Three Toyotas lead the field. Photo: Toyota

Le Mans 24: 2017 LMP1 Preview

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While the LMP1 class may be short on numbers heading into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, the fight for overall honors at the Circuit de la Sarthe is bound to remain as fierce as ever.

ENTRY LIST

Following the withdrawal of Audi at the end of last season and Rebellion Racing’s decision to step down to LMP2, this year’s LMP1 field will feature just six cars – down from nine in 2016, and 14 in 2015 – all of which race full-time in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

As the post-Audi era begins at Le Mans, Porsche and Toyota are poised to continue their close battle for supremacy through the early part of the WEC season, with the latter appearing to hold the upper hand after the test day.

Toyota stormed to a 1-2-3 sweep of the timesheets on June 4 at the Circuit de la Sarthe, its trio of TS050 Hybrids mustering up laps that Porsche simply could not live with. While it is only a test day and the true colors of both manufacturers are yet to come to light, it could nevertheless prove to be an indication of things to come.

Top honors within Toyota went to Kamui Kobayashi in the No. 7 entry, with his time of 3:18.132 already dipping below the pole lap from last year despite efforts to slow the LMP1 field down.

In the sister No. 8 car, Sebastien Buemi finished 1.1 seconds off Kobayashi’s pace, while Le Mans rookie Jose Maria Lopez completed the test day sweep for Toyota in third. Earl Bamber was Porsche’s fastest man in fourth, with defending Le Mans winner Neel Jani taking fifth.

Toyota may be the early favorite at Le Mans, yet with the heartbreak of last year’s race still fresh in the mind for all at the team, all will know that nothing is certain until the checkered flag has been taken.

THREE-PIECE TOYOTA OUT TO AVENGE GHOSTS OF 2016

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 15: The Toyota Gazoo Racing TS050 Hybrid of Sebastien Buemi, Anthony Davidson and Kazuki Nakajima drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 15, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Undeterred by its last lap defeat in 2016, Toyota Gazoo Racing has put a great deal of focus on its plans for Le Mans, opting to field a third LMP1 car for the first time since joining the category.

Third cars last ran in LMP1 at Le Mans back in 2015 when Audi and Porsche added an entry for the 24 hours, the latter’s wildcard No. 19 919 Hybrid ultimately taking a famous victory. The companies agreed for 2016 not to run third cars in a bid to cut costs following the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Toyota will bring back the tradition this week with its No. 9 car that made its bow at Spa last month. Shared by Lopez – swapped into the line-up from the No. 7 due to his inexperience and recent injury – Japanese Super Formula champion Yuji Kunimoto and defending LMP2 Le Mans winner Nicolas Lapierre, the car will give Toyota a numbers advantage that, while being far from decisive, could prove important.

Few figures within the Le Mans paddock would begrudge a Toyota victory following last year’s heartache. The TS050 Hybrid has looked strong and reliable through the early part of the WEC season, taking two victories from two races and a one-two at Spa.

Porsche may have more to come at Le Mans, but for now, the smart money would be on Toyota to finally break its duck and take its maiden overall victory as a manufacturer at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

CAN PORSCHE’S FIVE-STAR LINE-UP FIGHT BACK?

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Porsche LMP Team 919 Hybrid of Neel Jani, Andre Lotterer and Nick Tandy drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Porsche heads into this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans with what is arguably the most experienced and successful driver line-up on the grid. The re-jig that saw 2016 Le Mans winners Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas get relocated within its motorsport family (plus the retirement of Mark Webber) freed up space for Audi refugee Andre Lotterer and 2015 victors Earl Bamber and Nick Tandy in its full-season line-up.

Add in Jani (2016 winner with Lieb and Dumas) and Timo Bernhard (2010 winner with Audi), and you get to five Le Mans victors in a line-up of six. The exception is Brendon Hartley, who finished second in 2015.

Toyota may have enjoyed the upper hand through the early part of the season, but that is not to say Porsche has not been a force. The team made clever strategy work to get in the mix at the front at both Silverstone and Spa, and as we saw with Toyota last year, outright pace isn’t everything when it comes to Le Mans.

With Audi no longer on the grid, Porsche is left to fight alone for the Volkswagen Group’s pride at Le Mans. Its brands have won all but one 24-hour since the turn of the millennium (2009 being the break when Peugeot was victorious). Continuing that record and taking a third straight overall victory would be significant; perhaps even more poignant (or neat for the numbers fans out there) would be a 19th overall win claimed in a 919.

