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NHRA: Jason Line finally earns home win at Brainerd; Pritchett, Capps also triumph

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Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.

NHRA Pro Stock drag racer Jason Line may not have originated that saying, but he certainly lived up to it Sunday in the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minnesota.

Although he now lives in North Carolina, Line grew up in northeast Minnesota in the town of Wright, about an hour’s drive from Brainerd International Raceway. BIR is where Line cut much of his racing teeth, so to speak, but he never took home a Pro Stock win there (he did win two Stock Eliminator sportsman races there in 1992 and 1997).

That is, until Sunday. Sure, Line was credited as the winner of the 2014 race at BIR, but due to weather, the final round was not completed until two weeks later – and was held in an alternate venue during the subsequent U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway Park.

So, Line may have entered this weekend with a past Pro Stock win from the Brainerd event, but he never actually did the trick at his home track until Sunday. And oh, what a dominant win it was. Line plowed through the opposition for his first win of 2019 like a man on a mission who was not going to be denied something he’s been chasing for more than 20 years of racing.

He also set an NHRA record by recording a win in 16 consecutive seasons now.

The three-time NHRA Pro Stock champ had an outstanding weekend. Not only was he No. 1 qualifier, he wrapped things up with a win in one of the best Pro Stock battles of the season to date, running 6.597 seconds at 209.10 mph to defeat Erica Enders (6.604 seconds at 207.59 mph) in Sunday’s final round.

MORE: NHRA: Jason Line looks to finally win big at his home track in Minnesota

En route to his win over Enders, Line defeated Wally Stroupe, Alex Laughlin and Deric Kramer to reach the final round. Enders, the No. 2 qualifier, beat Shane Tucker, Chris McGaha and Matt Hartford to meet Line in the final round.

“This is very cool,” Line said. “As we get older, you realize these moments are going to be few and far between and less chance of them happening, so it’s very special. Right now it feels special, but it’s going be feel more special later on, for sure. It was just a great weekend and a fun day. We had a great car and you want to win here in front of your friends and family. To see them and see how happy they are, it’s super special. This place has been a big part of our lives.”

The win was the 49th of Line’s Pro Stock career and his first since last fall at Charlotte. He’s now the seventh different winner in the first 11 races of the 18-race Pro Stock national event schedule.

IN FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps (3.946 seconds at 324.28 mph) defeated his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.947 seconds at 319.98 mph), in Sunday’s final round. It was Capps’ 64th career win and his 50th racing for DSR. It was also Capps’ sixth career Funny Car win at Brainerd.

In a way, it was somewhat of an avenging victory, as Capps lost in the final round of the last race, at Seattle two weeks ago, when John Force captured the 150th Funny Car win of his career.

Capps defeated, in order, J.R. Todd, Jack Beckman and Shawn Langdon to face Johnson Jr., who defeated Tim Wilkerson, Robert Hight and No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan.

“I had my hands full today,” Capps said. “This is a race that we circle on the calendar because it’s fun, but you want to race this race and get the finishing touches on your tune-up.

“This is a crucial race and they’ve done such a great job here. Both lanes are equal and you really want to have your act together leaving this race. I’m so happy we’ve had great success here and we had a great running car today.”

IN TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett (3.732 seconds at 321.04 mph) held off Mike Salinas (4.066 seconds, 235.72 mph) to earn her first win of 2019, snapping a 26-race winless streak that dated back more than a year ago.

It was the Southern California native’s eighth career Top Fuel win and 14th overall win (including prior wins in the Pro Modified and Factory Stock classes). It also was Pritchett’s second career Top Fuel win at Brainerd.

Pritchett defeated Kyle Wurtzel, defending event winner Billy Torrence and Austin Prock to meet Salinas in the final round. Salinas, meanwhile, defeated Luigi Novelli, Clay Millican and Doug Kalitta to meet Pritchett. By virtue of her win, Pritchett became the second DSR driver to win Sunday, joining Capps in the winner’s circle.

