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NHRA championships on the line in this weekend’s season-ending Auto Club Finals

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After 23 races and nine months to the day of the final round of the season’s opening race in February, the 2017 NHRA season comes to a close with this weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.

NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championships are on the line for all four professional classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Some of the battles are extremely tight, while at least one category will be over by the potential champion merely qualifying for the race.

Let’s break down each class and where the championship battle lines are drawn, as well as who I am picking to become 2017 champions:

TOP FUEL:

Antron Brown’s championship reign in 2015 and 2016, as well as three times in the last five seasons, is over.

Three drivers remain in the hunt for the 2017 title, and no matter who it is, it’s guaranteed to be a first-time Top Fuel champion.

Steve Torrence comes into Pomona holding a 20-point lead over Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force.

“To win a championship, we can do this and do that, but at the end of the day we need to go there and try to win the race,” Torrence said. “We don’t want to go there and be conservative.

“We don’t want to treat it any different than any other race. You can definitely make a lot more of it and put a lot of pressure on yourself. But we want to go there and do what we’ve been doing. We want to run well in qualifying, go rounds, and try to win the race, and go there and enjoy it.

“I feel confident we are up to the occasion. It’s up to us to go and do the best we can. If everyone on our team goes out there and does their job, I feel confident that ultimately we should prevail. That’s been the case the whole season. When we go out and do our job, we come out on top. We just have to stay calm and stay focused.”

Torrence has to stay one step – and at least one round – ahead of Force to take the title. But if Torrence runs one round short of Force, she’ll likely be the champ.

For example, if Torrence – who has won 8 of this year’s first 23 races – loses in the second round of Sunday’s eliminations but Force reaches the semifinals, she’s in and he’s out.

Also, if Force out qualifies Torrence on Friday and Saturday, she will earn bonus points (or Torrence will if he out qualifies Force) that will give her a slight edge unless they both meet in the final round, when it’s a winner-take-all situation.

“I don’t try to focus on the big picture and how many points you need,” said Force, who has six career wins. “Obviously, I hear things and how many rounds out we are, but my main focus is one round at a time. That’s the way I approach it.

“Some drivers feed off how many points they are behind and how far they are back, but for me, I do it one round at a time. It’s too much pressure, too much on my plate if I look at it another way. Then my focus is lost, it’s not in the right place, it’s not in the car, it’s a distraction. For me, less distraction is better when I’m in the car.”

Doug Kalitta is also mathematically still in it, but at 85 points behind Torrence, he has his work cut out for him. But if Force and Torrence both falter in the first or second round, Kalitta could come from behind to become the season champ.

It’s a longshot, but it’s still doable.

My championship pick: Steve Torrence

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FUNNY CAR:

Ron Capps is going for his second consecutive championship, but he’ll have to get past Robert Hight to do so.

Hight holds a 15-point edge over Capps, while Courtney Force is still mathematically eligible, albeit a distant 125 points back.

But if Hight and Capps exit in the first round of eliminations and Force wins the race, she could steal the championship.

And if Brittany Force wins in Top Fuel, how great would it be to have sisters being champions for the first time in NHRA history?

My championship pick: Capps.

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Pro Stock: Seeking his first championship since 2010, Greg Anderson has a 40-point lead over teammate Bo Butner and a 76-point edge over other teammate Jason Line.

While a win would help, Anderson can likely clinch the championship by just reaching the Pro Stock final round.

My championship pick: Anderson

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The driver/rider with the easiest path to a championship is Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec.

Sure, L.E. Tonglet is mathematically still in contention heading into this weekend.

But – and that’s a big but – all Krawiec has to do is qualify for Sunday’s eliminations and he will have clinched the championship.

My championship pick: Krawiec

MRTI: Toronto digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Last year’s visit to the streets of Toronto for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires proved to be a pivotal point in the championship chase that year.

Kyle Kaiser swept both races in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, and doing so gave him firm control over the championship, and he all but clinched it ahead of the season finale at Watkins Glen – Kaiser needed to only start that event to wrap up the title.

And in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, while Parker Thompson swept the weekend, Oliver Askew was caught up in a crash in Race 2. Combine that with a second place finish from 2017 title rival Rinus VeeKay – VeeKay also finished third in Race 1 – and it kept the championship within reach of VeeKay, who took it all the way to the finale at The Glen.

