NHRA: Playoff berths on the line at this weekend’s U.S. Nationals

Photos: NHRA
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Two of the four NHRA pro classes – Top Fuel and Funny Car – engage in a national event season schedule of 24 races each. The other two series have shorter schedules: 18 races for Pro Stock and 16 for Pro Stock Motorcycle.

But no matter what class and how long or short a season a driver or rider competes in, their overall season oftentimes boils down to just one race, this weekend’s 65th Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

The reason is simple: the U.S. Nationals is not only the biggest, most popular and most well-attended race on the schedule, it’s also the cutoff race to qualify for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“You dream of winning the U.S. Nationals if you are a drag racer no matter what class you are racing,” Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton told NBC Sports. “To win the biggest race of the season in Top Fuel and add your name to a list that includes Connie Kalitta and Don Garlits is pretty cool. I think we have a race car that is capable of winning four rounds of racing on Monday. We just need to put it together and keep our focus.”

If you are on the playoff bubble heading to Indy and if you do well in qualifying and Monday’s eliminations, you’ll likely make the Countdown. But if you have a bad day in Indy, your season is essentially over. Sure, there will be six more races after Indy, but your hopes of going for the championship will be done if you’re not ranked in the top 10 in the standings of your respective class – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle – after Indy.

Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel driver Richie Crampton (photo: NHRA).

Crampton is a perfect example of that. A former U.S. Nationals winner (in 2014, defeated Steve Torrence), the Australian native – who drives for Kalitta Motorsports – needs to have another big day during next Monday’s final eliminations to make sure he qualifies for the Countdown.

Crampton is currently ninth in the Top Fuel standings. He holds a 77-point lead over 10th-ranked Terry McMillen and has an 84-point edge over Scott Palmer, who is currently the first driver outside the top-10.

“This will be a big weekend for sure,” Crampton said. “There will be a lot going on and I am looking forward to getting to the track. You have three days of qualifying so you want to get some momentum on Friday night with that first session.

“We are really just focusing on trying to win the U.S. Nationals. If we do that the Countdown points will take care of themselves. You get an extra qualifying session in Indy and there are more points on the line. I see that as an opportunity to separate ourselves and show what this team is capable of. These DHL guys have been working their tails off all season.”

Seven drivers have already clinched their spot in the playoffs in the Top Fuel class: Torrence, Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican, Antron Brown, Mike Salinas and Leah Pritchett.

Crampton knows what has to be done this weekend if he is to advance to the playoffs. There are only three spots open, with five drivers mathematically eligible: rookie Austin Prock (currently eighth), Crampton, McMillen, Palmer and Billy Torrence, father of 2018 NHRA Top Fuel champ and current points leader Steve Torrence.

And in a unique irony, Crampton – who is a chassis builder for Morgan Lucas Racing during the week – built the Top Fuel dragster chassis that Steve Torrence has powered to eight wins in this season’s first 17 races.

“I get it that some people might think it is strange that I am building race cars for other teams,” Crampton said. “I love being able to do both, build race cars and be lucky enough to race Top Fuel as well. When you line up against them in the lanes you sometimes think about the fact that you built that chassis. It is a unique dynamic. When the helmet goes on the rest goes out the window.

“Most of the Top Fuel class knows that this is what I do for a living when I am not at the track. We supply cars to Mike Salinas’ Scrappers Racing team, Bob Vandergriff Racing, Scott Palmer Racing, Dom Lagana and of course Steve and Billy Torrence with the Capco team. They are all great customers and competitors.

“They know they can call me anytime either before or during a race. They can talk to me about the car and they can order parts. They might call on Thursday prior to a race when we are all in the same place. They are very respectful of my time with Team Kalitta when we are at the races. It is cool working with Morgan Lucas Racing and Team Kalitta and they both understand both sides of my respective responsibilities.”

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BREAKING DOWN THIS WEEKEND: Just one race remains for drivers/riders to qualify for the upcoming six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Those that have clinched so far, as well as those still in contention for the remaining playoff position(s) are:

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

FUNNY CAR — Nine drivers have already clinched playoff berths: Robert Hight, Tommy Johnson Jr., John Force, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Bob Tasca III, Matt Hagan, defending season champ J.R. Todd and Shawn Langdon. Tim Wilkerson and Cruz Pedregon will battle it out at Indianapolis to determine the final remaining playoff contender.

PRO STOCK — Nine drivers have already clinched playoff berths: 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. Four drivers will battle it out at Indy for the remaining one spot: Kenny Delco, Fernando Cuadra Sr., Val Smeland and Rodger Brogdon.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE — Four riders have already clinched playoff berths: Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec, Hector Arana Jr. and defending season champ Matt Smith. Eight riders will battle it out for the six remaining spots to be filled at Indy: Karen Stoffer, Angie Smith, Ryan Oehler, Hector Arana, Angelle Sampey, Jerry Savoie, Scotty Pollacheck and Joey Gladstone.

PLAYOFF SCHEDULE: Following the final regular season race this weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis, all four pro classes will compete in each of the six Countdown to the Championship playoff events:

* September 12-15; Mopar Express Lane Nationals; Maple Grove Raceway; Mohnton, Pennsylvania.

* September 27-29; AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals; World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway; Madison, Illinois

* October 11-13; NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals; zMAX Dragway; Concord, North Carolina.

* October 17-20; AAA Texas FallNationals; Texas Motorplex; Ennis, Texas.

* October 31 – November 3; Dodge Nationals; The Strip At Las Vegas Motor Speedway; Las Vegas, Nevada.

* November 14-17; season-ending and championship-deciding Auto Club Finals; Auto Club Raceway; Pomona, California.

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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.