NHRA

NHRA: John Force Racing flexes muscle with Hight, Brittany Force wins in Houston

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Like Arnold Schwarzenegger flexing his arms in his prime as a body builder, John Force Racing showed its muscle in this weekend’s Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals at Houston Raceway Park in Baytown, Texas.

Not only did JFR team president Robert Hight win his third Funny Car final of the season (in the first five races), teammate Brittany Force earned her first win of 2019 in the Top Fuel category in the fifth national event on the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit.

In addition, team patriarch John Force came into Sunday’s eliminations as the No. 1 qualifier, which daughter Brittany also accomplished in Top Fuel, marking the first time in NHRA history that a father-daughter combination have qualified No. 1 in the top two nitro-fuel classes.

John Force reached the semifinals before being eliminated by Hight. The elder Force continues in his quest to earn the 150th win of his career; he remains at 149 wins heading into the next race in two weeks (April 26-28) at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Here’s how Sunday’s action played out:

IN FUNNY CAR: Hight moved one step closer to 50 career Funny Car wins – he now has 48 – defeating Matt Hagan in the final round by a tight margin of 3.941 seconds (at 310.84 mph) to Hagan’s 3.966 seconds (at 311.70 mph).

Hight struggled in Friday’s qualifying, but rebounded to earn the No. 5 starting spot on Saturday. But the big story for him in reaching the winner’s circle Sunday was outstanding consistency: in his four rounds of competition, Hight’s performance never wavered between 3.895 seconds and 3.941 seconds.

I’m proud of (my team), never disbelieved in them,” Hight said. “That’s why we have three wins already this season because they’re so good.

“Down at the other end, they said, ‘How do you keep your team in check?’ Really, it’s the other way around. They keep me in check. I’ve never seen a more focused group of individuals. They keep their heads down, work hard, don’t do a lot of talking and we got the job done.

Brittany and I, this is the third time we’ve got to double-up. We seem to do really well together in these circumstances. It was really cool to be down there when she made the [turn off] and throw a bunch of Mello Yello on her car.”

During Sunday’s eliminations, Hight defeated Jonnie Lindberg, 2018 Funny Car champ J.R. Todd and his boss, John Force.

Hagan, meanwhile, defeated two of his three Don Schumacher Racing teammates, Tommy Johnson Jr. (first round) and Ron Capps (semifinals), as well as Blake Alexander (quarterfinals) to match up with Hight in the final.

“I had a great weekend here in Houston, I’ve got a great race car and (crew chief) Dickie Venables is doing an amazing job with this car,” Hagan said. “I couldn’t be happier with the car and team I have surrounding me. We’re ready to keep things going in Charlotte.”

IN TOP FUEL: Brittany Force earned her first win in a year, her last visit to the winner’s circle coming at this race last season.

The 2017 NHRA Top Fuel champion covered the drag strip at an elapsed time of 3.749 seconds (at 302.14 mph) to defeat Antron Brown (3.995 seconds at 233.48 mph).

Also of note, it was the first win for David Grubnic as Brittany Force’s crew chief, a role he assumed during the off-season.

All of John Force Racing was on a mission this morning,” Brittany Force said. “My dad and I were No. 1, the first time father and daughter have ever qualified No. 1 at an event. That’s something very special my dad and I will share. We were looking for a win, but to be able to do it with Robert Hight by my side in that Auto Club car, that’s pretty awesome.”

Force defeated Cameron Ferre, points leader Doug Kalitta and Clay Millican in the first three rounds of eliminations before holding off Brown for the win. Brown had an equally tough road to the final round, defeating Las Vegas winner Mike Salinas in the first round, followed by triumphs over Leah Pritchett and 2018 Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence before meeting Force in the money round.

“We’ve been going through a lot of adversity and we’ve just been fighting through it as a unit together,” Brown said. “Today, people saw what we are capable of. It feels good just to get back to what’s been the norm.

