NHRA Seattle: John Force wins No. 150, Austin Prock wins No. 1

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You might say Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Northwest Nationals was one for the ages.

Literally.

On the one hand, 70-year-old John Force broke more than a year’s frustration to finally earn a milestone 150th career NHRA Funny Car win.

On the other hand, 23-year-old Austin Prock (he turns 24 on August 21) – who also drives for John Force Racing – broke through with his first career NHRA Top Fuel victory, as well.

And Matt Hartford deprived Greg Anderson of a Western Swing sweep, capturing top honors in the Pro Stock class.

IN FUNNY CAR: For over a year, Force has consistently said that win No. 150 will come in due time. Sunday, that time came due as Force (3.971 seconds at 320.58 mph) defeated Ron Capps (4.018 seconds at 309.91 mph) in a classic final round showdown.

It marked Force’s first victory in 25 races dating back to last season and his ninth career win at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington, a Seattle suburb.

 

While Force is the all-time winningest driver in both Funny Car and all other NHRA classes, Capps is the No. 2 all-time winningest driver in Funny Car and one of Force’s long-time rivals.

I give credit to a lot of crew chiefs over the years,” Force said in a post-race interview. “I got the monkey off my back and it drove me nuts.

But it taught me to focus on my car if I want to do (well). I had to get to know my car and sometimes you need a slap in the face. That was the monkey that made me focus. I’ve been living it here the last 4-5 races and we found something real critical.

I may not be as young as these kids, but I’m excited. I can calm down now and not live with that thinking that I’ll never get it.”

Force defeated, in order, Jim Campbell, JFR teammate and NHRA Funny Car points leader Robert Hight and Jack Beckman before reaching the final round for the 253rd time in his NHRA career.

Capps, meanwhile, defeated Tim Wilkerson, J.R. Todd and Matt Hagan to face Force in the 121st final round of Capps’ career. It also was the 103rd time Force and Capps have raced head-to-head in their respective Funny Car careers.

Give me a good race car and I can race,” Force said. “I know Capps wanted to beat me and he was giving it all he had.

He’s the real deal, he’s a real great racer, and today luck was just with me and I got the win. Ron was the first one over to congratulate me and that’s the kind of guy he is. But there’s certain tracks I’m really happy at and I’ve always loved Seattle. I’m in the hunt (for the championship) and that’s all I ever wanted to do was to be in the hunt.”

IN TOP FUEL: Prock, son of Force’s crew chief, Jimmy Prock, earned his first Top Fuel career win in his rookie season in the class.

Prock (3.875 seconds at 307.86 mph) stopped defending Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence (4.984 seconds, 162.24 mph) in the final round. Torrence was making a second straight bid to earn his ninth win of the season.

Prock defeated, in order, Leah Pritchett, Clay Millican and Mike Salinas to also reach his first career final round as well. Torrence, meanwhile, advanced to the 52nd final round of his career, defeating Steve Chrisman, Antron Brown and Shawn Reed.

This is just unbelievable,” Prock said. “I have to thank John Force for giving me this opportunity. I’m still speechless. This is a dream come true. I’ve wanted this ever since I was knee-high.

Ever since I could think, I wanted to drive a Top Fuel car. We said when John gets 150, I’m going to get my first one and it all came together perfectly. We put all the pieces of the puzzle together today. I wanted to race (Torrence) in the final round. I wanted to be the guy that stopped him.”

IN PRO STOCK: Hartford stopped Greg Anderson from earning a sweep of the Western Swing, as Anderson had won the first two races of the swing at Denver and Sonoma.

Hartford (6.606 seconds at 209.33 mph) got the break at the start line to defeat Anderson (6.596 seconds at 210.31 mph). It was Hartford’s second career Pro Stock win and the first of 2019.

We had a win light against Bo (Pro Stock series leader Bo Butner), which really set the momentum for the day,” Hartford said. “Greg Anderson is obviously one of the best that’s ever raced in the class and he’s closing in some monumental records.

But he had beaten me 10 out of 10 times and, once again, we went up there knowing we had to go ‘A to B’ and whoever leaves first should win the race. We figured we had a good chance, the driver just had to be on his game.”

Hartford defeated, in order, Butner, No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Deric Kramer to reach the final round, while Anderson knocked off Fernando Cuadra Jr., Erica Enders and Alex Laughlin to earn his 156th finals appearance.

Had Anderson won, he would have been the first driver in NHRA history to ever sweep the Western Swing twice.

