Photos courtesy Mopar Racing

NHRA: Leah Pritchett aims to bounce back from 2019 struggles at Denver

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This hasn’t been the easiest of seasons for NHRA Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett.

For the first time in her professional drag racing career, Pritchett is coming off a double-whammy of sorts.

First, she has never gone this deep into a season – through 13 of the scheduled 24 races – without at least one win by this point.

We’ve runner-upped this year and made some semi-final appearances, but we’ve struggled,” Pritchett told NBC Sports. “And I’ve struggled as a driver at certain tracks with things like reaction times.”

Second, equally as painful as not having a win yet, is the Southern California native was forced to miss the first race of her pro career two weeks ago (at Epping, New Hampshire) due to lack of sponsorship.

It was pretty difficult to miss the race,” Pritchett said.

But she didn’t lament or take a woe-is-me approach to missing that weekend in New England. Instead, she did something to help others, volunteering in New Jersey and Philadelphia for the Team Rubicon disaster relief organization, helping victims of severe flooding in those areas.

I wanted to give as much as I could and that was time I never have to do it because we’re always racing,” Pritchett said. “It was definitely a different perspective. Missing a race was painful, but I tried to use it to as much good and of an advantage as I could.”

A big boxing fan when she’s not hurtling down a 1,000-foot drag strip at speeds approaching 330 mph in just over 3.6 seconds, Pritchett metaphorically compared herself and her plight thus far this season to boxer Floyd Mayweather. She’s ready to bounce back up off the canvas and get back in the fight at this weekend’s Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Honestly, you don’t want to back Mayweather into a corner,” Pritchett said. “He’s going to find his way and put his moves on you and it’s going to hurt when he gets out. That’s honestly how I feel like.”

Pritchett has reached the final round the last two years at Denver, including winning last year’s event.

Despite this season’s setbacks, Pritchett has good cause for optimism about this weekend’s race. She’s not only been the No. 1 qualifier the last two years at Denver, she also reached the finals both times, including winning last year’s race. Plus, two of her primary sponsors, Dodge and Mopar, sponsor this event.

For me and the team, this is the most prestigious race for us on the circuit,” Pritchett said. “We generated some momentum from the last couple of races we’ve had here.”

The seven-time Top Fuel national event winner (plus seven other runner-up finishes) enters this weekend seventh in the standings. With five races remaining in the regular season to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, the significance of this race, which kicks off the annual three-race “West Coast Swing,” is pivotal.

In the Swing, you have to have your act together,” Pritchett said of the three consecutive weekends of racing. “It’s the longest-running door-to-door (road trip). Last year, we made two of the three finals. We also runner-upped at Seattle. As much as we’re looking forward to the Swing and being prepared for it, our focus is definitely on Denver.”

But Pritchett admits racing a mile above sea level – which robs motors of oxygen – has its challenges.

You bring a lot of extra inventory (of parts) to this race that you won’t run at any other race in the series,” she said. “Going into the first qualifying run on Friday, everyone is starting at zero. You don’t look to the weekend or the month before and go off the baseline you’ve been running all year.

This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult races, if not the most difficult race, from a tuner’s perspective. You’ve got to set yourself up with a good baseline, a good tuneup baseline, which is why every portion of this race is so critical.

Additionally, from an altitude perspective, you have less air, which is less downforce, which changes the aerodynamics of the car and the way you drive it in Top Fuel, from wing angles to how it steers to how it lifts down-track.

All of the atmospheric conditions play the most challenging part of an entire season. Being the Dodge Nationals and the Mopar flagship race, when you win and you get No. 1 qualifier and do well, it’s really a testament of something to be proud of. It’s a whole team effort. We get to put all the coals to it.”

Last season, although she finished fourth in the Top Fuel ranks, Pritchett won her first NHRA world championship by capturing the Factory Stock Showdown. This year, even with defending Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence again making mincemeat of the class with seven wins already, Pritchett has high hopes she can still overtake Torrence to win her first Top Fuel crown.

It’s just a matter of getting going again, and she couldn’t think of a better place to do so than Denver.

Even with the Torrences, we can give them a run for their money,” she said. “A shot at a championship is still way more than conceivable.”

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Kyle Busch happy with first stint: ‘Put me in the car, there’s excitement!’

AP Photo/Terry Renna
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The Rolex 24 at Daytona debut of the “KB Show” was cut short by a strategy maneuver but still delivered drama and a positive result.

Kyle Busch got the No. 14 RCF GT3 Lexus back on the lead lap and back in contention for a GTD victory at Daytona International Speedway.

“It was good,” Kyle Busch said with a broad smile after a 42-minute stint. “Just, uh, shit, put me in the car, and there’s excitement around! Drove all my way back to the lead lap and everything.

“Overall, we’ve had a good experience and hell I only got one stint in, so I’m ready for more. Sign me up, coach!”

The two-time Cup champion was expected to drive for at least 90 minutes, but the first full-course caution of the race (with 19 hours and 16 minutes remaining) caused AIM Vasser Sullivan to change up its drive plan. Busch was called to the pits in favor of Parker Chase.

“With all the strategy and the way the wave-bys work here, it’s quite different than what we’re accustomed to (in NASCAR),” said Busch, who likely will drive longer now later in the race. “That wasn’t bad. To get ourselves back on the lead lap and back to a position where we can start scrapping again hopefully is what we needed.

“So I got one stint in, but I’m trying to save myself and (teammate) Jack (Hawksworth) for a little later.”

Busch climbed into the car shortly after 6 p.m. as the last of the No. 14’s four drivers. He complained a few times on his radio about traffic, which he said was his biggest challenge.

“There were a couple of instances we ran down a smaller car, and (it was) just mirror driving in front of us,” he said. “That was pretty bad. We lost probably 2 seconds on that. Overall, I guess that’s road racing.

The yellow flag was exactly what Busch’s team needed after being forced to start from the rear of the field when it missed qualifying because of an engine change. Hawksworth, who started the race, said the car was “quick in the wrong places and slow in the right places” after struggling with handling and speed in the first stint.

“I don’t feel we’re out of it,” Hawksworth said. “It’s a very long race. Still early days. We need to work on having speed for the end of the race. The position right now doesn’t really make any difference. We’ll need to find some performance at the end of the race to fight for the win.”