Photo: Ron Lewis/John Force Racing. Videos courtesy NHRA

NHRA: Brown, Hight, Line and Hines are No. 1 qualifiers for Sunday’s finals at Texas

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If conditions remain the same as Saturday’s final two rounds of qualifying, Sunday’s eliminations of the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals at Texas Motorplex could see one of the quickest race days this season.

And the end result at the track south of Dallas could also go a long way towards potentially determining some of this season’s eventual champions.

Defending and two-time champion Antron Brown qualified No. 1 in Top Fuel Saturday, along with Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

In Top Fuel, Brown set a track record during Friday’s qualifying (3.682 seconds at 330.55 mph) that held up during Saturday’s two rounds. It’s the 47th time Brown has qualified No. 1, his third of the season and the first of his career at Texas Motorplex. He also remains No. 1 in the Top Fuel standings.

“We’ve been racing good in the Countdown but we haven’t been getting those qualifying points like we need to,” said Brown, who will face 84-year-old racer Chris Karamasines in the first round of eliminations Sunday.

“A lot of these teams have been racking up on us,” Brown said. “To come here and to qualify the way we have has been phenomenal. We just hope that can carry over to race day. That’s where all the points are at. Right now, I couldn’t be happier for my whole team.”

Leah Pritchett (3.698 seconds at 327.43 mph) qualified No. 2, while eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher (3.705 at 326.71) qualified No. 3.

In Funny Car, Hight held on to the No. 1 qualifying spot and track record he recorded Friday night (3.839 seconds – the third-quickest pass in Funny Car history – at a stout 332.02 mph).

Hight will face Brandon Welch in Sunday’s first round.

“To come out here to Texas, my sponsor’s race, and make four runs in the 3.80s, that shows we’ve got it going on,” said Hight, a two-time past winner at Texas. “My teammates are running 3.80s and we’re right at the top. It’s exciting to have a qualifying like this, but tomorrow is a new day. We’ve been having problems with sealing the deal on Sunday. It’ll be a tough match tomorrow.”

Jack Beckman qualified No. 2 (3.483 seconds at a track record speed of 333.66 mph), while Tommy Johnson Jr. qualified No. 3 (3.847 at 325.06).

In Pro Stock, two-time world champion Line earned his No. 1 qualifying spot this season and 48th of his career with a Saturday run of 6.568 seconds at 210.34 mph.

Line comes into Sunday’s first round match against Alan Prusiensky seeking a ninth win (he also has five runner-up finishes).

“Everybody is close,” Line said. “It really comes down to just making the best decision. It’s like a big chess match. I think we had a good day using all three (Ken Black Racing) cars, and we used them wisely today. We learned some things and hopefully all three cars are good for tomorrow.”

Teammate Greg Anderson qualified No. 2 (6.579 at 210.11), while Alex Laughlin qualified No. 3.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Savoie earned his first No. 1 spot of the season and sixth of the season with a run of 6.805 seconds at 197.31 mph.

It’s also the second time he’s qualified No. 1 in his career at Texas Motorplex, where he is the defending winner of this event last year. He’ll open Sunday’s eliminations facing Joe DeSantis.

“At this point in the game it is really important to get as many points as you can,” said Savoie, who makes his full-time living as an alligator farmer in Louisiana. “I don’t know if I’m more excited about being No. 1 or to win a race.

“It’s a good weekend and Dallas is my home track now since we don’t run in Houston. After our showing last year, hopefully we can repeat it and have some fun.”

Five-time and defending PSM champ Andrew Hines, who won at Texas in 2014, qualified No. 2 (6.811 at 195.90), while teammate Eddie Krawiec qualified No. 3.

Sunday’s eliminations begin at Noon ET.