The 2018 visit north of the border will likely be remembered for a similar impact on the MRTI championships, both in Indy Lights and USF2000 and, maybe most significantly, in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

A look at big stories to emerge from a wild weekend on the streets of Toronto is below.

Indy Lights

Santi Urrutia scored a much needed win in Race 2 on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Santi Urrutia’s championship hopes were teetering entering the weekend – he was 49 points out of the lead and had been vastly overshadowed by title combatants Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta for most of the season. But, his Race 2 victory combined with a second place in Race 1 to close him to within 40 points of O’Ward for the championship lead. He’s still a bit of a long shot, but his chances look much brighter leaving Toronto than they did entering.
  • More significantly, Colton Herta’s title hopes may have taken an enormous hit. After crashing in Race 1 qualifying, just after grabbing the pole as well, Herta suffered a thumb fracture that he aggravated again after crashing during Race 1. It forced the team to recommend Herta essentially sit out Race 2 – he pulled off after running only a couple laps and finished sixth – and he dropped to 18 points behind O’Ward, who won Race 1 and finished second in Race 2. The margin is hardly a commanding one for O’Ward, but with the next stop at the ultra-physical Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Herta’s injured hand could remain a factor in the coming races and allow O’Ward to widen the margin.
  • One can’t help but feel bad for Victor Franzoni. Coming off the high of winning his first Indy Lights Race at Road America, Franzoni’s season took a turn for the worse. He crashed in Race 1 and then pulled off in Race 2 in order to conserve finances and resources – Franzoni detailed afterward that the budget is tight for him this year and crash damage from Race 1 does him no good. It would be a genuine shame if Franzoni’s season was derailed by funding issues, as the likeable Brazilian has made great progress all year and has the potential to make it as a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. He just needs the backing to get there.

Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay now trails Parker Thompson by only seven points in the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • No Mazda Road to Indy Championship was shaken up as much as Pro Mazda. Parker Thompson entered the weekend with a sizeable lead of 46 points over Rinus VeeKay. He exits the weekend only seven points ahead after finishes of eighth in both races – he was involved in a crash in Race 1 and made an unscheduled pit stop after thinking he suffered suspension damage in Race 2. Meanwhile, VeeKay dominated the weekend, winning from the pole in both races. It all means that what was once looking like a possible runaway has been all but reset. And we might see a genuine duel between them all the way to the season finale at Portland International Raceway.
  • There are few words to describe the relief everyone felt in seeing Harrison Scott walk away unhurt after his frightening airborne crash in Race 1. This was the first major crash test in a race for the Tatuus PM-18, and it aced it. And big kudos should also be given to the AMR Safety Team, who were already tending to Scott barely a few seconds after his car had come to a rest. Scott did start Race 2, but pulled off with a mechanical problem…which seems minor in comparison to what could have happened in Race 1.
  • Oliver Askew had his best race of the year in Race 2, finishing second to VeeKay for his second podium of the season. It’s been a tough year for Askew and Cape Motorsports after winning last year’s USF2000 title, and getting a podium under their belt could be just what they needed heading into the season’s stretch run.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood continued his USF2000 dominance on the streets of Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • After another weekend sweep, Kyle Kirkwood has one hand on the USF2000 championship. He leads Kaylen Frederick by a staggering 131 points – that’s over four road course races worth of points. He may well leave Mid-Ohio as the USF2000 champion. And even if he doesn’t, it would take something unheard of to keep the championship from his grasp.
  • Kaylen Frederick sits second, only three points up on Igor Fraga. Fraga had his best race since Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, when he finished second, and he nearly outdueled Kirkwood for the win in Race 2. Both he and Frederick have caught fire of late, and their battle for second is very evenly matched.
  • Don’t count out Rasmus Lindh in the battle for second in the championship either. The Swedish driver is seven points behind Frederick and scored his third podium of the year by finishing third in Race 2 at Toronto. Second is well within his reach.

The Mazda Road to Indy is off this weekend before heading to Mid-Ohio, where Indy Lights and USF2000 again have double headers, while Pro Mazda will enjoy a triple header.

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