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NHRA: Steve Torrence in a slump? He’s still No. 1 in Top Fuel heading into playoffs

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When a driver has won eight of the first 18 races of the season, 19 of the last 42 (dating back to last year) and 27 of the last 64 races (dating back to the start of the 2017 season), it’s hard to think he or she would be in a slump.

But Steve Torrence, the most dominant NHRA Top Fuel driver in the last three seasons, is indeed in a slump as the premier drag racing series heads into the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania.

Torrence has uncharacteristically failed to reach the winner’s circle at the last four NHRA national events. After winning for the eighth time this season at Denver on July 21 (which, by the way, was his eighth win in nine consecutive races), Torrence lost in the semifinals at Sonoma the following week to his father, Billy, then lost the following week in Seattle in the final round to rookie Austin Prock.

Steve Torrence (Photo: NHRA)

After that, Torrence lost in the quarterfinals at Brainerd, Minn. (on a very rare red-light foul) to Doug Kalitta, and last week at the U.S. Nationals in the quarters to best friend Antron Brown.

It’s actually somewhat unusual, given Torrence’s domination of the class since 2017, that there have now been five different winners in the last five races in Top Fuel, Kalitta being the most recent victor at the U.S. Nationals.

But don’t start preparing a tag day or set up a GoFundMe account for Torrence. The 35-race national event winner enters the six-race Countdown still No. 1 in the Top Fuel standings and thrives on pressure.

So while others may say he’s in a slump, Torrence isn’t of the same mindset.

“No, I wouldn’t say we’re in a slump at all,” he said. “(Crew Chief Richard) Hogan has been working the last couple races on our Countdown setup.  It’s not like we weren’t trying to win because, to be honest, we want to win every race, but he was trying things that we probably wouldn’t have tried if we didn’t have that big cushion.

“It was the same last year. We didn’t go to the finals for four or five races before the start of the Countdown.”

So does that mean the Texas native is in the same place as he was at this time last season, and is ready to go out and sweep all six of the Countdown playoff races again like he did last year, becoming the first driver in NHRA history to do so?

“Sweeping the Countdown a second time isn’t that likely, but that’s still our goal,” he said. “We got burned on the points (adjustment) two years ago (losing the title to Brittany Force on the final day of the season) so our mindset last year was that the only way to keep that from happening was to win ‘em all – and we did.

“This year, it’ll be even tougher because we’re running two cars at every race. If my dad hadn’t made the Countdown, he would have run the other car just two or three times.  Now, he’s running all six races so that’ll spread us a little thinner but it’s great for him to get the chance.  He’s done a great job this year and I’m really proud of him and that team.  We’ve always raced as a family, me, my mom (Kay) and my dad (Billy) but to do it at this level is really special.

“We’ve got a great team, a great car and a great track record, but that’s just history. You still have to perform in the playoffs and none of these guys is going to go easy on us, especially after last year. We’ve got a target on our back, but that’s fine. We earned it.”

Torrence isn’t living on last year’s laurels. Nor is he thinking ahead. He plans on doing what he’s done ever since he first got into drag racing more than a decade ago: take each race one round at a time and let the wins – or wherever he finishes – take care of themselves.

“It’s still just a six-race shootout,” Torrence said. “Yeah, we had a great regular season. We won eight times and my dad (Billy Torrence) won twice, but when we go to Reading, I’ll just be 20 points ahead of Doug (Kalitta). We’ve got a great team, a great car and a great track record, but that’s just history. You still have to perform in the playoffs.”

Torrence and Kalitta are the premier matchup in Top Fuel heading to Reading. Kalitta has never won a Top Fuel championship. And don’t forget Brown, a three-time former Top Fuel champ (2012, 2015 and 2016), or 2017 champ Brittney Force (daughter of Funny Car legend John Force). They will also be among the most formidable opponents to Torrence and Kalitta.

