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NHRA: Charlotte poses a tangled web for several playoff competitors

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You might say this weekend’s third round of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoffs will be a Charlotte’s web for several competitors when they take to the track at zMAX Dragway in suburban Charlotte.

With it being the halfway point of the six-race playoffs, how many drivers perform at Charlotte in the NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals will go a long way toward determining if they still have a chance at their respective championships in the other three races still to come this season in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

The tightest points battle right now heading into this weekend is in Top Fuel, where Doug Kalitta has a slim two-point lead over defending champion Steve Torrence. Kalitta is still seeking his first career Top Fuel championship after more than 20 years of trying. Could this be the year?

As for the rest of the Top Fuel field, Mike Salinas is in third (41 points back), followed by 2017 Top Fuel champ Brittany Force (-48), Leah Pritchett (-62), three-time Top Fuel champ Antron Brown and Richie Crampton are tied for sixth (each is 73 points back), rookie Austin Prock is eighth (-79), followed by Billy Torrence (-80) and Clay Millican (-103).

Almost as tight of a battle is in Funny Car, as two-time champ Robert Hight holds a 13-point edge over his boss and father-in-law, 16-time champ John Force. Hight is coming off a semifinal finish two weeks ago at St. Louis that proved almost as pivotal as a win.

“The thing to focus on is that we got the points lead back,” Hight said. “We’ve only trailed in points once this year and that was coming into (St. Louis). We’re back in the lead now. It’s a tough Funny Car class, one of the most competitive there’s ever been.

“Luckily there are four races left. We qualified well (at St. Louis), ran well except for the semifinal (lost traction and the round), so I’m not worried. We’ll head to Charlotte and pick up those little points in qualifying and go rounds on Sunday, just keep picking away at this championship chase.”

In Pro Stock, two-time champ Erica Enders is knocking on points leader Jason Line’s door, as the three-time champion Line leads Enders by only 11 points. Bo Butner, who won the Pro Stock title in 2017, is third (-22), followed by Matt Hartford (-57). Things then open up a bit wider from fifth through 10th place: Alex Laughlin (-83 points), five-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. (-94), four-time champ Greg Anderson (-107), Deric Kramer (-122), Chris McGaha (-141) and Val Smeland (-192).

Lastly, in Pro Stock Motorcycle, five-time champion Andrew Hines – whose last championship was in 2015 – is mounting a strong battle to take home title No. 6. Hines has a 34-point lead surprising Karen Stoffer, followed by three-time champ Eddie Krawiec (-51), who is in the hunt for his fourth career PSM crown and the first since 2012.

Defending PSM champ Matt Smith is fifth (-61), followed by 2017 champ Jerry Savoie (-66), Hector Arana Jr. (-97), three-time champion Angelle Sampey (-130), Angie Smith (-150), Ryan Oehler (-191) and Hector Arana (-202).

While anything can happen – and oftentimes does in NHRA drag racing – a good rule of thumb is drivers/riders who are more than 100 points out heading into this weekend’s race are the most vulnerable to get tangled in Charlotte’s web. And if that happens, with three races still to go afterward, their chances of mounting a late-playoff comeback get increasingly remote.

As the old saying goes, there’s no better time than the present for those who have started the playoffs in trouble. And compounding the difficulty for those who are already a significant distance out of first place is the fact that Charlotte is the first of back-to-back events, with the series moving on to start the second half of the playoffs next week at Ennis, Texas.

Not only is the Texas Motorplex one of the fastest tracks on the circuit, it’s also been the site where many championships have had to go through to be won – while also serving as the place that all but eliminates those whose playoff runs in any particular season have not been up to par to match some of their more successful opponents. in other words, separating the wheat from the chaff.

Who will wind up being the chaff after this week and next? Stay tuned.

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Latest INDYCAR Aeroscreen test continues to provide feedback; data to series

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
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RICHMOND, Virginia – After completing its third Aeroscreen test since October 2, INDYCAR continues to collect valuable data and feedback from the drivers and engineers involved in testing.

