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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Tequila Patron to end ESM and IMSA partnerships after 2018 season

Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Earlier on Monday, Tequila Patron, a long-time sponsor in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, both at the team level – they have a long standing partnership with Tequila Patron ESM – and the series level, announced that they will be ending their sponsorships at the end of the 2018 season.

After sponsoring Highcroft Racing in 2008 and 2009 in the American Le Mans Series, Tequila Patron and ESM formed a partnership in 2010 to launch their own team. Since then, they have scored overall wins in the Rolex 24 at Daytona, Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Petit Le Mans. They have also competed internationally, in both Prototype and GT categories.

“On behalf of the entire Extreme Speed Motorsports organization, it has been an honor to represent such an amazing brand for the past 13 years,” said team co-owner Scott Sharp via a team release.

“I have the deepest gratitude for all of (Patron CEO and ESM co-founder) Ed Brown’s support. Together we have tackled various challenges, won races at each step, and built ESM into such an incredible team. Simultaneously, it has been thrilling to watch Ed and his team build the Patrón brand in a meteoric fashion and along the way become an icon in the motorsports world! We will miss not carrying the now infamous green and black livery, but the same passion for excellence will remain!”

IMSA President Scott Atherton also expressed gratitude toward Patron for their long-time involvement.

“IMSA and Patron Spirits have enjoyed a fantastic partnership for more than a decade. Tequila Patron rose through the IMSA ranks, from a high-profile team sponsor with Patron Highcroft Racing beginning in 2008, through its entitlement sponsorship of the Patron GT3 Challenge starting in 2009, and its presenting sponsorship of the American Le Mans Series beginning in 2010,” Atherton detailed.

He continued, “Tequila Patron continued in a prominent position as the American Le Mans Series merged with GRAND-AM to create the new IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and has been our entitlement partner for the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup since 2014 in addition to its longstanding support of the Tequila Patron ESM race team and its pair of Nissan DPi race cars.

“All associated with IMSA – competitors, promoter partners, series officials and fans – will miss the iconic Tequila Patrón brand next year. On behalf of IMSA, we thank CEO Ed Brown and Tequila Patron for all they have done over the many years to help us grow IMSA and the sport as a whole. We’re more proud than words can express to have counted Tequila Patron among our family of premium brand partners.”

Team co-owner Scott Sharp, in a story posted on SportsCar365, asserted that the ESM team has every intention of continuing in 2019.

“We’re working on a number of options,” Sharp said. “Obviously I think we’ve singly got the best team we’ve ever had, personnel-wise. Having been refining over the years and making selected additions, we’ve gotten ourselves to be super strong. The goal is keeping everyone together. We’re working through a few different options that will hopefully allow us to do that.”

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