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NHRA surprise: Enders switches to Dodge; Jeg Coughlin Jr. new teammate

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In a surprise move, Elite Motorsports and two-time defending Pro Stock championship driver Erica Enders will compete with Mopar muscle under the hood next season.

In addition, after appearing in only a handful of races in 2015, five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. has joined Enders as a teammate with Elite Motorsports and will return to full-time status in 2016 and will also be powered by Mopar.

Enders and Coughlin will both run Hemi-powered Dodge Darts in competition.

“The Mopar brand is excited to announce that two proven champions, Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., will fly the Mopar colors in the NHRA Pro Stock class next season,” Pietro Gorlier, Head of Parts and Service (Mopar), FCA – Global, said in a media release. “We couldn’t ask for greater competitors or brand ambassadors to represent us at the drag strip.”

Not only is the power under the hood a change for Enders and Coughlin, the entire Pro Stock class will undergo a number of significant changes.

Two of the most notable changes are the switch from carburetors to Electronic Fuel Injection, as well as the elimination of Pro Stock’s well-known hood scoops.

After becoming the first woman in Pro Stock history to earn a championship in 2014, Enders doubled-down in an even more dominant fashion in 2015.

Earning six wins in 2014, Enders then set a new record for female drivers for wins in 2015 with a series-high nine en route to her second consecutive Pro Stock crown.

Enders now has 21 career Pro Stock wins, second-most by a female driver in NHRA annals. Only Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Angelle Sampey has more career wins (41).

In a sense, it will be somewhat of a homecoming for Enders, who earlier in her career (2006-07) raced under the Mopar banner with Dodge power.

“We’re entering a new era of Pro Stock and it’s going to be awesome to take a new Mopar-powered Dodge Dart into 2016 and beyond,” Enders said in a release. “We won the last two championships with carburetors and now the goal is to win the first one with fuel injection.

“The Dart Pro Stock cars look awesome and I’m already very familiar with Mopar because I’ve driven for them in the past. It’s an honor and a privilege to represent them moving forward, along with my teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr.”

Coughlin earned his fifth and most recent Pro Stock championship in 2013, driving a Mopar-powered Dodge Dart. He will join Enders as a teammate with Elite Motorsports, driving the Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar Dodge Dart.

Coughlin has 76 wins in his NHRA career, including 58 in Pro Stock. He’s also the only driver in NHRA history to win in seven different classes: Pro Stock, Comp, Top Dragster, Super Gas, Super Stock, Stock and Super Comp.

He’s also the only driver in NHRA history to win in four different classes in the same season (1997: Pro Stock, Super Stock, Super Gas, and Comp) and the only driver in the pro ranks to win from every qualifying position, No. 1 to No. 16.

“The 2016 season is a turning point for the NHRA and the Pro Stock class,” Coughlin said in a media release. “We’re really looking forward to the upcoming challenges. … It will be a great next chapter in our careers.

“Also, I am looking forward to working beside one of the greatest drivers in the NHRA, Erica Enders, and the greatest crew, including Rick and Rickie Jones, Mark Ingersoll and Brian ‘Lump’ Self, all talented and championship-proven crew chiefs. It will be a great year for the entire Elite Motorsports team.”

Elite Motorsports will still have some connection with Chevrolet, as two other cars — those of Vincent Nobile and Drew Skillman — will continue to be powered by Chevy, according to a team source.

In other news, Mopar also announced that it has extended a long partnership with former two-time champion Matt Hagan and Don Schumacher Racing in the NHRA Funny Car class.

“We’re also very proud to once again partner with Don Schumacher Racing and work together to bring home a fourth NHRA Funny Car crown in six years,” Gorlier said.

Schumacher first raced a Mopar-powered Funny Car more than 40 years ago, and since becoming a team owner has fielded Mopar cars from 2003 to the present.

“We had our most successful season competing in Funny Cars in 2015, and much of the credit goes to Mopar and all of its engineers and technicians who developed the new 2015 Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car body that we used,” Schumacher said in a release.

DSR Funny Car drivers Hagan, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr., combined to place a Mopar car in 23 final rounds on the 24-race 2015 NHRA schedule. All four drivers not only combined for 15 wins, all four placed in the final top-five season standings, as well.

Hagan also set the quickest run in NHRA Funny Car history back in August at Brainerd, Minn.

The 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season opens Feb. 11-14 at the NHRA Winternationals, at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

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IndyCar: Which drivers need to start or continue comebacks in 2019?

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With the 2018 IndyCar Series season already far back in our rearview mirror, it’s not too soon to start looking ahead to the 2019 campaign, which begins on March 10 at St. Petersburg, Florida.

When you look at how 2018 ended up, several drivers either didn’t have the season they had hoped for and are looking to make big comebacks in 2019, or perhaps began comebacks in 2018 after prior difficult seasons.

Let’s take a look at who is due – or in some cases, overdue – for an even stronger season in 2019:

RYAN HUNTER-REAY: RHR isn’t overdue by any stretch, having started his “comeback” of sorts in 2018. His fourth-place season finish was his best in the series since winning the championship in 2012.

He also earned two wins – Belle Isle II and the season finale at Sonoma – his first visits to victory lane since winning twice in 2015.

Had it not been for three DNFs in the second half of the season, Hunter-Reay likely could have finished in the top 3 at season’s end.

It was good to see him come back into prominence after frustration the last two seasons (12th in 2016 and 9th in 2017).

Hunter-Reay still has several more good years in him and it would not be surprising to see him finish even higher in 2019 – and potentially once again being a championship contender.

