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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IndyCar Preseason, Day 1: Simon Pagenaud on why he likes teasing Josef Newgarden

Newgarden Pagenaud feud
Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — A roundup of nuggets from the opening day of preseason IndyCar Content Days for media that lead into two days of preseason testing Thursday and Friday at The Thermal Club, starting with a playful “feud” between former teammates Josef Newgarden and Simon Pagenaud:

After making a point to needle Newgarden during the Rolex 24 at Daytona (when he was warned for being deemed to have caused a spin by the car driven by Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Pagenaud laughed about why he likes poking at his ex-teammate at Team Penske.

“I just love to press the button with Josef,” Pagenaud said. “I just love it. I’m being very open about it. I think he knows it, too. It’s funny to see him unsettled a little bit. I like when he gets aggressive. I don’t know why. It’s funny.”

They scrapped a few times as Penske teammates. Pagenaud notably was hot after a 2017 incident at Gateway during Newgarden’s first season with the team, but he later backtracked and blamed it on his French blood.

Pagenaud says all is good between now – though he also admits with a devilish grin that he’s taking advantage of the freedom from leaving Penske last year.

“Absolutely, yeah. I couldn’t do that before,” he said with a laugh about teasing Newgarden. “I would get in trouble.

“Yeah, I can be myself. I can say what I want to say. Nobody is upset about it. I love Josef. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy.

“Do I love the driver? Not always, but I enjoy pressing the button with him because he seems like such a confident person. Yeah, I like to just go press it a little bit.”

When he was informed of the sardonic comments (Pagenaud asked reporters to make sure they relayed that he enjoyed passing Newgarden in the race) after his first stint at Daytona last weekend, Newgarden took a shot back.

“He doesn’t get many opportunities these days, so I’m sure he enjoyed that,” Newgarden said. “Take them when you can get them. There’s so much happening I don’t even remember half the stuff that happened when I was out there. Hey, he’s a big note-keeper, that guy.”

Pagenaud, who is winless since 2020, conceded that point Tuesday at IndyCar’s media session.

“I will do better this year,” he said. “But I got to build my team up, put myself in that situation. We were not there yet. I hope we can be there this year.

“But certainly not being teammates, you race differently. Now, the driver that he is, I have a huge amount of respect for him. He’s tremendous. I mean, he’s one of the best at what he does. So beating him is even a better reward. But I like my résumé better than his.”

For the record, Newgarden has one more IndyCar championship than Pagenaud but is empty in the Indy 500 win column compared to the 2019 winner at the Brickyard.

During his Rolex 24 availability, Pagenaud also took playful aim at the “Bus Bros,” the branded social and digital content that Newgarden and teammate and buddy Scott McLaughlin have been producing for nearly a year.

“Apparently they hang out together all the time,” Pagenaud cracked. “They’re ‘Bus Bros.’ Do you guys know what this is, the ‘Bus Bros’ thing? Have you watched it? I should start watching it.”

Newgarden and McLaughlin are scheduled to appear together on the second day of the preseason media event at the Palm Springs Convention Center, so stay tuned for the next round of snark.

Pagenaud is among many drivers enthused to get acclimated to The Thermal Club, which is a $275 million motorsports country club of sorts.

But for the Frenchman, Thermal represents more than just a chance to tune up for the 2023 season. Pagenaud, who made his first visit to the desert track three years ago after winning the Indy 500, is thinking about his long-term future.

“It’s actually something I’m really interested in for my future but in another life,” he said. “I love the concept. Actually before my IndyCar career, I was on a project like that myself in France. I was going to build something similar. I had the backing, I had everything going on, but my career took off. I had to give up on the project.

“But it is something I’ve always been interested in. My dad used to run my home racetrack. I had access to it, so I could see how that was going.

“I always had a passion for it because it’s a way to allow the fans to get closer to the car, allow the sport to be more known to the general public. There’s so many things that you can do with a racetrack, not only for races, but so many people that can come to bicycle races, you can have runners do a marathon. It doesn’t have to be just racing. It can be events. I’m into that. I’ve always been. Certainly when it’s time to stop driving, it will be something that I’m interested in, yes. That’s maybe 20 years from now.”

Felix Rosenqvist returns for his third consecutive season at McLaren, the longest stint with one team for the Swede since 2014 in F3.

But he finds himself somewhat in a similar position to last season when his return was uncertain for months during the Alex Palou-Chip Ganassi Racing saga. Palou is back with Ganassi but still expected to join the team in 2024, and with Rossi and O’Ward on long-term deals, Rosenqvist would be unable to stay unless the team added a fourth car.

He is taking it all in stride with the same grace in which he managed last season’s uncertainty.

“I think I handled it probably as good as I could,” Rosenqvist said of last year. “That’s probably a reason why I’m here this year. I think it’s a massive opportunity for me to be back for a third year. I feel like I have all the tools I need to perform, feeling very good with everyone at the car. As I said, there’s so many things happening last year on and off the track. I think as a team, we just really learned a lot from that that we can bring into this season.

“I think we’ll be tough this year. We have a lot of things in the bag to try early this season. A couple of things here at Thermal we want to try. Going into the season, we have pinpointed some areas where we feel we were lacking a little bit, like the short ovals, for example. I feel like we’ve done the best we can to attack all those areas and bring the best possible package we can.”

Rosenqvist is winless since his breakthrough victory over O’Ward at Road America in 2020. Ending that skid certainly would improve his prospects, but he isn’t worried.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said. “That’s a long time until next year. I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I’m in a good spot. I’m in a well-performing team. I feel well with everyone around me. I feel like I have a good support from the team. I don’t really think too much about that stuff. I just try to do what I can do, which is go fast forward and try to win races.”

