NHRA: Antron Brown hopes bid for third Top Fuel title is easy as ABC

(Photos courtesy Toyota)
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Defending and two-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown likes to go by the nickname “AB.”

But as the NHRA begins its six-race playoff, the Countdown to the Championship, this weekend at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte, Brown may want to consider changing his nickname.

As in “ABC3” – otherwise known as Antron Brown Championship No. 3.

Brown enters this weekend’s NHRA Carolina Nationals prepared to repeat as Top Fuel season champion, and to earn his third career championship behind the wheel of a dragster in the last five seasons.

“I feel confident we can compete at the level that it takes to be there at the last race to have a chance to win this championship,” Brown said in an NHRA teleconference. “I’m very confident in that.”

After last year’s outstanding season – seven wins and the championship – there’s no question the New Jersey native (who now lives near Indianapolis) has kept things going and moving forward.

19-21 August, 2016, Brainerd, Minnesota USA Antron Brown, Matco Tools, top fuel ©2016, Mark J. Rebilas
19-21 August, 2016, Brainerd, Minnesota USA Antron Brown, Matco Tools, top fuel ©2016, Mark J. Rebilas

Throughout much of the first 18 races of 2016, the driver of the Matco Tools dragster has been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the Top Fuel standings.

He’s also won four races – Las Vegas, Epping, Chicago and Seattle – and leads the series in final round appearances with 8 in 18 races.

It’s almost the same position where he was in at this time last year when the 2015 Countdown was set to kick off.

And we all knew how that wound up – with the championship trophy on his mantle to join the trophy he earned in 2012.

In fact, Brown has been the winningest driver in Top Fuel in the last half-decade. Since 2011, his 33 wins are more than twice the next winningest Top Fuel driver and more than double the number of wins of the next two highest combined.

Not only has he led the series in wins in three of the last four years, he’s also leading in wins this season as well.

One more thing to consider: Brown has finished in the top two in the points three times in the last four seasons – not including this season.

If Brown continues what he’s done this season, as well as what he did last season, it’s going to be hard for his nine other Countdown contenders to keep him from winning yet another title.

“It’s what we’ve been shooting for,” Brown said of the championship. “It’s what you work so hard for in the regular season.

“Now that time is over with. We did a great job in the regular season and now we have our work cut out for us in the last six races of the year.

“Now we have to go out and do that same thing, but in just six races. We’re going to go out there and push hard and see what we can do.”

Now in its 10th year, the Countdown has historically been rough on competitors, particularly in the first round of eliminations. Several potential championships have gone by the wayside when favored drivers were eliminated early in one or more of the six playoff races.

Fortunately for Brown, he’s had just one first round exit thus far this season, a streak he hopes to continue in this year’s playoffs.

“The thing about it is every point is crucial,” Brown said. “I look at the Countdown each and every year as not just six races. There’s 24 rounds up for grabs. Each round is worth 20 points (plus a maximum of 12 points each race for qualifying). That’s your maximum points. How many of those rounds can you get?

“That’s what we focus on, just doing one round at a time and getting as many rounds as possible. Last year we did a great job at it. But this year is going to be a whole other ball of wax where the competition has stepped up again to just an incredible level to go out there and try to make that happen like we did last year.”

Brown is as confident heading into this year’s Countdown as he was going into last year’s playoff. Obviously, he’s hoping the end result winds up the same.

“All these spots are so close and tight, man, it’s going to be a crapshoot going here for these six races for the championship,” Brown said. “Those are the challenges we all live for.

“We live for these moments to go out there as a team, as a whole, to see who can be that champion at the end of the year. That’s what we’ve been working for. … (We’re) just hoping all of our hard work pays off right now.”

ANTRON BROWN BY THE NUMBERS

* 2012 Top Fuel World Champion – 6 Wins (Led series)

* 2013 2nd place in Countdown – 4 Wins

* 2014 7th place in Countdown – 6 Wins (Led series)

* 2015 Top Fuel World Champion – 7 Wins (Led series)

* 2016 Point Leader going into Countdown – 4 Wins (leads series)

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Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens later tweeted about the possibility of racing the Indy 500 and said his goal was “always to get back to the top level of motorsport” whether it’s IndyCar or IMSA.

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.