“We still have a ways to go, but we’re just going to keep on working and keep our heads down and everything’s going to be just fine. We can take this run today and build a little momentum and go to Charlotte and start where we left off here. We just need to keep getting better. That’s the name of the game.”

NOTES: This marked the first race of the season that did not include the Pro Stock class. Drivers in that class are contesting an 18-race season, as compared to the 24-race schedule that Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers compete in.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER

TOP FUEL: 1. Brittany Force; 2. Antron Brown; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Clay Millican; 5. Doug Kalitta; 6. Leah Pritchett; 7. Scott Palmer; 8. Austin Prock; 9. Mike Salinas; 10. Jordan Vandergriff; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Terry McMillen; 13. Kebin Kinsley; 14. Richie Crampton; 15. Billy Torrence; 16. Cameron Ferre.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight; 2. Matt Hagan; 3. John Force; 4. Ron Capps; 5. J.R. Todd; 6. Shawn Langdon; 7. Blake Alexander; 8. Bob Tasca III; 9. Jonnie Lindberg; 10. Terry Haddock; 11. Cruz Pedregon; 12. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 13. Jack Beckman; 14. Tim Wilkerson; 15. Jim Campbell; 16. Jeff Diehl.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS

TOP FUEL: Brittany Force, 3.749 seconds, 302.14 mph def. Antron Brown, 3.995 seconds, 233.48 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.941, 310.84 def. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.966, 311.70.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 3.717, 325.85 def. Jordan Vandergriff, 3.747, 324.51; Clay Millican, 3.765, 316.60 def. Richie Crampton, 5.644, 90.35; Brittany Force, 3.766, 321.19 def. Cameron Ferre, Foul – Red Light; Antron Brown, 3.735, 325.69 def. Mike Salinas, 3.727, 321.96; Steve Torrence, 3.720, 327.19 def. Kebin Kinsley, 3.855, 313.58; Leah Pritchett, 3.736, 322.73 def. Shawn Reed, 3.755, 326.16; Scott Palmer, 3.807, 319.82 def. Billy Torrence, 6.295, 116.08; Doug Kalitta, 3.768, 313.44 def. Terry McMillen, 3.784, 279.96; QUARTERFINALS — Millican, 3.730, 319.82 def. Palmer, 3.802, 305.22; S. Torrence, 3.732, 322.73 def. Prock, 4.739, 162.18; Force, 3.678, 323.74 def. Kalitta, 3.744, 320.36; Brown, 3.750, 320.89 def. Pritchett, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Brown, 3.746, 320.28 def. S. Torrence, 3.744, 315.71; Force, 3.738, 314.31 def. Millican, 11.114, 66.60; FINAL — Force, 3.749, 302.14 def. Brown, 3.995, 233.48.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Blake Alexander, Ford Mustang, 3.959, 298.34 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 6.727, 83.56; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.895, 322.27 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 3.961, 310.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.858, 326.71 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.162, 267.53; Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.950, 318.54 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, 12.698, 69.80; J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.930, 318.99 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 8.381, 71.17; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.946, 318.62 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.807, 166.87; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.944, 316.23 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.335, 203.77; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.949, 316.60 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 5.321, 137.23; QUARTERFINALS — Capps, 3.938, 315.78 def. Langdon, 3.983, 318.17; Hight, 3.914, 314.75 def. Todd, 3.940, 318.62; Force, 3.977, 311.34 def. Tasca III, 4.060, 258.47; Hagan, 3.948, 312.93 def. Alexander, 4.011, 306.40; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 4.613, 225.79 def. Capps, 7.818, 98.67; Hight, 3.924, 309.91 def. Force, 3.932, 312.78; FINAL — Hight, 3.941, 310.84 def. Hagan, 3.966, 311.70.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 367; 2. Brittany Force, 349; 3. Steve Torrence, 343; 4. Mike Salinas, 320; 5. Leah Pritchett, 303; 6. Clay Millican, 302; 7. Antron Brown, 278; 8. Billy Torrence, 265; 9. Richie Crampton, 264; 10. Terry McMillen, 231.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 476; 2. Matt Hagan, 366; 3. J.R. Todd, 341; 4. John Force, 339; 5. Jack Beckman, 332; 6. Tommy Johnson Jr., 315; 7. (tie) Ron Capps, 286; Tim Wilkerson, 286; 9. Bob Tasca III, 250; 10. Shawn Langdon, 223.

