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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Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.