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Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals Sunday Notebook

02 Apr 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
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ELIMINATION ROUNDS RECAP

Doug KalittaTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (12:20 p.m.): Doug Kalitta had low e.t. with a very competitive run, a 3.743, in beating Steve Chrisman but five of the other seven winners ran between 3.752 and 3.767. The lone exceptions were Terry McMillen, who pedaled furiously through tire smoke to beat Troy Coughlin Jr., who banged the blower before the finish line, by just .009-second with a 4.277, and Clay Millican, who ran a cylinder-dropping 4.05 against Tripp Tatum.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Antron Brown vs. Steve Torrence; Leah Pritchett vs. Brittany Force; Tony Schumacher vs. Terry McMillen; Doug Kalitta vs. Clay Millican.

Matt HaganFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:50 p.m.): Upsets ruled the first round of Funny Car eliminations as No. 2 qualifier Matt Hagan was the only of the top four qualifiers to advance to the second round. No. 16 qualifier Gary Densham upset track-record setter Courtney Force with a 4.079 pass, while Jonnie Lindberg continued to hold a hot hand with a 4.332 run to top Ron Capps. Alexis DeJoria got out of the first round for the first time this season by besting teammate J.R. Todd with a 4.054 run. 

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Alexis DeJoria vs. Gary Densham; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Jack Beckman; Matt Hagan vs. John Force; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs Robert Hight. 

Bo ButnerPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (1:11 p.m.): All three KB team cars survived the first round of eliminations, but the three round-wins did not come without a price. Jason Line had a bye run and Bo Butner set low e.t. of the round with a 6.659 in his win against Alan Pruisensky’s Dodge, but Greg Anderson encountered a problem when he wounded an engine in his win against Allen Johnson. “She blew up,” said Anderson. “Thankfully, we had enough to get the win.” Other survivors included Elite Motorsports teammates Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr., the father-son team of Shane and Tanner Gray, and Chris McGaha.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Shane Gray; Tanner Gray vs. Greg Anderson; Bo Butner vs. Erica Enders;  Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Chris McGaha

Leah PritchettTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (2:40 p.m.): Points leader Leah Pritchett had low e.t. of the second round, posting a 3.770 in besting tire-smoking Brittany Force to put the Papa John’s dragster in its third semifinal in the season’s first four events. Doug Kalitta was just a heartbeat behind her with a 3.778 in taking down Clay Millican. Antron Brown ran his personal record against low qualifier Steve Torrence to a lopsided 21-1 with a 3.82, while Tony Schumacher’s cylinder-dropping 3.86 beat Terry McMillen to give Don Schumacher Racing three of the four semifinal spots.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Antron Brown; Doug Kalitta vs. Tony Schumacher

Gary DenshamFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (2:53 p.m.): The upsets continued into the second round of Funny Car eliminations as Gary Densham took down Alexis DeJoria when the defending Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals champ turned on the red light. Densham will take on Jonnie Lindberg after the Swedish driver’s 4.017 pass against Jack Beckman. Veteran driver Densham thought DeJoria had him beat off the starting line, unaware she had red-lighted but received good news when he hit the finish line. John Force and Tommy Johnson Jr. will square off on the other side of the bracket.

Semifinal matchups (lane choice first): Jonnie Lindberg vs. Gary Densham; John Force vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.  

Tanner GrayPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (3:01 p.m.): There will be no double-up bonus this year after K&N Horsepower Challenge champ Greg Anderson dropped his second-round battle with rookie Tanner Gray. The promising rookie will still have to contend with a pair of KB Racing cars, including reigning champ Jason Line, who defeated Gray’s father, Shane. Bo Butner made the best pass of the round for the second straight round with a 6.695 in his win over Erica Enders, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. is in the semi’s for the second time in four events after defeating Chris McGaha.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jason Line vs. Tanner Gray; Bo Butner vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.

