NHRA: Despite Countdown lock-in, there is no rest for Steve Torrence

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KENT, Washington – After an phenomenal 2018 season that saw him win eleven races – including all six countdown races – to win his first NHRA Top Fuel championship, Steve Torrence is easily the top favorite to claim the Top Fuel title once again this season.

The driver of the No. 1 Capco entry enters the Magic Dry Organic Absorbent NHRA Northwest Nationals at Pacific Raceways with a whopping 572-point lead over Clay Millican in the Top Fuel points standings, having won eight of the 15 events so far this season.

Already a lock-in for the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s playoff system, Torrence could simply take it easy through the next three rounds if he really wanted to, but that isn’t the 36-year-old Texan’s style. For him, the goal every weekend remains the same: to reach the finals and win.

“We take every round every weekend with the same intensity and focus,” Torrence told NBC Sports. “We try to go out here and do the best that we can. Ultimately, it’s all in the good Lord’s hands of how it’s going to pan out, but we just got to do our best to control our own destiny and go out and just race hard and race well. That’s all you really can do.”

Steve Torrence. Photo: NHRA

Success will mean even more to Torrence points wise when the Countdown for the Championship begin in September. Once the Countdown starts, Torrence will see his lead shrink to only 20 points over second place, meaning that losing the championship is still a possibility should he experience misfortune in one of the six playoff events, something he believes is unfair.

“Honestly, I’m not a fan of the points system,” Torrence said. “Really, they [the NHRA] put more of an emphasis on the countdown than maybe there should be.

“We’re still locked in and focused, but in the countdown, they’re going to throw everything away that you’ve accomplished at this point, so we’re just going to try to continue moving forward and maintain that consistency.”

However, with a Top Fuel title already in his name, Torrence admits that there is less pressure to win a second time around now that he’s proven to others, as well as himself, that he has what it takes to become a champion, but that doesn’t change the fact that he remains just as hungry to win title number two.

“Everybody out here races with aspirations of winning a race or winning a championship,” Torrence said. “When you achieve that, it doesn’t change your aspirations. You still want to do it again because you’re only a champion for a year.

“You’ll be a champion for life, but you only get to wear that No.1 for that one year and then you have to earn it again, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.