NHRA at Countdown midpoint analysis: Leaders get some breathing room

(Photo courtesy NHRA)

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.

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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)

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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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Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).