NHRA: With two races left to make playoffs, several drivers are on hot seat

NHRA
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The way it is shaping up, 20-plus drivers/riders have three weeks to get their NHRA playoff hopes in gear.

Two races remain in the 18-race NHRA regular season, Aug. 16-19 at Brainerd, Minnesota, and Aug. 29-Sept. 3 at Indianapolis.

Drivers ranked in the top 10 in the Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle standings after the Indy race will then qualify for and advance to the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

But there are still several drivers that are in the top 10 in their respective classes that have not secured their spot in the Countdown yet – and potentially may not. There are also several drivers currently outside the Top 10 that essentially have to make Hail Mary passes to make the playoffs.

Let’s break down who’s already in the Countdown, who’s not and who’s in trouble in each individual class, along with notes on each class:

TOP FUEL:

Who’s in: points leader Steve Torrence (5 wins, 1,251 points), 8-time champ Tony Schumacher (1 win, 1,090 points), Clay Millican (2 wins, 1,084 points), Leah Pritchett (2 wins, 1,083 points).

Who’s not: Doug Kalitta (1 win, 995 points), three-time national champ Antron Brown (1 win, 927 points), Terry McMillen (759 points), defending national champ Brittany Force (1 win, 731 points), Richie Crampton (1 win, 660 points) and Scott Palmer (649 points).

Who’s in trouble: No. 11 Mike Salinas (619 points), No. 12 Blake Alexander (2 wins, 522 points).

Antron Brown
Brittany Force

Notes: Two drivers in particular need to get moving if they hope to have a shot at another championship. Namely, defending Top Fuel champ Brittany Force and three-time champ Antron Brown. Both have just one win thus far this season (Brown finally broke through last week at Seattle). … Keep an eye on Clay Millican, who is having a career season and could be the biggest surprise of all. … Also, keep an eye on Steve Torrence. He came so close to the championship last season. Given his five wins thus far, Torrence right now is the man to beat – but few have been able to do so. … And if you happen to have a third eye handy, keep it on Doug Kalitta, one of the hardest-working drivers in all drag racing, but still has yet to win his first Top Fuel championship. Could this finally be Connie Kalitta’s nephew’s year to win it all?

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FUNNY CAR:

Who’s in: Courtney Force (4 wins, 1,300 points), 2016 national champ Ron Capps (2 wins, 1,146 points), defending national champ Robert Hight (2 wins, 1,085 points), Matt Hagan (3 wins, 1,064 points).

Who’s not: Jack Beckman (1 win, 999 points), J.R. Todd (2 wins, 914 points), Tommy Johnson Jr. (892 points), 16-time national event champ John Force (1 win, 824 points), Shawn Langdon (736 points) and Bob Tasca III (691 points).

Who’s in trouble: No. 11 Tim Wilkerson (688 points), No. 12 Cruz Pedregon (1 win, 641 points), No. 13 Jonnie Lindberg (598 points), No. 14 Jim Campbell (451 points).

John Force

Notes: Last year was Brittany Force’s year (in Top Fuel). Thus far in 2018, it appears to be younger sister Courtney Force’s year in Funny Car. She’s come close to the championship before fading in the past; can she keep up her momentum going forward in the remaining eight races? … Speaking of Force, John Force should qualify for the playoffs, but the 69-year-old drag racing icon needs to pick up his game substantially if he hopes to have any chance at title No. 17. … Cruz Pedregon has struggled in recent years, but his win at Charlotte in April (his first triumph since 2014) gave him some much needed and deserved momentum. He needs to find a bit more momentum to get past Tasca and Wilkerson to make the 10-driver Countdown in Funny Car. He essentially needs to go a total of three additional rounds than the other two drivers in the last two pre-Countdown races to make the playoffs.

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PRO STOCK:

Who’s in: Greg Anderson (1 win, 1,189 points), Tanner Gray (4 wins), 1,147 points), Erica Enders (1 win, 1,082 points), Vincent Nobile (2 wins, 1,052 points), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (3 wins, 1,020 points).

