With only five races remaining in the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series regular season, it’s now crunch time for teams in each of the four categories. It’s time for many of the teams on the bubble to take a quick inventory of their status to determine the best route for gaining entry into the Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six-race playoffs.
Teams won’t have much time to gather their bearings because the first three of those final five regular-season races will provide a mini gut check.
With this weekend’s Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, July 22-24 at scenic Bandimere Speedway near Denver, NHRA Full Throttle Series teams will embark on a three-week challenge that will test their tune-ups, the quality of their high-performance machines under very different atmospheric conditions, and, most important, their patience.
Following the race in Denver, teams will head to Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, then forge on to Pacific Raceways near Seattle to complete the brutal three-week stretch that has become known as the Western Swing.
For those drivers who are on the bubble in the points standings, a hot streak during the Western Swing may just provide the boost needed to secure a playoff spot. On the other hand, should a team get in a slump, points positions can slip away at a rapid pace.
For Top Fuel driver Dave Grubnic, who posted a runner-up finish at Route 66 Raceway two weeks ago, he’s eager to hold on to his 10th-place position or if possible keep the momentum going and move higher in the standings.
“Moving into the top 10 in points was a huge accomplishment for us [in Chicago],” Grubnic said. “Hopefully now we can start getting more and more round-wins and climb even further up in the points.”
The two Top Fuel drivers on the outside looking in are Terry McMillen, who has held the 10th spot for most of the season, and Bob Vandergriff Jr., who is less than two rounds out of 10th after posting a runner-up finish in Topeka in his C&J Energy Services dragster.
A cluster of veteran drivers are hungry to make the top 10 in Funny Car. Two-time world champ Tony Pedregon and veteran racers Tim Wilkerson and Jim Head are sitting 11th through 13th and desperately want to take the 10th spot that Service Central Dodge Charger driver Johnny Gray holds. Gray knows that the next five races are going to provide a great challenge to make the playoffs.
“This is a very competitive, superb Funny Car group,” Gray said. “You can’t take anything for granted, and the results from one race can mean jumping or falling multiple places in the standings – and now is not the time for falling.”
In Pro Stock, four drivers will jockey for the final two spots. Shane Gray and Ron Krisher are holding down the final two positions after the Chicago race, but Ronnie Humphrey and veteran driver Larry Morgan, who posted a runner-up finish in Norwalk in his Lucas Oil Ford Mustang, are gaining ground.
“For us to make the Countdown just a year and a half into this program with Ford would surprise some people, I promise you,” Morgan said. “It was the impossible dream, but we’re only a few rounds out now. We’re going to do what we can to make it happen.”
Only four races remain in the regular season for the Pro Stock Motorcycle teams, and as many as seven riders will be competing for the final two spots in the top 10. Though rookie Hector Arana Jr. seems to be making strides toward keeping one of the spots with back-to-back No. 1 qualifying efforts at the last two races, Michael Phillips’ DNQ in Chicago has opened the door for Chicago runner-up Chip Ellis, who is sitting 11th, and Chicago quarterfinalist David Hope, who is 12th, to crash the party in the final hour. Veteran rider Steve Johnson, Angie Smith, and Shawn Gann are also still mathematically eligible.
* SCHEDULE: NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4:45 and 7:15 p.m. on Friday, July 22, and for 1:45 and 4:15 p.m. on Saturday, July 23. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 24.
* TICKETS: For tickets for the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, call Bandimere Speedway, 800-664-UWIN (8946) or log on to www.ticketreturn.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday, July 23. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three hours of eliminations coverage at 7 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 24.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals also will feature competition in five categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, in which some of the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying will begin at noon on July 22. Lucas Oil Series eliminations will begin at 10 a.m. on July 23 and continue through July 24.