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NHRA: John Force begins quest for next 150 wins in this weekend’s U.S. Nationals

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Nearly a month ago in Seattle, John Force earned the 150th win of his legendary drag racing career. Much like the 200 NASCAR Cup wins earned by legendary Richard Petty, it’s unlikely anyone will ever break Force’s wins mark.

Except, of course, Force himself. And that’s what he intends on doing this weekend in the biggest race of the season, the NHRA Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis.

Force is going for his fifth career U.S. Nationals win this weekend, having won previously in 1993, 1996, 1998 and most recently 17 years ago in 2002. He’s also qualified No. 1 a record 11 times.

Ironically, he’s been around longer than the race they call the “Big Go” – Force turned 70 in May, while the U.S. Nationals turn 65 years old this weekend (the event runs from August 28-Sept. 2).

“That’s the granddaddy,” Force, a grandfather himself, said of the U.S. Nationals. “That’s where everybody wants to go. Everybody wants to win. I’ve won it a few times, and my daughter, Ashley, won it twice in her Funny Car.

“Indy is always exciting. Extra qualifying run, extra day to be in my Chevy hot rod. No complaints about that. It’s always a good show. It’s the Big Go, the world’s biggest drag race, (and) everyone wants to win it. (Plus), it’s the last chance to claim a spot in the Countdown. It’s intense all the way to the end.

“We’ll see if we can do it again with the Chevrolet Performance car. Indy is always exciting, extra qualifying run, extra day to be in my Chevy Camaro hot rod. No complaints about that. It’s always a good show. It’s the Big Go, the world’s biggest drag race, and everyone wants to win it. It’s intense all the way to the end.”

Given he comes into Indianapolis – the 18th and final race of the regular season – sitting in third-place in the NHRA Funny Car standings, Force is looking to not only earn his sixth win in Indy, but also to kick off the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs on the right foot.

After taking just over a year to earn win No. 150, there’s no disputing what Force wants next: championship No. 17, which would extend his own NHRA record, as well as make him the oldest major class champion in NHRA history.

And the U.S. Nationals couldn’t come at a better time for him and his title hopes. In the first 17 races of 2019, Force has one win, another runner-up finish and has reached the semifinals eight times.

One added incentive not just for Force but for all pro class competitors is that there will be 50 percent more points available than in other national events. In other words, for every point a drag racer earns at other tracks, he/she will earn 1.5 points per every run they make this weekend.

Force is even debuting a brand new race car for the event.

“Indy is special to me because we do a specialty car with Chevrolet Performance,” Force said. “It’s become a bit of a tradition.

“It would be exciting to win, get their specialty scheme in the winner’s circle, but I’d love to win it with any of my teams, Robert Hight with Auto Club, Brittany with Advance (Auto Parts) and Austin Prock with Montana Brand. We’re all Chevy so no matter who wins, it’s a win for Chevy at the biggest race of the season, their race.”

Robert Hight is Force’s son-in-law and also president of John Force Racing. He’s been having a spectacular season to date, with five wins and one other runner-up finish. He just needs to qualify and will have clinched the No. 1 spot heading into the Countdown. That would be the first time in Hight’s career has entered the playoffs No. 1 as he seeks his third career Funny Car championship.

“Robert has a huge lead and I don’t think anybody can catch him,” Force said. “But there’s points-and-a-half at Indy, so I’m not conceding anything. I’ve won it a few times. (Crew chiefs) Brian Corradi and Danny Hood and (car chief) Tim Fabrisi have given me a good hot rod so we’ll see if we can win it again.

“I may not be as young as these kids and I may not be a hot shot on the ‘tree anymore. But if you give me a good race car, I can still win and right now I’ve got a race car as good as anyone’s.

“I’ve finally got that monkey off my back (150th win) and I’m ready for the Countdown,” he said. “I’m in the hunt and that’s all I ever wanted to be.”

NOTES: The first of five pro class qualifying sessions is Friday at 7:15 p.m. ET. Two more sessions are on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m., and the final two qualifying sessions are Sunday, Sept. 1 at 1:15 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 2.

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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.”