Photos: NHRA

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

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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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Newgarden, Rossi ready for a red-white-and-blue INDYCAR finale

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MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.

Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.

It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.

All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.

Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.

“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’

“I can’t really get onboard with that.

“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.

Getty Images“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”

Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.

The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.

That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.

The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.

Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.

 

While Rossi openly choose to wrap himself in the American flag, it’s not as important to Newgarden.

“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.

“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.

“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.

“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”

Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.

“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.

“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.

“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”

Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.

“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.

“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”

With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.

“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.

“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”