NHRA: After U.S. Nationals win, Chris McGaha sets sights on Pro Stock title

(Photos/video courtesy NHRA)
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Pro Stock driver Chris McGaha couldn’t have picked a better time for his first final round appearance of the season.

The Odessa, Texas native not only made it to the final round of the U.S. Nationals on Monday, he wound up winning the biggest race of his career against one of the toughest competitors in the class, former champion Allen Johnson (see video below).

“I’ve been here (at the U.S. Nationals) for five years,” McGaha said. “I finally got a round win here, and it felt good – and then to go on and get the win.”

In so doing, McGaha made it very clear that even though he enters the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs as the seventh seed in the field of 10, he’s in it to win it.

“We have to keep doing what we did (in Indianapolis),” McGaha said. “If we do that, we definitely have a shot at it.

“I’ve watched a lot of runs along the way. Between tire shaking and making bad calls and just like getting our butt kicked, we should be a lot higher. We’ve just got to keep winning.”

There’s no question the field will be tough. KB Motors’ Jason Line and Greg Anderson – who are ranked 1-2 heading into the Countdown – dominated the first half of the season, with Line winning seven times and Anderson six.

But both Anderson and Line worried that other teams would ultimately catch up – and they have, with McGaha and his Harlow Sammons Chevrolet Camaro being among several candidates that are ripe to challenge the KB supremacy for this season’s championship.

“I guarantee the KB guys, I know exactly what they’re thinking of right now, they’d probably rather have won this race than those others because now we’re going into the Countdown,” McGaha said. “They conceded that people are catching up. We’re making progress on race day. They don’t seem to have the dominance – they still have the cars – but they haven’t been as dominant on race day.”

In an ironic twist, McGaha made his NHRA Pro Stock debut at the 2011 U.S. Nationals. After missing the following year’s race due to weather issues, he’s been a stalwart there every year since – but never got as far as he did this past Monday.

329-ChrisMcGaha-MondayReax-Indy

And Monday’s win could send McGaha on a run like he took last season, when he won the first three races of his Pro Stock career at Sonoma (Calif.), Seattle and Maple Grove (Pa.).

McGaha, 37, is currently racing without a crew chief, which essentially doubles the work he does. He’s not only driving, he’s also overseeing all the mechanical work on the car, the setup and the never-ending quest for more horsepower, quicker elapsed times and faster speeds.

“We don’t have a crew chief, so we try to make the best call we can,” McGaha said. “I’m more of a power guy, so I’m always leaning on power. It’s always going to be power, you never have enough. Yes, I can tell if there’s something wrong with the car and we keep working on it.

“Some days I think it’s power and then I don’t. I may go over there and say I still need more power. It’s not enough. It’s like not having too much money or too many wins – you can never have enough.”

Doing both roles can be difficult, but because McGaha has had a history of being both a driver and crew chief for both himself and other teams, he seems to have it down to a science – and the results last year and now with his win at Indy, prove that.

“I’ve crew chiefed my car at different times before when we were between crew chiefs,” he said. “Actually, I go up there and it’s one more step to do. You do it and you go on.

“I really don’t go up there and think about my driving too much. I just go up there and let it happen. I don’t try to get all into it and worked up, I don’t have any special rituals – it’s just part of the steps of making the car go.”

And if he keeps up what he did at “the Big Go” (nickname for the U.S. Nationals), McGaha may very well keep going all the way to the championship six races from now.

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After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit

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DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”