(Photo courtesy NHRA)

NHRA: After first 2 rounds, most Countdown battles tighten

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With two rounds of the NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs now in the books, the point standings have tightened up for the most part.

The closest battles are in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle. But that doesn’t mean the Funny Car or Pro Stock standings are any less competitive.

Let’s break things down in each respective class following what happened in this past weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals near St. Louis:

In Top Fuel, two-time and defending champion Antron Brown has his hands full with a stout challenge from Doug Kalitta.

Brown, who dominated last year’s Countdown en route to the championship, holds just a 13-point edge over Kalitta heading into this weekend’s midpoint of the Countdown, the Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove (Pa.) Raceway.

After three runner-up finishes over the years, Kalitta is potentially in the best position he ever has been to earn his first championship in 20 years on the NHRA national tour. Trust me, Brown hears Kalitta’s footsteps, and they just got a lot louder after Sunday’s race near St. Louis.

Several other drivers are further back, but they’re far from out of the running. Eight-time champion Tony Schumacher is third, 54 points back. Sunday’s winner, Shawn Langdon, jumped up to fourth in the points, just 77 points behind.

Brittany Force and Steve Torrence are 91 and 97 points behind Brown, respectively, followed by seventh and eighth place holders J.R. Todd (-106) and Richie Crampton (-131), who qualified No. 1 this past weekend.

Unfortunately, two drivers have each struggled in the first two Countdown races: Leah Pritchett (-151) and Clay Millican (-174). Unless they get their game back on track, their Countdown hopes could essentially be over far before the season-ending race in Pomona, California.

Here’s how the points stack up heading into Maple Grove:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Antron Brown, 2,258; 2.  Doug Kalitta, 2,245; 3.  Tony Schumacher, 2,204; 4.  Shawn Langdon, 2,181; 5.  Brittany Force, 2,167; 6.  Steve Torrence, 2,161; 7.  J.R. Todd, 2,152; 8.  Richie Crampton, 2,127; 9.  Leah Pritchett, 2,107; 10.  Clay Millican, 2,084.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Funny Car, Ron Capps reached Sunday’s semifinals, protecting the lead he’s had for much of this season.

With a class-high five wins thus far this season, Capps holds a 48-point edge over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. and leads another teammate, Jack Beckman, by 70 points.

Beckman significantly closed the gap on Capps by winning Sunday at St. Louis – jumping from eighth place to third.

Just 22 points separate fourth-ranked John Force (-74), defending champion Del Worsham (-84) and Matt Hagan (-96). Dipping in the standings are the other two John Force Racing Funny Car drivers, Robert Hight (-114) and Courtney Force (-124), with Tim Wilkerson sitting ninth (-129).

Alexis DeJoria rounds out the 1o-driver Funny Car Countdown and has struggled in the first two races, leaving her 205 points behind Capps – the third-biggest points spread between a driver and a leader in any of the four pro classes.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps, 2,273; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,225; 3.  Jack Beckman, 2,203; 4.  John Force, 2,199; 5.  Del Worsham, 2,189; 6.  Matt Hagan, 2,177; 7.  Robert Hight, 2,159; 8.  Courtney Force, 2,149; 9.  Tim Wilkerson, 2,144; 10.  Alexis DeJoria, 2,068.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Pro Stock, Alex Laughlin pulled off a stunning win Sunday at St. Louis. Not only did Laughlin fail to qualify for the Countdown, Sunday’s triumph was the first of his Pro Stock career.

And Laughlin’s win somewhat shook up the Pro Stock standings – opening them up rather than closing the gap – leaving the largest spread between first and tenth in any of the four pro classes.

KB Racing holds a stranglehold on the top three spots with points leader Jason Line, Greg Anderson (-63) and Bo Butner (-87).

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the bottom half of the Pro Stock Countdown field has struggled in the first two races: Sixth-ranked Chris McGaha (-175), Allen Johnson (-183), and Drew Skillman (-184), but especially five-time champion Jeg Coughlin (-226) and two-time defending champion Erica Enders (-258).

After two outstanding seasons, Enders has had a very rough campaign in 2016, with several first round exits in the first 20 races that put her – and have kept her – behind the eight-ball. She failed to qualify for the first Countdown race at Charlotte and suffered yet another first-round exit at St. Louis.

Unless Enders can somehow bounce back and win her first race of the season – and then some more – in the next couple of races, she mathematically could be eliminated from the Countdown as early as this weekend at Maple Grove or Round 4 of the playoffs on Oct. 16 at Texas.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Jason Line, 2,310; 2.  Greg Anderson, 2,247; 3.  Bo Butner, 2,223; 4.  Vincent Nobile, 2,185; 5.  Shane Gray, 2,167; 6.  Chris McGaha, 2,135; 7.  Allen Johnson, 2,127; 8.  Drew Skillman, 2,126; 9.  Jeg Coughlin, 2,084; 10.  Erica Enders, 2,052.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, we see the tightest championship battle of all four pro classes thus far.