Who’s not: Chris McGaha (2 wins, 939 points), Deric Kramer (1 win, 928 points), Drew Skillman (927 points), former champ Jason Line (913 points), Bo Butner (1 win, 895 points).

Who’s in trouble: No. 11 Alex Laughlin (1 win, 681 points), No. 12 Matt Hartford (548 points).

Jason Line

Notes: What has happened to Jason Line this season? The former champ still does not have a win this season, which is virtually unheard of for him. What’s more, teammate and multi-champion Greg Anderson has just one win (although he has been consistent enough to remain No. 1 in the standings). Anderson and Line need to get back into winning form – and fast – lest one or both make early exits in the Countdown. Consistency won’t be enough; wins will decide who is the ultimate Pro Stock champ in 2018.

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PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE:

Who’s in: Andrew Hines (687 points), Eddie Krawiec (3 wins, 651 points), LE Tonglet (2 wins, 609 points), Hector Arana Jr. (1 win, 562 points).

Who’s not: 2016 national champ Jerry Savoie (1 win, 534 points), Matt Smith (1 win, 473 points), Scotty Pollacheck (449 points), Angie Smith (336 points), Hector Arana (321 points), Angelle Sampey (320 points).

Who’s in trouble: No. 11 Jim Underdahl (312 points), No. 12 Steve Johnson (302 points), No. 13 Cory Reed (300 points).

Andrew Hines

Notes: Much like Jason Line in Pro Stock, five-time PSM champ Andrew Hines is almost incredulously winless still at this late stage of the regular season. How can that be? Sure, Hines could ride into the Countdown still No. 1 in points, but unless he takes a couple of trips to the winner’s circle in the playoffs, he will not win another championship this year. … Also, keep your eye on the battle for eighth through 10th place heading into Indy. Just 36 points separate six riders for the final three Countdown spots. Right now, the dark horses to make the Countdown – providing they have an exceptional race at Indy – are Sampey, Underdahl and Johnson.

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NEOM McLaren Racing Formula E and Ian James set to race ahead of electric motorsports’ curve

James McLaren Formula E
McLaren Racing
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As Formula E enters their ninth season and McLaren Racing is set to compete in last year’s championship winning car, Ian James is passionate about pushing electric motorsports forward at a critical stage as race technology begins surpassing that of the street cars.

Midseason, McLaren acquired the assets of the Mercedes-EQ team as they were already on their way to winning a second consecutive championship. With those assets in place and coming off a successful debut in the Extreme E series, James is set to usher in a new era in electric car racing.

Last week’s announcement that Jake Hughes will join Rene Rast behind the wheel of the NEOM McLaren Formula E team was the last piece of the puzzle.

McLaren’s electric portfolio is building with the Formula E team coming one year after they entered the Extreme E rally series in 2022 with Tanner Foust and Emma Gilmour. There were a lot of lessons to learn in that series with growing pains during the first three of five rounds. Rounds 4 and 5 were a completely different matter with the team crossing the finish line first in Chile before being assessed a time penalty.

In the final round in Uruguay, they scored an elusive podium.

“McLaren kicked off the season in Extreme E at the beginning of this year, so our first [electric] race took place Neom, actually out in Saudi,” NEOM McLaren Racing Team Principal James told NBC Sports. “At the time, we were in very early discussions about opportunities with the Formula E team. I actually went out there to meet with Zak [Brown, CEO McLaren Racing] and that was my first taste of Extreme E.

“Since the transition, I joined them in Chile in Atacama Desert, and then Uruguay last weekend. [The second-place finish was] a lovely way to round out the season. The fact that they got that podium. It was very well deserved. It’s a great team and a great series actually. It’s just so very different from anything else. The team’s done a great job in getting set up, and it’s nice now to, we’re trying to use that momentum that we’ve got from Uruguay to get us into next season when it kicks off next year, which will be great. I think we’re mid-March is looking like the first race, so a little bit of time to get things prepped for that.”