Tony SchumacherTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (3:55 p.m.): Gatornationals champ Tony Schumacher made it to his second straight final round and the 145th of his hall-of-fame career by defeating Doug Kalitta, 3.77 to 3.78. Schumacher and the Army team will have final-round lane choice over his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Antron Brown, who reached the final, the 79th of his career, with a 3.79 against points leader Leah Pritchett. With two DSR cars in the Top Fuel final, the veteran team owner is assured his fourth straight winner this season.

Jonnie LindbergFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (4:03 p.m.): Jonnie Lindberg booked his second straight appearance in the Funny Car final round by topping Gary Densham. The Swedish driver’s 3.991 pass gives him lane choice against Tommy Johnson Jr. in the final. Lindberg has yet to miss a final round in his career as he’s now two-for-two in the Funny Car category. Both drivers are looking for their first win of the young season. Lindberg qualified No. 13, while Johnson Jr. broke in from the No. 6 slot. 

PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (4:07 p.m.): There will be a first-time Pro Stock winner in Las Vegas when rookie Tanner Gray takes on Bo Butner in the final round. In his fourth start, 17-year-old Gray reached his first Professional final round after a narrow 6.691 to 6.703 win against reigning world champion Jason Line in the semifinals. Butner made it to his seventh career Pro Stock final after a 6.714 to 6.739 win against six-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. Gray will be attempting to join his father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny, as an NHRA national event winner. Shane won the most recent race in Gainesville.

Garrett Bateman

LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN FINALS (4:45 p.m.): Garrett Bateman and Shane Westerfield headlined the list of Lucas Oil Series winners in Las Vegas. Bateman won in Las Vegas for the third straight season in Top Alcohol Dragster with a 5.384 after opponent Casey Grisel smoked the tires. Pomona winner Westerfield won his second event of the season in Top Alcohol Funny Car with a 5.547 after Doug Gordon rolled through the staging lights and red-lighted in the final.

HallAlan Ellis, the 2014 NHRA Comp champ, successfully defended his win at the 2016 Las Vegas event when he downed Tony Mandella in the Comp final. Ellis, who drives a mid-six second AA/P altered, now has eight national event wins in his career.

Other champions crowned during Sunday’s final rounds include Mike Loge (Super Stock), Chris Hall (Stock), Ryan Herem (Super Comp), Rick Cates (Super Gas), Dean Hall (Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs), and Chuck Phelps (Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs). 

TFH final

TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL (5:16 p.m.): Jay Turner, near lane, collected his second win of the season in the Top Fuel Harley class following a final-round win over Mike Pelrine. Turner, the winner of the season-opening event in Pomona, came from the No. 1 spot to win with a 6.460 after Pelrine shut off. Pelrine, who became an internet sensation after his wild ride in Saturday’s final qualifying session, got loose and shut off.

PS final

PRO STOCK FINAL (5:21 p.m.): At 17, Tanner Gray, near lane, became the youngest Professional winner in the 65-year history of NHRA when he stopped Bo Butner in the Las Vegas Pro Stock final. Two weeks after his father, Shane, won in Gainesville, Tanner drove the family’s Gray Motorsports Technology Camaro to a 6.681 to 6.678 holeshot win against Bo Butner, who was relegated to a runner-up for the seventh time. In just his fourth start in the class, Gray defeated all three KB Racing drivers to become the class’ 65th different champion.

FC final

FUNNY CAR FINAL (5:25 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr., far lane, ended Jonnie Lindberg’s Cinderella run with a race-day best 3.933 pass. That topped Lindberg’s 4.016 to get Johnson his first win since the 2016 Auto Club NHRA Finals and gave Don Schumacher Racing another victory. It was the second straight final appearance for Lindberg and the Swedish driver’s second straight defeat. He fell to John Force in Gainesville a week ago, while Johnson had fallen to Force in the semifinals in Florida.

TF final

TOP FUEL FINAL (5:30 p.m.): Antron Brown, far lane, collected his 62nd career win – tying him with Larry Dixon for seventh all time among NHRA Mello Yello drivers – and his 46th in Top Fuel when he outran teammate Tony Schumacher in the Top Fuel final, 3.747 to 3.809. The victory also earned Brown a spot in the NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout later this season in Indy.