NOTES: The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series takes next weekend off before resuming August 16-18 with the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, Minnesota. That race is the second-to-last qualifying race for the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

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

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

PRO STOCK: 1. Matt Hartford; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Alex Laughlin; 4. Deric Kramer; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Chris McGaha; 8. Jason Line; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Fernando Cuadra; 12. Steve Graham; 13. Steve Matusek; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Kenny Delco; 16. Val Smeland.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Austin Prock, 3.875 seconds, 307.86 mph def. Steve Torrence, 4.984 seconds, 162.24 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.971, 320.58 def. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.018, 309.91.

PRO STOCK: Matt Hartford, Chevy Camaro, 6.606, 209.33 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.596, 210.31.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Shawn Reed, 3.718, 329.50 def. Terry McMillen, 3.789, 324.90; Clay Millican, 3.746, 326.16 def. Cameron Ferre, 6.078, 92.52; Brittany Force, 3.725, 328.78 def. Ron Smith, 4.296, 274.50; Mike Salinas, 3.850, 292.84 was unopposed; Steve Torrence, 3.770, 324.83 def. Steven Chrisman, 4.319, 206.64; Austin Prock, 3.761, 326.95 def. Leah Pritchett, 3.762, 325.30; Antron Brown, 3.798, 321.12 def. Richie Crampton, 4.990, 142.64; Doug Kalitta, 3.789, 322.88 def. Scott Palmer, 6.073, 110.96; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 3.748, 326.32 def. Kalitta, 4.263, 196.30; Reed, 3.757, 323.27 def. Force, 3.772, 327.59; Prock, 3.829, 323.74 def. Millican, 4.498, 163.20; Torrence, 3.785, 325.53 def. Brown, 4.044, 266.69; SEMIFINALS — Torrence, 3.998, 272.28 def. Reed, 6.652, 109.32; Prock, 3.800, 322.19 def. Salinas, 3.777, 324.12; FINAL — Prock, 3.875, 307.86 def. Torrence, 4.984, 162.24.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.960, 325.61 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 9.903, 83.83; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.934, 321.35 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, 4.189, 285.11; Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.988, 328.22 def. Gary Densham, Mustang, 4.058, 308.99; John Force, Chevy Camaro, 3.895, 327.90 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.773, 173.36; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.929, 330.55 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 3.949, 322.19; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.926, 323.81 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.296, 214.55; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.939, 327.35 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.205, 253.95; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.937, 327.59 def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 5.182, 141.86; QUARTERFINALS — Capps, 3.992, 322.58 def. Todd, 5.277, 153.40; Hagan, 3.970, 325.53 def. Langdon, 5.067, 148.69; Force, 3.909, 328.14 def. Hight, 4.160, 230.84; Beckman, 3.973, 323.04 def. Tasca III, 4.017, 321.50; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 3.974, 323.58 def. Hagan, 3.982, 327.27; Force, 4.014, 320.97 def. Beckman, 4.480, 197.65; FINAL — Force, 3.971, 320.58 def. Capps, 4.018, 309.91.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Matt Hartford, Chevy Camaro, 6.562, 210.11 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.568, 209.95; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.600, 209.46 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.606, 210.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.555, 209.72 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.596, 208.49; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.550, 210.11 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.555, 209.75 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 19.054, 41.98; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.557, 209.92 def. Steve Matusek, Ford Mustang, 6.640, 208.97; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.571, 209.75 def. Steve Graham, Camaro, 6.635, 208.23; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.577, 209.95 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, Foul – Red Light; QUARTERFINALS — Laughlin, 6.574, 209.79 def. McGaha, 8.639, 111.40; Hartford, 6.578, 210.31 def. Coughlin, 6.951, 205.76; Anderson, 6.559, 208.33 def. Enders, 6.591, 209.20; Kramer, 6.563, 210.08 def. Line; SEMIFINALS — Hartford, 7.551, 198.55 def. Kramer, 33.038, 577.91; Anderson, 6.596, 209.23 def. Laughlin, 6.656, 209.46; FINAL — Hartford, 6.606, 209.33 def. Anderson, 6.596, 210.31.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS ( * = Clinched berth in NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship)

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,587*; 2. Antron Brown, 966; 3. Clay Millican, 955; 4. Brittany Force, 953; 5. Doug Kalitta, 940; 6. Mike Salinas, 883; 7. Leah Pritchett, 786; 8. (tie) Richie Crampton, 753; Austin Prock, 753; 10. Terry McMillen, 676.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 1,341*; 2. John Force, 1,155*; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., 1,117*; 4. Ron Capps, 1,057; 5. Jack Beckman, 1,039; 6. Bob Tasca III, 985; 7. Matt Hagan, 965; 8. J.R. Todd, 949; 9. Shawn Langdon, 840; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 792.

