(Photo courtesy NHRA)

NHRA at Countdown midpoint analysis: Leaders get some breathing room

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With the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship now at the halfway point, the importance and significance of each point earned from here on out goes up exponentially.

Charlotte, St. Louis and this past weekend’s race at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading (Pa.) are now in the Countdown’s rearview mirror, with three races remaining: Dallas (Oct. 13-16), Las Vegas (Oct. 27-30) and the season finale in Pomona, California (Nov. 10-13).

Let’s break out the calculator and abacus – and maybe a few fingers and toes for good measure – to see how the remaining three races shape up.

First, a maximum of 130 points is available to be earned by a driver in a race. That means there are 390 points left to be earned in the three remaining national events by any one single driver (if he/she wins all three and amasses all available points in each race).

But getting that full 130 points per race isn’t easy.

Here’s the breakdown of how points are earned (the elements of the 130 points maximum available to be earned are in bold face):

* Winner 100 points.

* Runner-up 80 points.

* Third-round loser 60 points.

* Second-round loser 40 points.

* First-round loser 20 points.

In addition, other points to be earned are:

* 10 points to each contestant, providing they make at least one qualifying run in the event.

* 8 points for qualifying No. 1, as well as 7 points (No. 2 qualifier), 6 points (No. 3), 5 points (No. 4), 4 points (No. 5 and No. 6), 3 points (No. 7 and No. 8), 2 points (No. 9 through No. 12) and 1 point (No. 13 through No. 16).

* 3 points for low elapsed time of each session (maximum of 12 points if the same driver has the low ET in each of the four qualifying rounds per event).

* 2 points for second-quickest in each qualifying session and 1 qualifying point for the third-quickest in each qualifying session.

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

Let’s break down each of the four professional categories and see who’s hot, who’s not, and who could potentially see their championship hopes come to an abrupt end as early as the Dallas race in two weeks.

In Top Fuel, Antron Brown took a big step towards winning his second consecutive championship and third in the last five seasons Sunday at Maple Grove.

Brown won the Dodge NHRA Nationals to add to his triumph in last month’s Countdown opener at Charlotte, giving him two wins in the first three playoff races – and six wins in the first 21 races.

“St. Louis didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to, and there’s still plenty of time left in this championship race,” said Brown, who was knocked out in the first round last weekend. “There’s three more races left and we’re going to have to fight hard. Ain’t nobody going to give you the championship.”

More importantly for Brown is he opened up a 77-point gap (2,377) on second-ranked Doug Kalitta (2,300), who was just 13 points behind Brown heading into this past weekend’s race.

Brittany Force, who finished runner-up to Brown in Sunday’s final round, jumped up from fifth to third place in the standings, but also saw the deficit grow between her and Brown from 91 points heading into Maple Grove to 118 afterward.

Shawn Langdon remains fourth, one point behind Force. Eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher dropped from third to fifth (and from -54 to -141).

Drivers who could potentially see their playoff hopes come to an end as early as Texas are those ranked from seventh through 10th: No. 7 Leah Pritchett (-189, even though she earned her first career Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier title at Maple Grove), J.R. Todd (-194), Richie Crampton (-218) and Clay Millican (-241).

Here’s how the Top Fuel standings look:

  1. Antron Brown, 2,377
  2. Doug Kalitta, 2,300 (-77)
  3. Brittany Force, 2,259 (-118)
  4. Shawn Langdon, 2,258 (-119)
  5. Tony Schumacher, 2,236 (-141)
  6. Steve Torrence, 2,214 (-163)
  7. Leah Pritchett, 2,188 (-189)
  8. J.R. Todd, 2,183 (-194)
  9. Richie Crampton, 2,159 (-218)
  10. Clay Millican, 2,136 (-241)

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In Funny Car, Ron Capps (2,368 points) still holds the points lead, but Sunday’s winner, Tommy Johnson Jr., closed Capps margin from -48 (2,344) heading into Maple Grove to just -24 afterward.

“You want to have a strong start in the Countdown; we knew that going into it,” Johnson said. “We went from seventh to fourth in Charlotte – a runner-up is good – then we went to St. Louis and got a another runner-up and went to second, and I said I’d be happy with four more runner-ups, but when you look in the other lane and it’s Capps, who’s leading the points, it’s a must-win. You’ve got to gain some ground.”

Jack Beckman remains in third (2,275), but saw the gap between himself and Capps widen from -70 before Maple Grove to -93 afterward.

Defending Funny Car champ Del Worsham (2,246) swapped spots with 16-time champion John Force (2,230), with Worsham fifth (-122) and Force sixth (-138).

