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NHRA season opens this weekend – but without Steve Torrence

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The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season-opening Lucas Oil Winternationals opens Thursday in Pomona, California, but it will be missing one of the sport’s biggest and most successful stars.

Steve Torrence, who has won the last two Top Fuel championships and 28 of the last 72 races dating back to the start of the 2017 season, will not be competing in this weekend’s race at Auto Club Raceway.

Why Torrence and the two-dragster Capco Contractors Racing team will not be at Pomona is unclear. Torrence’s father and Top Fuel driving teammate, Billy Torrence, also won’t be racing this weekend.

Steve Torrence tweeted Wednesday afternoon that “Due to untimely circumstances beyond our control, it’s in the best interest of Torrence racing to not participate in this weekend’s season opener in Pomona, California. We cannot thank our fans enough for their continued support and understanding at this time.”

It’s not known if Torrence and the Capco cars will miss only this weekend’s race, or whether they might miss more races. The next NHRA race is in two weeks (Feb. 21-23) at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in suburban Phoenix, Arizona.

NBC Sports reached out to NHRA about Torrence’s situation. Here is the sanctioning body’s statement:

“It’s unfortunate that the Capco teams will not be attending the 2020 Winternationals. All NHRA teams may elect whether or not to compete in any given event and we are excited to see everyone who is joining us to kick off the season at the 60th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals. We are focused on creating a great experience for everyone in Pomona this week.”

Over the last three seasons, no driver in any professional category – be it Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle – has been as dominant as Torrence and his race team, a.k.a. “the Capco boys,” as Torrence likes to call his squad.

From 2017-19, the Kilgore, Texas, native has been virtually unstoppable. He’s earned 28 wins in 72 starts during that time, an excellent .389 winning percentage – with eight wins in 2017, 11 in 2018 and nine last season. Overall, Torrence has 36 wins in his Top Fuel career.

In addition, Torrence, 36, has won the last two NHRA Top Fuel championships, including being the first driver in NHRA history to sweep all six races in the 2018 Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Torrence tested his car last weekend in preparation for Pomona, which makes the announcement he won’t be there this weekend all the more puzzling.

He even spoke last week about looking forward to the season opener.

“It’s been kind of surreal,” Torrence said. “You look back at the last couple years – and really the last three years – and see the success we’ve had and what the team has been able to accomplish, and it’s a big confidence-booster.

“We’re probably more relaxed than we were four to five years ago. But we just want to go to Pomona and do the best we can do. You don’t really think about all of it and what it means, you just go and do it.”

Torrence is used to overcoming adversity. He has survived several serious medical issues in his life, including beating cancer at 17 and a heart attack in 2016.

The NHRA recently announced new rules that full-time drivers will qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs if they compete in all of the first 18 regular season races and make at least two qualifying runs at each race.

While that may seem to quickly exclude Torrence from this year’s playoffs because he won’t be in Pomona, there’s an apparent loophole:

  • Each of the drivers in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle that are in the top 10 in points in their respective divisional standings after the final race of the regular season — the U.S. Nationals in suburban Indianapolis — will make the playoffs.
  • As a result, the NHRA rule does not specifically require those drivers in the top 10 after Indy must have competed in all of the first 18 races.
  • It appears that only those drivers outside the top 10 in the standings after Indy must adhere to the new rule requiring competing in all 18 regular season races and make at least two qualifying runs in each of those.

Given how Torrence has dominated the sport for the last three seasons, it’s likely that even missing the Winternationals will not keep him out of the playoffs.

He had more comments about his optimism for this season last week before Wednesday’s announcement.

“As a team, our ability to stay focused and overcome obstacles, it’s been pretty impressive,” Torrence said. “We’ve won the championship in two completely different ways, and we’ve overcome a lot of things to win them both.

“I’ve been pretty proud of how well we’ve continued to prevail with whatever’s been thrown at us. We’ve all been together five to six years, and we know each other well. These guys are 100 percent behind me, and we’re the epitome of team and family.