LIFE AFTER AUDI BEGINS AT LE MANS

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 15: Winners of the Le Mans 24 Hour 2014, Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Marcel Fassler, André Lotterer and Benoit Treluyer cross the line with 2nd place , Audi Sport Team Joest, Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro of Lucas Di Grassi, Loic Duval, Tom Kristensen on June 15, 2014 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images)

Audi and Le Mans have been synonymous with one another since 2000. My colleague Tony DiZinno penned an excellent column following the withdrawal announcement at the end of last year about how Audi made Le Mans cool again – and it’s true. Audi and Le Mans went hand-in-hand.

The WEC paddock has felt a bit emptier this year because of Audi’s absence, and the same will likely be true at Le Mans. To not have the likes of Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich and Leena Gade (who admittedly had already left Audi prior to its own WEC exit) decked out in Audi colors in the garage and pit lane will be strange.

The majority of the Audi drivers will still be around, though. Lotterer is the only one who has stayed in LMP1, joining Porsche; Marcel Fassler has a seat with Corvette in GTE-Pro; Lucas di Grassi is also in a GT, racing a Ferrari for AF Corse; Oliver Jarvis is in LMP2 with Jackie Chan DC Racing. The only members of the 2016 cast missing are Benoit Treluyer and Loic Duval.

Motorsport, like life, goes on. There is still a Le Mans without Audi. And we’ve got two heavyweights in the form of Porsche and Toyota ready to duel for top honors.

AND WHAT OF BYKOLLES?

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – APRIL 14: The Bykolles Racing Ream car of Oliver Webb, James Rossiter and Dominik Kraihamer drives during practice for the FIA World Endurance Championship at Silverstone on April 14, 2017 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

Don’t go thinking that LMP1 only comprises Toyota and Porsche. After Rebellion’s decision to step down to LMP2, the ByKolles team is going it alone for the LMP1 privateers, with its ENSO CLM P1/01 NISMO car set to be shared by Oliver Webb, Dominik Kraihamer and Marco Bonanomi.

Being in what is effectively a one-car race, the ByKolles team’s expectations will be chiefly internal. A solid result would be getting to the finish without too many major dramas, and if the team can stay ahead of the LMP2 field as it did at Spa last month, that would be a solid achievement.

Otherwise, the privateer side of LMP1 is more a case of looking to next year, when increased numbers are expected. Ginetta, Perrin and BR Engineering are all working on chassis for customers to buy, and a few established teams have been linked with making the jump up. More details will hopefully come out across the course of Le Mans.

PREDICTION: TOYOTA TO WIN, BUT WHICH CAR?

SPA, BELGIUM – MAY 6: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) In this handout image provided by Red Bull, Toyota LMP1 crew celebrate in the pit lane during the 6 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, the second round of the 2017 FIA World Endurance Championship’s at Spa-Francorchamps Circuit on May 6, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dean Treml/Red Bull via Getty Images)

Toyota is probably going to be the neutral’s pick for victory given the events of last year, but even putting that aside, the Japanese marque has looked really strong so far this season. It proved last year it has the strategy nous to succeed at La Sarthe, so I’m going to put my money on a first overall victory for Toyota this weekend.

But which car?

It’s really a toss-up between the No. 7 and No. 8. The No. 9 has strong drivers in it, but the lack of Le Mans – and, frankly, general endurance racing – experience makes it a real wildcard. So which of the full-season Toyotas will get the job done?

The No. 7 was the car to beat at Spa, even if it finished second after being, to quote Mike Conway, “screwed” twice by full course yellows. But I think if the No. 8 crew can work out why it lacked the pace there and get things turned around for Le Mans, then we’ll see last year’s ’23 hours and 59 minutes of Le Mans’ victors Anthony Davidson, Kazuki Nakajima and Sebastien Buemi finally – and deservedly – take a maiden 24 hour victory.

12 months on, it would be the perfect narrative.

But when has Le Mans ever cared for that?

LE MANS, FRANCE – JUNE 19: Kazuki Nakajima of Toyota Gazoo Racing reacts in his car after suffering engine problems while leading at the end of the Le Mans 24 Hour race handing victory to the Porsche Team at the Circuit de la Sarthe on June 19, 2016 in Le Mans, France. (Photo by Ker Robertson/Getty Images)

NHRA Texas winners: B. Torrence, Hagan, Anderson, Savoie

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.

Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.

Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.

Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.

Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).

It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.

It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”

In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.

We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”

Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).

In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.

It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.

We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.

We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”

Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).

In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).

It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.

It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.

Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”

NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER

TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.

