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

INDYCAR: How to watch the Bommarito 500

Chris Jones / IndyCar
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The NTT IndyCar Series is racing just outside of St. Louis this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway Gateway.

The last oval race of the season, tonight’s  Bommarito Auto Motive Group promises to bring plenty of high-speed, high-stakes racing action under the lights.

Series point leader Josef Newgarden will start tonight’s race from the pole position, with Sebastian Bourdais starting alongside him in row one.

By winning the pole, Newgarden gained an additional championship point, which extends his lead over Alexander Rossi to 36 points.

Rossi start’s tonight’s race from the 11th position after an uncharacteristically poor qualifying run for the No. 27 team, while Simon Pagenaud (third in the standings, 41 points behind) will start from the fourth position and Scott Dixon (fourth in the standings, 53 points behind) will start from eighth.

Here is today’s schedule:

(All times are Eastern)

Saturday 8/24, 4:20 p.m. ET, Indy Lights race, NBC Sports Gold 

Saturday 8/24, 8 p.m. ET, Bommarito Automotive Group 500, NBCSN and streaming live 

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter