NHRA: With Countdown looming, teams’ playoff hopes are in high gear

(Photo courtesy NHRA)
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As the annual Western Swing concludes this weekend in suburban Seattle, a number of NHRA teams are feeling confident, while others are likely losing a lot of sleep at night.

Including Seattle, three races remain for drivers to qualify for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship – Seattle, Brainerd (Minnesota) and the biggest race of the year, the legendary U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day Weekend (only two for Pro Stock Motorcycle — Brainerd and Indianapolis).

The Countdown is a six-race playoff that will determine the eventual 2016 champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

A total of 10 drivers/riders in each class will qualify for the Countdown in each respective class.

And while there indeed are still three races to make the Countdown, this weekend’s ProtectTheHarvest.com Northwest Nationals could very likely be a must-win for a number of drivers if they hope to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Let’s break down each of those four classes and determine who needs to do what:

TOP FUEL: Defending champion Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, Steve Torrence and Brittany Force have all clinched Countdown berths. Eight-time champion and the winningest driver in Top Fuel history, Tony Schumacher, is also fairly safe to make the Countdown.

2016_Leah_Pritchett headshot

Likely to make it but not a certainty are J.R. Todd, Shawn Langdon and Richie Crampton.


The biggest question marks are Clay Millican (currently ninth in the standings), Leah Pritchett (10th) and Terry McMillen (11th), who are all on the bubble to make the playoffs.

And while he’ll likely not make the Countdown – although we’d love to see it – we still have to give big props to veteran driver Chris Karamesines, who at the age of 84, is currently ranked 15th, his highest ranking in Top Fuel since finishing 15th in 2002.

Yes, you read that right. The man known as “The Golden Greek” is indeed 84 years old, and has been racing for approximately 65 years.

FUNNY CAR: In the 50th year of Funny Car competition in the NHRA, drivers aren’t laughing – they’re dead serious to make the Countdown.

Already locked in: points leader Ron Capps, Courtney Force, Jack Beckman and defending Funny Car champ Del Worsham.

John Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history (16 championships, 145 race wins), will likely clinch a berth in the Countdown this weekend at Seattle.

Force is also going for only the second Western Swing sweep in NHRA history – after winning at Denver and Sonoma, he just needs to win at Seattle to duplicate what he did back in 1994, the only driver in Funny Car to do so.

Alexis DeJoria
Alexis DeJoria

Matt Hagan and Robert Hight, who are both tied for sixth heading to Seattle, will likely make the Countdown, as well.

But after that, the water gets murky. Tommy Johnson Jr. (ranked eighth) and Tim Wilkerson (ranked ninth) are still in contention. Alexis DeJoria (ranked 10th), who suffered a fractured pelvis at Sonoma this past Sunday, not only is questionable to race at Seattle, but also to make the Countdown.

If she misses this weekend and potentially another race or two, DeJoria’s playoff chances are just about done.

The biggest name who needs to make up the largest amount of ground in the three remaining races to qualify for the Countdown is two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon.

Pedregon has struggled terribly this season. In the first 15 races, he’s failed to get past the first round of eliminations 12 times. He comes to Seattle ranked 12th in the standings, 198 points out of the 10th and final qualifying spot.

The only other Funny Car driver who has a potential chance to make the Countdown, particularly if DeJoria misses one or more races, is 11th ranked Chad Head, who is 150 points behind DeJoria heading to Seattle.

PRO STOCK: Teammates Greg Anderson, Jason Line and Bo Butner are all locked into the Countdown, as is Allen Johnson.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. is seeking his sixth career Pro Stock championship.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. is seeking his sixth career Pro Stock championship.

But from there, it gets rather dicey: A total of 184 points separate fifth-ranked Vincent Nobile and 10th-ranked Alex Laughlin (in-between are Drew Killman, Shane Gray, Chris McGaha and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr.).

Two-time defending Pro Stock champ Erica Enders is just nine points out of 10th place. Enders has struggled all season to find consistency, horsepower and speed. She’s been a first-round loser in 10 of the first 15 races, and has yet to get past the quarterfinals in any race.

Unless Coughlin or Laughlin falter, Enders’ team needs to find some additional speed and to go at least two to three rounds in each of the three remaining pre-Countdown races. Otherwise, it’s not looking promising for Enders to make the playoffs — and with it would go her hopes of three consecutive Pro Stock championships.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Eddie Krawiec, five-time and defending PSM champ Andrew Hines, Angelle Sampey and Jerry Savoie are all locked into the Countdown.

Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson is on the bubble to make the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
Veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Steve Johnson is on the bubble to make the NHRA Countdown to the Championship.

With the two-wheelers not competing this weekend (their next race is Aug. 18-21 at Brainerd, Minn.), that leaves just two races left for six other riders to make the Countdown.

Sonoma winner L.E. Tonglet, Hector Arana and Chip Ellis (ranked fifth through seventh) are likely to make the Countdown.

But from there, it’s a tossup which of the eight drivers remaining in contention will make the Countdown.

Just 116 points separates all eight drivers, starting with Matt Smith (eighth place) and James Underdahl (15th place).

The biggest battle right now is between Hector Arana Jr. (ninth), Steve Johnson (10th), Michael Ray (11th) and Karen Stoffer (12th). Just 69 points separate the four riders. Take Smith out of the equation and just 30 points separate Arana Jr., Johnson, Ray and Stoffer.

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IndyCar disappointed by delay of video game but aiming to launch at start of 2024

IndyCar video game 2024

An IndyCar executive said there is “absolutely” disappointment that its long-awaited video game recently was delayed beyond its target date, but the series remains optimistic about the new title.

“Well, I don’t know how quick it will be, but the whole situation is important to us,” Penske Entertainment president and CEO Mark Miles said during a news conference Monday morning to announce IndyCar’s NTT title sponsorship. “Motorsport Games has spent a lot of money, a lot of effort to create an IndyCar title. What we’ve seen of that effort, which is not completely obvious, is very reassuring.

“I think it’s going to be outstanding. That’s our shared objective, that when it is released, it’s just widely accepted. A great credit both to IndyCar racing, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, something that our fans love.”

In June 2021, IndyCar announced a new partnership with Motorsport Games to create and distribute an IndyCar video game for the PC and Xbox and PlayStation consoles in 2023.

But during an earnings call last week, Motorsport Games said the IndyCar game had been delayed to 2024 to ensure high quality.

Somewhat compounding the delay is that IndyCar’s license for iRacing expired after the end of the 2022 season because of its exclusive agreement with Motorsport Games.

That’s resulted in significant changes for IndyCar on iRacing, which had provided a high-profile way for the series to stay visible during its 2020 shutdown from the pandemic. (Players still can race an unbranded car but don’t race on current IndyCar tracks, nor can they stream).

That’s helped ratchet up the attention on having a video game outlet for IndyCar.

“I wish we had an IndyCar title 10 years ago,” said Miles, who has been working with the organization since 2013. “We’ve been close, but we’ve had these I think speed bumps.”

IndyCar is hopeful the Motorsports Game edition will be ready at the start of 2024. Miles hinted that beta versions could be unveiled to reporters ahead of the time “to begin to show the progress in a narrow way to make sure we’ve got it right, to test the progress so that we’re ready when they’re ready.”

It’s been nearly 18 years since the release of the most recent IndyCar video game for console or PC.

“(We) better get it right,” Miles said. “It’s something we’re very close to and continue to think about what it is to make sure we get it over the line in due course.”