SUNDAY’S FIRST ROUND OF ELIMINATIONS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Antron Brown, 3.682 seconds, 330.55 mph  vs. 16. Chris Karamesines, 4.213, 232.31; 2. Leah Pritchett, 3.698, 327.82  vs. 15. Scott Palmer, 3.929, 311.41; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.705, 326.71  vs. 14. Kebin Kinsley, 3.921, 311.85; 4. J.R. Todd, 3.723, 324.90  vs. 13. Troy Buff, 3.911, 314.02; 5. Brittany Force, 3.727, 325.37  vs. 12. Terry McMillen, 3.835, 309.84; 6. Shawn Langdon, 3.729, 324.67  vs. 11. Larry Dixon, 3.767, 320.81; 7. Steve Torrence, 3.737, 327.43  vs. 10. Clay Millican, 3.746, 321.04; 8. Richie Crampton, 3.741, 322.42  vs. 9. Doug Kalitta, 3.745, 326.00.  Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Haddock, 6.365, 184.98.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.839, 332.02  vs. 16. Brandon Welch, Chevy Monte Carlo, 5.040, 158.39; 2. Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.843, 333.66  vs. 15. Dave Richards, Ford Mustang, 4.035, 298.54; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.847, 325.06  vs. 14. John Hale, Charger, 4.032, 308.78; 4. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.851, 331.85  vs. 13. John Bojec, Toyota Camry, 3.988, 315.49; 5. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.854, 324.05  vs. 12. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 3.952, 284.99; 6. Del Worsham, Camry, 3.857, 327.98  vs. 11. Chad Head, Camry, 3.923, 328.06; 7. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.864, 323.81  vs. 10. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.919, 322.19; 8. John Force, Camaro, 3.867, 330.39 vs. 9. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 3.911, 322.65.  Did Not Qualify: 17. Todd Simpson, broke.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.568, 210.34  vs. 16. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.775, 205.54; 2. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.579, 210.11  vs. 15. Erica Enders, Dart, 6.748, 207.75; 3. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.586, 210.73  vs. 14. Jeg Coughlin, Dart, 6.686, 207.24; 4. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.591, 209.98  vs. 13. Aaron Strong, Camaro, 6.684, 207.72; 5. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.591, 209.39  vs. 12. Deric Kramer, Dart, 6.648, 207.98; 6. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.594, 210.34  vs. 11. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.641, 208.36; 7. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.610, 209.49  vs. 10. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.631, 208.46; 8. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.612, 209.26  vs. 9. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.614, 210.67.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.805, 197.31  vs. 16. Joe DeSantis, Suzuki, 6.961, 192.69; 2. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.811, 195.90  vs. 15. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 6.947, 192.19; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.821, 195.76  vs. 14. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.935, 194.35; 4. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.853, 195.39  vs. 13. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.916, 194.91; 5. Chip Ellis, Buell, 6.863, 194.60  vs. 12. Melissa Surber, Buell, 6.914, 191.02; 6. Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 6.863, 195.79  vs. 11. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.905, 194.77; 7. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.868, 194.24  vs. 10. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.889, 193.99; 8. Cory Reed, Buell, 6.872, 192.96  vs. 9. Matt Smith, Victory, 6.879, 194.46.  Did Not Qualify: 17. Angie Smith, 6.986, 191.19; 18. John Hall, 7.011, 189.39; 19. Mike Berry, 7.044, 187.11; 20. David Hope, 7.113, 183.79; 21. Lance Bonham, 7.222, 183.49; 22. Gunner Courtney, 7.264, 184.95.

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Why it’s important for Fernando Alonso to be in the Indianapolis 500

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It seemed so natural, so logical that Fernando Alonso would be part of McLaren in the 104thIndianapolis 500, it likely could have been announced last August.

NBCSports.com gave all the reasons why an Alonso reunion with McLaren at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway made the most sense last week.

Tuesday afternoon, it became official.

Arrow McLaren SP announced the two-time Formula One World Champion as its third driver for the Indy 500. He joins full-time NTT IndyCar Series drivers, rookies Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward, on the Chevrolet team.

In a world where social media allows everyone to voice an opinion, there have been some who have asked, “Why is it so important that Fernando Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500?”

To back up their point, the 33-driver starting lineup already includes the legendary names of the NTT IndyCar Series. From five-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon to three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves, to Indy 500 winners Alexander Rossi, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay to two-time champion IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden, the lineup is full of big names.

On the grand scale of international motorsports, however, Alonso has the charisma and star power that transcends into the mainstream of popularity.

“Having Fernando in the Indy 500 is going to be great for IndyCar, for the Indy 500 and for the fans,” said Arrow McLaren SP co-owner Sam Schmidt. “I can’t wait to see that get started.

“On behalf of Ric (Peterson, another co-owner of the team) and myself, Fernando needs to be in the 500, he needs to have an opportunity to win and that would be mega for IndyCar. For all of those reasons, we kept our foot on the gas and tried to position our team as the team of choice. Although we haven’t won, we have shown pace there and ran at the front. Now that we are with Chevrolet, we feel that we can get it done.

“Our team of guys is fantastic. We have been preparing for this for a long time and we are poised to get it done. Ric and I are very excited about this.”

McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a long and close relationship with Alonso. Brown was in charge of Alonso’s Formula One program. Last year when Alonso did not compete in F1, he remained under contract as a McLaren “Ambassador.”

