NHRA

NHRA: Antron Brown primed to get back on track in ‘Western Swing’ kickoff this weekend in Denver

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Top Fuel driver Antron Brown is the NHRA’s modern day answer to Horace Greeley.

It was Greeley who on July 13, 1865 – yep, just over 153 years ago, to be precise – that wrote the famous words “Go West, Young Man” in the New York Tribune.

Brown grew up in New Jersey, but has called Indianapolis home for the last several years.

But Brown has a second home of sorts – and that’s where the “Go West, Young Man” aspect comes in.

Each year the NHRA hosts its three-race mid-summer “Western Swing” in Denver, Sonoma (California) and Seattle, Brown feels right at home.

Last year, he won two out of three, at both Denver and Seattle, including defeating Don Schumacher Racing teammate Leah Pritchett in the Denver finale.

But wait, there’s more:

* He’s won three times at Bandimere Speedway in the Denver suburb of Morrison, Colorado (2009, 2012 and 2017).

* He’s also a five-time runner-up at Bandimere (2008 and 2016 in Top Fuel and in 1999, 2001 and 2005 in Pro Stock Motorcycle).

* He’s a three-time No. 1 qualifier (2009 and 2010 in Top Fuel, and 2001 in Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Brown comes into this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere on a roll. He was runner-up in the last Mello Yello Drag Racing Series two weeks ago at Epping, New Hampshire, losing to Steve Torrence in the final round.

Brown sits sixth in the Top Fuel standings with 717 points, but a distant 369 points behind class leader Torrence.

To say this has not been a typical season for Brown is an understatement. He’s managed just 13 round wins in the 2018 season’s first 13 races.

Worse, he hasn’t won since last year’s triumph at Seattle.

But with 11 races left in this season, including five more to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, Brown has plenty of time to get things back on track.

He hopes it starts this weekend in Denver, which is unlike any other race on the schedule because the elevation of the race track is about a mile above sea level.

“The air is thin and there’s not much oxygen,” Brown said. “The temperatures will go up during the day and that makes some difficult conditions for the race cars to make good power and run hard there.

“It’s the same thing for all the crew members on the human body. When you go there, it’s definitely a test of conditioning and going out there and making it happen.

“The trick in going to Denver is that you have to be mentally strong, emotionally tough and use all of your physical strength to make it happen when you don’t think you have anything left in the tank.

“We’ve had success there, though. We were the last ones to sweep the Western Swing in 2009 and came close last year after winning in Denver and Seattle.”

This weekend will be the 396th race of Brown’s NHRA career. He has 65 total wins (49 in Top Fuel, 16 in PSM). He’s also on the verge of capturing his 50th career No. 1 qualifier honors (38 in Top Fuel, 11 in PSM).

Because of the elevation and unique atmospheric conditions, Brown and his U.S. Army/Matco Tools team is ready for anything more so at Bandimere than any other track they visit each year.

“We change almost everything on the car before we go to Denver because Denver is just a way different setup with how we run the car,” Brown said. “We put stuff that we’ve been running off to the side, then we’ll swap it back after Denver.

“You go to Denver like you’re playing craps,” Brown said. “You just roll those dice and hope they come out right so you stumble onto a good combination that’s going to work.

“That had been our Achilles heel for a stretch before we made it to the finals two years ago because Denver had been eating us up a little bit. We’ve won there three times and been runner-up five times. We just have to get back to that combination and be competitive once again. Denver’s just a challenging track.”

But Brown is definitely up to the challenge. He’s gone west to win a few more.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.