SIMON PAGENAUD: After winning the championship in 2016 and finishing second in 2017, Pagenaud definitely had an off-season by his usual standards in 2018, finishing sixth in the IndyCar standings.

The French-born driver failed to win a race for the first time since 2015 and had just two podium finishes (also the most since 2015).

One of the most telling stats from what was a frustrating campaign is Pagenaud and the No. 22 led a total of just 31 laps across the 17-race 2018 season, the fewest laps led in a single season in his entire IndyCar career.

He also had the second-worst average per-race finish of his career (8.6), after having average finishes of 6.1 in his championship season and 5.3 in 2017.

Of course, looking at things from a glass half-full viewpoint, Pagenaud went from a winless and disappointing 11th place finish in 2015 to become champion in 2016. Could history repeat itself in 2019?

By all measures, 2018 was definitely an off season for Pagenaud. Look for him to make a significant comeback in 2019.

Or, to borrow a line Pagenaud said to teammate Josef Newgarden during their early 2018 season “autograph battle,” it’s your move, bro, for 2019.

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS: The French driver had perhaps the best comeback season of any driver in 2018.

When former CART champ Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan joined forces with Dale Coyne Racing just prior to the start of the 2018 season, Bourdais was the hand-picked driver to carry the DCR with Vasser-Sullivan banner.

Bourdais did not disappoint. He started the season with a win at St. Petersburg and enjoyed his best overall season finish – seventh – in an Indy car since capturing the fourth of four straight CART/Champ Car World Series championships in 2007.

It was also Bourdais’ best career IndyCar finish, topping his previous best season finishes of 10th in both 2014 and 2015.|

Bourdais, who turns 40 in late February, finished the season strong with two top 5 and two other top 10 finishes in four of the last five races. That’s a good harbinger of even better things to come in 2019.

GRAHAM RAHAL: It was a tough season at times for Rahal, who turns 30 in early January.

Not only did he have his worst season finish – eighth – since 2014 (19th), he failed to win even one race (also for the first time since 2014) and had just one podium finish (2nd at St. Petersburg).

As if to add insult to injury, Rahal had two of his three season DNFs in his final two races (4th lap crash at Portland and a battery issue at Sonoma).

Rahal is overdue for the kind of season he had in 2015, when he won two races, had six podiums and finished a career-best fourth in the overall standings.

While Rahal has the equipment and personnel to do better, something just didn’t click in 2018. Will things turn around in 2019?

MARCO ANDRETTI: The grandson of Mario and son of Michael Andretti continues to be a work in progress – with emphasis on the word “progress” when it came to his 2018 performance.

Although he remains winless since 2011 and hasn’t had a podium finish since 2015, Marco Andretti still showed overall improvement in 2018, including earning his first pole (Belle Isle I) since 2013.

With a fifth-place finish in the season-ending race at Sonoma, Andretti jumped from 12th in the standings to finish the season tied for eighth place with Graham Rahal, Andretti’s best overall showing since finishing fifth in 2013.

Andretti had a strong second half of the 2018 season, with a top 5 in the season finale at Sonoma, as well as three top 11 finishes in five of the last eight races.

Don’t be surprised if he closes in on a top 5 finish in 2019. Andretti Autosport continues to improve overall as a team, particularly with Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay and now Andretti, as well.

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE: It was a strange season for the Mayor of Hinchtown.

He failed to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, had just one win and two podium finishes, yet ended up with a 10th place overall finish in the standings, his best performance since finishing 8th in both 2012 and 2013.

The Canadian driver went on a hot streak early in the second half of the season, winning at Iowa and finishing fourth in his hometown race in Toronto.

But DNFs at Pocono and Portland, as well as three other finishes of 14th (Mid-Ohio) and 15th (Gateway and Sonoma) likely cost him a chance of potentially finishing as high as eighth.

There was also the emotional, gut-wrenching crash involving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate and longtime best friend, Robert Wickens, at Pocono. While Hinchcliffe tried to put on a happy face and showed support to his fallen mate, it wouldn’t be surprising if Wickens’ injury constantly dwelled on Hinchcliffe’s mind.

With the Indianapolis 500 heartbreak, the firing of engineer Lena Gade (who lasted just five races before her ouster), the injury to Wickens, and the overall second-half season struggles, Hinchcliffe is to be commended for finishing as high as he did in the final standings given the overall circumstances he had to endure.

At the same time, it’s likely a season he wants to wipe away from his memory bank and turn a forgettable season in 2018 into what Hinchcliffe and his team hope is an unforgettable season in 2019.

TONY KANAAN: A new team, new outlook and racing for legendary A.J. Foyt offered a great deal of promise for Tony Kanaan in 2018.

Unfortunately, the Brazilian native suffered through the worst season ever in his IndyCar career, finishing 16th in the overall standings.

Prior to 2018, Kanaan had experienced just one other season outside the top 10 (11th in 2013, the same year he won the Indianapolis 500).

Admittedly, TK, who turns 44 on December 31, is the oldest full-time driver on the circuit. But it doesn’t look like he’s lost much with age.

Rather, three DNFs and a career single-season low of having led just 20 laps over 17 races took its toll on Kanaan.

He will return for 2019, driving a second season for Foyt. But things have to dramatically improve for Kanaan, who hasn’t won a race since 2014.

Otherwise, whether he wants it to be that way or not, Kanaan could be doing a farewell tour in 2019 – and not have a choice about it.

Follow @JerryBonkowski