J.R. Todd wins Gatornationals to end DSR streak, spoil John Force Racing’s return

NHRA Gatornationals Todd
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports Images
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. — J.R. Todd won the season-opening Gatornationals, ended the longest NHRA winning streak by one juggernaut and spoiled the much-hyped return of another.

Todd beat Robert Hight in the Funny Car finale Sunday at Gainesville Raceway, crossing the finish line first after both drivers had trouble getting traction on a hot and slippery track.

Hight was looking to give John Force Racing a dramatic return to the drag-racing series after the team sat out most of last year because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

But it was Todd celebrating with a Wally Trophy in one hand and a bottle of champagne in the other. Todd cracked open a can of beer in his pit stall as he reflected on one of the biggest wins of his career at a track where longtime friend Eric Medlen died in 2007. Todd already had notched wins at three of the NHRA’s four majors: the U.S. Nationals, the Winternationals and the NHRA Finals.

“Being able to win all the majors that are left on the schedule, that’s pretty special,” Todd said.

By the time Todd and his Kalitta Motorsports team made the Funny Car finale, Don Schumacher Racing already had started packing up for the day. The powerhouse team had won 14 consecutive events in Funny Car, the longest streak in NHRA history.

Schumacher was forced to cut his four-car team in half this season, parting ways with Tommy Johnson Jr. and 2012 champion Jack Beckman because of sponsorship issues. Defending champion Matt Hagan and No. 1 qualifier Ron Capps were left to try to extend the streak. Bob Tasca knocked out both in the elimination rounds Sunday, essentially clearing the way for Todd.

“We were definitely getting tired of getting our butts kicked by them last year, but 2021 is a new year,” Todd said. “It’s a good way to start off the season with a win in one of the biggest races of the year.”

Josh Hart, who lives in nearby Ocala, was the surprise winner in Top Fuel. The owner/driver beat Shawn Langdon to win his first national series event.

Greg Anderson won the Pro Stock class on his 60th birthday, and Matt Smith won the Pro Stock Motorcycle division.

Todd raised some eyebrows last week by saying, “winning this year, there won’t be an asterisk.”

“I’m not knocking the competition, by any means, because DSR cleaned house last year,” he said. “But we didn’t get to run a full schedule, and the Force cars weren’t out there.

“Everybody out there in Funny Car is tough, but in my opinion, Robert Hight is the best driver in the category, and that team sets the benchmark for the rest of us. When they’re out here competing and you beat them in a final round, you feel like, you’re like, `Ah, that’s something.’ ”

It was Todd’s 10th victory in Funny Car, becoming just the 18th driver to reach double digits in the class. This one looked a lot like his first one in 2017, when he won a spin-fest in Sonoma, California.

“I thought for sure he was going to be driving away from me,” Todd said. “I never seen him. Just kind of rolled back into the throttle and went all the way down with it and turned on the win light. Pretty special to do here in Gainesville.”

Josh Hart won the NHRA Top Fuel division during the Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway (Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports).

Hart had been scheduled to make his Top Fuel debut last year with Bob Vandergriff Racing. But after the pandemic, Vandergriff and Hart decided it would be best for Hart to own his own team.

“Obviously, it’s not always going to be this easy,” Hart said.