“Last year was unbelievable,” said Torrence, whose motto in this year’s playoffs is “no prisoners” (see tweet above). “To win six straight races, whether it’s in the Countdown or just the regular season, is incredible. Everything has to go perfect. The crew chiefs have to make the right calls. The crew can’t make a mistake putting the parts and pieces together. The driver has to do his job and, even after all that, you still need some luck because there are so many things that can break on one of these cars even if you do everything else right.

Kalitta has been chasing a Top Fuel championship for two decades, with runner-up finishes in the 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2016 seasons. He’s hoping some of Torrence’s good fortune and luck rubs off on him and that 2019 is finally his year to claim the No. 1 spot.

“This is pretty exciting for me, just to have another opportunity to do the Countdown and see how it ends up,” Kalitta said. “We worked hard to have a good position to open the playoffs. My guys are really working their tails off on my Mac Tools Toyota right now and it’s running well. We’re looking forward to the Countdown. It’s what it’s all about for my team and everybody out here. So we’re going to give it our best.

“(The key to success in the Countdown is) you have to qualify well and then it’s all about going rounds and I think we can do that this year. Last year, Steve Torrence didn’t allow the other teams any room for error, but most years everyone is going to have at least one race where they lose early. The key is to get a strong start at Reading and put yourself in a position to win at Pomona.

“The Top Fuel world championship is something I’ve worked at for 21 years now. It would be a huge deal for me. Just all the support we’ve received over the years from so many people. It would be a great way to repay them.”

Kalitta doesn’t have to look far at last year’s champion – only we’re not talking about Torrence this time. Rather, even closer is Kalitta shares the same pit space with last year’s Funny Car champion, Kalitta Motorsports teammate J.R. Todd. Kalitta saw what Todd went through and the rewards he reaped at the end – and now he hopes it’s his turn to do the same.

“We’re real proud of the efforts of the DHL Toyota Funny Car in winning the title last year, but we really want to bring it home in the dragster,” Kalitta said.

Brown has enjoyed a resurgence this season after periods of struggles. He’s ready to win his fourth Top Fuel championship, as well.

“The Countdown is going to be very challenging,” Brown said. “There are a lot of good cars out here and right now there’s no one dominant car. The Kalitta cars have really stepped up, the (John Force Racing) cars, Clay Millican and Mike Salinas are all running well, both Torrence cars are running phenomenal, our teammate Leah Pritchett is running well and won at Brainerd and, we’ve stepped it up as well. That’s 10 cars right there. Five different cars have won in the last five races, so it is going to be a wide-open race.

“(This weekend will be) a huge race for us. It’s not far from my hometown (Chesterfield, N.J.) and, hopefully, the conditions will be good. It’s starting to cool down and it’s going to be fast.  We need to go out there and get after it. Everybody is so tight, so you need to come out strong.  You can’t afford to fall back in the standings with just five races left after Reading and if you can win early, you gain confidence and you put more pressure on your rivals going forward, knowing they can’t afford to slip up.

“We’ve won at least one round in 11 of the last 12 races. It shows our progression. We’re working hard to get better every weekend and that’s what we’re doing. The Matco Tools Toyota is doing what we want it to do. It’s responding. We ran in the 60s at Indy and we showed we can run to the 60 foot mark with anybody out there.”

But like Torrence, don’t ask Brown about winning another championship. He doesn’t want to think about it – only until the time he has to, which will likely be the season finale at Pomona, California, in mid-November.

“Honestly, I’m not even going to think about another championship until it happens,” Brown aid. “A fourth title would be huge, but the thing about it is you can’t put the wagon before the horse. There’s a lot of racing left, everyone’s tight and the pressure is mounting and we’ll see how everyone handles it.”

Here’s the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoff schedule:

Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Penn., Sept. 13-15

World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Sept. 27-29

zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, Oct. 11-13

Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Oct. 18-20

The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nov. 1-3

NHRA Finals in Pomona, Nov. 15-17

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).