“I was proud to be the one to put on the final win light (today) for DSR, and this is the perfect time to be able to get the momentum for our season,” Pritchett said. “Looking at the time sheets, we made four incredible runs and that’s something that the crew chiefs have been able to do consistently, and it’s coming together at the perfect time. Between the racecar that we have, the team and what we’re asking it to do, (the car) is performing beautifully, and I couldn’t be more happy.”

PLAYOFF UPDATE: There is now just one race remaining for drivers to qualify for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Those that have clinched so far include, as well as those still in contention for the remaining playoff position(s) are:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, Antron Brown, Clay Millican​​​​​​, Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, Mile Salinas and Leah Pritchett have all clinched playoff spots. Five other drivers are in the running for the three remaining spots; Austin Prock, Richie Crampton, Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer and Billy Torrence.

FUNNY CAR: Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr., John Force, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Bob Tasca III, Matt Hagan, J.R. Todd and Shawn Langdon have all clinched playoff spots. Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon will battle it out at Indianapolis to determine the lone remaining playoff contender.

PRO STOCK: Bo Butner, Greg Anderson, Alex Laughlin, Matt Hartford, Jason Line, Deric Kramer, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Erica Enders and Chris McGaha have all qualified for the playoffs. Nine drivers will battle it out at Indy for the remaining one spot: Kenny Delco, Fernando Cuadra Sr., Val Smeland, Rodger Brogdon, Alan Prusiensky, Fernando Cuadra Jr., Shane Tucker, Richard Freeman and Steve Graham.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Even though the class did not race at Brainerd, only four riders have qualified so far for the playoffs: Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec, Hector Arana Jr. and Matt Smith. Six other spots will be filled at Indy.

NOTES: The next NHRA race is the biggest of the season, the 65th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis from August 28-Sept. 2.

**********************************

Here’s the statistics from Sunday’s final rounds:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Leah Pritchett; 2.  Mike Salinas; 3.  Austin Prock; 4.  Doug Kalitta; 5.  Brittany Force; 6. Steve Torrence; 7.  Clay Millican; 8.  Billy Torrence; 9.  Luigi Novelli; 10.  Chris Karamesines; 11.  Antron Brown; 12.  Terry McMillen; 13.  Richie Crampton; 14.  Kyle Wurtzel; 15.  Scott Palmer; 16.  Cameron Ferre.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Ron Capps; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr.; 3.  Matt Hagan; 4.  Shawn Langdon; 5.  Jack Beckman; 6.  Bob Tasca III; 7.  Bob Bode; 8.  Robert Hight; 9.  Cruz Pedregon; 10.  Dale Creasy Jr.; 11.  Paul Lee; 12.  Tim Wilkerson; 13.  J.R. Todd; 14.  Jonnie Lindberg; 15.  Terry Haddock; 16.  John Force.

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

**********************************

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.732 seconds, 321.04 mph  def. Mike Salinas, 4.066 seconds, 235.72 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.946, 324.28  def. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.947, 319.98.

PRO STOCK: Jason Line, Chevy Camaro, 6.597, 209.10  def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.604, 207.59.

