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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Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023; leaves open possibility of returning at Ganassi

Jimmie Johnson race 2023
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
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Though he remains uncertain of his plans for next year, Jimmie Johnson won’t race full time in 2023, scaling back his schedule after running a full 17-race NTT IndyCar Series season.

“This was a difficult choice for me, but in my heart, I know it’s the right one,” Johnson said in a statement Monday morning. “I’m not exactly sure what the next chapter holds, but if an opportunity comes along that makes sense, I will consider it. I still have a bucket list of racing events I would like to take part in. Competing at this level in IndyCar has been such a great experience.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better team to race for than Chip Ganassi and Chip Ganassi Racing. Everyone worked extremely hard for the last two seasons, pushing to get the best performances out of me every single week. The support from my crew and teammates Dario (Franchitti), Scott (Dixon), Tony (Kanaan), Marcus (Ericsson) and Alex (Palou) went above and beyond anything I could have ever asked for.”

WHAT’S NEXT FOR JIMMIE JOHNSON: An analysis of his racing options for the 2023 season

Driving the No. 48 Dallara-Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, Johnson ranked 21st in the 2022 points standings with a career-best fifth place July 24 at Iowa Speedway.

After running only road and street courses for Ganassi in 2021, the seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion added ovals this year. In his Indy 500 debut, he qualified 12th and finished 28th after a late crash.

“I do have a desire to go back (to IndyCar), it’s just at this point, I know what’s required to do a full schedule, and I don’t have that in me,” Johnson told AP. “I don’t have that passion that I need for myself to commit myself to a full season.”

That leaves open the concept of Johnson returning part time with Ganassi, perhaps exclusively on ovals.

“We are fully supportive of Jimmie,” team owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “He has been a valued member of our team and if we can find a way to continue working together, we would like to do so.”

During IndyCar’s season finale race weekend, Johnson told reporters Sept. 9 that he planned to explore his options with wife Chandra and daughters Evie and Lydia. Johnson told the Associated Press that his family is considering living abroad for a year or two, and he has toyed with the idea of running in the World Endurance Championship sports car series because of its international locales.

Johnson hasn’t ruled out IndyCar, IMSA sports cars or even a cameo in NASCAR next year. Since retiring from full-time NASCAR after the 2020 season, he has entered the endurance races of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in the No. 48 Ally Cadillac (including Saturday’s Petit Le Mans season finale). Johnson also wants to race in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is a prime candidate for the Garage 56 entry (a joint project of NASCAR and Hendrick Motorsports).

Johnson told the AP he is interested in becoming the latest driver to try “The Double” and run both the Coca-Cola 600 and Indy 500 on the same day (the most recent was Kurt Busch in 2014).

“You know me and endurance sports, and ‘The Double’ sounds awesome,” Johnson, a four-time Coke 600 winner, told AP. “I’ve always had this respect for the guys who have done ‘The Double.’ I would say it is more of a respect thing than a bucket-list item, and I’d love to put some energy into that idea and see if I can pull it off.”

It is less likely that he would return to IMSA’s endurance events because its top prototype series is being overhauled, limiting the amount of inventory available for the new LMDh cars in the rebranded GTP division.

Johnson has confirmed that he would retain primary sponsor Carvana, which has backed him in IndyCar the past two years. He revealed his decision Monday during the last episode of “Reinventing the Wheel,” Carvana Racing’s eight-part docuseries about his 2023 season.

“I’m thankful for the partnership with a company like Carvana for allowing me to take this journey in IndyCar, for seeing the value in our partnership and being open to future opportunities together,” Johnson said. “They have truly showed me that there are no finish lines in life. Along with Carvana, The American Legion, Ally, cbdMD and Frank August were there every step of the way, and I couldn’t have done it without all of them. Most importantly — and the true rockstars in all of this –my family, Chani, Evie and Lydia. They have always allowed me to chase my dreams, and we are all just really excited about what the future holds for all of us. I have enjoyed every minute of these last two years.”

Said Carvana co-founder Ryan Keeton: “During the past two years, Jimmie Johnson has been so amazing to collaborate with. Our team admires his passion, hard work and commitment to continuous improvement while also having fun, and we look forward to continuing to support him next year in this new chapter.”