Photo courtesy NHRA

NHRA U.S. Nationals: Plenty of surprises, good and bad, in final eliminations

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Monday’s final eliminations of the 63rd annual NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals produced a number of surprises both good and bad.

Here’s some of the highlights – and lowlights:

* Three of the four winners were first-time U.S Nationals champions: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car) and Drew Skillman (Pro Stock). Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Eddie Krawiec won his second U.S. Nationals title.

* The most pleasant surprise was the Cinderella story of Top Fuel driver Kebin (yes, not Kevin) Kinsley. The Texas driver grabbed the final (16th) qualifying position before rolling all the way to the final round against No. 1 qualifier and fellow Texan Steve Torrence. Kinsley had never reached the final round of any NHRA national event, but he did Monday. Unfortunately, he smoked the tires (lost traction) in the final round matchup vs. Torrence. But coming home runner-up in the sport’s biggest race of the year is nothing to be sad about. Congrats to Kinsley on an outstanding weekend.

* J.R. Todd earned his second career Funny Car win in fine fashion, and did so with an extra bonus: the Indianapolis-area native did it in front of numerous family members and friends at his home track. Todd began racing in the NHRA Junior Dragster program over 20 years ago, and to win the sport’s biggest race, and to do so on home turf, it was the biggest day of Todd’s racing career.

* The Gray family – grandfather Johnny, father Shane and son Tanner – became the first family to ever have three members compete in an NHRA race in the same category. Tanner finished third, Johnny 11th and Shane 12th.

* John Force Racing had a difficult Monday. Patriarch and 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force lost in the first round to Del Worsham and finished 13th, daughter Courtney lost to Cruz Pedregon also in the first round, Robert Hight lost in the quarterfinals to Tim Wilkerson and in Top Fuel, Brittany lost in the first round to Shawn Langdon. JFR needs to rebound in a big way when the Countdown starts in two weeks.

* Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson had a heartbreaking semifinal round. He easily had Todd beaten, but wasn’t able to keep his car under control and crossed the centerline, drawing immediate disqualification. If that had not happened, Todd would not have gone on to win the event in the next round.

* In a rarity of sorts, not one Don Schumacher Racing car emerged with a win. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown lost in the quarterfinals, while Leah Pritchett and Tony Schumacher lost in the semifinals. In Funny Car, Matt Hagan and Tommy Johnson Jr. lost in the first round. Jack Beckman reached the semifinals, while Ron Capps made it all the way to the final round, but lost to Todd.

* Speaking of Capps, he’s been competing at the U.S. Nationals for over 20 years. Even though he’s the second-winningest driver in Funny Car annals, and won last season’s championship, he continued a dubious mark of still never having won the U.S. Nationals.

* Appearing in her first U.S. Nationals, rookie Top Fuel driver Ashley Sanford showed strong promise, although she lost to Torrence in the first round Monday. If you’re going to lose to anyone, it might as well be the best driver in the class, right?

* Veteran Pro Stock driver and former champion Allen Johnson, who announced Friday that he would be retiring as a driver at season’s end, had hoped to win Monday, but fell short, being eliminated in the quarterfinals by Tanner Gray.

* Defending 2016 Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie looked like he would have a good chance of winning his second straight U.S. Nationals, but fell short in the semifinals to Hector Arana Jr. In an ironic twist, Savoie’s teammate, LE Tonglet, lost in the quarterfinals to Krawiec, who would go on to meet and beat Arana Jr. in the finals.

* Funny Car driver Cruz Pedregon, who has endured a rough couple of seasons, was the final qualifier to make the Countdown. The two-time world Funny Car champ secured his spot in the playoffs with his first round win over Courtney Force. Pedregon then lost in the quarterfinals to Todd.

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View from the pits: Reporters’ picks for the 103rd Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR / Jason Porter
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It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, and for the first time, the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Time will tell what impact Mother Nature has on today’s 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But no matter what, prerace coverage begins today on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET, then transitions over to NBC at 11 a.m. ET.

All month long, the INDYCAR on NBC pit reporters have been bringing you the latest breaking news and stories for the Brickyard. Now, Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast and Marty Snider share their insights from pit road. Read on …

KEVIN LEE

Throughout the last two weeks, one common theme has been, “Don’t crash.” There were five crashes, and four of those teams/drivers ended up in the Last Row Shootout. Two of the three bumped (Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso) were in backup cars following heavy impacts.

Several drivers have consistently been among the strongest. Simon Pagenaud (pictured, left) not only starts on pole but has been strong in race trim as well. All three Ed Carpenter Racing cars are fast and appear good in traffic. Alexander Rossi looks like he can put his car wherever he wants, and Scott Dixon has five championships and 44 IndyCar wins, so he must be watched.

In order, my picks for most likely to drink the milk are Pagenaud, Rossi, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Dixon.

KELLI STAVAST

A week ago, no one could have predicted that two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing would be bumped from the Indy 500 by a single-car, part-time effort of Juncos Racing and its driver, Kyle Kaiser (pictured, right).  But it happened, and Kaiser now occupies the 33rd and final spot in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

So what next?  I spoke with Kyle five days after the dramatic qualifying effort, and he told me he has never been happier to finish last and that he is still “buzzing” from that experience—an energy he hopes to carry straight through to the race.  He also told me that the response from fans has been positive with people stopping him in public (including at Chipotle) to hug him and congratulate him on making the Big Show.

But reality might have set in for the Californian who now lives in Indy.  During Carb Day’s final practice, the team struggled to get a good handling car for Kyle, who described the day as “challenging.”  But Kaiser also acknowledged that the team made some progress throughout the practice and at the very least collected some data that might help for the 500-miler on Sunday.

Whether he finishes 1st or 31st on Sunday, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will have plenty of fond memories to carry with them from the 103rd Indy 500.

MARTY SNIDER

First, we cannot wait to bring you guys the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s an honor for our entire group to broadcast such an amazing event.

So what do we expect? I have no idea, to be honest. The weather will be a huge factor today. It might be a race to halfway if rain is forecast.  If it’s cooler (mid 70’s ambient, which it looks like it’s going to be), Alexander Rossi (pictured, left) was unstoppable in those conditions last Monday.

But Rossi was very unhappy with his car on Carb Day. For that matter, most teams were. But Rob Edwards of Andretti Autosport explained a few things to Rossi about all of the experimenting they were doing in final practice, and I think that team is in a much better frame of mind heading into the race.

I find it interesting that Simon Pagenaud’s team scuffed in literally every set of tires they will use for today’s race. The No. 22 camp is convinced (and they’re not wrong) that one of the keys to Will Power’s 2018 win was his ability to gain time on out laps after pit stops. Scuffing in tires helps that out lap time. It also allows teams to do a balance check on tires. Good thing they did: Kyle Moyer of Team Penske found two sets that had vibrations, which would have been bad in the race.

Bottom line, I haven’t seen anyone really stand out and show me they can beat Alexander Rossi yet. So I’m going with Rossi to win his second Indy 500.

Enjoy the show friends. It’s going to be a fantastic race!