**********************************

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Austin Prock, 4.532, 226.77 def. Scott Palmer, 9.253, 92.79; Clay Millican, 3.696, 327.43 def. Richie Crampton, 4.843, 158.78; Brittany Force, 3.728, 332.75 def. Chris Karamesines, 4.636, 167.88; Mike Salinas, 3.723, 329.34 def. Luigi Novelli, 4.030, 269.67; Leah Pritchett, 3.744, 327.43 def. Kyle Wurtzel, 6.758, 85.34; Steve Torrence, 3.817, 301.81 def. Cameron Ferre, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.685, 328.22 def. Antron Brown, 4.648, 162.18; Doug Kalitta, 3.735, 330.47 def. Terry McMillen, 4.705, 169.21;  QUARTERFINALS — Kalitta, 3.733, 331.28 def. S. Torrence, 3.757, 322.19; Salinas, 3.729, 316.67 def. Millican, 3.964, 252.10; Prock, 3.766, 328.46 def. Force, 3.730, 331.77; Pritchett, 3.764, 326.79 def. B. Torrence, Foul – Red Light;  SEMIFINALS — Pritchett, 3.725, 327.27 def. Prock, 4.002, 299.33; Salinas, 3.800, 272.50 def. Kalitta, 4.066, 271.08;  FINAL — Pritchett, 3.732, 321.04 def. Salinas, 4.066, 235.72.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Shawn Langdon, Toyota Camry, 3.905, 323.35 def. Paul Lee, Dodge Charger, 4.385, 235.31; Bob Bode, Ford Mustang, 3.980, 321.27 def. John Force, Chevy Camaro, 12.298, 72.89; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.937, 329.18 def. Dale Creasy Jr., Charger, 4.119, 295.66; Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.876, 329.75 def. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 5.076, 151.27; Robert Hight, Camaro, 3.909, 328.14 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 3.964, 309.42; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.944, 320.20 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.519, 191.87; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.920, 327.03 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.635, 174.55; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.343, 229.98 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 4.756, 216.03;  QUARTERFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.910, 323.50 def. Hight, 6.034, 115.21; Langdon, 3.903, 325.69 def. Bode, 4.544, 186.07; Capps, 3.918, 325.53 def. Beckman, 3.945, 327.82; Hagan, 3.954, 323.81 def. Tasca III, 4.092, 267.16;  SEMIFINALS — Johnson Jr., 3.930, 324.59 def. Hagan, 3.932, 326.08; Capps, 3.938, 322.27 def. Langdon, 4.377, 201.43;  FINAL — Capps, 3.946, 324.28 def. Johnson Jr., 3.947, 319.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.865, 205.91 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 8.695, 106.29; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 10.443, 87.81 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.594, 207.88 def. Richard Freeman, Ford Mustang, 6.612, 208.14; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.593, 206.51 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.612, 208.36; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.595, 208.36 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.642, 207.46; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.596, 208.46 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.661, 208.75; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.589, 208.78 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 6.714, 205.38; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.584, 206.83 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 9.584, 95.51;  QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.608, 208.01 def. Butner, 6.643, 209.10; Kramer, 6.599, 208.65 def. Coughlin, 6.610, 206.48; Line, 6.583, 209.26 def. Laughlin, 6.610, 207.50; Enders, 6.583, 207.40 def. McGaha, 6.612, 209.30; SEMIFINALS — Enders, 6.602, 207.40 def. Hartford, 6.633, 207.66; Line, 6.590, 208.94 def. Kramer, Foul – Red Light;  FINAL — Line, 6.597, 209.10 def. Enders, 6.604, 207.59.

**********************************

UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1.  Steve Torrence, 1,650*; 2.  Brittany Force, 1,015*; 3.  Doug Kalitta, 1,013*; 4.  Clay Millican, 1,009*; 5.  Antron Brown, 998*; 6.  Mike Salinas, 986*; 7.  Leah Pritchett, 903*; 8. Austin Prock, 826; 9.  Richie Crampton, 785; 10.  Terry McMillen, 708.

FUNNY CAR: 1.  Robert Hight, 1,397*; 2.  Tommy Johnson Jr., 1,218*; 3.  John Force, 1,199*; 4.  Ron Capps, 1,171*; 5.  Jack Beckman, 1,098*; 6.  Matt Hagan, 1,047*; 7.  Bob Tasca III, 1,038*; 8.  J.R. Todd, 981*; 9.  Shawn Langdon, 914*; 10.  Tim Wilkerson, 824.

PRO STOCK: 1.  Bo Butner, 874*; 2.  Greg Anderson, 802*; 3.  Alex Laughlin, 794*; 4.  Jason Line, 774*; 5. Matt Hartford, 753*; 6.  Deric Kramer, 709*; 7.  Erica Enders, 697*; 8.  Jeg Coughlin, 663*; 9. Chris McGaha, 581*; 10.  Kenny Delco, 363.

* Clinched berth in NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.

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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.