Photo courtesy of IMSA

Ford GT, Ganassi concludes debut GTLM season looking for big finish

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BRASELTON, Ga. – Despite having only an outside chance at the GT Le Mans championship, the Ford Chip Ganassi Racing team can still look back at its debut IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season with the new Ford GTs with fond memories.

A midseason run of three straight wins at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park propelled Ryan Briscoe and Richard Westbrook into GTLM class championship contention with their No. 67 Ford.

But since, an issue on the final lap at Road America that cost a fourth win in five races, then finishes of fourth and ninth the last two outings at VIRginia International Raceway and Circuit of The Americas have left Briscoe and Westbrook 11 points (314-303) behind class points leaders Oliver Gavin and Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette C7.R.

Meanwhile, the No. 66 Ford pairing of Joey Hand and Dirk Mueller are yet to win on U.S. soil, but were two-thirds of the lineup (Sebastien Bourdais) that brought Ford and Ganassi its first targeted goal of 2016 – a dominant and authoritative GTE-Pro class win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 50 years on from its first win there in 1966.

Seeing how well Ford and Ganassi have adapted to the no-holds barred GTLM class in their first year in the category (after a couple years in Prototype prior) remains an impressive feat, considering the relative lack of experience in class by contrast to the collective units from Corvette, Porsche, BMW and Risi Ferrari.

“It does seem to be the place to be at the moment, not just in IMSA but worldwide,” Westbrook told NBC Sports, as he too has come back into GT after a run in Prototypes with the Visit Florida Racing Corvette team.

“There’s lot of respect out there and a lot of competition and great drivers. We all know each other because everyone’s been around so long.

“Going into a different class compared to what I was used to, brought a new team, car, co-driver and program. But the atmosphere on the 67 and the whole team has been superb. It’s a really good working environment, and it’s been exciting to sink our teeth back into development.”

Much as Westbrook has come back to his spiritual home and class, Briscoe’s been fortunate to have a full-season opportunity after a couple odd years in 2013 and 2015 when he put together part-time programs but was more known for his versatility than one single program.

The 2013 season saw him in a Level 5 Motorsports LMP2 car and two different IndyCar teams (Ganassi and Panther Racing), while after a single year back with Ganassi in IndyCar in 2014, he spent 2015 as Corvette Racing’s endurance ace and James Hinchcliffe’s primary replacement in IndyCar.

“It’s been great and as you know it was a big reason I why jumped on this,” Briscoe told NBC Sports. “Every driver sort of needs some stability!

“But obviously you still have to go out and perform and be the best you can. Going after a championship, and going on after Le Mans… having those championship goals in mind are huge. It’s a totally different mindset than race-to-race.”

Briscoe’s handoff to Westbrook at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Westbrook’s subsequent fuel saving performance to win there provided the entire organization a huge shot in the arm, and was arguably a big reason why they were as confident and motivated as they were going into Le Mans, with the combined four-car effort there.

The team winning Le Mans after a thoroughly dominant outing was then the icing on the cake, and it was likely no coincidence that Ford announced a two-year program extension through 2019 shortly thereafter.

“Le Mans was like a dream. It really was. It felt like, ‘This is why Ford’s back,’” Westbrook explained, even though he, Briscoe and Scott Dixon were third there while Hand, Mueller and Bourdais won.

“The win at Laguna gave everyone a lift. We’d struggled a bit before Laguna at Long Beach, Sebring and Daytona. But Laguna showed we could race against and come out on top.

“So going into Le Mans, confidence was high and we had a really quick car. From the past though, even having the fastest car doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t finish.

“When we won, there was a massive release of pressure after that. The valve turned open… the steam came out and we could enjoy the rest of the year. It showed in our performance the next few races. The results kept on coming… and the drive at Mosport, was just awesome. It was a weekend where we struggled a bit but we came out on top again.”

The Watkins Glen and Mosport wins that followed could not have been further apart in how they were achieved.

At Watkins Glen, Westbrook did the lion’s share of work while Briscoe tended to last-minute baby duty as wife Nicole gave birth to the couple’s second daughter, Blake. Then at Mosport – or CTMP – a heavy Balance of Performance (BoP) hit cost Ford its pace, but they won on strategy anyway.

