Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader Matt Smith. Photos courtesy NHRA

NHRA: Final race won’t be an easy ride for Pro Stock Motorcycle title contenders

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With one race remaining in the 2018 season, three of the four major NHRA pro championships are still in play.

Steve Torrence clinched the Top Fuel crown last weekend at Las Vegas.

Heading into this coming Sunday’s Auto Club Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, 191 points remain eligible to be won by any driver in the three remaining pro classes that remain to be decided.

In Funny Car, JR Todd has a 74-point lead over defending champ Robert Hight. 2016 champ Ron Capps (-165) and Tim Wilkerson (-186) are also still mathematically in it, but just barely.

In Pro Stock, going for his first championship, Tanner Gray has a commanding 140-point edge over five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., and a 149-point edge over two-time champ Erica Enders. Drew Skillman (-170) and Vincent Nobile (-179) are still in the battle mathematically, but odds are slim.

The lone remaining ultra-close points battle can be found in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Smith holds a four-point edge over defending PSM champ Eddie Krawiec, LE Tonglet is 61 points back, Hector Arana Jr. is 64 points behind, while still in contention mathematically are Jerry Savoie (-101) and four-time PSM champ Andrew Hines (-113).

Matt Smith

It’s the two-wheeled battle that has a lot of racing fans turning their attention to. Smith is going for his third Pro Stock Motorcycle championship and his first since 2013.

“Yes there is pressure,” Smith said. “I feel like I should be running better than we are but I did stay over on Monday (after the Las Vegas race) and test.

“I feel like I have a better handle on it now. The pressure isn’t from whom I’m up against as far as the championship. The pressure is from not running to the expectations of what I think we should be running.”

But Smith, who is not lamenting the pressure he’s facing.

“My mentality is to go win the race,” Smith said. “Like I said at the beginning of this Countdown (the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs), if I can go win 3 races in the Countdown we should be able to win the Championship.”

Smith has won two of the first five Countdown events (St. Louis and Charlotte). So if his prediction holds, a win at Pomona would likely indeed clinch the title for him.

Even with the pressure on him, Smith is trying to put both Krawiec and his other challengers out of mind, focusing not on how many points he can earn at Pomona, but solely upon winning the race.

“The biggest competitor is Team Harley,” Smith said. “Eddie (Krawiec) has two teammates which serve as blockers when it’s this type of situation.

Eddie Krawiec

“My mentality, my goal, my focus is to win the race. If we do that then we will win the championship.”

And then there’s Krawiec, who knows he’s up against a tough competitor in Smith.

“Anytime you head to Pomona with championship hopes it adds a little extra pressure,” Krawiec said. “It’s do or die since it’s the last race of the season.

“You try to do everything the same for every race. If you’re fighting for the championship at this point, everything you’ve done up to this point must have been working so no reason to change it now.”

Krawiec has adopted a Smith-like mentality. He’s not letting the pressure get to him, nor Smith’s position as No. 1 in the standings.

“I am my biggest competition,” Krawiec said. “I just need to stay focused and do what I know how to do.”

While points-and-a-half (191 points) is a plus, it can also be a minus, Krawiec said.

“Points and half can help and hurt,” Krawiec said. “You have to make sure each person that is within 30 points either way you have that extra 1 point over them.

“This way it stretches out the more then one round (of eliminations) possibility. It’s easier said then done, but if you go with the plan of just winning the race and however it comes out in the end, you will have the best results you could have got.”

LE Tonglet

Tonglet is also feeling pressure.

“I do feel that there is pressure heading into the last race, especially because I am 3rd in points,” Tonglet said.

And like the two riders he’s chasing, he’s going to the season finale the same way he has in all previous races this season.

“I do not prepare any different for any of the races,” Tonglet said. “I feel if you change something then you mess yourself up.

“My biggest competitor is defiantly Matt (Smith), Eddie (Krawiec), and Hector (Arana Jr.). All 4 of us have a legitimate shot and we will give it our all.

“We are heading to Pomona to try to get every single bonus point and qualify #1. That’s what it’s going to take.”

Hector Arana Jr.

Last but not least is Arana Jr.

“I’m trying not to think about the championship,” he said. “I’m focusing on winning the race and the rest will fall into place.

“We will prepare the same way as Vegas and focus on going one round at a time.”

Like his three fellow riders, Arana calls himself his biggest competitor in Pomona. And if there’s anyone that points-and-a-half can benefit the most, it’s Arana.

“I am going to try to be the fastest bike every time I go up to the line,” he said. “Points and a half can definitely be a game changer.”

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Alex Palou fastest as several go off course during IndyCar practice at IMS

IndyCar Harvest GP practice
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
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Alex Palou paced the opening practice Thursday for the IndyCar Harvest GP at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

The Dale Coyne Racing rookie turned a 1-minute, 10.177-second lap around the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course in his No. 55 Dallara-Honda.

Jack Harvey was second, followed by Colton Herta, points leader Scott Dixon and Max Chilton.

PRACTICE CHART: Click here to see the speed rundown from Thursday’s session

FRIDAY AT IMS: Details for watching Race 1 of the Harvest GP

Qualifying for Friday’s race will be at 6:20 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC Sports Gold.

Will Power, who won the pole position for the July 4 race at the track, spun off course with just more than a minute left in the session after the left rear of his No. 12 Dallara-Chevrolet made slight contact with the right front of Alexander Rossi’s No. 28 Dallara-Honda.

Power was among several drivers who went off track, but there were no damaged cars during the session. Marcus Ericsson missed the final 5 minutes of the practice after being penalized for causing a red flag with a Turn 8 spin.

Arrow McLaren SP drivers Pato O’Ward and Helio Castroneves, who is driving for Oliver Askew (who is recovering from concussion-like symptoms), also veered off course as did rookie Rinus VeeKay and Santino Ferrucci.

Seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson was in attendance at the session before racing Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Johnson will be driving a partial schedule of road and street courses in IndyCar next season for Chip Ganassi Racing.

“Literally, the smallest of details, I can pick up on,” Johnson told NBC Sports pit reporter Kevin Lee. “It’s been really nice today just to see how a session starts and obviously to jump on the radio and listen to how the systems work and then obviously you get into the car and the setup and such. I’m at ground zero right now, a 45-year-old rookie trying to learn my way into a new sport essentially.”

Johnson told Lee his sponsorship hunt to run a Ganassi car “has gone really well. The fact that I’m here today and ingrained so deeply in the team is a great sign of where things are going. Looking forward to getting behind the wheel of a car soon and hopefully having some announcements for the world to see soon, too.”

Fans were in attendance Thursday for the first time this season at IMS, which is allowed a limited crowd of 10,000 for its races this weekend.