His contract with McLaren ended on December 31, 2019. He officially rejoined the team with Tuesday’s Indy 500 announcement.

“He creates a tremendous amount of attention wherever he goes,” Brown said of Alonso. “When we did the first test at Indy in 2017, the live digital feed got over a couple million followers. Fernando will draw a lot of global attention to Indianapolis, to IndyCar, to our partners and to the sport as a whole.

“He is a great addition. He is an ambassador to the sport. He very much enjoys the way he is embraced in Indianapolis.”

HOW THEY GOT BACK TOGETHER

With so many obstacles in the way between Alonso competing for any other team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it just made sense that his best situation, and only situation, would come with the McLaren-backed operation.

But it was certainly a long, strange trip to get there.

“Clearly, Fernando was deep in conversations with Michael Andretti,” McLaren CEO Zak Brown responded to a question from NBC Sports.com in a private teleconference Tuesday. “Short of Roger Penske’s team, he believes Michael’s team is the most successful team at Indianapolis, certainly in most recent times.

“If you are Fernando Alonso and you want to win Indianapolis, then Andretti is clearly on your short list.

“We had a strong desire to run him. Fernando didn’t want to take a decision until after Paris-Dakar because he wanted to be very focused on that event. He was in no rush. He had two good opportunities. We kept him informed of some of the offseason moves we made. We secured Craig Hampson (as technical director after a successful term as Sebastien Bourdais’ engineer). When he was ready to make his decision, we had all of our pieces in place.

“He chose to move forward with us.”

Alonso’s best days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in an Andretti Autosport-prepared Honda. That was in 2017 when the McLaren Honda Andretti team got the Formula One Ace up to speed quickly. Alonso qualified fifth on the grid off 33, led 27 laps and was in contention for the victory before his Honda engine blew up with 21 laps remaining.

Alonso came, he saw, and he nearly conquered the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso’s worst days at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway came in a McLaren-prepared Chevrolet. That was last year when one mistake after another showed how unprepared the McLaren operation was to take on the Indy 500 on its own. The list of faux paus was so long and legendary, there is no reason to recount them.

It all added up to one of the biggest names in international motorsports getting bumped out of the 33-car starting lineup by unheralded Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

McLaren officials knew the best way to succeed at Indianapolis was to join forces with a full-time IndyCar Series team. The main obstacle in that was Honda teams were ordered by corporate headquarters in Japan that the company’s days of doing business with McLaren were over. This came after disparaging and critical comments were made about the Honda Formula One engine McLaren used during a horrendous 2017 Formula One season.

Under no circumstances would American Honda and Honda Performance Development be allowed to make a deal with McLaren.

Brown found a partner at what was then known as Arrow Schmidt Peterson, but that was a Honda team. In order to make the deal work, Arrow Schmidt Peterson would have to break the final year of its contract with Honda and switch to Chevrolet.

Arrow McLaren SP was announced on August 9, 2019. Alonso was not part of that announcement.

He was attempting to negotiate a deal with Andretti Autosport and the team was willing to make it happen. Sponsors were signed and decisions were made leading to an expected announcement of an Alonso-Andretti combination for the Indy 500.

Honda Japan said no. They were held firm with Alonso for the same reasons they didn’t want to do business with McLaren.

That meant Alonso would have to find a Chevrolet team for the Indy 500. Team Penske wasn’t interested in increasing to five cars at Indy. Ed Carpenter Racing also said no to expanding to four entries.

All paths led back to Arrow McLaren SP.

“It’s a great day in the history of our team,” co-owner Sam Schmidt said. “We’ve had a lot of changes recently. Arrow McLaren SP is a fantastic cooperation of the future of our company. This just raises the bar. Everyone on our team is a true racer, wants to win and wants to win the Indy 500 and the championship. Every move we have made over the last two years has been geared towards achieving those dreams. This is one step further.

“Fernando Alonso, two world championships, two WEC’s, Le Mans and the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. He has made it perfectly clear the Indy 500 is the missing link there. We all know how competitive he was previously.

“For our team, we want to tap into his experience. We have two exciting rookies with Oliver Askew and Pato O’Ward. We really think being around him for the month of May will help them raise their game and understand what it takes to be a true, top-level, world-renowned driver. For all of those reasons, we have been working very hard on this for quite some time and we are very excited to announce Fernando Alonso as part of our team for the Indy 500.”

