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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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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”