Just 17 points separate the top three riders: defending champion and five-time champ Andrew Hines, Angelle Sampey (-2) and Charlotte winner Chip Ellis (-17). And St. Louis winner Jerry Savoie – an alligator farmer from Louisiana – took a big chomp out of Hines’ lead, jumping up to fourth place, just 42 points behind.

Former champion Eddie Krawiec isn’t far behind in fifth place (-76).

The remaining five riders are all within striking distance, from sixth-ranked LE Tonglet IV (-122) to Hector Arana Jr. (-145), Hector Arana (-153), Cory Reed (-155) and Matt Smith (-164).

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1.  Andrew Hines, 2,260; 2.  Angelle Sampey, 2,258; 3.  Chip Ellis, 2,243; 4.  Jerry Savoie, 2,218; 5.  Eddie Krawiec, 2,184; 6.  LE Tonglet, 2,138; 7.  Hector Arana Jr, 2,115; 8.  Hector Arana, 2,107; 9.  Cory Reed, 2,105; 10.  Matt Smith, 2,096.

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Behind the scenes of how the biggest story in racing was kept a secret

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In a world where nobody is able to keep a secret, especially in auto racing, legendary business leader and race team owner Roger Penske and INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles were able to keep the biggest story of the year a secret.

That was Monday morning’s stunning announcement that after 74 years of leadership and ownership of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Hulman George Family was selling the track, the Indianapolis 500 and INDYCAR to Penske.

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports.com on Thursday, Miles revealed the extreme lengths both sides went to so that nobody found out about this deal ahead of time. That included meeting with Penske at his Detroit offices early on Saturday mornings and late on Sunday nights.

The most important way of keeping it confidential was containing the number of people who were involved.

“We thought it was important to keep it quiet until we were ready to announce it,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “The reason for that is No. 1, we wanted employees and other stakeholders to hear it from us and not through the distorting rumor mill.

“That was the motivation.

“We just didn’t involve many people. For most of the time, there were four people from Roger’s group in Michigan and four people from here (IMS/INDYCAR) involved and nobody else. There were just four of us. We all knew that none of the eight were going to talk to anybody about it until very late.”

Even key members of both staffs were kept out of the loop, notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Doug Boles, who admitted earlier this week he was not told of the impending sale until Saturday when he was at Texas Motor Speedway for the NASCAR race.

Both Penske and Miles realize the way a deal or a secret slips out is often from people far outside of the discussions who have to get called in to work to help set up an announcement.

Miles had a plan for that scenario, too.

“On Saturday, we had to set up a stream for Monday’s announcement,” Miles said. “We came up with an internal cover story so if anybody saw what was going on, there was a cover story for what that was, and it wasn’t that announcement.

“The key thing was we kept it at only those that needed to know.”

It wasn’t until very late Sunday night and very early Monday morning that key stakeholders in INDYCAR were informed. Team owner Bobby Rahal got a call at 7:30 a.m. on Monday. Racing legend Mario Andretti was also informed very early on Monday.

At 8 a.m. that day came the official word from Hulman & Company, which owns the Indianapolis 500, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and INDYCAR as well as a few other businesses, that Penske was buying the racing properties of the company. It was an advisory that a media conference was scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It was a masterful move by both Penske and Miles.

Penske is already famous for keeping one of greatest secrets in racing history in 1993 and 1994. That is when his famed racing team along with Ilmor Engineering created “The Beast” – a 209 cubic-inch, pushrod engine that was designed, developed and tested in total secrecy. A small, select group of Team Penske mechanics were involved in the top-secret project and were told by Penske that if word of the engine leaked out, “it would be like cutting your paycheck.”

Nobody talked.

History repeated itself with the biggest racing story of the 21st Century, the sale of the world’s most famous race course that hosts the largest single-day sporting event in the world – the annual Indianapolis 500.

When INDYCAR held its “Victory Lap” award ceremony on Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, Miles told the crowd of an impending announcement that would be big news for the sport.

Was he coming close to giving away Monday’s announcement?

“No, that was about a sponsor announcement that will be coming along later,” Miles said on Thursday night.

Penske is one of America’s greatest and most successful business leaders. He is also the most successful team owner in auto racing history with 545 wins in all forms of racing including a record 18 Indianapolis 500 wins, a record 16 NTT IndyCar Series championships as well as two Daytona 500 wins and two NASCAR Monster Energy Cup championships just to name a few.

