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

Photos courtesy Kalitta Motorsports
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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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Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.