Pritchett goes for 3rd straight win at NHRA's Gatornationals

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FILE- In this May 22, 2015 file photo, top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett, left, gives Jaden Patterson an autographed poster, at the 2015 NHRA Kansas Nationals in Topeka, Kan. Pritchett has every reason to feel confident, just not content, heading into the Gatornationals. She won the first two NHRA Top Fuel races of the year, taking home trophies at Pomona and Phoenix last month. She was the top qualifier at both events and even set the national elapsed-time record at the Arizona Nationals. A record-breaking run. A history-making month. A perfectly perfect start. Pritchett is adamant this is just the beginning, that more wins and greater achievements await. (Chris Neal /The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP, File)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Leah Pritchett has every reason to feel confident, just not content, heading into the Gatornationals this weekend.

She won the first two NHRA Top Fuel races of the year, taking home trophies at Pomona and Phoenix last month. She was the top qualifier at both events and even set the national elapsed-time record at the Arizona Nationals by covering the 1,000-foot track in 3.658 seconds.

She became the first female driver to win consecutive events since 1990 and the first Top Fuel racer to open a season with back-to-back victories since 1997.

A record-breaking run. A history-making month. A perfectly perfect start.

Now what? Pritchett and her Don Schumacher Racing team are adamant this is just the beginning, that more wins and greater achievements await.

"We've got to find a way to push it up, take it to the next level and bring a how-can-we-top-that approach," Pritchett said.

Given all the distractions the 28-year-old Pritchett dealt with last year to get to this point, no one would be surprised to see her reach new heights.

"Anybody who says they're not surprised by what we've done this year, they're living on a different planet or at least not in my shoes," she said. "Is it out of the realm given our opportunity and our resources? No, but it's at the very top peak of it. With that said, I will always bet on my team and I will always bet on myself."

Driving for Bob Vandergriff Racing, Pritchett enjoyed a breakthrough victory in Phoenix last year. She became the first woman to win in the Top Fuel class since Hillary Will in 2008. Pritchett edged Brittany Force in the title bout, the first all-female final since 1982.

But two months later, she was out of a job.

Vandergriff abruptly retired in April and shuttered his race team. That left Pritchett, fellow driver Dave Connolly and dozens of employees out of work — with no warning.

Pritchett cobbled together enough sponsorship and funding to race a few events on her own before eventually landing with Schumacher midway through the year.

"The word to describe last year would be 'relentless,'" Pritchett said. "It was a challenge getting to the race track, finding a race car, building a race car, building a team, finding the money. You only have so many hours in a day and so many days to check those boxes.

"We went into this season with those boxes checked and able to focus on the No. 1 box that matters — winning. The better part of last year, I really couldn't focus on that. As much as I tried and thought that I'd be in a mindset for it, distraction after distraction never allowed me to be able in that winning mindset."

Pritchett now has sponsorship for the entire season (Papa John's, FireAde, Mopar, Pennzoil) and is backed by one of the top teams in the sport — DSR has 297 career NHRA victories and counting.

Pritchett's resume and reputation are quickly growing, too.

"She's the hardest-working driver I've ever been around," assistant crew chief Joe Barlam said. "Besides her qualifications behind the wheel, out of the car is where she really shines. She goes 24/7, never stops. The most impressive driver I've ever been around, and I've been doing this for over 30 years.

"To have the combination of ability in the car and to get out of the car and be able to go in a boardroom and talk about the business aspect of everything, with her marketing degree, she's really the glue that makes it happen."

No doubt, Pritchett is on a roll. Entering her 20th year of NHRA competition — she began racing as an 8-year-old in the sanctioning body's junior league — Pritchett has the experience and connections to get things done in the garage. She also has the business background and social-media skills to make things happen away from the track.

Nowadays, she also has success to boot.

"We've got back-to-back wins, two No. 1 poles and a world record," she said. "That's five accomplishments right there. Really, going into the season, we were just looking for a win. And it just happened to be that we did the other ones along the way. Surprised? I'd say humbly unexpected."

And ready for more.

___

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