Sunday recap: Gray, Brown, Johnson Jr. pick up wins at Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals

FEATURES

Richard HoganSteve Torrence ran qualifying without the benefit of having crew chief Richard Hogan on hand after the veteran tuner had to have his appendix removed Thursday. Assistant crew chief Bobby Lagana Jr. stepped up admirably and was in touch with Hogan Friday and Saturday – emailing him data from each run – while he recuperated near his Ennis, Mont. home.

Hogan felt well enough by Saturday that Torrence sent his private jet to Ennis to pick up Hogan so he could be on hand for eliminations.

“He’s been here all weekend, just not in person,” said Torrence. “Not taking anything away from Bobby because he really stepped up to the table – he had butterflies but did a really good job. I’m proud of the way he’s handled it, and it gives you more confidence in your team to see everyone step up to the table to crutch us while Richard was sick, but it’s good to have ‘Hoagy’ at the track with us.”

That extra set of eyes and brainpower were handy as the team was able to diagnose a burned crankshaft bearing that cropped up during the pre-first-round warm-up, forcing the Capco team into a frantic last-minute engine change.

“Me being here is way better than being at home,” agreed Hogan. “That’s way too much stress for everyone. Bobby did a great job for us while I wasn’t here, but there was definitely a few times where it would have been better if I was here. He had so much going on already – starting the car, lining Steve up – that he didn’t have time to get into the [timer] box and make last-second adjustments like I might have. I’m just glad to be here, up and around and helping out.”

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PrestonClay Millican is racing with a purpose Sunday, trying to win for good friend Preston Davis – legendary driver of Raymond Godman’s Tennessee Bo Weevil Top Fuelers and Funny Cars on the 1970s – who was injured in a testing accident in his front-engine nostalgia dragster. Millican sent along get-well wishes to his fellow Volunteer Stater with a note on his roll cage. Millican’s relationship with the veteran goes well beyond their shared statehood; Millican was the driver that Davis asked to give the induction speech when he entered the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame last year.

Millican’s Parts Plus/Great Clips team qualified solidly in the No. 6 spot with a 3.781, and crew chief Dave Grubnic chose for them to be part of the first pair in round one. Typically, the first pair is No. 8 vs. No. 9 as teams usually are loathe to be the first ones down the track.

“When they got to us we could go first, seventh, or eighth, but ‘Grubby’ decided we should go first in case the track deteriorated,” said Millican. “There’s no cloud cover today, and the heat can really affect the track. We think the track will be best right at the start.”

Milican defeated Tripp Tatum in the opening round but lost in round two to Doug Kalitta.

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Terry McMillen

Terry McMillen and crew chief Rob Wendland came into the event prepared for a major gamble, introducing a new clutch system that they designed themselves. Their Amalie Motor Oil dragster struggled Friday with runs of 4.55 and 4.47, but they didn’t abandon the project and return to their traditional unit, which has given them a solid 3.70 tune-up, opting to stick with the new unit.

“I already have a 3.70 car,” explained Wendland. “I want a 3.60 car.”

McMillen eventually qualified with a 3.82, but it was his wheelwork more than the powertrain that got him to round two as he struck the tires a couple of hundred feet out yet expertly pedaled the car and was able to catch rookie Troy Coughlin Jr., whose blower coughed just before the stripe, to win by .009-second.

“Terry got that one for us,” said Wendland. “He did a great job catching it and staying in it. Sure proud of him.”

McMillen's day ended in round two against Tony Schumacher.
 

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J.R. ToddGetting comfortable is a key component to success no matter what car you’re driving. Funny Car driver J.R. Todd is starting to feel at home behind the wheel of the Kalitta Motorsports Toyota Camry Funny Car; a new seat isn’t hurting matters any. 

The seat is new for the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals race at The Strip and helps Todd fit better behind the wheel of his new ride. 

“I figured we’ve got some time now to make it the way I want so let’s make it right,” said Todd. “In these things, you need to be sitting more straight up and over the wheel. It makes a big difference.”

That new seat helped him to the ninth qualifying spot and a first-round matchup against teammate Alexis DeJoria. His teammate got the best of him as he struggled to get off the starting line. That helped DeJoria get out of the first round for the first time this season. 

