 125 -161  Victory
12    Angie Smith 112 -174  Victory
13    Chaz Kennedy 93 -193
14    Mike Berry 92 -194
15    Gerald Savoie 78 -208

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Previous F1 competition doesn’t guarantee IndyCar success at COTA

Manor F1 Photo
Manor F1 Photo
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AUSTIN, Texas – Familiarity does not breed success, according to three NTT IndyCar Series drivers who have previous experience at Circuit of the Americas in the Formula One United States Grand Prix. Several other drivers, including IndyCar Series rookie Patricio O’Ward, competed in the LMPC IMSA race in 2017.

Although the course is the same – 20-turns and 3.41-miles – the cars are completely different. The highly-advanced, technologically-driven Formula One cars are advanced beyond the realm of anything allowed in the NTT IndyCar Series. It’s more about the driver in IndyCar, which uses an impressive, but simpler formula to help showcase driver skill more than technology in its races.

Money buys speed in Formula One, but an IndyCar team doesn’t need a $400 million budget to go racing. It can get by on $5 millions to $10 million a year and contend for plenty of race victories and championships.

Andretti Autosport star Alexander Rossi drove in five Formula One races with Manor in 2015. The above photo is from his only F1 contest at COTA that season. He was the first driver ever to turn laps at COTA shortly after it was constructed in 2012.

Rossi had his best F1 finish in the 2015 United States Grand Prix when he started 17thand finished 12th.

“When I’ve come here in the past, I came into the weekend fully knowing that there was no chance to ever really do anything from a results perspective,” Rossi said. “To could come here to a track that I’ve spent a lot of time at, not necessarily driven a whole lot, but spent a huge amount of time at. To come into this weekend’s race, competing on a level where we have as good a shot as any, to win the race would be pretty cool.

“There’s kind of an almost unfinished business box that we’d like to tick here in some way. I’m very excited to get the weekend started.”

Chilton raced the entire F1 season in 2013 and 2014 with Marussia. He started 21stand finished 21stin 2013. He started in the first 16 races during the 2014 F1 season but was out of a ride by the time F1 arrived at COTA that season.

Me and Alex probably had pretty similar experiences,” Chilton told NBC Sports.com “Obviously the more laps are better — but the car we were in, we weren’t doing much racing, so the sort of racing experience part isn’t going to help.

“It’s good to be back. I first came here in 2013 for the (United States) Grand Prix. I loved the track. I love the city. I really enjoyed the whole facility, the race track. It’s a pretty long track in an Indy car but it’s got lots of overtaking potential for us and hopefully we’ll put on a great show.

“It’s great to have an English band like Muse on Saturday night, as well.”

Marcus Ericsson of Sweden has the most experience at COTA of any driver in the field for Sunday’s INDYCAR Classic. He competed in 97 F1 contests from 2014-2018 before becoming an IndyCar rookie with Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports this season.

Ericsson was 15thin 2015, 14thin 2016, 15thin 2017 and 10thin last year’s USGP.

“I’ve been here quite a few times,” Ericsson said. “It’s one of the best tracks on F1 and I think it’s great we are going here with INDYCAR. It’s going to be a great weekend.

“The racing should be very good. It’s already good on F1 on this track and from what I’ve done in INDYCAR, it’s going to be a really good show from everyone and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Ericsson emphasized that the his F1 experience does not necessarily give him any type of advantage in an IndyCar.

“I think for me I was here a couple months ago in F1 doing the race in ’18. I had all my reference points and then I did the first run and realized that didn’t really work,” Ericsson explained to NBC Sports.com “So I don’t know that the experience — it’s good to know the track, but then the Indy cars are very different cars to the F1 (car) so you have to sort of drive it quite differently and in the end, I think it didn’t really help the maximum amount in my opinion.

“The problem is we had two days of testing already in IndyCar. If we had come here straightaway without any testing it would be an advantage of one hundredth approximate. But now, if you don’t get the track in two days, I don’t think you would be in IndyCar.

“I don’t think it’s a big advantage now going into the weekend.”

But every little bit helps and if all of those little “bits” of information are added up, previous experience can provide a benefit in the race.

“For sure there’s things I can bring from my experience there that helps in INDYCAR, but the Indy car to drive today is different than the Formula One cars with the power steering and everything,” Ericsson continued. “I think it’s two different cars and what I found here on the test; things that worked in the F1 car didn’t really work in the Indy car. I think both cars of very difficult to be fast in but in different ways.

“For sure my experience in F1, it’s helped me to get into INDYCAR.”

James Hinchcliffe, who has never driven in Formula One, or at COTA, believes he has the best experience of any driver in Austin this weekend.

“I know where the restaurants are, so that’s cool,” Hinchcliffe said.