The other two John Force Racing Funny Car drivers also slipped at Maple Grove. Robert Hight (2,193) dropped from seventh to eighth (-175), and Courtney Force (2,182) fell from eighth to ninth (-186).

Alexis DeJoria (2,099) is ranked 10th (-269).

Here’s how the Funny Car standings look:

  1. Ron Capps, 2,368
  2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,344 (-24)
  3. Jack Beckman, 2,275 (-93)
  4. Matt Hagan, 2,258 (-110)
  5. Del Worsham, 2,246 (-122)
  6. John Force, 2,230 (-138)
  7. Tim Wilkerson, 2,196 (-172)
  8. Robert Hight, 2,193 (-175)
  9. Courtney Force, 2,182 (-186)
  10. Alexis DeJoria, 2,099. (-269)

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In Pro Stock, Jason Line (2,389) saw his lead in the standings dip slightly from -63 points before Maple Grove to -45 points over KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson (2,344).

Maple Grove winner Vincent Nobile (2,306) not only moved from fourth to third place, but also cut Line’s edge over him from -125 before Sunday’s finals and -83 afterward.

“It was a big day for Mountain View Racing and NAPA Auto Parts,” said Nobile. “We got the Chevrolet in the winner’s circle, and I’m semi-speechless. We turned it around right at the right time. Don’t get me wrong, at the beginning of the year we were like, ‘Give us our carburetors back.’ It certainly was a pain in the butt, not necessarily for me as a driver but for the crew chiefs and the guys working on the car.”

The bottom half of the 10 Pro Stock drivers in the Countdown have fallen further behind Line after Maple Grove.

Sixth-ranked Chris McGaha dropped from -175 to -200 after Sunday’s race, Allen Johnson dropped from -183 to -229, Drew Skillman fell from -184 to -232 and ninth-ranked and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin dropped from -226 to -274.

Lastly, two-time defending champ Erica Enders’ hopes of making it three championships in a row appears to be at an end, as she finds herself last in the Countdown and a massive -285 behind Line.

Here’s how the Pro Stock standings look:

  1. Jason Line, 2,389
  2. Greg Anderson, 2,344 (-45)
  3. Vincent Nobile, 2,306 (-83)
  4. Bo Butner, 2,256 (-133)
  5. Shane Gray, 2,242 (-147)
  6. Chris McGaha, 2,189 (-200)
  7. Allen Johnson, 2,160 (-229)
  8. Drew Skillman, 2,157 (-232)
  9. Jeg Coughlin, 2,115 (-274)
  10. Erica Enders, 2,104 (-285)

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

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, five-time and defending champion Andrew Hines got a bit of breathing room after Sunday’s race.

Hines came into Maple Grove holding the tightest lead of any of the four pro classes, just a two-point edge over Angelle Sampey. But after Sunday, Sampey dropped to third place and -52, while Hines’ teammate and race winner, Eddie Krawiec, jumped from fifth to second, just -38 behind Hines.

“My main goal this weekend here was to come win,” Krawiec said. “If you win races in the Countdown, you’re going to be fighting for the championship when you get to Pomona. This was a big day for all of our team actually, Andrew and myself getting past the first round. When you draw Angelle and Chip Ellis in round one, you don’t say, ‘Well, this should be easy. This should be no problem this weekend.’ For me, I was on a mission first round because I knew if I went past first round I could keep the momentum and keep it rolling.”

Charlotte winner Chip Ellis dropped from third to fourth and from -17 before Maple Grove to -67 afterward. Also dropping a position, from fourth to fifth, was Jerry Savoie, who fell from -42 to -70. LE Tonglet IV remained in sixth, dropping slightly from -122 to -126.

Cory Reed climbed from ninth to seventh, and also cut the margin behind Hines from -155 before Maple Grove to -145 afterward.

As for the remaining three drivers in PSM, Hector Arana remained in eighth, but dropped from -153 before Maple Grove to -182 afterward.

Son and teammate Hector Arana Jr. tumbled from -145 to -192, and from seventh to 10th place, and Matt Smith climbed from 10th to ninth, and from -164 to -191.

Here’s how the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings look:

  1. Andrew Hines, 2,341
  2. Eddie Krawiec, 2,303 (-38)
  3. Angelle Sampey, 2,289 (-52)
  4. Chip Ellis, 2,274 (-67)
  5. Jerry Savoie, 2,271 (-70)
  6. LE Tonglet, 2,215 (-126)
  7. Cory Reed, 2,196 (-145)
  8. Hector Arana, 2,159 (-182)
  9. Matt Smith, 2,150 (-191)
  10. Hector Arana Jr, 2,149 (-192)

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Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

Leonhard Foeger/Pool via Getty Images
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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.