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FINAL RESULTS

TOP FUEL: Billy Torrence, 3.775 seconds, 319.67 mph def. Jordan Vandergriff, 4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.909, 327.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 209.75 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.881, 195.90 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.901, 195.62.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Jordan Vandergriff, 3.746, 321.12 def. Clay Millican, 4.099, 219.72; Austin Prock, 3.688, 334.40 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.812, 316.15; Lee Callaway, 3.794, 313.66 def. Mike Salinas, 3.856, 318.69; Brittany Force, 3.694, 330.31 def. Cameron Ferre, 3.984, 269.19; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 324.12 def. Kebin Kinsley, 3.822, 263.51; Billy Torrence, 3.733, 327.35 def. Terry McMillen, 3.756, 325.77; Shawn Reed, 3.728, 327.51 def. Steve Torrence, 3.733, 319.52; Antron Brown, 3.743, 329.58 def. Richie Crampton, 4.330, 186.61; QUARTERFINALS — Vandergriff, 3.753, 322.73 def. Callaway, 9.885, 82.51; B. Torrence, 3.767, 325.69 def. Reed, 4.861, 154.60; Prock, 3.742, 330.39 def. Pritchett, 3.964, 250.55; Force, 3.815, 319.60 def. Brown, 4.113, 230.72; SEMIFINALS — B. Torrence, 3.747, 328.38 def. Force, 3.793, 318.32; Vandergriff, 3.824, 316.97 def. Prock, 3.864, 294.95; FINAL — B. Torrence, 3.775, 319.67 def. Vandergriff, 4.299, 246.03.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.896, 328.86 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.955, 326.79; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.908, 327.03 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.375, 219.54; John Force, Camaro, 3.926, 328.14 def. Jeff Arend, Ford Mustang, 7.353, 96.26; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.911, 327.19 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.342, 209.20; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.873, 327.19 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 15.205, 57.93; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.903, 329.58 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 4.007, 280.19; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.925, 325.85 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.908, 323.97; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.932, 324.05 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.957, 323.97; QUARTERFINALS — Hight, 3.937, 326.40 def. Langdon, 3.964, 321.35; Hagan, 3.903, 329.18 def. Todd, 3.937, 325.85; Tasca III, 3.938, 324.20 def. Beckman, 3.951, 322.42; Force, 3.937, 327.98 def. Johnson Jr., 3.919, 320.20; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.900, 329.83 def. Hight, Foul – Red Light; Tasca III, 3.920, 323.89 def. Force, 3.951, 327.98; FINAL — Hagan, 3.909, 327.59 def. Tasca III, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 208.91 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.635, 208.68; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.597, 208.78 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.590, 208.88; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 7.964, 125.90 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.602, 207.59 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.615, 208.17; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.617, 208.14 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.638, 207.85; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.577, 209.56 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.618, 208.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.579, 210.11 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 7.820, 127.56; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.573, 209.49 def. Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, Broke; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.625, 208.23 def. Butner, 6.656, 208.42; Anderson, 6.596, 210.05 def. Enders, 6.604, 210.54; Kramer, 6.611, 209.17 def. McGaha, 6.630, 208.75; Coughlin, 6.620, 208.23 def. Stanfield, 6.630, 208.46; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.609, 207.37 def. Hartford, 6.656, 207.43; Anderson, 6.628, 206.76 def. Kramer, 6.627, 208.30; FINAL — Anderson, 6.609, 209.75 def. Coughlin, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.912, 195.34 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.901, 196.33; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.863, 196.67 def. Angie Smith, 6.910, 195.65; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.885, 194.46 def. Hector Arana Jr, 6.933, 193.52; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.903, 190.89 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Scotty Pollacheck, 6.898, 194.21 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.955, 192.08; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.849, 194.21 def. Michael Ray, 7.209, 155.76; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.827, 196.10 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 8.231, 104.03; Matt Smith, 6.837, 197.33 was unopposed; QUARTERFINALS — Sampey, 6.914, 193.93 def. Pollacheck, 6.918, 194.16; Hines, 6.921, 194.58 def. Johnson, 6.889, 194.35; Krawiec, 6.899, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.935, 196.24; Savoie, 6.857, 196.44 def. Stoffer, 6.900, 196.07; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.957, 195.48 def. Sampey, 6.989, 190.35; Savoie, 6.877, 195.76 def. Hines, 6.991, 191.51; FINAL — Savoie, 6.881, 195.90 def. Krawiec, 6.901, 195.62.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 2,394; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,361; 3. Brittany Force, 2,348; 4. Billy Torrence, 2,323; 5. Leah Pritchett, 2,290; 6. Austin Prock, 2,278; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,266; 8. Antron Brown, 2,247; 9. Richie Crampton, 2,228; 10. Clay Millican, 2,210.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.

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