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Newgarden looks to continue streak of success at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – There are several drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series whose skill sets seem to be a perfect match for the mammoth race course at Road America. Josef Newgarden is one of those drivers.

In the three years since IndyCar’s return to the 4.014-mile, 14-turn road course located in this lakeside resort region of Wisconsin, Newgarden has been a central part of the storyline.

In 2016, when he was driving for Ed Carpenter Racing, Newgarden was involved in a massive crash at Texas Motor Speedway with Conor Daly, suffering a broken hand and a broken clavicle. He had JR Hildebrand on standby to drive his car at Road America on Friday, but after he was cleared to return to the cockpit, Newgarden began his comeback on Saturday.

He was on a fast lap in his qualification group, but went into the Carousel portion of the course too fast and ended up qualifying 20th. Despite his injuries, Newgarden battled back to an eighth-place finish.

In 2017, his first season with Team Penske and a year when he would go on to win the NTT IndyCar Series championship, Newgarden started third and led 13 laps.

That was before a shootout with leading challenger Scott Dixon on a Lap 31 restart. Dixon hit the throttle at the green flag, raced Newgarden down the long front straight, and dove to the inside of Turn 1 to make what proved to be the race-winning pass.

Newgarden and Team Penske learned a valuable lesson, and made sure it wouldn’t happen again in 2018. Newgarden won the pole and led 53 laps in the 55-lap contest before fending off a strong challenge from Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay to win the race.

Newgarden returns as the NTT IndyCar Series points leader and kicks off the second half of the season in the REV Group Grand Prix at Road America (Sunday, Noon ET on NBC).

He comes off his third win of the season on June 8 at the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway. Road America, one of the classic road courses in the world, delivers a vastly different style of racing. But it does help to have some momentum on your side.

“Yes. I think we’ve had good momentum throughout the year,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “We’ve had some bobbles that can shake that, but we’ve been good at not letting a bobble shake our confidence. I feel really good about where we are at. This win at Texas was a good time to have it with everyone going into the break feeling pretty good about things and having a weekend off.

“We just need to pick back up now. We can’t slow down. It’s the second-half push for the championship. We have to stay on it now to the finish.”

There are nine races completed in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season, which leaves eight races remaining in the fight for the title. Newgarden has a 25-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Andretti Autosport and a 48-point lead over Team Penske teammate and Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud.

The second half begins in the “Land of Bratwurst,” just a few miles from Johnsonville, Wisconsin, and at a track that thoroughly earns the reputation as “America’s National Monument of Road Courses.”

“I’m a big fan of Road America,” Newgarden said. “It’s one of our last ‘old school’ tracks in the world. It’s an ultimate IndyCar track. It has a little bit of everything. It’s tantalizing. If you make a mistake around Road America it penalizes you. I think drivers like that. You don’t want it easy. You don’t want a ton of runoff. It has great high-speed sections. Very classic corners. It’s very high commitment brake zones, quick, long straights so an Indy car can open its legs up a lot. It’s really what you think of when you go to a high-speed, IndyCar road course. And, it’s a beautiful backdrop. Elkhart Lake is a gorgeous part of the country, especially in the summer time when we go there.

“It’s a classic facility. One of my favorite tracks in the world.”

Newgarden also has high-praise for the Wisconsin race fans, who come out in the tens of thousands and start camping on Thursday and stay through the end of Sunday’s race, which regularly draws over 50,000 fans.

“There is tremendous support there,” Newgarden said. “The place seems full on race day. It adds to the ambience of the track. It’s pretty, even when nobody is there, but when you feel it up with all the people and the campers, it takes it to a different level. They really do come out and support it. They are very knowledgeable people to our series and what is going on. I think the drivers appreciate that. They know what is going on all year.”