PRO STOCK: 1. Bo Butner, 815*; 2. Greg Anderson, 769; 3. Alex Laughlin, 742; 4. Matt Hartford, 679; 5. Jason Line, 644; 6. Deric Kramer, 632; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 609; 8. Erica Enders, 593; 9. Chris McGaha, 529; 10. Kenny Delco, 331.

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Ryan: Stressful second title is a soup good for Josef Newgarden’s soul

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MONTEREY, Calif. – At her family’s home in Nashville, Tennessee, Tina Newgarden always keeps an extra stash of corn chowder in the freezer.

She never knows when her son, Josef, unexpectedly might drop by in desperate need of his go-to comfort food.

“It’s just in case I’m not at home, and he just goes in and grabs it himself if he’s coming home from out of town,” Tina said with a knowing smile. “And then you’ll catch him down there eating his favorite soup and watching a movie.”

When he gets done this week with the whirlwind of media obligations required after becoming an NTT IndyCar Series champion for the second time, you probably will find Newgarden curled up on the couch with a warm bowl of old-fashioned goodness in his lap and an inspirational flick on the TV (perhaps a screening of “Return of the Jedi” for a Star Wars fan).

He was crowned Sunday as the best driver on a highly competitive circuit after a season of excellence (average start of 5.5, average finish of 5.6), but Josef Newgarden really has had a tough couple of months.

That was evident in the tears that flowed immediately after he exited his No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet and seemed ready to collapse in a pool of relief from the mental exhaustion and high anxiety that had followed his quest to become a two-time champion.

“I don’t ever cry,” Newgarden, 28, said Sunday after gritting out an eighth-place finish that clinched the championship in the season finale at Laguna Seca Raceway. “Actually, it infuriates my fiancée because I don’t think I’ve ever cried in front of her. It disturbed her in some ways. She’s like, ‘You never cry! I don’t know why you don’t do that. You should cry at some point.”

If there’s anyone who knew how the 2019 points battle weighed on him, it was Ashley Welch and the rest of Newgarden’s family – the outlet that was emotionally invested and supportive of his career but also provides a release from the tension.

Josef Newgarden celebrates with his father, Joey (left), his grandmother Karen Rasmussen (front), his fiancee, Ashley (second from right), and mother Tina (right) after his second championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

They were all on hand Sunday (including his father, Joey, and his “Mormor” Karen Rasmussen, the 80-year-old maternal grandmother who came from Denmark to attend her second IndyCar race) and shared in the culmination of what’s been a very emotional and eventful year (which still has wedding bells ahead).

Josef Newgarden with his grandmother (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Was it stressful?

“To say the least,” a beaming Welch said as she watched her fiancé hoist the Astor Cup on the championship stage. “The level of competitiveness in this sport is unreal. Any different guy can come in and win any different race.

“For him to be leading all of those different guys who had just as much potential, if not more sometimes. It means so much. We had a friend tell him after the first one, anyone can win one championship, but they remember you if you win two. So I think he feels like ‘Oh, it’s not just luck. I’m meant to be here.’ And that is …”

Welch paused and her voice briefly quavered as she watched Newgarden, whom she has been together with for seven years (they were engaged last October), hoist the Astor Cup above his head.

“Beautiful,” she smiled. “So I think you see all his emotion coming from it. I know him, and he’s thinking about how many people put their neck on the line to get him to where he is today. He talks about when he was little and starting to watch IndyCar racing, Penske was his pinnacle. Getting to drive for them but being able to perform and make an impact on their history, he feels it so much.

“You saw all the outpouring of “My dreams have come true! I’ve worked so hard, and they’re here!”

It certainly was a different feeling than two years ago when Newgarden won the pole position at Sonoma, led 41 laps and won punctuated his inaugural championship with a runner-up finish in the season finale.

Sunday’s drive was indicative of the weight – and wait — that Newgarden had endured while leading the championship standings for virtually six consecutive months since winning the season opener at St. Petersburg (he was out of the points only once – after a fourth in the Indianapolis 500 that now is the only void in his career).

“The first (championship), it was shocking and overwhelming,” Tina Newgarden said. “The second time it’s almost like he had this mark on his back because he’s been leading the points the whole season. So it would be really sad, devastating if he didn’t get it at the end of the season. But I’m so proud of him. He’s very disciplined. He just loves it so much.”

“If he’s down and has a bad day, then we’re down having a bad day as well. It’s terrible, but that’s just how it is. This is a good year, so now we can all breathe. The last two months has really been a little stressful. So yeah. We’ve been trying to keep the mood up, but God, I’m so happy!”

Newgarden, who qualified fourth and never had winning pace all weekend, said he felt “more nervous because I felt like this one was more ours to lose, and I thought we deserved (the championship). I didn’t want to make a mistake. I got a bit nervous in the middle of the race because I thought we were going down a rabbit hole we didn’t want to be down.”