The latest test of the Aeroscreen came Tuesday, October 15 at Richmond Raceway, a .750-mile short oval. Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has been involved in testing dating all the way back to 2017 at Phoenix with the original “Windscreen.” Tuesday’s test was the first-time two-time NTT IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was able to test the device that partially encloses the cockpit proving greatly enhanced driver safety.

It was also the first time the current “Aeroscreen” designed and created by Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Pankl and Dallara has been tested at a short oval – a track that measures under 1.5-miles in length.

The previous tests were at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 2 and the Barber Motorsports Park road course on October 7.

“It wasn’t a problem getting in the car today and relearning a new viewpoint,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com at the conclusion of Tuesday’s test. “It felt like a new viewpoint. It’s still an Indy car. It still feels like an Indy car. The car does a lot of the things it did before. It required some slight tuning differences to accommodate a different center of gravity and different total weight.

“Overall, it still felt like the same Indy car I drove three weeks ago. You get used to that new viewpoint within 30 or 40 laps. It was alien at first but halfway through the day it feels like home again.”

Newgarden’s Team Penske test team along with INDYCAR officials worked on changes to getting air into the cockpit and directing the air to the right place where the driver can utilize it.

“We’ve come up with some solutions that we like,” Newgarden said. “INDYCAR and the teams will continue to fine-tune this. That is why we are doing these tests. The main goal was to figure this out and fine-tune this stuff. We have come up with a lot of good solutions to all of the little things we have talked about that we have needed so when Sebastien Bourdais goes to Sebring (on November 5), it will just be another version.

“We are already close. Because they are such small details, it feels like normal racing stuff and we will come up with solutions for that.”

Some drivers who have participated in the Aeroscreen test has said, they almost feel naked without having the halo-like structure with a clear windshield protecting them on the race car.

“Once we got through a whole IndyCar season, if you took it off, it would feel really strange,” Newgarden said. “People adapt so quickly to a change, what the car looks like. Once you give us a couple of races and a full year, it will feel like home and something we are very used to as drivers.

“It is already starting to get that way. People are feeling more comfortable with it. The field of view is almost identical to the way it was before. Your peripheral vision is identical, the way you look out the front of the cars is identical, the way you see the tires is identical.”

Individual driver preference will allow for shading of the sun and that can be accomplished with the visor strips on the helmet and the tear-offs on Aeroscreen.

Drivers will also have a bit of a quieter atmosphere inside the cockpit. The partial enclosure makes it easier to hear his radio communication and the sounds of the engine in the driver’s car. It partially blocks out the sounds of the engines in the other cars and the rush of wind traveling at high speeds that used to buffet in and around the helmet.

“It has changed the noise level slightly inside the cockpit,” Newgarden said. “For me, it wasn’t super dramatic. It’s a slight reduction in wind noise. You’re not getting the wind directly over your head as dramatically as you would before. All that external noise has just been dimmed.

“You can hear the radio a touch better, things like that. But the engine noise is still quite prominent. It’s bolted directly behind us, so you still hear quite a bit of what’s going on in the car and the engine.”

Dixon was in the car at Indianapolis on October 2 and returned on Tuesday. The Barber test on October 7 included this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, in a Team Penske Chevrolet and Ryan Hunter-Reay in an Andretti Autosport Honda.

“The only differences are the openings on the front wing that creates some more airflow around the legs and body and a different inlet in the screen that was in place today,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com. “There were helmet cooling options since the Barber test because on the road course, some of the drivers were getting a little hotter.

“This project has been very in-depth. It hit the ground running very smoothly. There are some alternate options they are trying to create, especially on the street courses where we will experience hot condition. On street conditions, your depth perception changes because of how close you are to the walls, but we should get used to that.”

Two weeks ago, Team Penske driver Will Power said it takes a different style to get out of the race car because of the added height of the Aeroscreen.

That hasn’t been a problem for Dixon.

“That’s easy, man,” he said. “Just go through the hole in the top.”