NHRA Pomona: Pritchett, Johnson Jr., Coughlin Jr., Smith early No. 1 qualifiers

Leah Pritchett is the early Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier. Photo courtesy NHRA
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NHRA media release

POMONA, Calif. – Leah Pritchett lit the candles on her Top Fuel dragster Friday evening and piloted to the top of the category for both qualifying sessions at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway.

Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were also preliminary qualifiers in their respective categories at the final event of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

Southern California native Pritchett raced to the top of the Top Fuel class with her 3.649-second pass at 329.34 mph in her Mopar Dodge dragster during the second session. She is seeking to secure her fourth No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 11th of her career.

“When you have this horsepower weather and this time of day you can just feel the energy,” Pritchett stated. “The reason why there’s a smile on our faces is that we were able to execute what we wanted to do. Tomorrow we’re not going to have these same conditions so that’s why we’re excited we were able to capitalize on it tonight.”

Clay Millican is qualified second with his pass of 3.702 at 327.19 in his Great Clips / Parts Plus dragster and three-time world champion Antron Brown is third with his run of 3.704 at 329.50. 2018 Top Fuel world champion Steve Torrence is qualified fourth as he seeks to make history by sweeping the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship events.

Two-time defending event champion Johnson Jr.’s second qualifying run of 3.881 at 328.54 in his Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T locked-in the top spot. He is seeking to secure his fourth consecutive No. 1 qualifying position this season.

“It’s incredible they have had such a handle on the car,” said Johnson. “I wish we could get that handle on Sunday but we are pretty close. I’m disappointed we didn’t get it done quick enough in the Countdown but at the same time I’m excited because it is such a good car now. If we can carry that on to next year I would love it.”

Teammate Jack Beckman is in the second spot with his pass of 3.901 at 323.35 while reigning Funny Car world champion Robert Hight sits in the third position. Current points leader J.R. Todd is in the No. 11 spot.

Coughlin Jr., who is currently No. 2 in the Pro Stock points standings, raced his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro to a 6.527 pass at 211.39 in the second round of qualifying.

“We made two really nice runs today,” Coughlin Jr. stated. “After Q1 we were on the poll and seeing some of our competitors bettering that mark ahead of us during the last three pair of Pro Stock were lower in the boom. I was concerned with the right lane because a lot of cars were getting loose out there and thought it was going to be tough to improve. When I let the clutch out the car just went singing down the track and it felt great.”

Teammate Erica Enders is currently in the second spot after racing a 6.530 at 211.39 in her Melling Performance/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro. Championship points leader Tanner Gray is currently qualified fourth.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Smith rode to a track record speed at 200.65 at 6.774 to lead the field on his Elite Motorsports DENSO Auto Parts EBR. Smith was the quickest in both qualifying sessions. Smith is the current category points leader and seeking to extend his lead.

“All in all, it was a good day for us,” Smith said. “We made two passes and were No. 1 for both runs. I got eight bonus points. We just have to go and win the race now and win the championship; no matter what anybody else tell us.”

Hector Arana Jr. qualified second with his pass of 6.824 at 198.96 on his Lucas Oil TV EBR and LE Tonglet is third with his run of 6.828 at 196.39.

Qualifying at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals continues Saturday at 12:00 p.m. 

