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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Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.