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


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:


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?



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.



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.



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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Will Power says IndyCar field toughest in world: ‘F1’s a joke as far as competition’


DETROIT – With the 2023 Formula One season turning into a Red Bull runaway, Will Power believes the NTT IndyCar Series deserves respect as the world’s most difficult single-seater racing series.

“It’s so tough, an amazing field, the toughest field in the world, and people need to know it, especially compared to Formula One,” the defending IndyCar champion told NBC Sports during a media luncheon a few days ahead of Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. “Formula One’s a joke as far as competition, but not as far as drivers. They have amazing drivers. And I feel sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the satisfaction we do with our racing because that is the top level of open-wheel motorsport.

“I think Formula One would be so much better if they had a formula like IndyCar. I love the technology and the manufacturer side of it. I think that’s awesome. But from a spectator watching, man, how cool would it be if everyone had a Red Bull (car)?”

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

It probably would look a lot different than this season, which has been dominated by two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix from the pole position by 24 seconds over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. It’s the fifth victory in seven races for Verstappen, whose 40 career wins are one shy of tying late three-time champion Aryton Senna.

Along with being a virtual lock to tie Senna’s mark for titles, Verstappen is poised to break his own record for single-season victories (15) that he set last year.

“You simply know Max is going to win every race if something doesn’t go wrong,” Power said. “Imagine being a guy coming out as a rookie, and you probably could win a race. It would be really cool to see. But you know that would never happen with the politics over there.”

Verstappen’s F1 dominance has been a stark contrast to IndyCar, where Josef Newgarden just became the first repeat winner through six races this season with his Indy 500 victory.

Team Penske (with Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Chip Ganassi Racing (with Palou and Marcus Ericsson) and Andretti Autosport (with Kyle Kirkwood) each have visited victory lane in 2023. Arrow McLaren (which has past winners Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist) is certain to join them at some point.

Meanwhile, Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez (two wins) have won every F1 race this season with the two Red Bull cars combining to lead more than 95% of the laps.

The primary differences are in the rulesets for each series.

While F1 teams virtually have complete autonomy to build their high-tech cars from scratch, IndyCar has what is known as a spec series in which the cars have a large degree of standardization.

IndyCar teams all use the Dallara DW12 chassis, which is in its 12th season. The development of the car largely has been maximized, helping put a greater emphasis on driver skill as a differentiator (as well as other human resources such as whip-smart strategists and engineers).

Alex Palou, who will start from the pole position at Detroit, harbors F1 aspirations as a McLaren test driver, but the Spaniard prefers IndyCar for competitiveness because talent can be such a determinant in results.

“Racing-wise, that’s the best you can get,” Palou said a few days before winning the pole for the 107th Indy 500 last month. “That’s pure racing, having chances to win each weekend.”

Of course, F1 is the world’s most popular series, and the 2021 IndyCar champion believes its appeal doesn’t necessarily stem from being competitive.

Though the ’21 championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was epic, F1 has grown its audience in recent years with the help of the “Drive To Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has showcased their stars’ personalities along with the cutthroat decisions of its team principals (IndyCar started its own docuseries this year).

“I don’t think the beauty of F1 is the race itself,” Palou said. “I’d say the beauty is more the development that they have and everything around the races, and that they go different places. But when we talk about pure spectacle, you cannot get better than (IndyCar).

“You can feel it as a driver here when you first come and jump in a car. When I was in Dale Coyne (Racing), we got a podium my rookie year. It wasn’t the best team, but we were able to achieve one of the best cars at Road America (where he finished third in 2020). It’s not that I was driving a slow car. I was driving a really fast car. I think we can see that across all the teams and the drivers.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who will start second at Detroit, is in his third season of IndyCar after winning three championships in Supercars.

The New Zealander said recently that IndyCar has been “the most enjoyment I’ve ever had in my career. I had a lot of fun in Supercars, but there were still things like different uprights, engines, all that stuff. (IndyCar) is spec. Really the only things you can change are dampers and the engine differences between Honda and Chevy.

“I have a blast,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to extract pace and winning in this series is better than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m surprised by how satisfied it feels to win an IndyCar race. It’s better than how it ever has felt in my career. I’ve always liked winning, but it’s so satisfying to win here. That’s why it’s so cool. There are no bad drivers. You have to have a perfect day.”

Qualifying might be the best example of the series’ competitiveness tightness. The spread for the Fast Six final round of qualifying on Detroit’s new nine-turn, 1.645-mile downtown layout was nearly eight 10ths of a second – which qualifies as an eternity these days.

Last month, the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course produced a spread of 0.2971 seconds from first to sixth – the fourth-closest Fast Six in IndyCar history since the format was adopted in 2008. Three of the seven closest Fast Six fields have happened this season (with the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranking sixth and the Alabama Grand Prix in seventh).

While the technical ingenuity and innovation might be limited when compared to F1, there’s no arguing that more IndyCar drivers and teams have a chance to win.

“The parity’s great, and no one has an advantage, basically,” Power said. “The two engine manufacturers (Honda and Chevrolet) are always flipping back and forth as they develop, but we’re talking like tenths of a second over a lap. There’s not a bad driver in the field, and there are 20 people all capable of being in the Fast Six every week. Maybe more. It’s incredibly competitive. There isn’t a more competitive series in the world. I’m sure of that.

“If you want the ultimate driver’s series, this is it I’m from a big team that would benefit massively from opening the rules up, but I don’t think (IndyCar officials) should. I think this should always be about the team and driver getting the most out of a piece of equipment that everyone has a chance to do so. That’s the ultimate driver series. Who wants to win a championship when you’re just given the best car? It’s just ridiculous.”

Power believes the talented Verstappen still would be the F1 champion if the equipment were spec, but he also thinks there would be more challengers.

“There’s got to be a bunch of those guys that must just be frustrated,” Power said. “Think about Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, (Fernando) Alonso. Those are some great drivers that don’t get a chance to even win. They’re just extracting the most out of the piece of equipment they have.

“All I can say is if everyone had a Red Bull car, there’s no way that Max would win every race. There are so many guys who would be winning races. It’d just be similar to (IndyCar) and different every week, which it should be that way for the top level of the sport.”