 

James McLaren Formula E
The NEOM Mclaren Racing Formula E team was created through the acquisition of last year’s championship car from Mercedes-EQ. – McLaren Racing

Synergies exist between the single seater and rally series. Lessons learned about battery power and sustainability in the electric SUV carry over so long as one is mindful of keeping focus on the individual needs and nuances of each series.

Especially now that electric racing technology has caught up, and is ready to surpass, the existing technology that has gone into building street cars.

When internal combustion engines gained the upper hand soon after automobiles were invented, racing paced alongside. The pressure of competition pushed the development of their commercial equivalents. The same has not necessarily been true of electric cars. Street cars were not designed to undergo the same stress as racecars – and that vulnerability showed up on the racetrack.

“Formula E has come along a long way,” James said. “I think one of the most notable developments is in the battery technology. In Gen 1, you had the drivers jumping from one car to another car midrace because the battery technology and capacity simply wasn’t where it needed to be to do the full distance. That obviously changed in Gen 2 and we saw a power increase as well to the 250 kilowatts.

“Now going to Gen 3, we have 350 kilowatts in a smaller battery. But that means that we’re relying on the regeneration of energy and for that reason, we’ve got also the opportunity to regenerate on the front axle as well as the rear axle now. So, there’s all sorts of things that are developing in the right direction.

“In terms of throttle response, actually, we’re now in a situation with electric racing and the motors that it’s instantaneous. And one of the advantages of electric over combustion engine is that the torque is instantaneous as well, so that gives you a lot more room to play with.”

No matter the power source, racing has always been about resource management. Drivers and teams select tire strategies they believe produce the fastest elapsed time and fuel conservation comes into play.

On one hand, electric racing is the same, but there is a critical difference. With the battery as both the power source and an integral part of the engine, there are multiple reasons to manage it.

In electric racing, the brain of the car is the software – and that is where James sees the greatest room for advancement.

“As we are working with our drivers and engineers – and start to look at functionality to improve our efficiency and our performance, that’s something we’ll continue to push because that development is open throughout the season,” James said. “That’s going to be our focus going forward and provides enough of a challenge for us to get our teeth into.

“What’s going to be fascinating is as Formula E continues, is to really look at which areas of development on the car are going to be the most relevant and ensuring that we can focus on those together with the manufacturers so we continue and use the series as a platform for technical development that can then feed back into the road car side of things as well.

“At the end of the day, that’s what motorsports always been, a very powerful tool for, and I see Formula E as no exception.”

James McLaren Formula E
Jake Hughes and Rene Rast were chosen for their ability to drive fast and execute the necessary strategy for energy management. – McLaren Racing

Selecting Rast and Hughes as McLaren’s Formula E drivers was not simply because they know how to drive fast. James believes both drivers have the mental aptitude to execute energy management strategies throughout the race and squeeze maximum performance.

“As with many other motorsports, you’ve got a certain amount of energy that you’re able to deploy during the race and the management of that energy is absolutely crucial,” James said. “What we’re seeing typically in electric motorsports now is the hardware side of things. The efficiencies that we’re seeing in the powertrain as a whole, they’re getting up to the sort of 96%, 97%, 98% efficiency, so the gains that you get through that further and further become more marginal.”

With much more room for improvement, software is a different matter. To make the best decisions, the drivers need data, and that is where James believes McLaren Formula E will make their greatest impact.

“And then you really switch that focus to the software and that’s where you’re going to see the most the most improvement and the most gains,” James continued. “It’s then using that software to ensure that you’re deploying the energy in the most efficient manner during race, and thereby giving the driver the most performance. And that’s something which is incredibly complicated, but I find it a fascinating area to work in.

“The benefit of being involved in racing is you can really push the envelope in a way that you can’t do on road cars. And I think that that’s where that value comes in. It means that you accelerate the development a lot quicker. We will get ahead of the curve – and we are getting ahead of the curve now – and that will mean that the electric motorsports remain part of the overall development process.

“The key to that is also making sure that the racing’s exciting and fun for the fans. If we can, we can tick both of those boxes, then it’s got a very bright future ahead of it.”