But the very un-Newgarden-esque eighth – only the fourth time in 17 races he finished outside the top 10 this season – was the outcome of a sound pit strategy that delivered the title by 25 points over Simon Pagenaud, who proclaimed his Penske teammate “the most deserving guy” to win the title.

“It didn’t really start weighing on me until we got (to Laguna Seca),” Newgarden said. “I knew it would hit me here because it was double points. You know it’s going to be a very difficult situation. It’s just that intensity and that unknown, where if you make a small mistake, it can turn into a very big mistake. At another event, it wouldn’t be that way.”

Team owner Roger Penske noticed Newgarden had butterflies on the race morning before he would join Sam Hornish Jr. as the only American to win multiple IndyCar championships in the past two decades. “I think there’s so much emotion inside for someone like that because you’ve got to be perfect,” Penske said. “And I think the fact that he was able to execute the way he did, it was just a time to let it all out.”

Newgarden now is among lofty company on a list of multi-time champions at Team Penske that includes Rick Mears, Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Gil de Ferran. And his four-win season helped him take a critical step toward putting his name with true IndyCar legends such as A.J. Foyt (seven championships), Scott Dixon (five) and Mario Andretti (four).

“I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s harder to win a second championship than a first,” he said. “And I think in a lot of ways, that’s true. It’s very difficult to win a championship. But then to follow it up and make it happen again, it seems like a bigger mountain almost.

“I don’t know what causes that. But I just had it in my mind that if we could get this done, it’d be the achievement of the year.”

It’s especially impressive considering everything Newgarden is trying to accomplish in 2019. Besides winning a championship, he also:

–Will be getting married Oct. 26 to Welch in Nashville;

Moved from Davidson, North Carolina, (near Team Penske headquarters) to his hometown;

–Began building a house with Welch, who also brought home a rescue pup named Zoomer (or affectionately known as “Zoom” around home). “They say a year, but it’s going to be a year and a half” to finish, Welch said with a laugh. “We were in a one-bedroom apartment. I told him I don’t want to have kids in a one-bedroom apartment.”

–Underwent several oral surgeries to correct some improper dental work from childhood.

“We could have taken a couple things off the plate,” Newgarden said. “But you know what? Everything needed to be done. We wanted everything to get done, and we’re doing it all. I don’t know how the year worked out, because (racing) is the priority. You do all those things and decide, ‘Yeah, we’re going to make the plate this full.’ But something still has to take the cake at the end of the day, and the racing is what does that. And everyone knows that’s the program, and this is the most important part of the year, because you don’t get that back.

“If you have an opportunity to race and compete for a championship, when it’s there, you’ve got to take it. So I tried to keep that at the forefront of my mind all year, and I made it the priority, but it was just a little more difficult with all the other things going on.”

Josef Newgarden kisses his fiancee, Ashley Welch, after winning the NTT IndyCar Series championship (Photo by Robert Reiners/Getty Images).

Welch, who knew nothing about racing while working as a princess cast member at Disney World when Newgarden “swept me off my feet,” provides a release valve. Though she is comfortable with being a knowledgeable member of the paddock (“I know what push to pass means. That was a big thing for me”), Welch also can help distract him from the pressure of IndyCar.

“I think it’s better to know less, because then he is able to escape at home and make home be home, and then work be work,” she said. “Because when you’re in a professional sport, you can’t really escape the work. It comes home with you whether in interviews or social media, or just obligations in general, or practice, or research. You’re always living in it, so I think it’s really smart to just have your home be home.”

In that sense, staying busy in his personal life has been good for the extremely affable Newgarden, a self-described introvert who gradually has withdrawn from social media in his late 20s.

Though he is as articulate and eloquent as any driver in auto racing, he also is happy to defer to his teammates on promotional opportunities because “I go home and am happy to be away from all of it. … I don’t mean that in a bad way, it’s just my introverted-ness that’s getting worse. I really try to do the best I can for the series and team and partners. It is so important to represent in the right way, but at the same time, it’s gotten harder” to be on social media in a professional setting.

“It’s all the racing,” Tina Newgarden said when asked about the source of her son’s stress. “Him building a house and all that, that’s nothing. That’s easy. (Winning a championship) is not easy. Anything else is easy.

“He got it, so I’m so proud of him. He’s one of the very lucky ones that made it here, because for every one, I’m sure there are 500 (drivers) looking in, wanting to have that. But he worked hard, and I just told him one time, ‘Don’t be so moody about it when it doesn’t go well.’ He’s still moody about it if it doesn’t go well! He’s still the same.”

That’s why the bowl of corn chowder still is waiting in her freezer.

A hearty meal for two-time champion who finally can relax.