Photos: Toyota Racing

NHRA: Antron Brown ready to cast Charlotte’s web

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Three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown is getting ready to do his best Spiderman imitation: he intends on casting out a web to lure opponents into a false sense of security in this weekend’s NGK Spark Plus NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.

Given that the host facility, zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina, is a suburb of Charlotte, you might say Brown is throwing out a Charlotte’s web of sorts.

And for good reason: he’s the winningest Top Fuel driver at zMAX Dragway since the NHRA first began racing there a decade ago, with five triumphs – including victories in the 2014 and 2015 Four-Wide Nationals (also won non-four-wide races there in 2011, 2015 and 2016).

Even though he’s originally from New Jersey and now lives in suburban Indianapolis, it’s very clear Brown feels right at home in Charlotte. And given how he’s coming off his first final round appearance of the season two weeks ago at Houston, he’s ready to make it win No. 6 at zMAX.

Charlotte has always been a real special place for our Matco Tools Toyota team,” Brown told NBC Sports. “The city has such a rich race history from NASCAR to bringing NHRA there for one of our biggest races of the year in the Four-Wide Nationals.

So every time you go to Charlotte, you always want to show out and stake your claim to a little bit of history in one of the meccas of racing. There’s no secret that you want to bring you’re A game.”

But the Don Schumacher Racing pilot isn’t living in the past notoriety of his five prior wins at Charlotte.

You don’t really think about that: the focus is on winning the next Charlotte,” Brown said. “So going there into this year’s Four Wide nationals, our mindset is to go there heads down and pedal down, and, hopefully, at the end of the day, you’re sitting on the top of the mountain.

We’ve had a lot of success there because we’ve had a mindset of one team, one mind and one focus to go there and compete at a high level.”

Not only must Brown forget about his past success at Charlotte, he also has to forget about the struggles he had last season. He won just once (Seattle), an uncharacteristic performance drop after having won at least four races or more in the previous seven seasons – including six or more wins in five of those seasons.

We’ve been going through a lot of adversity and we’ve just been fighting through it as a unit together,” Brown said. “Last year was a learning year. We started the year off with just two people in the same positions they were in 2017 – (crew chief) Mark Oswald and myself. Everyone else was in a new position with new responsibilities.

It was a growing experience for everyone on the team and all it takes is one thing to go wrong to end your day.

He also finished an uncharacteristic sixth in the overall 2018 standings in the 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

Yet, we were still competitive all year,” Brown said. “This year, everybody is in the same place and we’ve shown some real good speed at times, but we need to keep improving our consistency and, hopefully, get some good luck to go our way. We just want to keep building off of Houston.”

With his Houston runner-up finish, Brown feels strongly that he has turned the corner from last year’s struggles and is prepared to go on a tear. He has 50 career Top Fuel wins, good for fourth on the all-time Top Fuel wins list, just two victories behind third-ranked Joe Amato. Brown also earned 16 career NHRA wins in his previous stint racing a Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Houston gave us some momentum, now we need to start where we left off there,” he said. “We just need to keep getting better. That’s the name of the game.

It’s still early in the season and we want to keep improving the car. I’m proud of my boys. They were up late Saturday night in (Houston), where they rebuilt the whole clutch system. Now the car is doing the things we want it to do. We’re on the road to recovery and we’re going to keep pressing.

The main thing is just making it to the finals. Once you get to the finals, it’s anybody’s game. There’s so much parity in Top Fuel right now. We have had five different winners in the first five races and there are at least five more teams out here who have proven they are capable of winning. We’re looking to get back into the winner’s circle soon and then we want to be able to go out and compete for our fourth championship.”

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
IMSA
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”