Penske was not the only bidder, but he was the one who made the most sense to the Hulman George Family, because it was important to find an owner who believed in “stewardship” of the greatest racing tradition on Earth more so than “ownership” of an auto racing facility and series.

“There were a number of parties that were engaged in thinking about this with us,” Miles revealed to NBC Sports.com. “There were a couple that got as far as what I call the ‘Red Zone.’

“Then, Tony George reached out to Roger Penske on Sept. 22.

“Price and value were always important, but the thing that nobody could match was the attributes that Roger could bring to the table, in terms of his history of the sport, his knowledge of the sport, combined with his business sense.

“He was viewed as the leader from a legacy or stewardship perspective, which was a very important factor.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500 

McLaren IndyCar boss breaks down team’s first test since missing Indy 500

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McLaren Sporting Director Gil De Ferran left Sebring International Raceway last Tuesday with a much happier outlook than when he left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 19.

That was when McLaren and famed two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ill-prepared. They failed to make the 33-car starting lineup for the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

That day in May, De Ferran vowed that McLaren would return.

Last Tuesday, what is now known as Arrow McLaren Racing SP after purchasing into Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, De Ferran was back to evaluate the team’s NTT IndyCar Series effort.

Instead of Alonso in the cockpit, it was the team’s recently named full-time drivers for 2020 at the test. That included 20-year-old Pato O’Ward of Monterrey, Mexico, the 2018 Indy Lights champion and 22-year-old Oliver Askew of Jupiter, Florida, the 2019 Indy Lights champion.

O’Ward was in the car for the test with Askew watching from the pit area.

“Pato did a great job, did not put a foot wrong, got on to it straight away and it was all good,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “It was a positive day on all fronts. To work together, to build the team together and embark on this team together was very positive.”

De Ferran is a two-time CART champion with titles in 2000 and 2001 when he was with Team Penske. He also won the 2003 Indianapolis 500 for Team Penske before retiring as a driver at the end of that season.

Since then, he has been involved in numerous Formula One, IndyCar and Sports Car efforts. As McLaren’s Sporting Director, De Ferran is involved in both Formula One and IndyCar.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP also includes partners Sam Schmidt and Ric Peterson. Arrow also has a financial stake in the team in addition to serving as sponsor.

The chance to work with two young drivers is something that has De Ferran excited.

“They are both very young, but they have been around for a while,” De Ferran said. “It’s not like these guys are completely clueless about racing. They have been racing ever since they were kids. Generally speaking, as a trend in motorsports, they start much younger than I did. They move to cars at a younger age and tend to reach this level of the sport at a younger age then when I was coming up.

“Although they don’t have a lot of experience in IndyCar, several members of the team can help in their development. These guys are very accomplished and top-level guys. They have won a lot of races and championships before getting the nod from our team.”

Last week’s test was part of INDYCAR’s evaluation of the new aeroscreen that will be on all cars beginning in 2020. Arrow McLaren Racing SP is a Chevrolet team. Honda team Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan also participated in the test with four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais as the driver.

This was the only test that Arrow McLaren Racing SP will conduct in 2019. Testing time is severely limited De Ferran said it won’t be back on track until the 2020 regulations take effect.

Arrow McLaren Racing SP has already experienced some controversy after the team said several weeks ago that popular driver James Hinchcliffe would not be driving for the team. He remains on the payroll and is expected to be at the track in a public relations capacity.

That has angered many IndyCar fans who are huge fans of the popular Canadian driver.

“I have nothing more to add to this than what was said at the time,” De Ferran told NBC Sports.com. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s head-down. We have to go racing. We are on a journey here together with this partnership and two young drivers that are very accomplished and have a lot of talent. Our job is to deliver the results on the track.

“That is where my focus is. I’m completely focused on improving every aspect of everything that we do trackside.

“One thing I guarantee you, whatever we start, to have that focus to improve everything that we do we will continue to move forward. It was like that when I was driving, and it was like that throughout my professional career away from the cockpit. We will keep looking for opportunities to improve.

“Eventually, good things will happen.”

It was just Day One on the track, but after seeing this team struggle at last year’s Indianapolis 500, McLaren took its first step in returning as a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team.

“This is the beginning of a journey that we embarked on several months ago now and you do a lot in the background,” De Ferran said. “The guys from SPM and us have put a lot into this partnership. Behind the scenes, we have been working hard together.

“We’re all racers, man. We want to see cars on track. This has been like a little check off the box and it feels good that we were on track.

“We have a long journey ahead, but it’s good to be working together, at the race track, how the car is handling, the engine is working and how the drivers do.

“First day on the track for Arrow McLaren Racing SP. It’s a good day.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500