“It’s still early in the year and all that,” said Todd. “This place is weird, especially in the spring race. The track is definitely different than any of the others we’ve raced in all year because guys are struggling to get down the track.”

That was Todd’s second matchup with DeJoria this season; he defeated her in the first round in Phoenix. 

“We could easily be top three in points instead of ninth, where we are,” said Todd. “Phoenix we had that air line break. I’m not saying it was a gimme second round, but those guys [Jim Campbell in Jim Dunn's car] weren’t going to outrun us. We had a clutch problem in the first round in Gainesville and Lindberg doesn’t get down the track so who knows.”

Beyond the new seat, Todd is getting comfortable in his first year as a Funny Car driver after switching from Top Fuel. He qualified seventh in his Phoenix and Gainesville before qualifying ninth in Las Vegas. 

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Jonnie LindbergTwo-time Alcohol Funny Car champ Jonnie Lindberg, who reached the final round in Gainesville in his nitro Funny Car debut in Jim Head’s Toyota, didn’t get a full run down the track in four tries in qualifying, but nonetheless entered eliminations, where he was set to face reigning world champ Ron Capps in round one, with a lot of good-natured optimism.

“Hey, he’s only got one world championship, right?” he said with a grin. “Plus, I only made it down the track once in qualifying in Gainesville and went to the final, so maybe with no runs down here I can win the race.”

Lindberg also shared an interesting thought. His national-record-setting Alcohol Funny Car’s best run to 1,000 feet was 4.53, on his national-record 5.36 quarter-mile pass in Charlotte in 2015. That run would have qualified him No. 14 in Funny Car at this race and is just a few ticks slower than the 4.49 that has him in the No. 13 spot this weekend. 

Lindberg’s confidence proved prescient as he beat cylinder-dropping Capps in round one to begin his quest for his first nitro title, then beat former world champ Jack Beckman in round two. Of Lindberg's five round-wins in the first two races, he's beaten past or present world champs -- Robert Hight, Matt Hagan, Capps, and Beckman -- in four of them.

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Alexis DeJoria

Last season’s Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals saw Alexis DeJoria pick up her first win of the season, a victory kick-started by just her second round-win of the campaign. It took DeJoria until her first visit to The Strip to get past the first round this season as she bested teammate J.R. Todd with a 4.054 pass to set up a meeting with No. 16 qualifier Gary Densham. 

“That was nice, we needed that,” said DeJoria on getting revenge on Todd for his win in their Phoenix meeting. “But you never want to meet your teammate in the first round; that’s never fun, and we’ve already done it twice in the short season.”

DeJoria qualified in the No. 8 spot with a 3.936 pass in her first qualifying run. Things went downhill from there as she failed to get down the track in any of her following passes. That was a departure from most of her runs this season where she was at least making it down the track.

“This track has been funky for a lot of teams this weekend,” said DeJoria. “It’s good to just make it down the track. Whatever the number is, just make it down.”

She qualified 10th and 11th in Phoenix and Gainesville, respectively, after opening the season in seventh in Pomona. DeJoria fell to Densham in the second round after turning on the red light. 

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Jeg Coughlin

It’s almost unfathomable that Jeg Coughlin Jr., whose Pro Stock résumé includes five Mello Yello championships and 58 wins, has not won since the 2014 Englishtown race. Of course, there is an explanation for the drought. Coughlin raced a limited schedule of just three events in 2015, and last season, the Elite Motorsports team struggled to get their Dodge program up to speed. Now, with a new Chevy Camaro under him, Coughlin feels the time is right to get back in the winner’s circle.

“It’s been a tough couple of years, but I feel like we’ve definitely turned the corner,” Coughlin said. “I feel really comfortable in this car. We’ve made some good runs, and our program is getting better at every event. We just need to put it all together.”

Coughlin ran a strong 6.652 on Friday that held on for the No. 2 spot in the field, his highest starting spot since the Seattle race in 2015, where he went to the final round against Chris McGaha.

