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NHRA: What’s wrong with John Force this season?

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It’s one of the most frequently asked questions in the NHRA today: What’s wrong with John Force

The 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion is mired in his worst performance slump in more than a decade.

Even worse, he’s an almost unthinkable 12th place in the Funny Car standings, a massive 348 points behind leader and daughter, Courtney Force.

John Force, who turned 69 on May 4, is doing everything he can to right a ship that has seen three motor explosions already this season, a crash and also failed to qualify for one race (at Houston in April), snapping a string of qualifying for 221 consecutive races dating back to Sept. 13, 2008.

As the NHRA moves on to the middle third of its 24-race season – in this weekend’s JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals in Joliet, Illinois (about 50 miles southwest of downtown Chicago) – John Force is hoping to begin a massive turnaround and comeback.

Time is running out, though. There are only 12 more races to qualify for the 10-driver field for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. If the Countdown began today, John Force would not make it for the first time in his career.

Force is closing in on 150 Funny Car wins in his four-plus decade career. He comes into this weekend’s race with 148 wins.

But he’s also not won a race in more than a year (March 19, 2017 in Gainesville, Florida). Thus far this season, he’s reached just one final round, finishing runner-up at last month’s NGK Spark Plus NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina.

Force comes into this weekend’s race with three wins at Route 66, but hasn’t won there since 2006 (beat teammate Robert Hight). His last final round appearance there was a runner-up finish to Matt Hagan in 2013.

Will that toddlin’ town be kind to Force this weekend and see him at least move back up the rankings into 10th place (he’s 29 points behind current 10th-ranked Jonnie Lindberg)?

In an exclusive interview with NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk, Force spoke at length about his team’s struggles this year and how he hopes to begin turning things around:

1) How frustrating of a year has it been for you? Is the worst behind you?

Force: “I am sure hoping it is. First though, understand something. I have been down this road. In the early days I had problems. I had fires. I had explosions but I never had anything that took place from testing in Phoenix in January all the way through Gainesville in March. It had me talking to God. I know the drill. I know what happens. I know the people, the tune-ups and the parts. I just couldn’t get anything right. My people worked really hard on it. We found our way out of it. I have a job to do for PEAK and all my sponsors. I want to deliver. I don’t just ride a wave of success from the past. Even at my age I want to win races and win championships. I have everybody looking at this car. My crew chiefs have made changes in the engine program. (Auto Club crew chief) Jimmy Prock is my lead and we are running his combination and it can be tricky. We found an issue. It wasn’t anything that had to do with safety, just something going on with the car. We addressed it. I have never been snake-bit that long. When I was talking with God I was asking him if I had done something wrong and maybe this is how it is going to work out. It started to come around. In Houston it wasn’t qualifying and I can’t get it to the lights without my crew chief shutting it off early from the starting line. We have been through a lot but I am going to leave it behind me and I am going to Chicago with a whole new attitude.”

2) How have you taken your mind off the frustration?

FORCE: “Let me tell you something. I went down to Barona (California) with my grandkids for a Junior Dragster race, even though it was long days. It was like going back to my roots in a crew cab and Chaparral trailer. It was like watching myself out there. Learning and seeing them race for the first time really was a mind changer for me. You get so caught up in your problems of financial. I am financially good right now. I am very strong with Auto Club and Chevrolet and Advance and Monster and PEAK. I just mentally get into too much and I just had to get back to my roots.

“I was at that little track in Barona for a Junior Dragster race and Autumn (Hight, Robert’s daughter) won her first race. Jacob (Hood, Ashley and Danny Hood’s son) put out the top bulb up there during a race staging. It was great. He is learning. It was a wake-up call. I came home satisfied. I was like ready to go to Chicago. I needed that. I am going to be OK.”

3) Are fans talking to you about the slump?

FORCE: “You know what is funny? So many of the race track people and the fans were coming up to me telling me I was going to be OK. I was thinking ‘What are they talking about? Do I not look good?’ They watch our TV show and they care about you. That is what motivates me more than anything. It’s the fans and the friends and other racers down there even though they are in Junior Dragster. They know what we do and they love it. I have a big following out there and I am not going to let them down. My mind is right. It took a junior dragster race in Barona to get my mind right. Trust me.”

4) You just turned 69. Did you have doubts about your career when all these things were going on?

