(Photos: Toyota Racing)

NHRA: Is 2016 finally going to be Doug Kalitta’s year?

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JOLIET, Illinois – Doug Kalitta is used to success in life.

He owns and operates one of the biggest air charter services in the world. Before he switched to drag racing, he was one of the best sprint car and midget car racers, including winning the 1994 USAC sprint car championship.

And since he switched to NHRA drag racing in 1998 as a Top Fuel driver, he’s gone on to considerable accomplishments, including ranking fourth in all-time Top Fuel wins (41).

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But for all the success he’s enjoyed, Kalitta is still chasing a dream: winning that elusive first NHRA Top Fuel championship.

He’s come close, finishing runner-up in 2003, 2004 and 2006, but he’s never been able to put that No. 1 on the side of his Mac Tools/Red Line Oil Toyota dragster.

But that elusive championship may finally be well within the Ann Arbor, Michigan native’s reach.

Kalitta comes into this weekend’s K&N Route 66 Nationals at Route 66 Raceway at one of the best places he’s ever been in the straight-line game.

The nephew of legendary NHRA team owner Connie Kalitta has been nothing short of stellar in 2016. In the first 12 races thus far this season, Doug Kalitta has dominated Top Fuel.

He leads the Top Fuel ranks in wins (3), poles (3), semi-final finishes or better (9) and has advanced past the first round in 11 of events.

He also was the fastest in Friday’s two rounds of qualifying, with a speed of 330.23 mph.

“We’re qualifying good, going rounds and winning, all which we’re real proud of,” Kalitta told NBCSports.com Friday at Route 66 Raceway. “As competitive as it is out here, you try not to get too overconfident, but we’ve definitely got some good momentum and we’re feeling good about it.”

If he continues in the second half of the season what he’s done in the first half, it’s very possible Kalitta will finally shed the unofficial title of “best Top Fuel driver never to win a title.”

“That’s what’s in all of our heads, that’s our focus,” Kalitta said. “It’s obviously what we’re thinking. We’ve been here a few times and this is an incredible opportunity for me this year with Mac Tools, Red Line Oil, Toyota and all my guys.

“At the end of the day, we just have to go one round at a time. Everything is clicking here, so we’re very hopeful we can stay running towards the front and be there at the end of the season.”

Kalitta’s success this season is not a total surprise. He has built upon a surge late last season and carried it over into 2016.

But what is a surprise is Kalitta is doing so well in the first Top Fuel chassis ever built in-house at Kalitta Motorsports.

“We’re keeping the momentum we had from the end of last year,” he said. “We’re just continuing to build on what we’re doing.

“We’ve started running our in-house chassis; we’re pretty proud of those things. So we’re hoping there’s an advantage with all that. Everybody’s doing an incredible job with everything, just all the preparation and detail that goes in to keeping these things all together.

“It’s just a good overall team effort. Jim Oberhofer, my crew chief, has been out here doing this forever and it’s a real passion for all of us, but he’s doing a great job. We’re trying real hard and it’s been a lot of fun. We’re going rounds and competing for the win, so it’s been going good.

In addition to being No. 1, Kalitta is in a different sort of position than he usually in: instead of chasing his rivals, they’re chasing him now.

“It’s good having those guys chasing us,” Kalitta said. “It’s just real competitive out here. There’s just a number of cars out here that are running good, including ours, so we’re just looking forward to being in Chicago, which we love running here. We always get a lot of fan and family support. It should be a good weekend.

“Obviously, we have to get to Indy before they reset the points. Hopefully we’ll still be No. 1 and we’ll end up with 30 additional points going into the Countdown (the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff to determine the season champion). That’s our goal.”

And there’s one other goal. In addition to winning the championship for himself, Kalitta wants to win it for Uncle Connie.

“Yeah, that’s the goal, for sure,” Doug Kalitta said. “It’s cool to see his passion for this sport for as many years as he’s been out here.

“Trust me, he’s really gunning for us to win the thing. It certainly would be great to do so for Connie, our family, friends and fans. We’d have one heck of a celebration party.”

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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”