NHRA

NHRA: Clay Millican looks to cash in big this weekend in Las Vegas

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One of the greatest beauties of NHRA drag racing is a driver not just earning his/her first win, but also where they go from there.

Top Fuel driver Clay Millican is among the most recent to enter that category. It took the Drummonds, Tennessee native nearly 20 years before he earned his first national event win.

Ironically enough, it couldn’t have come at a better place: it was 2017 and at Millican’s home track of Bristol Dragway, directly across the street from it’s well-known older brother, NASCAR’s Bristol Motor Speedway.

Clay Millican.

After chasing the dream of making it to victory lane for nearly two decades, Millican was rewarded for his patience and perseverance.

But it’s what has come after that which has only made his story even better.

Millican, who made his first Top Fuel start in 1998, came out of virtually nowhere to not only win two other races in 2018, he finished a career-best third in the final Top Fuel point standings.

Fans have gone from saying, “Clay who?” to “Man, that Clay can drive.”

Indeed, the 53-year-old Millican can drive.

And now, as he prepares for this weekend’s DENSO Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Millican is ready to continue showing it’s never too late to be a winner and potential champion in NHRA drag racing.

Millican comes into this weekend’s event eighth in the points, but he’s also riding momentum. After two disappointing first-round exits in the season-opening race at Pomona, California, and two weeks later at Chandler, Arizona, Millican had the pedal to metal two weeks ago at Gainesville, Florida, finishing a close runner-up to race winner Richie Crampton.

Millican will make his 295th national event start. In addition to his three wins over the last two seasons, he also has 10 runner-up finishes in his career, along with 44 semi-final finishes and 81 quarter-final finishes. He also has qualified No. 1 20 times in his career, a significant improvement over the 24 DNQs (did not qualify) he suffered through primarily earlier in his career.

In addition, Millican holds the national Top Fuel elapsed time record of 3.628 seconds over a 1,000-foot long drag strip.

Millican is particularly looking forward to this weekend’s race because with four lanes of cars competing against each other, it kind of takes him back to his roots in bracket racing before moving on to Top Fuel.

I love the confusion on the starting line,” Millican said. “I’m a bracket racer at heart.

I love the race and I love the huge crowds at an event like that. It’s way more fun to show out in front of a packed house and last year was a packed house.”

And he also has to do what he did at Gainesville two weeks ago, as well as for much of last season.

We just have to maintain consistency going down the track,” Millican said. “If we do that, we’ll turn win lights on. If we can maintain consistency, that consistency will get us wins.”

Millican’s slow start in the first two races isn’t a complete surprise. Even though they previously worked together several years ago, he and new crew chief Mike Kloeber had growing pains together until they were able to take a big chomp out of the competition at the Gatornationals.

I knew it was going to be okay,” Millican said. “There were plenty of naysayers to hiring a guy who has been out of it a while, but we were confident.

There was no question in our mind in our mind Mike was going to be able to get this going. Winning rounds was not a surprise, but as far as what we’re doing, going to the finals doesn’t change anything. We want to keep winning rounds.

We made six straight competitive runs from Saturday through the final round (at Gainesville), and that was huge. Mike was able to get a handle on what the car wants and needs. That let us know as a group we can be thrown into the fire and get it done. They got through the fire together and it gives us confidence we can do this as a group.”

NOTES: Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car) and Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) are defending winners of this weekend’s event, the fourth of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA season and marks the second four-wide race in Las Vegas.

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Alexander Rossi remains the story in IndyCar in 2019

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisc. – Alexander Rossi’s greatness was on full display Monday at Road America.

He started on the outside of the front row, drafted behind pole sitter Colton Herta at the drop of the green flag, pulled out a perfectly timed move to race side by side with Herta going into Turn 1.

By Turn 2 of the first lap, Rossi’s No. 27 NAPA Honda was out front and drove away from the field, easily winning the REV Group Grand Prix of Road America by nearly 30 seconds over Team Penske’s Will Power.

Rossi was so good, it appeared he was running on a different race course than the other 23 competitors. There was some outstanding racing throughout the field with 191 total passes, including 175 for position, but none of those passes were at the front.

According to Rossi’s engineer, Jeremy Milles, there was just one thing kept Rossi’s race from being deemed complete perfection.

“It we had stayed out two laps longer on the last pit stop, we would have led every single lap instead of Graham Rahal leading one lap,” Milless told NBC Sports.com. “It’s good to see when we give him a proper car, he puts it to work.

“He’s not like a lot of drivers.”

