NHRA: Funny Car driver J.R. Todd looks to snap slump, make history at U.S. Nationals

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In addition to being the most gratifying achievement of his NHRA drag racing career, winning the 2018 NHRA Funny Car championship was also the hardest thing J.R. Todd has ever done.

That is, until he tried to defend the title in 2019 – which has now become the hardest thing Todd has done behind the wheel.

After winning a career-best six wins en route to his title last season, Todd has had a rough campaign in the first 17 races of the current season, having earned just one win (Las Vegas) and two runner-up finishes.

In addition, he’s failed to make it out of the first round six times, and was stopped in the quarter-finals eight other times.

And as he prepares for next week’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis – the biggest race of the season – the 37-year-old Todd is mired in a difficult slump. Since losing to Ron Capps in the final round at Richmond, Todd has dropped from second to eighth in the Funny Car standings, unable to get past the second round of the nine subsequent events.

That’s why Todd is hoping for a major turnaround at the U.S. Nationals, the final qualifying race for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

J.R. Todd (Photo: NHRA).

A massive 416 points (the equivalent of more than three wins points-wise) out of first place, Todd needs to start a big comeback if he hopes to do well in the playoffs, and the U.S. Nationals is the perfect place for him to do so. Todd comes into this year’s race having won the last two Funny Car crowns at Indy in 2017 and 2018.

If he can make it three in a row, Todd will make NHRA history. To date, only two drivers – Top Fuel greats “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Tony Schumacher – have won three in a row at Indianapolis. But no Funny Car driver has ever done so, not John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Don Prudhomme or anyone else.

“That’s some pretty elite company right there with Big Daddy and Tony Schumacher,” Todd told NBC Sports. “Really you try not to think about things like that and just focus on the mission at hand – and that’s to win the race.

“When you do that, then you can enjoy all the accolades that come with it. I have the two trophies that I can look at every day – and it’s an awesome reminder of what we’ve done. It was a dream of mine as a kid to go there and race in the U.S. Nationals as a professional someday and to have won it is still kind of a surreal feeling.”

Todd, who lives in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana, wants to be the first Funny Car driver to pull off that achievement — and at his home track, to boot.

“It’s the biggest race of the year and the one that everyone wants to win,” Todd said. “To go back there and win there three years in a row would be pretty special.

“For me, it’s the race I grew up going to as a kid. I have a lot of family and friends that go there. I live five minutes from the track, so it means everything to me.”

In a sense, his situation this season is kind of deja vu for Todd. Last season, he won two races earlier in the season (Las Vegas and Houston), then went into a slump much like the one he’s currently in.

But starting with last September’s win at Indianapolis, Todd went on to win four of the final seven races of the season — including three in the playoffs — to motor on to the championship.

What makes Todd’s success at Indy all the more unique is that while he’s a long-time drag racer, he only switched to Funny Car prior to the 2017 season. That means in just two seasons, the former Top Fuel pilot has not only twice won the sport’s biggest race, but also the championship.

The team Todd races for, Kalitta Motorsports, has a history of starting to hit its stride just before the playoffs begin in Funny Car. From 2014 through 2018, the organization has won 13 Funny Car races beginning with the second-to-last regular season race at Brainerd, Minnesota through the six playoff races. That’s 13 of 40 races, roughly 33% of the races that NHRA has won.

In addition to Todd’s two U.S. Nationals wins, Team Kalitta also won the Funny Car event in 2014 with now-retired driver Alexis DeJoria.

I knew coming over to drive the DHL Toyota Camry that we would have some good opportunities to win races,” Todd said. “For whatever reason, it seems like we pick up a lot of momentum at that time of year. We’re hoping we can keep that trend going this year.”

In a sense, the U.S. Nationals – the 18th and final regular season race of the overall 24-race NHRA schedule – are to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR or the Indianapolis 500 is to IndyCar.

“It sets the tone for the next six races,” Todd said of the playoffs. “The U.S. Nationals are a marathon. It’s the one race where everyone brings out their best stuff because it’s so important.  So much of that preparation then carries over into the Countdown.

“If you ask drivers that haven’t won Indy before, I think they’d trade pretty much any win for that one.”

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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.