(Photos courtesy NHRA)

UPDATED — NHRA: Leah Pritchett, Dave Connolly back behind wheel at 4-Wide Nationals

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UPDATED Thursday, April 21, 12:40 p.m. ET:

Shortly after it was announced that Leah Pritchett and Dave Connolly would once again be racing this weekend, John Force, 16-time Funny Car champion and the winningest driver in NHRA history, exclusively told NBCSports.com  that he’s glad to see the duo back racing just over one week after being released by Bob Vandergriff Racing.

“Losing those two cars and Vandergriff was a big thing,” Force said. “He’s a big name, his dad was there in the early days with me.

“Pruett worked hard to put together a sponsorship and team with Vandergriff and then Connolly coming from Pro Stock, they’re both great drivers. We need them back.”

Force admits that even though things have improved on the sponsorship level, “It is hard times still. A lot of kids will take a sponsorship, even if it’s not enough to run a full season, to run for the championship and to try and find more money. It’s a seven day a week job. We need them in the sport.”

ORIGINAL STORY:

In just over a week’s time, NHRA Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett and Dave Connolly have gone from unemployed to back on track.

Pritchett and Connolly began the season racing for Bob Vandergriff Jr. Racing. That is, until April 11, when Vandergriff shocked the drag racing world by immediately folding his entire racing operation and retiring from the sport.

That left Pritchett, who had won her first career Top Fuel race at Phoenix on Feb. 28, and Connolly, who moved to Top Fuel in 2015 after several years in Pro Stock, scrambling for rides.

MORE: NHRA stunner: Bob Vandergriff retires, closes team effective immediately

Fortunately for both drivers, they have new rides heading into this weekend’s NHRA 4-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

Pritchett took to her web site to reveal the news that she will drive the Nitro Ninja Top Fuel dragster owned by the Lagana family in what for now is a one-time effort.

“It has been a whirlwind of a week, but continuation of my pursuit to compete in Top Fuel has been made possible by FireAde 2000 (primary sponsor), with joint efforts of longtime partners Boninfante Friction, Aerodine Composites (both associate sponsors), and of course the Lagana family.

“Having partners able to come in clutch at the last minute enables me to enter one more race at this time and will help me stay relevant in the NHRA Mello Yello Series Championship Point Standings.

“This will also buy me a bit more time to work on sufficient funding for the rest of the season to compete with a readily available team.

“Beyond working alongside and being close friends with the Laganas, I feel fortunate to bring the proper resources to their operation to compete at this event. Experiencing this portion of my journey with people I know, respect, and trust, makes this quick turnaround of a time, that much more rewarding.”

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As for Connolly (photo above), he will return to his Sportsman roots and drive a Top Sportsman dragster in this weekend’s 4-Wide Nationals, as well.

“If it has a steering wheel, the class title doesn’t matter to me,” Connolly told Bobby Bennett of CompetitionPlus.com. “It’s a real good car that I turned into a Big Block Chevy. I was building this car to have as a bracket car toward the end of the year and with the turn of events I get to hit the ignition key on it a little bit sooner than I expected, but that’s how it goes.”

Connolly holds no grudge against Vandergriff for pulling the plug so abruptly.

“Every racer out there has dealt with difficult situations, and I’ve dealt with issues like this before pretty much from 2007 on,” Connolly told Bennett. “I completely understand Bob’s position and the choices that he has made. The guy has done a lot for me, so there are no hard feelings in regards to him at all. He gave me a great opportunity.”

Like Pritchett, Connolly is racing his Sportsman car as a kind of fill-in while looking for a new full-time ride in Top Fuel or potentially any other class if an offer surfaces.

“Racing is what I have done the last 16 years of my life,” Connolly told Bennett. “It’s all I have known and done. I plan on staying involved whether it is tuning a car or driving a car, it doesn’t matter to me.

“You never know what the future holds, and I’m just keeping all doors open at the moment. There’s definitely a few irons in the fire, and we will see if any of them spark.”

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).