NHRA: Matt Smith ready to put championship defense in high gear this weekend

NHRA
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There’s something about Sonoma Raceway that seems to bring out the best in NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Matt Smith.

It was at Sonoma last year that set the North Carolina resident on the path to what would eventually become his third career PSM championship.

Smith took a major step towards his title last season by winning the eight-bike Mickey Thompson Tire Pro Bike Battle, a race-within-a-race during the annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals that earned Smith $25,000.

Smith is once again back in Sonoma this week looking for a repeat win performance in the Pro Bike Battle, as well as give him a big shot forward towards winning a fourth season championship, as well.

(Winning the Pro Bike Battle) assured us we could really go after that championship last year,” Smith said in a media release. “To me, when we beat (runner-up Eddie Krawiec), it really showed us we could race for a championship and have a chance to win it.

Last year was the first time anyone on my team won the bike battle, and it was just great to finally win it. We really appreciate Mickey Thompson doing this for the class. It’s been a good journey and a good fit for the class. So to get that win, it was pretty awesome. If you do well at Sonoma, you know you’re in a good spot come Indy.”

Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith. Photo: NHRA.

Indy is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the biggest race of the season not only for its iconic status, but also because it’s the final regular season race before the start of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Smith now finds himself in the same position that he was in at this time last year. He not only comes into this weekend’s race in Sonoma ranked fourth in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings (17 points out of third and is 239 behind series leader Andrew Hines), Smith is also gearing up for the next four races: Sonoma, Seattle, Brainerd (Minnesota) and Indianapolis.

How he does in those races – much like how he approached last year’s upcoming events at this time – could go a long way towards his goal of repeating as PSM champ.

This Saturday, he’ll once again compete and also seek to repeat as winner in the Pro Bike Battle. And Smith is definitely in it to win it, bringing the same motorcycle and motor that he rode to a national record of 201.76 mph in Gainesville, Florida this past March.

All of our new motors are pretty good, but we have one that just stands out,” said Smith, who has 23 career wins. “That’s the one we ran at the end of last year, and we ran it again at Gainesville and broke the (speed) record again.

I put it back in at Chicago and won that race. It’s going back in the bike in Sonoma, and I think it’s going to be fast, so we feel good about it.”

Can lightning strike again for Smith at Sonoma? Can he not only win the PBB, but also use it as a launch pad toward earning title No. 4?

Sonoma has always been a big bike race and I think we’re in a great spot,” Smith said. “Angie (his wife, a fellow PSM competitor) ran really well at Norwalk, and we finally got Scotty’s (teammate Scotty Pollacheck) bike to perform like it should.

We qualified all the bikes in the top seven and everyone won in the first round, and I think we’re right where we need to be. With the way the Countdown is, you’ve got to be good at the end of the year.”

NOTES: Defending Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence goes for his 10th win in the first 15 races of the season this weekend. Torrence also won at Sonoma last year. … 16-time Funny Car champ John Force once again renews his quest to earn a milestone 150th career win. … The first two rounds of qualifying take place Friday at 3:15 and 6:15 p.m. PT, the final two rounds on Saturday at 1:20 and 4:20 p.m. ET, with final eliminations scheduled Sunday at 11 a.m. PT. Also, the Mickey Thompson Tire Pro Bike Battle takes place Saturday with the first round at 1:15 p.m. PT, the semifinals follow at 4:15 p.m. PT, and the finals slated for 5:30 p.m. PT.

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Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.