J.R. Todd enters NHRA playoffs following 2nd straight U.S. Nationals win

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The first time may have been the best feeling, but the second time around was a bit sweeter for J.R. Todd during this past weekend’s NHRA U.S. Nationals in suburban Indianapolis.

Todd, driver of the Kalitta Motorsports’ DHL Funny Car, earned his first win at the prestigious U.S. Nationals last year, without question the biggest race win of his career.

But adhering to the old saying, “We did it before and we can do it again,” Todd and his team roared right back to win the Funny Car class in Monday’s U.S. Nationals final round, defeating former two-time NHRA Funny Car season champ Matt Hagan.

Todd becomes the second Funny Car driver in recent memory to win back-to-back titles at the U.S. Nationals, the biggest drag race of the 24-race NHRA season. Mike Neff won in 2011 and 2012.

Todd was the No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car for this year’s U.S. Nationals and covered the 1,000-foot drag strip in 4.062 seconds at 311.70 mph, while Hagan was a tick slower at 4.141 seconds at 300.60 mph.

“This is by far a dream come true,” Todd said after accepting his “Wally” winner’s trophy. “You don’t know if you’re ever going to win Indy, let alone go back-to-back.

“For whatever reason this year just felt different. It felt like we had a car that could come in here and win. Last year the confidence wasn’t there like it is this year.”

Not only was the win big for Todd in terms of bragging rights – winning the U.S. Nationals is like a NASCAR driver winning the Daytona 500 or an IndyCar driver winning the Indianapolis 500 – it also helped him cement fifth position in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs, which begin next weekend at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pennsylvania. Ten Funny Car drivers will be battling it out over the next six races to determine who is this year’s champion.

Given that he was No. 1 seed, Todd had arguably three of the toughest competitors as the elimination rounds clicked off, including defending 2017 NHRA Funny Car champ Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr. and Hagan.

“I fully expected it to be a big-time match-up and the track just seemed to go away for everybody and we ended up blowing the tires off there,” Todd said of Hight. “I expected him to go driving by any second. Then, I looked up and the win light was on and it surprised me.

“Tommy ran really well in testing last week. That team has definitely turned the corner the last couple of races.

“Then you never count out Matt Hagan and those guys. They’ve won championships and won this race before. I didn’t know what to think about the final round. To look up and see the win light come on, it was hard to believe. We were fortunate enough to keep it running down the middle all day for the most part. Hopefully that’s a good sign for us coming into the Countdown.”

Winning at Indianapolis helped set the table for a strong run in the playoffs, but Todd concedes it has been a difficult season at times up to this point.

“I’m just happy to get a win,” he said. “The Funny Car division is so tough out here. We came out really strong this spring, then really fell off in the summer.

“Before this race, we made some pretty big changes going into the Indy test – in some ways going back to the old ways of running the DHL Toyota Camry. It’s really got my confidence up as a driver.

“I was in a bad mood for about two months because we really weren’t doing so well. … I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy throughout an entire weekend at a national event. From day one, I felt like we could come out here and win.

“I think we’ve got the ball rolling in the right direction. We’re definitely not peaking. I think we’re on the rise. This gives us a lot of confidence heading into the Countdown. We know we can run with these guys now.”

Todd’s teammate and Doug Kalitta almost made it 2-for-2 for Kalitta Motorsports on Monday. A veteran Top Fuel driver for nearly 20 years, Kalitta was on the verge of winning at the U.S. Nationals for the first time in his career.

However, Kalitta (4.067 seconds at 303.57 mph) lost to Terry McMillen (4.037 seconds at 300.66 mph) in the final round.

“This is one I want very badly, so this is a bittersweet ending for this Mac Tools team,” Kalitta said. “I am so proud of their effort and work this weekend; we almost had it.”

Even though he finished runner-up, Kalitta goes into the Top Fuel part of the Countdown in good shape, also in fifth place like his teammate.

The 19th race of the 24-race 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season continues Sept. 13-16 at Maple Grove Raceway with the 34th annual Dodge NHRA Nationals.