“It was a crazy weekend, and then to sort of dominate the whole event – a lot of it was down to Richard, who did every practice session and qualified, put the car on pole,” Briscoe said.

“I got in the first time in warmup and the race. The team was extra supportive of me, which says a lot about the characters, people, and the confidence to say you can miss all of practice and jump in for the race. It was super rewarding but trust me that’s not how you want to do it every weekend!”

Westbrook added, “Obviously I was really happy to cover for him. He had a lot more important issues that went on that weekend. But the weekend was never in doubt. We’d tested there, so Ryan didn’t have an issue getting up to speed. That was our only (IMSA) race we had the clear advantage on BoP… and then we got hammered.”

Heading into Petit Le Mans this weekend, the pairing – plus Dixon – come in off a good test a month or so ago looking to overcome the points deficit and secure the title. Conditions were much hotter then than they will be this weekend, and for once rain isn’t in the forecast.

As Westbrook noted, the challenge is now managing expectations, and to only have an outside shot isn’t an ideal scenario. But it’s still a good spot to be in.

“It’s funny – the better you do the greedier you get – so I’m sort of slightly disappointed it’s an outside shot, whereas it looked really good before VIR and COTA!” he said. “But we have to be so happy with how we’ve progressed this year.”

Briscoe added, “After a couple early gremlins, the team has been absolutely on point with working through those issues with a brand new car. Since then, we’ve never had any repeat issues.

“I’m honestly not surprised but always extremely impressed. Everyone here at Ford and Chip Ganassi Racing continue to impress with the development they’ve done throughout the season.”

NHRA Phoenix winners: Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Erica Enders

Photos and videos courtesy NHRA
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Missing the season-opening race two weeks ago didn’t have much impact upon two-time defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, as he roared to victory in Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“First round I had a little bit of the jitters,” Torrence said after the 37th win of his Top Fuel career, including 29 since the start of the 2017 season. “We missed [the season opener in Pomona, California] so you came here and this is the first round of the first race of the season for us and I was a little bit nervous to go up there.

“We’re just going to see how the races go and what the weather throws at us. I think that we’ve always had a good hot weather tune-up. We’re just going to try to develop cool track conditions. We’re easing up to it. We’ll just see how it goes and that’s something that we really need to try to put our thumb on.”

Torrence had a final round effort of 3.679 seconds at 321.27 mph to defeat runner-up Doug Kalitta. It was Torrence’s second career win at Phoenix. Torrence and his Capco Contractors dragster got to the final round after defeating, in order, Jim Maroney, Shawn Langdon and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence [in the semifinals].

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. [3.883 seconds at 326.40 mph] earned his 18th career win in the class in what was an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, defeating teammate Jack Beckman, who won the season-opening race at Pomona.

“We had a good car,” said Johnson, whose last Phoenix win came back in 2006. “The last qualifying run showed us that we have a solid car. Coming up here today, we had a lot of confidence. We went out first round and laid down a solid number.

“We weren’t low (elapsed time) but we were close. We came out second round and sat low ET so we knew we had a solid car. As a driver, going into each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier. It gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in Pomona we a had a good car, just dropped a cylinder second round and event had a little issue with that in qualifying here.”

In Pro Stock, three-time and defending champion Erica Enders won for the 26th time of her career in the class with a 6.531-second, 210.44 mph over Bo Butner.

“I’d have to say today was excellent,” Enders said. “Our objective coming in was to just get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson on Wednesday, so coming in we were definitely optimistic and finally got our act together for that one fun on Saturday.

“The guys gave me a tremendous race car today. Very consistent, very fast and we just crushed the competition today and it was really fun.”

The third race of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule are one of the biggest races of the season, the Gatornationals, March 12-15 in Gainesville, Florida.