Rossi led 54 of the 55 laps in the race and defeated Power by 28.4391 seconds – a huge margin of victory by today’s standards. Back in 1982, Hector Rebaque defeated Al Unser by a full lap at the 4.014-mile, 14 Road America road course, but those were far different times than today’s very deep field in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Although it was Rossi’s second victory of the season and the seventh of his career, the 27-year-old from Nevada City, California, has been the driver everyone talks about in 2019. The win snapped a four-race streak where he finished second three times and fifth in the other.

Simon Pagenaud won the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26, but the fans and media were talking about Rossi’s bold, daring moves, including some wildly aggressive passes down the front straight and to the outside in Turn 1.

Rossi had a fantastic car the next week in the first race of the Detroit Grand Prix at Belle Isle but was burned by the timing of a caution period for a crash as his main challenger, Josef Newgarden, dove into the pit area to make a stop just before pit lane closed because of the caution.

Rossi had to wait until the pits were reopened to make his stop, and that put him behind Newgarden and ultimately decided the race.

After a fifth-place finish the following day in Race No. 2, Rossi was once again standing up in his seat and on top of the steering wheel in a tremendous battle with Newgarden at Texas Motor Speedway on June 8. Rossi tried his best to make his car stick on the outside lane going into Turn 1, but when he discovered the risk was much higher than the reward, he had to begrudgingly settle for second, finishing 0.816 seconds behind the current NTT IndyCar Series points leader.

Rossi left no doubt on his Sunday drive through the Wisconsin woods as he never was challenged.

In just three short seasons, Rossi has developed into one of the greatest drivers in a generation in IndyCar. He doesn’t even have 10 victories yet, and he already had the makings of a legend.

“It’s almost like Juan Pablo Montoya, when he arrived as a rookie, he was great immediately,” Rossi’s team owner Michael Andretti told NBCSports.com after the race. “Juan is one of the greats, and I think as time moves on, Alex will prove to be one of the greats.

“He is very aggressive, very calm, very confident, everything you want in a driver. He wasn’t racing anybody all day; he was just racing himself not to make any mistakes.”

For Andretti, this is a very important time in his relationship with Rossi. The driver’s contract concludes at the end of this season, and he is the focal point of speculation on where he will race in 2020.

Before Pagenaud revived his career with a sweep of the major events at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Month of May, Rossi looked like “Penske Material” as the driver that would take over the No. 22 Chevrolet. After Pagenaud won the Indy 500, team owner Roger Penske assured him he would be back on the team in 2020.

Rossi’s loyalties lie with Honda. Both he and his father, Pieter, share a close relationship with the engine manufacturer that helped the former Formula One test driver at Manor find a full-time home in the NTT IndyCar Series.

Andretti told NBCSports.com on Friday that he was “optimistically confident” that he will re-sign Rossi once a sponsorship agreement with NAPA is completed.

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones

Andretti remains confident after Rossi’s win on Sunday.

“We’re getting there,” Andretti said. “I think we’re getting there. We are feeling pretty good about it.”

There are others, however, that aren’t as optimistic.

If Roger Penske wants a driver, who turns down an opportunity like that? After all, Team Penske is far and away the winningest team in IndyCar history, including a record 18 Indy 500 wins.

Think of these scenarios.

What if McLaren makes a substantial offer to align with Andretti Autosport for a full-time NTT IndyCar Series team in the future after McLaren’s debacle in this year’s Indy 500?

In order for that to happen, though, Andretti would have to switch to Chevrolet, because Honda ‘s parent company in Japan will no longer do business with McLaren.

The last time Andretti considered leaving Honda for Chevy, Rossi was set to leave Andretti to join another Honda team, Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in 2017.

If Andretti Autosports and McLaren joined together, that would also mean the Andretti-aligned Harding Steinbrenner Racing would become a Chevy operation.

Honda could keep Rossi as one of its drivers by leading him to Chip Ganassi Racing. Five-time Cup Series champion Scott Dixon remains on top of his game, but it’s unlikely he will be racing Indy cars 10 years from now.

Barring unforeseen circumstance, Rossi will still be in the cockpit and winning races in a decade, and that would position Ganassi’s team for the future. The team’s second driver is rookie Felix Rosenqvist, who is currently racing with a one-year contract.

Even Rossi knows his situation for next year is complicated, which is why he chooses not to talk about it. He has developed a strong bond with Milless as his engineer and Rob Edwards (white shirt on left) as his race strategist.

Do both of those key members end up on a different team with Rossi? Edwards is a key member of management at Andretti Autosport as the Chief Operating Officer.

Rossi is as cerebral as he is aggressive. After his victory, when pressed upon his next contract, he concluded the conversation perfectly.

“I have no considerations,” Rossi said regarding his contract status. “It’s in God’s hands.”