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U.S. NATIONALS FINAL FINISHING ORDER

TOP FUEL: 1. Terry McMillen; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Steve Torrence; 6. Clay Millican; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Mike Salinas; 9. T.J. Zizzo; 10. Tony Schumacher; 11. Wayne Newby; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Brittany Force; 14. Leah Pritchett; 15. Pat Dakin; 16. Scott Palmer.

FUNNY CAR: 1. J.R. Todd; 2. Matt Hagan; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 4. Shawn Langdon; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Bode; 7. Courtney Force; 8. Robert Hight; 9. Del Worsham; 10. Jim Campbell; 11. John Force; 12. Bob Tasca III; 13. Ron Capps; 14. Jack Beckman; 15. Jonnie Lindberg; 16. Cruz Pedregon.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Drew Skillman; 4. Bo Butner; 5. Greg Anderson; 6. Matt Hartford; 7. Erica Enders; 8. Jason Line; 9. Chris McGaha; 10. Deric Kramer; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Kenny Delco; 14. Vincent Nobile; 15. Steve Graham; 16. John Gaydosh Jr.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. LE Tonglet; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Hector Arana Jr; 4. Steve Johnson; 5. Andrew Hines; 6. Chip Ellis; 7. Jim Underdahl; 8. Mark Paquette; 9. Jerry Savoie; 10. Angelle Sampey; 11. Joey Gladstone; 12. Karen Stoffer; 13. Hector Arana; 14. Matt Smith; 15. Ryan Oehler; 16. Scotty Pollacheck.

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FINAL RESULTS

TOP FUEL: Terry McMillen, 4.037 seconds, 300.66 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.067 seconds, 303.57 mph.

FUNNY CAR: J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.062, 311.70 def. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.141, 300.60.

PRO STOCK: Tanner Gray, Chevy Camaro, 6.641, 208.42 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.639, 206.80.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.864, 197.10 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.884, 197.02.