After being frozen out of remote access to team data last year, Palou said his working relationship at Ganassi is “back to 100% like it was before from both sides.” The 2021 series champion said he had full privileges restored after he closed the season by winning the finale at Laguna Seca Raceway and then settled on staying with Ganassi a day later.

He is allowed to continue his F1 testing with McLaren, too, though IndyCar will be the priority in-season.

“It was a tough year,” said Palou, whose contract dispute lasted for two months. “Could have been a lot worse, for sure, than what we had but also could have been a little bit better if we didn’t have anything around in our minds. It’s a part of racing.

“I’m just happy that now we know that even with things in our minds, we were able to be successful. Hopefully, we can be back to 2021 things during this season. Yeah, obviously there’s always some moments (in 2022) where you’re like, ‘Oh, no, my God, this is not going the direction I wanted.’ But there was things that were out of my control, obviously. Some things that I could control, as well. But at the end of the day I had all the information from my side, from other sides. I knew that everything could be settled, and it did.”

Pato O’Ward unplugged from the racing world for six weeks during the offseason, ensuring he was fully recharged when the new year arrived.

“I haven’t had the opportunity to do it in the past few years,” said O’Ward, who tested an F1 car in 2021 and then went right into preparing and racing (then winning) the 2022 Rolex 24 at Daytona. “I said, ‘I want at least six weeks. Don’t talk to me, don’t text me, I don’t want to hear anything.’ It’s healing. It’s very healing.

“As much as you love what you do, you need to find a balance of just doing something else. I always tell people, there’s a huge difference between relaxing and recharging. How I recharge is doing things I don’t normally do during the year. Just being at the beach to me is my favorite thing to do after driving race cars. I made sure that I had that kind of time to just enjoy my loved ones. After I was finished with that, I was like, ‘OK, race cars now.’ ”

Marcus Ericsson is planning on a long future with Chip Ganassi Racing, and the 2022 Indy 500 winner seems well-positioned to become the team’s anchor driver if he can maintain last season’s consistency.

Jimmie Johnson has been replaced by the Marcus Armstrong-Takuma Sato combination, and Alex Palou is leaving after this year.

Six-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon, 42, is Ganassi’s unquestioned dean until his retirement, but Ericsson clearly is interested in the mantle after that.

“I’m feeling very much at home in the team,” said Ericsson, the Formula One who is entering his fourth season with CGR. “I’m super happy about that. I wish to stay for a very long time, as well. There is some uncertainty with other places maybe in the future, but Dixon seems to be just getting better and better. He might be here for another 10 years or so, who knows.

“But that’s great. Me and Scott, we work really well together. I can still learn a lot from him. I want to be here for a long time and win races and championships together.”

The Swede had a droll response when asked if no longer being the only Marcus will get confusing in Ganassi debriefs. “Yeah, it is; I’m angry,” Ericsson deadpanned. “I think we’re OK. He seems like a good kid. He has a good name.”

Following in the footsteps of Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard from F2 to IndyCar, Armstrong is OK with deferring his F1 dreams to run road and street courses as a rookie in 2023. The New Zealander grew up as an IndyCar fan rooting for Dixon, his boyhood idol and fellow countryman.

“I’ve been watching him on TV since I was a kid,” Armstrong, 22, said. “It’s cool because IndyCar is massive where I’m from because of him. I’ve always been so attracted to this championship. Of course, I spent my entire life chasing F1. You can never say ‘never.’ If I’m honest with you, I’m happy where I am now. It’s a dream come true.”

Armstrong hopes to move to full time in 2024 and believes being aligned with a powerhouse such as Ganassi will give him an opportunity to post strong results immediately (just as Ilott and Lundgaard had flashes as rookies last year).

“I’ve been genuinely impressed by the organization, just the strategic point of view that Chip Ganassi Racing has, it’s really quite remarkable,” he said. “I can understand why they’ve had so much success. I think fundamentally I need to get on it straightaway. I have all the information in the world, really. I just need to hit the ground running, do well immediately.”

In among the wildest stories of the offseason, rookie Sting Ray Robb revealed he landed his ride at Dale Coyne Racing because he ran into Indy Lights champion Linus Lundqvist at PitFit Training, a physical fitness and performance center used by many drivers in Indianapolis.

Lundqvist was the presumptive favorite for the DCR No. 51 Dallara-Honda, which was the last open seat heading into the 2022 season. Because of his Indy Lights title (since rebranded as “IndyNXT”) with HMD Motorsports, Lundqvist had a six-figure sponsorship to bring to an IndyCar team, and DCR is partnered with HMD.

“There was a few teams that we were talking to, and Dale’s team was not the one that was at the top of the list because we thought they already had a driver,” Robb said. “Obviously with Linus winning the championship, we assumed with the HMD association there that there would be a straight shoe-in for him.

“But I actually was at PitFit Training one day with Linus and discovered that was not the case. That created an opportunity for us that allowed me to call up my manager, Pieter Rossi, and get him on the phone, and he immediately called Dale and said, ‘Hey, we’re available.’ I think there was a mutual understanding of what availability was for either one of us. That’s when conversations began. Then we had a really good test in 2023 right at the beginning of January, and I think that was kind of the one that set the tone that allowed me to get in the seat.

“I think there’s been some opportunities that were miraculously created that we couldn’t have done on our own.”

Robb, who finished second in last year’s Indy Lights standings, hasn’t talked to Lundqvist since their PitFit meeting.

“Linus does deserve a seat” in IndyCar, Robb said. “His on-track performance was incredible. But it takes more than just a driver to get into IndyCar. You’ve got to have a village around you that supports you, and so I think that that is where my group made a difference. It wasn’t just in my performance, but it was the people around me.

“I feel bad for Linus because as a driver I can feel that way towards him because I could be in that seat if I didn’t have those same people around me. So there you go.”