FORCE: “I can drive a race car. I know how to do the media. I know how to run teams even though Robert Hight has become my lead. Sometimes you get caught up after you have done this for 40 something years. You get caught up in it. It is like being tired and you don’t realize it. You just think your health is going. Then all of a sudden you take a quick nap in the middle of the day like I have done before and you wake up with a whole new attitude. There are times when I felt like I couldn’t do a meeting or an interview but I go get a nap for an hour. I did it in Indy. I told my staff I was going to get a quick nap and I would be right back. You don’t realize that you are getting tired because you are working all the time and you love it. You have to remember that. You think you can go days and days. We work every day like so many people on this team. My mind is always going. I don’t ever get away from it. This is good timing for this call because I am in a great mood. Before Barona we had been racing and I would come back for meetings about TV shows and sponsors and I just had no energy. That weekend with the grandkids really brought back the old John Force. I get sleep at night at least seven or eight hours. I know I am getting older but I really don’t think that is the issue.”

5) This is the longest you’ve been out of the top 10 since 2007, before your bad crash at Texas. Are you concerned about being outside the top 10?

FORCE: “No I don’t worry about that. Hell, I might not make it. I never thought there would be a day when me and (former crew chief ) Austin Coil wouldn’t qualify at Indy. Sh** happens. I know my race car. I know what my other cars can do and they are winning races. They are setting records. No, it isn’t me and I have a lot on my plate, but right now I am a round and a half out of the top 10 but I will get there. That is my job and that it what I owe to do for my sponsors.”

6) You’re heading to Chicago and start a stretch of four races in a row. That’s four straight weekends of racing. How do you feel?

FORCE: “That is when I will find my zone. I will find my groove. I have run these race teams for 40 years and I have more championships than anybody. I am going to Chicago and PEAK’s headquarters. I am going there and I want to show my stuff. I only blame myself for anything that we have done wrong. Sometimes you make decisions and they are wrong. And then you make more decisions and those might not be the right calls but you keep going until you figure out the puzzle. This race car is like a giant Rubik’s cube. You have to keep turning and twisting the pieces until you find your way. I don’t claim to be a genius but I listen to my people. We are working together to go down this road. I can put together a team that can win. Robert (2017 Funny Car champ Robert High) has proven that and Brittany (2017 Top Fuel champ Brittany Force) has proven that. Courtney has won three races so far this year so they are proving they have a good team. I thought my team would be a no-brainer but we are the ones that got snake-bit. I am going to be OK. Four in a row is exciting. To go from one town to the next is like the old days. Robert and I aren’t even going home we are just staying out there. You want to get into that mood with the team. I might even drive one of my 18-wheelers to a race. I drove the trailer to Barona and it was a great two-hour trip. It was something I needed. I am very positive. The biggest thing is I feel rested and ready to go to work.”

7) Is it safe to say that if you don’t have a strong race at Chicago, that there may be some changes within the team?

FORCE: “Every now and then you get snake-bit. You look at Monster last year. They were struggling a little bit but we fought through it and won the championship. We have shuffled teams in the past and won races and won championships, but we have a really good combination now with my people. I know what I am doing. I had the problems at the start of the year and maybe I should have taken a race off, but I kept working and racing. The doctors said I was OK so I kept working and running full-speed. I knew it would take a while to get back to 100 percent. I feel like now I am putting a lot of that stuff behind me. I have been hard to live with. I am going through what the doctors all told me, which is you’ll have good days and bad days. Nothing major but my body is still healing and it has been getting better ever since Gainesville. It has been about 60 days since that last explosion and I am getting back to feeling good.”

8) Can you draw any comparisons between this year’s struggles and those you experienced in 2007?

FORCE: “Nothing compares to 2007. You live every day since we lost Eric (Medlen) with the responsibility and keeping his memory alive. Eric is gone (killed in a crash during a test session at Gainesville earlier that year). I had my crash (at Texas later that season) and I felt like if he crashed then I should have crashed too and he saved my life. We worked to build better race cars. We fought our way out of that. That was enough to make anybody quit but we knew we couldn’t give up because of Eric and John Medlen (Eric’s father and former crew chief for Force). You have to give John Medlen so much credit for his strength. I had a couple crashes this year and it has taken me a few months to recover. It took some time here and there and maybe I should have taken more but I am a fighter. I have a job to do and I love my job so much that I can’t fail. It has been hard on me physically but I got through a lot harder physical issues in 2007.”

9) Last question: While it has been a frustrating season, you still have the runner-up finish at Charlotte. Can you get some of that same magic here in Chicago?

FORCE: “I am glad you brought that up. Going to the final at the four-wide and being in the hunt there was big. I have had some time to get past the explosions and we have been working things out with the headers. I don’t want to make any excuses. I am ready for these four (races) in a row. I have been through a lot. I have been through down times like 2007. Losing Austin Coil as my crew chief was a down time for me to regroup. I have always found a way because that is what I do. Racing is what I do. It ain’t a job to me. I don’t need to do this to make a living. I could retire. I am putting some of my own money back into my race teams to keep winning. I have gotten some rest since I have been home for over a week.

“Now, I am going to Chicago with the right attitude. The attitude is back. I feel good. I can’t wait to get going at Chicago.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

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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