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TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Blake Alexander, 3.900, 313.07 def. T.J. Zizzo, 4.141, 214.35; Billy Torrence, 3.831, 320.05 def. Tony Schumacher, 4.203, 256.55; Clay Millican, 3.821, 321.88 def. Richie Crampton, 4.486, 218.12; Mike Salinas, 4.222, 250.09 def. Wayne Newby, 4.471, 193.68; Antron Brown, 3.835, 324.12 def. Brittany Force, 4.693, 160.58; Terry McMillen, 4.414, 188.04 def. Scott Palmer, Broke; Steve Torrence, 3.838, 327.43 def. Pat Dakin, 7.237, 80.63; Doug Kalitta, 3.888, 273.44 def. Leah Pritchett, 5.580, 125.12; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.894, 318.92 def. Salinas, 7.524, 95.23; B. Torrence, 4.406, 233.03 def. Millican, 4.450, 252.43; Kalitta, 4.089, 249.90 def. Brown, 6.903, 104.84; McMillen, 3.979, 315.78 def. S. Torrence, 4.097, 269.46; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.947, 299.86 def. B. Torrence, 3.939, 307.02; McMillen, 3.961, 314.75 def. Alexander, 5.026, 144.77; FINAL — McMillen, 4.037, 300.66 def. Kalitta, 4.067, 303.57.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 4.103, 309.77 def. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.105, 310.13; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.401, 217.56 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 9.208, 80.50; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.996, 315.42 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.234, 259.71; Bob Bode, Charger, 4.171, 300.60 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.597, 185.74; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.105, 255.58 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.894, 170.77; Courtney Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.095, 308.35 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 5.089, 156.50; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.051, 314.31 def. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 25.188, 46.45; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.985, 321.35 def. John Force, Camaro, 4.561, 189.26; QUARTERFINALS — Hagan, 4.397, 219.58 def. C. Force, 4.557, 219.15; Langdon, 4.246, 249.72 def. Bode, 4.549, 196.27; Todd, 4.160, 286.32 def. Hight, 4.614, 212.53; Johnson Jr., 4.085, 295.34 def. Wilkerson, 4.115, 305.08; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 4.129, 298.60 def. Langdon, 4.148, 307.16; Todd, 4.045, 312.21 def. Johnson Jr., 4.130, 278.98; FINAL — Todd, 4.062, 311.70 def. Hagan, 4.141, 300.60.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.648, 207.59 def. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.672, 207.30; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.653, 206.01 def. Alex Laughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.657, 206.01; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.649, 207.34 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.650, 207.62; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.645, 207.78 def. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.637, 208.62; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.634, 207.62 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.671, 207.72; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.631, 207.94 def. John Gaydosh Jr, Camaro, 6.717, 206.04; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.639, 207.98 def. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.707, 205.98; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.665, 207.50 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.666, 207.05; QUARTERFINALS — Skillman, 6.646, 207.53 def. Enders, 6.666, 206.39; Coughlin, 6.645, 206.64 def. Anderson, 6.643, 207.37; Butner, 6.655, 208.17 def. Hartford, Foul – Red Light; Gray, 6.651, 208.52 def. Line, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Gray, 6.651, 208.42 def. Skillman, 6.658, 207.78; Coughlin, 6.651, 206.13 def. Butner, 6.662, 206.20; FINAL — Gray, 6.641, 208.42 def. Coughlin, 6.639, 206.80.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.899, 195.08 def. Hector Arana, 7.011, 196.30; Mark Paquette, Buell, 6.968, 192.25 def. Joey Gladstone, 6.970, 192.80; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.857, 196.59 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.031, 192.00; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.880, 195.59 def. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.937, 193.49; Chip Ellis, Harley-Davidson, 6.857, 195.08 def. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 9.497, 91.74; Hector Arana Jr, 6.849, 199.29 def. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.975, 192.93; Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 6.966, 193.63 def. Matt Smith, 7.022, 196.07; Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.859, 196.24 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.915, 195.45; QUARTERFINALS — Johnson, 6.980, 193.57 def. Underdahl, 7.028, 193.63; Krawiec, 6.902, 195.87 def. Hines, 6.929, 194.58; Tonglet, 6.897, 196.44 def. Ellis, 7.014, 192.96; Arana Jr, 6.875, 198.12 def. Paquette, 7.083, 188.81; SEMIFINALS — Tonglet, 6.876, 196.13 def. Johnson, 6.934, 193.60; Krawiec, 6.876, 196.47 def. Arana Jr, 6.892, 198.70; FINAL — Tonglet, 6.864, 197.10 def. Krawiec, 6.884, 197.02.

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STANDINGS HEADING INTO COUNTDOWN TO THE CHAMPIONSHIP PLAYOFFS

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,422; 2. Clay Millican, 1,234; 3. Tony Schumacher, 1,195; 4. Leah Pritchett, 1,170; 5. Doug Kalitta, 1,166; 6. Antron Brown, 1,112; 7. Terry McMillen, 959; 8. Brittany Force, 839; 9. Mike Salinas, 768; 10. Scott Palmer, 755.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,457; 2. Matt Hagan, 1,247; 3. Robert Hight, 1,231; 4. Ron Capps, 1,227; 5. J.R. Todd, 1,174; 6. Jack Beckman, 1,161; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 1,107; 8. Shawn Langdon, 907; 9. John Force, 904; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 831.

PRO STOCK: 1. Tanner Gray, 1,432; 2. Greg Anderson, 1,355; 3. Erica Enders, 1,230; 4. Jeg Coughlin, 1,198; 5. Vincent Nobile, 1,135; 6. Deric Kramer, 1,099; 7. Drew Skillman, 1,068; 8. Jason Line, 1,067; 9. Bo Butner, 1,050; 10. Chris McGaha, 1,042.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Eddie Krawiec, 930; 2. Andrew Hines, 867; 3. LE Tonglet, 815; 4. Hector Arana Jr, 770; 5. Jerry Savoie, 636; 6. Matt Smith, 604; 7. Scotty Pollacheck, 528; 8. Steve Johnson, 443; 9. Angie Smith, 424; 10. (tie) Angelle Sampey, 421; Jim Underdahl, 421.

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”