Photo courtesy NHRA

NHRA: With 2 races left left in the Countdown, who’s next to be eliminated?

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For some drivers, the NHRA Countdown to the Championship is over early, as several were eliminated following Sunday’s final round of the AAA Texas FallNationals at Texas Motorplex.

Those who will not advance into the final two races of the season (Oct. 27-30 at Las Vegas and the season finale, Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California) are:

Top Fuel: Richie Crampton and Clay Millican.

Funny Car: Alexis DeJoria.

Pro Stock: Five-time champion Jeg Coughlin and two-time defending champ Erica Enders.

“We’ve had a tough year but I promise big things are straight ahead and we’ll be back better than ever in 2017,” Enders said after Sunday’s race.

The only major professional category that has not seen any Countdown contestants eliminated yet is Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Now teams have a weekend off coming up to regroup and try to make one last attempt for the championship.

However, several teams that are still mathematically eligible for the title (within the 260 total points – 130 points for each of the last two races on the schedule) are likely closer to elimination – particularly at Las Vegas – than to rallying back for the championship:

Top Fuel: Even though she qualified No. 2 at Texas this past weekend, eight-ranked Leah Pritchett (-254 points) and seventh-ranked J.R. Todd (-244) are on the verge of elimination. Also on the hot seat are eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher (ranked sixth, -209), fifth-ranked Steve Torrence (-197) and even fourth-ranked Brittany Force (-191).

“We really needed to win this one and we needed for the Countdown contenders ahead us in the standings to have problems,” Schumacher said. “It wasn’t shaping up that way, to begin with.”

While Schumacher isn’t giving up, if he can’t win a ninth championship, he’ll support his teammate’s quest for his second straight title and third in the last five seasons.

“Antron and his team have been lights out all year, and they’re peaking here in the Countdown,” Schumacher said. “They deserve to be on the verge of clinching the championship and, if we can’t be the ones to win the championship, we’re always rooting to keep it in the U.S. Army and DSR family.”

As for Force, she’s adamant that she is still in the championship hunt.

“I think doing well in Las Vegas will be a big factor for the championship,” Force said. “Our goal is to have a chance to win the championship when we get to the Auto Club Finals in Pomona.

“We are going to do everything we can to be in a position where we can win. We go into every race thinking we can win and it starts with the first round of qualifying. This has been an amazing season and these last couple of races will be even more exciting with the championship on the line.”

Funny Car: It’s not looking good for John Force Racing. Courtney Force is ranked eighth (-227), 16-time champ John Force is seventh (-198) and even though he had a strong weekend at Texas, sixth-ranked Robert Hight is -187. Early exits during much of the first or second rounds in the first four races of the Countdown have been the downfall for the three JFR drivers.

“I thought I needed a Hail Mary and now I need two,” said John Force, who uncharacteristically red-lit in his first round elimination race with Alexis DeJoria, immediately losing. “I didn’t do my job and they gave me a good race car. That is the bottom line.

“You can’t win championships by making that mistake. My brain just faded and I put a red light out there. I apologized to my team, my fans and the sponsors. That is all I can do.”

Added Hight, who is not giving up, “We are running with the top cars out here and there are two races left. I want to win those races and see what happens.”

As for Courtney Force, “We have two more races to go and we’re definitely motivated to go out there and continue to move up in the points and see if we can end this season on a high note.”

Pro Stock: While no one is ready to concede the championship to frontrunner Jason Line or teammate and second-ranked Greg Anderson (-26), it’s not looking good in Las Vegas for eight-ranked Allen Johnson (-241) or seventh-ranked Chris McGaha (-232). Drew Skillman, who won Sunday at Texas, is still a massive 185 points back in sixth-place.

Pro Stock Motorcycle: While none of the 10 Countdown riders have been eliminated yet, it’s likely three, four or even more could be knocked out of the playoffs at Las Vegas. Hector Arana Jr., who has struggled in the Countdown, is ranked 10th (-242). Matt Smith is ninth (-223), Hector Arana is eighth (-214) and Cory Reed is seventh (-196). Even sixth-ranked LE Tonglet IV isn’t safe (-137).

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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”