THE TWO SIDES CONTINUED TO NEGOTIATE, EVEN WHEN IT APPEARED ALONSO WOULD GO TO ANDRETTI

Although it appears this deal was put together quickly, Brown and Schmidt emphasized that was not the case.

“Actually, it’s been in the works for quite some time,” Brown said. “Fernando is quite a thoughtful individual when he takes a decision on what he wants to race. Paris-Dakar, from the moment he decided he was interested in it, he wanted to test, he wanted to get to know the car, he wanted to get to know the team and ultimately made his decision. This is something we’ve been speaking to Alonso about for a while.

“The new recruits, specifically Craig Hampson, we had a good test at COTA. These were things as Fernando made his final decision helped get him over the hump. There was speculation he would go elsewhere with parallel conversations that were going on.”

Schmidt was even more decisive in the team’s negotiations with Alonso.

“It seems like a bit of a whirlwind announcement, but we have been talking since November,” Schmidt said. “We’ve always run a third car at Indy. This will be a very, very well-prepared, thought-out deal. Craig Hampson will be the engineer and will be staffed by full-time, quality personnel.

“There has been some talk about the Grand Prix in a preparatory fashion for the Indy 500, but so far, we don’t have that in consideration.”

ALONSO’S THOUGHTS ON HIS RETURN

In a separate interview with Leigh Diffey of NBC Sports, Alonso admitted he had several teams to consider and McLaren was always in that group.

“We had some conversations,” Alonso said. “I already said last year I wanted to explore more options. I’d been talking with Andretti as well and some other teams. Andretti and McLaren are the ones I feel in my heart are like family. At the end, it was the natural choice to go with McLaren, especially after last year and give the fans something back after the disappointment of last year.

“I think McLaren is one of those teams that are part of motorsports. Being in F1 and IndyCar doing all the races. That shows and proves how McLaren is committed to the sport. The fans will love that commitment.”

Alonso has long dreamed of winning the international “Triple Crown” of motorsports. That includes victories in the Grand Prix of Monaco, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500.

Alonso behind the wheel of the famed Marmon Wasp, the first winning car in the 1911 Indianapolis 500 — INDYCAR Photo

Alonso has already conquered Monaco and Le Mans. Indy remains the final event to master for the driver from Spain.

“The Indy 500 completes the big three races in motorsports, and three completely different disciplines,” Alonso explained. “It makes you quite a complete driver. That’s what I’m looking for in this stage of my career. The Indy 500 is probably the biggest priority for me now.

“Oval racing is unique, but the Indianapolis Motor Speedway even more. It’s a huge place. All the facilities are quite big. The circuit, there are four corners, but all very different. The traffic, the slipstream, the strategy, the tire degradation. The downforce you run differently from practice. The race, you are adjusting downforce. Even if it seems a simple way to drive, over 200 laps, you never repeat the same line or speed in any laps. It’s quite difficult to adjust the minimum settings in the car.”

THE IMPORTANCE OF RUOFF AS THE SPONSOR

The key to completing the deal was allowing mortgage firm Ruoff to join Arrow McLaren SP after agreeing to back Alonso with Andretti.

“Ruoff is a partner of Michael’s, he’s a good friend of mine and a partner in Australia,” Brown explained, referring to the Virgin Australia SuperCar team. “As he was having his conversations with Fernando, Ruoff was looking for something with big impact and exposure. When Michael and Fernando were unable to get their deal together, Ruoff asked Michael if he would mind going where Fernando goes because they know he will draw a tremendous amount of attention and Michael has all of his title deals done. Michael gave his blessing, he cut a deal with Ruoff, and we are excited to have them with us for the month of May.

“Right now, Fernando is going to be laser focused on the Indianapolis 500. I think he would enjoy IndyCar racing, but he is unsure of what he wants to do in 2021. The door is open, but there are no plans or discussions about racing beyond Indy at this point.”

KEEP THE MILK COLD

Alonso said it feels good to be back at Indy; to have another chance to win the Indianapolis 500. Despite last year’s major disappointment, Alonso is ready to recapture the glory he experienced in 2017.

“Definitely once you experience the Indy 500, it’ll remain always in your heart,” Alonso said. “I think the Indy 500 is on top of all the events I’ve ever participated. The atmosphere, the adrenaline, the traditions all the celebrations before the race. Even the milk! It arrives in a fridge Sunday morning and goes to the Pagoda.

“There are things as a driver you understand the importance of the moment and how big that race is worldwide.”

And that is why it is important that drivers such as Alonso compete in the Indianapolis 500. It’s an event that is bigger than the sport itself.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500