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FRIDAY’S RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.649 seconds, 329.34 mph; 2. Clay Millican, 3.702, 327.19; 3. Antron Brown, 3.704, 329.50; 4. Steve Torrence, 3.704, 327.35; 5. Blake Alexander, 3.711, 330.88; 6. Billy Torrence, 3.711, 328.86; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.740, 319.29; 8. Richie Crampton, 3.756, 319.52; 9. Scott Palmer, 3.767, 328.38; 10. Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.28; 11. Tony Schumacher, 3.792, 326.24; 12. Terry McMillen, 3.794, 325.61; 13. Shawn Reed, 3.858, 312.35; 14. Mike Salinas, 4.211, 208.20; 15. Cameron Ferre, 4.946, 144.75; 16. Audrey Worm, 7.731, 92.70.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.881, 328.54; 2. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.901, 323.35; 3. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.936, 325.69; 4. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.936, 305.29; 5. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.948, 320.66; 6. Shawn Langdon, Toyota Camry, 3.950, 320.97; 7. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.965, 316.15; 8. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.029, 307.30; 9. Ray Martin, Camry, 4.183, 259.31; 10. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.217, 230.06; 11. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.220, 310.13; 12. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.253, 260.56; 13. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.256, 214.62; 14. Jeff Arend, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.276, 255.15; 15. Bob Bode, Mustang, 4.346, 205.76; 16. John Force, Camaro, 4.386, 206.54. Not Qualified: 17. Cruz Pedregon, 4.396, 204.14; 18. Jeff Diehl, 4.632, 190.35; 19. Jonnie Lindberg, 5.639, 122.74.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.527, 211.39; 2. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.530, 211.39; 3. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.531, 211.56; 4. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.537, 209.59; 5. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.550, 211.39; 6. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.550, 210.18; 7. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.557, 212.09; 8. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.558, 211.03; 9. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.560, 211.89; 10. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.562, 211.43; 11. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.570, 210.50; 12. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.590, 209.20; 13. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.612, 208.55; 14. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.615, 209.88; 15. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.697, 207.27; 16. Joey Grose, Camaro, 6.738, 196.36. Not Qualified: 17. Steve Graham, 7.091, 157.19; 18. Tom Huggins, 7.481, 142.03; 19. Vincent Nobile, 12.494, 71.25.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.774, 200.65; 2. Hector Arana Jr, EBR, 6.824, 198.96; 3. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.828, 196.39; 4. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.848, 194.74; 5. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.864, 197.77; 6. Joey Gladstone, Buell, 6.880, 196.30; 7. Chip Ellis, Harley-Davidson, 6.880, 194.80; 8. Hector Arana, EBR, 6.885, 197.57; 9. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.885, 194.49; 10. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.886, 194.60; 11. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.893, 196.64; 12. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.895, 193.40; 13. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.898, 191.29; 14. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.40; 15. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.953, 194.86; 16. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 6.978, 193.99. Not Qualified: 17. Kelly Clontz, 7.013, 191.57; 18. Anthony Vanetti, 7.074, 188.94; 19. Angie Smith, 7.081, 163.63; 20. Maurice Allen, 7.114, 186.64; 21. Melissa Surber, broke.

Alexander Rossi ‘fits like a glove’ with his new IndyCar teammates at Arrow McLaren Racing

Alexander Rossi McLaren
Nate Ryan
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – There are more than three dozen fresh faces on the Arrow McLaren Racing IndyCar team, but there was one that Felix Rosenqvist was particularly keen to know – Alexander Rossi.

The driver of the No. 7 Dallara-Chevrolet is the most high-profile new hire for McLaren, which has expanded to a third car to pair with the No. 6 of Rosenqvist and No. 5 of Pato O’Ward.

And there is another layer than Rossi just being the new kid. McLaren marks only his second team in NTT IndyCar Series after seven seasons at Andretti Autosport, where he began with a victory in the 2016 Indy 500 and was a championship contender for several seasons.

Rossi is a mercurial talent, and when things go wrong, the red mist quickly descends (and sometimes has led to feuds with teammates). He went winless during two of his final seasons at Andretti and was out of contention more often than not, often bringing out the prickly side of his personality.

Yet there has been no trace of the dour Rossi since joining McLaren. The pragmatic Californian is quick to remind everyone he hasn’t worked with the team yet at a track (much less been in its car), and there surely will be times he gets frustrated.

But it’s clear that Rossi, who made five Formula One starts in 2015 after several years racing in Europe, already is meshing well with an organization whose England-based parent company has deep roots in F1.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” Rosenqvist said Tuesday during IndyCar’s preseason media availabilities. “I think Alex kind of has that bad-guy role a little bit in IndyCar. He’s always been that guy, which is cool. I think we need those guys, as well.

“Actually having gotten to know him, he’s been super nice, super kind. He fits like a glove in the team. I think it fills a role where Pato is kind of like the crazy guy, I’m somewhere in the middle, and Alex is the more engineering guy in the team. I think Alex has more experience, as well. He just feels like a guy who knows what he wants.

“Yeah,  good addition to the team and great guy at the same time.”

There are many reasons why Rossi’s transition from Andretti to McLaren should be smoother than his abrupt move from F1 to IndyCar seven years ago. Namely, he no longer is the only newcomer to the team’s culture.