Here are the results from Sunday’s race:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Antron Brown; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Leah Pruett; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Justin Ashley; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Clay Millican; 11. Scott Palmer; 12. Jim Maroney; 13. Doug Foley; 14. Terry Totten; 15. Austin Prock; 16. Shawn Reed.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. Ron Capps; 4. John Force; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Tasca III; 7. Jeff Diehl; 8. Jim Campbell; 9. Paul Lee; 10. Blake Alexander; 11. Alexis DeJoria; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Robert Hight; 15. Terry Haddock; 16. Matt Hagan.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Jason Line; 4. Alex Laughlin; 5. Kenny Delco; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Cristian Cuadra; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Matt Hartford; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Marty Robertson; 12. Aaron Stanfield; 13. Val Smeland; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Greg Anderson; 16. Deric Kramer.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.679 seconds, 321.27 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.052 seconds, 218.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.883, 326.40 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.531, 210.44 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.606, 209.33.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.711, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, Foul – Red Light; Shawn Langdon, 3.717, 321.65 def. Clay Millican, 3.750, 321.42; Justin Ashley, 3.717, 312.21 def. Scott Palmer, 3.843, 288.21; Brittany Force, 3.643, 337.92 def. Terry Totten, 8.635, 84.50; Leah Pruett, 3.654, 331.12 def. Doug Foley, 5.328, 127.81; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 325.69 def. Jim Maroney, 4.436, 190.35; Antron Brown, 3.729, 326.95 def. Terry McMillen, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.683, 322.73 def. Austin Prock, 9.008, 78.60; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.721, 326.87 def. Ashley, 10.031, 78.07; S. Torrence, 4.570, 203.31 def. Langdon, 5.170, 216.72; Kalitta, 3.695, 325.69 def. Force, 3.685, 334.15; B. Torrence, 3.703, 328.78 def. Pruett, 3.688, 324.20; SEMIFINALS — S. Torrence, 3.698, 329.58 def. B. Torrence, 3.699, 329.91; Kalitta, 3.672, 330.55 def. Brown, 4.360, 183.74; FINAL — S. Torrence, 3.679, 321.27 def. Kalitta, 4.052, 218.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.051, 318.02 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 6.254, 109.34; Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.591, 248.16 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 7.416, 90.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.848, 335.90 def. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 7.692, 86.52; Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, No Time def. Matt Hagan, Charger, DQ-CCL; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.878, 325.85 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.898, 320.05; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.211, 318.99 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.172, 151.36; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.979, 286.25 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 6.045, 111.71; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.905, 329.02 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 6.383, 103.46; QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.895, 329.42 def. Campbell, 8.959, 70.61; Force, 3.894, 332.43 def. Wilkerson, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.864, 323.74 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light; Capps, 4.184, 232.19 def. Diehl, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.882, 329.91 def. Force, 3.917, 326.63; Johnson Jr., 3.871, 319.98 def. Capps, 3.864, 328.06; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.883, 326.40 def. Beckman, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.548, 209.85 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.586, 208.68; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.583, 209.46 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 15.609, 67.56; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.649, 186.28 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 30.055, 23.82; Bo Butner, Camaro, 10.108, 78.96 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.601, 208.65 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 10.724, 93.79; Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.633, 208.10 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 7.162, 145.93; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.532, 210.37 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.611, 207.91; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.535, 210.11 def. Marty Robertson, Mustang, 6.634, 206.67; QUARTERFINALS — Line, 6.581, 210.01 def. C. Cuadra, 14.134, 51.15; Butner, 6.863, 167.32 def. Delco, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.546, 210.44 def. Coughlin, 6.810, 175.34; Enders, 6.526, 211.00 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 7.262, 147.44 def. Laughlin, Broke; Enders, 6.555, 210.28 def. Line, 6.582, 209.33; FINAL — Enders, 6.531, 210.44 def. Butner, 6.606, 209.33.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 212; 2. Brittany Force, 153; 3. Leah Pruett, 137; 4. Austin Prock, 131; 5. Steve Torrence, 121; 6. Justin Ashley, 108; 7. Antron Brown, 103; 8. Shawn Langdon, 91; 9. Clay Millican, 85; 10. Shawn Reed, 83.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 220; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 175; 3. John Force, 173; 4. Ron Capps, 128; 5. Matt Hagan, 124; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 107; 7. Robert Hight, 100; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 99; 9. Bob Tasca III, 87; 10. (tie) Paul Lee, 65; J.R. Todd, 65.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 203; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 197; 3. Jason Line, 168; 4. Kenny Delco, 132; 5. Bo Butner, 131; 6. Chris McGaha, 106; 7. Alex Laughlin, 104; 8. Matt Hartford, 85; 9. (tie) Cristian Cuadra, 82; Fernando Cuadra Jr., 82.

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