“I would like to think we’re confident we can continue this. I don’t see any reason why we can’t continue to do well, but everything has to fall into place to win a title. It’s a difficult thing to do. You have to try to be as perfect as possible.”

Ironically, Torrence put out this tweet from last Friday at the Las Vegas test that made it clear he was looking forward to the new season.

Torrence isn’t the only driver seeking to repeat as a champion in 2020. Defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight and defending Pro Stock champ Erica Enders both return to begin their quests to each earn a fourth championship, respectively, in their divisions.

Speaking of Pro Stock, this season will mark the 50th anniversary of the class in NHRA competition.

One other significant note of sorts: This will mark the 42nd NHRA season for ageless Funny Car driver John Force, who turns 71 on May 4. After slipping to ninth in the final standings in 2018, the winningest driver in NHRA history and 16-time Funny Car champion is coming off a strong rebound season in 2019 when he won two races (including a milestone 150th of his career) and finished fourth in the overall standings.

This weekend’s racing will begin Thursday with Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock making their season debut during Friday’s first two rounds of qualifying with two more qualifying rounds on Saturday. Final eliminations are set for Sunday.

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Max Verstappen shows speed in Austria; Lewis Hamilton lacking pace

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SPIELBERG, Austria — Red Bull driver Max Verstappen posted the fastest time Friday, and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton lacked pace in the second practice session for the Styrian Grand Prix.

Verstappen was 0.043 seconds quicker than Valtteri Bottas – Hamilton’s teammate at Mercedes – and 0.217 ahead of Racing Point driver Sergio Perez.

“The car already feels better than last week, the balance is a lot nicer and we have made a good step,” said Verstappen, who did not finish last Sunday’s season-opening Austrian GP after starting from second.

“It is too early to say how we are looking against Mercedes, but we are quite happy. We have tried a few different directions to understand the car a bit more and we are heading the right way.”

Hamilton was only sixth fastest, about 0.7 seconds slower than Verstappen. Hamilton spent a chunk of time in the garage while his team worked on his car.

“It was quite far off, so there’s a lot of work to do in the background to figure it out,” he said. “Others out there are quick and Valtteri’s obviously got good pace.”

Despite adding a new front wing to its car, struggling Ferrari had a dismal afternoon.

Charles Leclerc was only ninth quickest and 1 second slower than Verstappen, while teammate Sebastian Vettel lagged about 2 seconds behind Verstappen in 16th.

Daniel Ricciardo lost control of his Renault car early into the second session, swerving left off the track and thudding backward into a protective tire wall. He climbed out unharmed, other than a slight limp, but the left rear tire was mangled and the car was lifted off the track by a crane.

Alexander Albon spun twice, the Red Bull driver’s second spin taking him right off the track and into gravel.

Earlier, Perez was fastest in the first practice ahead of Verstappen and Bottas, with Hamilton fourth quickest and Vettel only 10th in sunny conditions.

That session was briefly interrupted when Nicholas Latifi’s Williams car pulled over to the side with a gearbox issue.

The incident brought out yellow flags, forcing drivers to slow down. But McLaren driver Lando Norris overtook Pierre Gasly’s AlphaTauri and got a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race.

Norris, 20, finished third at the Austrian GP last weekend, becoming the youngest British driver in F1 history to get on the podium and third youngest in F1.

The upcoming race is changing names from last week but is at the same track. It is surrounded by the Styrian mountains.

A third and final practice will be held on Saturday morning before qualifying in the afternoon, with heavy rain and storms in the forecast.

If third practice and qualifying are washed out, drivers take their grid positions from where they placed in second practice.

“It would definitely suck if we didn’t get to qualify,” said Hamilton, who started fifth and finished fourth last weekend. “It would make it challenging.”

However, qualifying also could be moved to Sunday morning.

“I don’t expect to be on pole position with this (practice) lap,” Verstappen said.