“It’s been kind of a good time to come in because everyone is finding a new role and position and kind of learning who’s who, finding everyone’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said.

But while Rossi might have questions about the team, he has none about the series. Unlike when he arrived at Andretti without any oval experience, Rossi joins McLaren with his IndyCar credentials secured as an established star with eight victories, seven poles and 28 podiums over 114 starts.

Even in his swan song with Andretti, Rossi still managed a farewell victory last July at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that snapped a 49-race, three-year winless drought. It seems reasonable to believe he immediately could re-emerge in his 2017-19 title contender form.

“I know the series, and I know kind of everything that goes into American open-wheel racing vs. the European open-wheel racing, which is really the biggest transition,” Rossi said. “Certainly it’s the largest kind of team switch. I’ve obviously driven for different teams in the past in Europe, in sports cars, whatever, but never really in my full-time job. I’ve driven for the same organization for a very long time and have a lot of respect and fabulous memories with those people.

“So it has been a big kind of shift, trying to compare and contrast areas that I can bring kind of recommendations and experience to maybe help fill the gaps that exist at Arrow McLaren. Again, all of this is in theory, right? I don’t really know anything. We’ll have a much better idea and plan going into St. Pete (the March 5 season opener).”

He has gotten a good handle on how things work at its Indianapolis headquarters, though, and has been pleased by the leadership of new racing director Gavin Ward (who worked in F1 before a championship stint with Josef Newgarden at Team Penske). McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown also seems omnipresent on both sides of the Atlantic, making appearances at IndyCar races seemingly as much as in the F1 paddock.

“I think what’s very cool about Arrow McLaren is we do have the resources of the McLaren F1 team,” Rossi said. “They very much are being integrated in a lot of respects. It’s not two separate entities. McLaren Racing is one organization that has its people and resources and intellect in kind of everything. It’s been pretty cool to see how that can be an advantage to us in terms of people, resources, simulations, software, kind of everything. We’ve been able to kind of rely on that and use that as a tool that maybe other teams certainly don’t have.”

That will be helpful for Rossi with the methodologies and nuances of racing a Chevrolet for the first time after seven seasons with Honda.

And of course, there will be the relationship with O’Ward, who has been McLaren’s alpha star since 2020.

Rossi was in a similar role for Andretti, which raises questions about how McLaren will handle having two stars accustomed to being the face of the team. But O’Ward said IndyCar regulations should allow each driver to maintain their own style without being forced to adapt as in other series.

“At the end of the day, as much as teammates will help in order to gather data, it doesn’t mean they’re going to specifically help you in what you need because it’s a series where you can really tailor the car to what you want,” O’Ward said. “Rather than in Formula 1, (it’s) ‘This is the car, you need to learn how to drive this certain car.’ In IndyCar, it’s very different where you can customize it to what you want it to feel like or drive like.

“From past experience, I think Alex likes a car similar to what I do. I do think we have a very strong car in certain areas, but I definitely think he’s coming from a car where that other car has been stronger than us in other racetracks. I feel like if we can just find gains where we haven’t quite had a winning car, a podium car, that’s just going to help all of us.”

Though Thursday at The Thermal Club will mark the first time the trio works together at a track, Rosenqvist said he’s hung out a lot with Rossi (both are 31 years old) and deems his new teammate “well-integrated” in the simulator.

“I think the fit has been good with him, me and Pato,” Rosenqvist said. “On a trackside perspective, it’s obviously huge to have always a third opinion on things. Every driver’s opinion is valuable in its own way.”

Said O’Ward, 23: “It’s been great. (Rossi has) been great to have around. I think he needed a fresh start. I think he’s excited to really work with all of us, create the strongest package.”

Ever the realist, though, Rossi still is tempering some of his enthusiasm.

“Again, we haven’t really done anything yet other than some meetings and some team activities together,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for what they’ve done in IndyCar and also their prior careers. I think that we all bring something a little bit different to the table, which I think is really unique in terms of not only personalities but driving styles and experience levels.

“I think we have the ingredients to really be able to develop the team and continue to push the team forward to even a better level than what they’ve shown in the past. It’s been a really positive experience. Really I have nothing at all negative to say and can’t actually wait to get to work, get on track and start working together.”