Photos courtesy Kalitta Motorsports

JR Todd: Even with a big lead, ‘no letting up’ for first NHRA Funny Car title

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When legendary NHRA team owner Connie Kalitta approached driver JR Todd about switching from Top Fuel to Funny Car in 2017, Todd readily agreed to the move, even though he had never driven a so-called “flopper” before.

Former NHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car champion Del Worsham had left Kalitta Motorsports after the 2016 season to return to and try to rebuild his family-owned team.

That left a void for Kalitta to fill. Because he oftentimes likes to promote from within, Kalitta felt that even without any prior Funny Car experience, Todd – who drove a Top Fueler for Kalitta Motorsports in 2016 – was the right man for the Funny Car job.

Once again, as has happened numerous times during his 50-plus year driving and team ownership career, Kalitta wound up making a genius move with Todd.

Now, with one race remaining on the 2018 schedule, next weekend’s season-ending AAA Finals in Pomona, California (Nov. 8-11), Todd is on track to win his first NHRA championship.

Todd has a 74-point lead over defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight. While that may seem like a big lead, it isn’t. The Pomona event will see drivers battling for 50 percent more points than usual, meaning a maximum of 191 points are available to be earned.

In basic terms, that means Todd has to go at least two rounds further than Hight in the final eliminations on Nov. 11. That may be easier said than done, given how tough a competitor the two-time Funny Car champ Hight is.

But Todd is definitely up for the task. When he reaches Pomona, Todd is going to keep doing what he’s been doing all season – particularly in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, where he’s reached the final round in four of the first five races, including a win last weekend at Las Vegas.

JR Todd and his team celebrate their win Sunday at Las Vegas.

“You don’t change a thing,” Todd said about heading to Pomona. “I’m not going to change the way I drive and I don’t think that Jon O. or Todd (co-crew chiefs Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith) are going to change the way they are running the car.

“We just need to keep making consistent runs. Step one is getting qualified there in Pomona and try to put it in the top half. Then we take it one round at a time.

“I said earlier this year that if we could win four Countdown races that we would have a shot at the championship. We haven’t won four, but we’ve gone to four finals and that’s what it takes along with getting some help along the way with the cars around you in points.”

Todd’s win at Las Vegas last weekend was his second victory in Sin City this year, also capturing the early-season race there. He also has wins at Houston, Redding (Pa.) and the biggest win of his career in the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.

“We knew going into Indy that we had our hot rod back and it showed when we ran well there in qualifying and on race day,” Todd said. “We haven’t let up since then. It’s really about being consistent. We’re racing smart, not overthinking or over doing things.”

Todd knows the challenge Hight presents, he also has to try and put his rival out of mind and focus solely on his own task at hand.

“I’d much rather have a 70-point lead than an eight-point lead,” Todd said. “Points and a half (at Pomona) is going to make it interesting. We just need to maintain what we’ve been doing and go to the later rounds.”

Since shifting to Funny Car last season, the 36-year-old Todd has accumulated seven wins, nearly equaling his nine wins in his lengthy Top Fuel career.

That he’s taken to Funny Car so well is an understatement. Now it’s just a matter of putting the icing and cherry on top at Pomona and he’ll fulfill every drag racer’s dream of becoming an NHRA champion.

“It’s so awesome to drive a car like that when it’s so consistent that you don’t have to worry if you have to go out and pedal it,” Todd said after winning at Las Vegas. “You just go up there and smack the tree as hard as you can and get after it.

“It’s a lot of fun to drive, but we still have some unfinished business in Pomona. Hopefully, we can go out there and win two trophies (for capturing both the race and the Funny Car championship).

“It’s not over yet. We still have a lot of work to do in Pomona. We just need to keep after it and not let up.”

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Penske won’t discuss if Castroneves returns to Indy in 2020

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
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INDIANAPOLIS – NBC Sports.com asked Indianapolis 500 winning team owner Roger Penske if three-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves would return to the team in 2020?

Penske immediately brushed off the question.

“We’re not going to talk about that right now,” Penske told NBC Sports.com. “I’m just not going to talk about it. We’re going to have a meeting about it before we decide, but I’m not going to talk about that right now.

“Simon won the race and that is what I’m focused on right now.”

Simon Pagenaud, gave Penske a record-extending 18thIndy 500 win on Sunday. Penske confirmed that Pagenaud will be back with the team in 2020 after he scored his first win in Sunday’s 103rdIndianapolis 500.

Castroneves was an NTT IndyCar Series regular at Team Penske from 2000 until the 2017 season. After that, Castroneves was shifted over to the team’s Acura IMSA Sports Car program, but the three-time Indy 500 winner was given a ride at both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway the past two years.

The popular driver from Brazil is trying to join AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time Indy 500 winners.

But the whispers in Gasoline Alley indicate his future with Team Penske at Indy remain uncertain.

“I’ve heard the rumors, too,” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com on pit lane after his disappointing finish in the Indy 500. “I will definitely give it a good, hard think about coming back in 2020. I want to be the rest of the season, here.”

But, will Castroneves run the Indy 500 again?

“Who knows?” Castroneves told NBC Sports.com. “Let’s see what happens.”

Castroneves’s bid for a fourth Indianapolis 500 was derailed in a pit road incident after his first pit stop when he ran into James Davison’s Chevrolet on the team’s first pit stop on Lap 30.

The front wing of Castroneves’s Chevrolet was damaged and INDYCAR officials gave him a “Drive Through” penalty for “Avoidable Contact.” Castroneves would ultimate drop three laps down but finished one lap down in 18thplace.

Castroneves explained what happened to him earlier in the race and how it affected the rest of his Indy 500.

“The accident that happened in the pits hurt us for sure,” Castroneves explained. “We had a problem with the fuel mapping, and I couldn’t go over 200 miles an hour for four or five laps. We lost 35 seconds. There was a bug in the system.

“Then, we went back out and that was it. I wasn’t able to recoup after that. I was excited. The car was very, very good entering the race.”

Castroneves spoke with second-place finisher Alexander Rossi, who was furious with the driver from Brazil earlier in the race for not moving out of the way, even though he was three laps down at the time.

The two drivers hugged, and Castroneves walked back up pit lane.

“I did what the team told me to do, and they told me to go as fast as I could,” Castroneves explained after talking to Rossi. “It’s racing and everybody is upset they didn’t win.”

Castroneves hopes his walk up pit lane is not the final time as an Indy 500 competitor.

But it could be.

“I hope I can come back next year,” Castroneves said. “I’m really upset as a competitor, but extremely happy for Team Penske and for Simon Pagenaud for winning the race.

“The good news is I go back to the Acura sports car, but I will be dreaming about coming back here again.”