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.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Nasser Al-Attiyah, Toby Price win Dakar Rally

Dakar.com, Frederic le Floc'h / DPPI
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Driving a safe final stage that placed him 12th across the line, Nasser Al-Attiyah claimed his third Dakar Rally victory on Thursday. Toby Price claimed his second Dakar win in motorcycles after winning the final stage.

Al-Attiyah could afford to play it safe since he entered the stage with a 51-minute advantage over the field. Price barely had a minute to spare and was forced to push hard through the short 112-kilometer course.

Price’s victory was all the more dramatic in light of his riding the entire rally with a pin in his wrist from a broken scaphoid bone.

In the Quads class, Nicolas Cavigliasso showed his dominance by winning nine of the 10 stages.

Here are some of the other highlights:

In the cars class, Last year’s overall class winner, Carlos Sainz finally earned a stage win, but it was too little, too late. … Sebastien Loeb challenged for the class win throughout the stage and finished less than one minute back. … Cyril Despres rounded out the top three. … Nani Roma finished sixth, four minutes behind the leader, but less than five minutes ahead of Nasser Al-Attiyah.

Class Leaders: Al-Attiyah won his third Dakar by a margin of 46:42 over Roma and one hour, 54:18 over Loeb.

In motorcycles, Toby Price saved the best for last. He won his first stage of the rally and secured the class win. … His victory came with a margin of 2:21 over Jose Florima. … Matthias Walkner enter entered the stage with an opportunity to take the overall lead. His third-place finish was not bad, but it came with his principal rival finishing first. … Pablo Quintanilla took a fall early in the stage and injured his foot. Riding hurt, he finished the stage 22nd – nearly 20 minutes off the pace. … American Andrew Short finished seventh for his eighth top 10 of the rally.

Class Leaders: Price ended the rally with the biggest advantage of the year. He beat Walkner by 9:13. Sam Sunderland finished third, 13:34 behind the leader.

In side by sides, Reinaldo Varela won his second consecutive stage and third overall. … He had a comfortable margin of 3:39 over Cristian Baumgart and 6:10 over Francisco Lopez Contardo.

Class Leaders: Contardo’s third-place finish in the stage was more than enough to secure the class victory over Gerard Farres Guell, who finished one hour, 2:35. Varela finished one hour, 5:19 behind in third.

In quads, In a show of utter dominance, Nicolas Cavigliasso won his ninth stage of the year. … Alexandre Giroud stood on the podium for the fourth time this year. While he didn’t win a stage, he never finished worse than sixth. … Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli rounded out the top three.

Class Leaders: Cavigliasso won by an advantage of one hour, 55:37 over Ferioli and two hours, 11:38 over Gustavo Gallego

In trucks, Ton Van Genugton rebounded from a poor Stage 9 in which he finished 12th to win his second stage of the rally. … Ales Loprais scored his first podium of the rally; his previous best finish was fourth in Stage 9. … Dmitry Sotnikov stood on the final rung of the podium.

Class Leaders: Eduard Nikolaev finished sixth in the stage, but won with an advantage of 25:36 over Sotnikov and one hour, 34:44 over Gerard de Rooy

Stage Wins

Motorcycles
Sam Sunderland [2] (Stage 5 and 7), Matthias Walkner [2] (Stage 2 and 8), Joan Barreda [1] (Stage 1), Xavier de Soultrait [1] (Stage 3), Ricky Brabec [1] (Stage 4), Pablo Quintanilla [1] (Stage 6), Michael Metge [1] (Stage 9) and Toby Price [1] (Stage 10)

Quads
Nicolas Cavigliasso [9] (Stage 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10) and Jeremias Gonzalez Ferioli [1] (Stage 3)

Cars
Sebastien Loeb [4] (Stage 2, 5, 6 and 8), Nasser Al-Attiyah [3] (Stage 1, 4 and 9), Stephane Peterhansel [2] (Stage 3 and 7) and [1] Carlos Sainz

Side-by-sides
Francisco Lopez Contardo [4] (Stage 2, 6, 7 and 8), Reinaldo Varela [3] (Stage 1, 9 and 10), Gerard Farres Guell [1] (Stage 3), Sergei Kariakin [1] (Stage 4) and Rodrigo Piazzoli [1] (Stage 5)

Trucks
Eduard Nikolaev [3] (Stage 1, 2, and 9), Andrey Karginov [2] (Stage 3 and 4), Ton Van Genugton [2] (Stage 5 and 10), Dmitry Sotnikov [2] (Stage 6 and 8), and Gerard de Rooy [1] (Stage 7)

For more watch the daily highlight show on NBCSN. Click here for the complete schedule.

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