Photo courtesy John Force Racing

NHRA: Is this the weekend John Force claims a milestone 150th career win?

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Brainerd, Minnesota is known for its gigantic statues of legendary logger Paul Bunyan and his trusty sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox.

Come Sunday, however, Brainerd officials may want to consider a new statue to add to their civic heritage: that of legendary NHRA Funny Car driver John Force.

Now, the 16-time Funny Car champ grew up and still lives in Southern California. But Brainerd and Brainerd International Raceway have been the most important locations and racetracks to him in his 42-year career of racing a Funny Car.

Force has won 149 NHRA national events in his career, the most of any NHRA driver in history in any racing class. Brainerd has accounted for the most wins in Force’s annals: 11 wins in 32 appearances, meaning the 69-year-old Force has won more than a third of his starts at the northern Minnesota dragstrip. He also has won an uncanny 78.3 percent of elimination round wins (76 of 97) there in his career.

John Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history.

After capturing his 149th career win July 22 at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver, Force has been chasing his 150th career win for the last two races.

Now Force, who drives the PEAK Coolant and Motor Oil Chevrolet Camaro SS, has arguably the best chance to reach that significant milestone this weekend in the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.

Winning No. 150 is obviously a significant goal for Force. But it has another bit of added significance: a win – or even a runner-up finish – would likely clinch his spot as one of 10 Funny Car drivers to qualify for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Even with his win at Denver, Force comes into Brainerd ranked eighth in the Funny Car standings. His team struggled early in the season, but is making up for some of those rough times in the last several races.

“We’re not safe,” Force said of his bid to secure a Top 10 berth for the 34th consecutive season. “We’re better than we were, but there’s still a lot of work to do; still a lot of racing plus there’s extra points at Indy (one-and-a-half times as many as for any other of the first 18 events).”

John Force has scored 824 points in this season’s first 16 national events. But his youngest daughter, Courtney Force, has had the best season to date of any driver in the Funny Car ranks.

Courtney Force leads the class with 1,300 points, followed by 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (1,146 points) and John Force Racing president Robert Hight (1,085 points).

John Force has to hope he has strong performances not only at Brainerd and also the Chevrolet U.S. Nationals in two weeks in Indianapolis. If he struggles at one or both, there are several drivers who are fighting to make the Countdown, including 9th-ranked Shawn Langdon (736 points, 88 points behind Force), 10th-ranked Bob Tasca III (691 points, 133 behind Force), Tim Wilkerson (688 points) and two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon (641 points).

“We’ve just gotta keep going rounds and getting points,” said Force, whose last NHRA Funny Car championship came in 2013. “When you’ve got Langdon and Tasca and Cruz (Pedregon) and (Tim) Wilkerson all behind you, anything can happen. We have to take care of business.”

Qualifying starts Friday with sessions at 2:15 p.m. CT and 5:00 p.m. CT and continues Saturday at 1:30 p.m. CT and 4:30 p.m. CT. Eliminations start Sunday at 11 a.m. CT.

There are a few caveats about Brainerd for Force. While he’s the winningest Funny Car driver there, his last win there came in 2007. His last final round appearance was 2012 and 2014, when he lost to Capps. He lost in the semifinals last year to now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

“We can’t worry about everybody else,” Force said. “We just have to not make mistakes. Everybody’s got to do his job. If that happens, we’ve got a chance. Mistakes have hurt us. No more mistakes.”

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View from the pits: Reporters’ picks for the 103rd Indianapolis 500

INDYCAR / Jason Porter
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It’s Race Day in Indianapolis, and for the first time, the Indianapolis 500 will be on NBC.

Time will tell what impact Mother Nature has on today’s 103rd Running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. But no matter what, prerace coverage begins today on NBCSN at 9 a.m. ET, then transitions over to NBC at 11 a.m. ET.

All month long, the INDYCAR on NBC pit reporters have been bringing you the latest breaking news and stories for the Brickyard. Now, Kevin Lee, Kelli Stavast and Marty Snider share their insights from pit road. Read on …

KEVIN LEE

Throughout the last two weeks, one common theme has been, “Don’t crash.” There were five crashes, and four of those teams/drivers ended up in the Last Row Shootout. Two of the three bumped (Patricio O’Ward and Fernando Alonso) were in backup cars following heavy impacts.

Several drivers have consistently been among the strongest. Simon Pagenaud (pictured, left) not only starts on pole but has been strong in race trim as well. All three Ed Carpenter Racing cars are fast and appear good in traffic. Alexander Rossi looks like he can put his car wherever he wants, and Scott Dixon has five championships and 44 IndyCar wins, so he must be watched.

In order, my picks for most likely to drink the milk are Pagenaud, Rossi, Ed Carpenter, Will Power and Dixon.

KELLI STAVAST

A week ago, no one could have predicted that two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and McLaren Racing would be bumped from the Indy 500 by a single-car, part-time effort of Juncos Racing and its driver, Kyle Kaiser (pictured, right).  But it happened, and Kaiser now occupies the 33rd and final spot in the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.

So what next?  I spoke with Kyle five days after the dramatic qualifying effort, and he told me he has never been happier to finish last and that he is still “buzzing” from that experience—an energy he hopes to carry straight through to the race.  He also told me that the response from fans has been positive with people stopping him in public (including at Chipotle) to hug him and congratulate him on making the Big Show.

But reality might have set in for the Californian who now lives in Indy.  During Carb Day’s final practice, the team struggled to get a good handling car for Kyle, who described the day as “challenging.”  But Kaiser also acknowledged that the team made some progress throughout the practice and at the very least collected some data that might help for the 500-miler on Sunday.

Whether he finishes 1st or 31st on Sunday, Kyle Kaiser and Juncos Racing will have plenty of fond memories to carry with them from the 103rd Indy 500.

MARTY SNIDER

First, we cannot wait to bring you guys the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500. It’s an honor for our entire group to broadcast such an amazing event.

So what do we expect? I have no idea, to be honest. The weather will be a huge factor today. It might be a race to halfway if rain is forecast.  If it’s cooler (mid 70’s ambient, which it looks like it’s going to be), Alexander Rossi (pictured, left) was unstoppable in those conditions last Monday.

But Rossi was very unhappy with his car on Carb Day. For that matter, most teams were. But Rob Edwards of Andretti Autosport explained a few things to Rossi about all of the experimenting they were doing in final practice, and I think that team is in a much better frame of mind heading into the race.

I find it interesting that Simon Pagenaud’s team scuffed in literally every set of tires they will use for today’s race. The No. 22 camp is convinced (and they’re not wrong) that one of the keys to Will Power’s 2018 win was his ability to gain time on out laps after pit stops. Scuffing in tires helps that out lap time. It also allows teams to do a balance check on tires. Good thing they did: Kyle Moyer of Team Penske found two sets that had vibrations, which would have been bad in the race.

Bottom line, I haven’t seen anyone really stand out and show me they can beat Alexander Rossi yet. So I’m going with Rossi to win his second Indy 500.

Enjoy the show friends. It’s going to be a fantastic race!