From a driver’s standpoint, this race is fairly straightforward, strategy-wise. According to Newgarden, the variance of strategy depends on who can go the longest on one tank of fuel. The normal fuel window is between Laps 11-15. If a driver dives into the pits early, then he’s committed to racing as hard as possible to build up a gap on the field in order to get in and out of the pits before the other drivers on a normal pit stop strategy.

“Fuel matters there and the longer you can run on a stint, it seems to help you. That is where you see the strategy difference,” Newgarden explained. “Overall, the general layout of pit stops is pretty straightforward in that race. Unless an oddball yellow comes out, if you are running out front, that is the strategy you can going to run.

“We have conversations before the race what we are trying to do. There are different points where you need to be pushing and are flat-out and not worried about fuel and other points where you need to be saving as much as you can. There is always a fine-line. You are generally always trying to save some fuel by going as fast as possible, which is a very conflicting thought process, but that’s what we are always trying to do.

“It really depends on how the race flows. At Road America, when the yellows fall, that will dictate what we are doing, and I will get feedback from the pit. It’s all relative. It depends on whether I’m in the front or in the back. If I’m up front and the yellow falls at a weird time, they will let me know what other people are doing and if that changes our game. If it does, then I will adjust what I’m doing.

“It’s always a moving target, but you try to plan this stuff out. If it’s a green race all the way through, here is the plan and if the yellows fly, then this is what we are going to do. We try to plan all of that out before the race starts and stuff starts happening, you know how to react.”

Newgarden has learned from his mistakes at Road America and that is one reason why he is once again a major threat to win this race. Despite his broken hand and broken clavicle in 2016, his eighth-place finish was in many ways a victory.

“It was a very good weekend in a lot of ways,” Newgarden recalled. “Just getting back out on the track and not lose ground in the championship as very important to me. I was very satisfied we were able to do that. It took a lot of support and help, and everyone pitched in to get it done. I was a little bit disappointed. I think we had a much faster car than eighth place in 2016. I made a mistake in qualifying. I pushed wide in the Carousel and it put us 20th. We could have probably started in the top five in that race and had a shot at the podium and maybe a win there. If anything, I was disappointed at where we qualified and where there that put us.

“But it was a great recovery. It was a great weekend overall. Getting a top-10 was really a win in a lot of ways. I think there was more to be had that weekend, though.”

In 2017, he was ready to challenge for the victory, but was a victim of bad timing.

“We got nipped by that yellow at the wrong point,” Newgarden explained. “We were on the wrong tire. Right as we came out of the pits on the Black tires, Scott came out on new Reds. It was a yellow when we didn’t need it. To get the tires up to temperature for the restart was really our challenge in that race. Ultimately, it did us in, in Turn 1. We didn’t get a great launch off the final corner, Scott dragged alongside and completely the pass in Turn 1.

“We didn’t make that mistake last year, tire-wise, when the yellow came out at the end of the race and had a shootout.”

His win last year gave off the image of having the field under his control. But the driver pointed out it wasn’t as easy as it looked.

“That was actually a very tough drive,” Newgarden recalled. “I wish that drive was a lot easier than it was, but it was very difficult to keep Ryan Hunter-Reay behind us last year. He was really the guy hounding us the whole race and had a lot of pace, probably more pace than us in different parts of that race. Trying to keep him at bay and doing what we needed to do to get in the right window, it was not an easy drive. If it was an easy drive, we would have sprinted off into the distance a little more. We really had to work hard to hit our windows and make sure Ryan stayed behind us.

“It was a tough day; it was a long day. We had to do a lot or work to run that whole race. We had a very consistent race car. It was very predictable and easy to drive. I had the speed and the car underneath me so that I could manage the situation.”

The ability to manage the situation is a great quality to have for any driver in the NTT IndyCar Series. In Newgarden’s case, it may be the key ingredient to winning a second IndyCar championship.