(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)

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

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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Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500