“We were a little conservative in qualifying,” Coughlin said. “We missed it a bit down low, so there was definitely a bit more left. On Saturday, we tried to get a bit more aggressive, but we were just off a tick. Everyone else underestimated the starting line and they were shaking, and we were on the other side of it. For me, I just need to get up on the wheel and make the best of what we’ve got to work with. I do feel like we’re in a great position, though.”

Coughlin took the first step towards a possible 59th career Pro Stock win when he defeated Tom Huggins in round one. He followed with another solid effort to beat Chris McGaha and reach the semifinals.

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Bo ButnerForty-five races into his Pro Stock career and Bo Butner still seeks his first victory. Driving for the KB team, Butner has the best equipment available, and he’s got two first-race mentors in world champions Greg Anderson and Jason Line, but the one thing he’s lacked so far is luck. Butner does have six runner-up finishes and eight semifinals to his credit, and he’s above par with a 49-44 record in elimination rounds yet every day he goes to the races, he wonders ‘Will this be the day?’

“It’s become kind of a joke, hasn’t it?” Butner noted. “Believe me, I leave my house daily knowing that I’ve got everything it takes to win one of these races. When I first started this deal, everyone told me that Pro Stock was going to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done in racing. They weren’t fooling. I am not a quitter, though, and if people are wondering, I am still having fun. I know what our team is capable of, so that makes it fun. If we didn’t have the ability to win any race we go to, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much.”

Racing in Las Vegas, Butner also can’t help but think back to his first Pro Stock final at the fall event in 2015. Butner raced against world champ Erica Enders and thought he had her in his sights with a .015 reaction time. Unfortunately for Butner, Enders was perfect with a .000 light. Butner also has fond memories of the 2013 Las Vegas race, where he joined the exclusive double-up club when he won both the Comp and Stock titles.

“That’s pretty much what I’ve been up against out here,” Butner said. “I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes, but I’ve also had runs like that one where I felt like I did everything right and it just wasn’t enough.”

Butner won his first-round heat against Alan Pruisensky’s Dodge with a 6.659, the best run of the round. In a rematch with Enders, Butner turned in perhaps the best performance of his three-year career with a competitive .032 light and a 6.695 to defeat the two-time champion.

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Greg AndersonThe Summit team and driver Greg Anderson took a little time to celebrate their win in yesterday’s K&N Horsepower Challenge with a post-race party hosted by team owners and Las Vegas natives Ken and Judy Black. Today, it was back to work as Anderson and teammates Jason Line and Bo Butner all won their first-round matches. Anderson’s pit area was the busiest place after he broke an engine in his victory against Allen Johnson.

“It was on a nice run before it blew up,” Anderson said. “It threw a rod for sure. We didn’t do that all of last year, and I’m not sure we did it the year before that either. I hate when that happens; it’s expensive and it tears up a lot of good parts, but we’ve got other engines in the trailer so we’ll be alright.”

All three KB cars arrived in the staging lanes with time to spare before round two, but Anderson could only muster a 6.717 and lost to rookie Tanner Gray, who cut a .001 light and outran the four-time champion with a 6.702. Line and Butner did advance and could potentially race in the final round.

PHOTOS

trackwalk
The SealMaster Track Walk kicked off Sunday at The Strip, allowing fans to traverse the actual racing surface prior to the opening round of eliminations.
Jason Line
Pro Stock low qualifier Jason Line wore the green low qualifier cap proudly during the pre-race ceremony, where he was interviewed by NHRA’s Alan Reinhart.
Jack Beckman
This being Las Vegas, showgirls are part of the scenery. Jack Beckman approved.
Gary Densham
Funny Car veteran Gary Densham had a great day, reaching the semifinals before losing to Jonnie Lindberg.
Terry McMillen
Terry McMillen was overjoyed with his first-round Top Fuel win, edging Troy Coughlin Jr. in a come-from-behind race to win by just .009-second
Tony Schumacher
Top Fuel finalist Tony Schumacher’s pit was swamped with fans, for whom he obligingly signed autographs.
Winners
Event champions Antron Brown, Tommy Johnson Jr., and Tanner Gray celebrated their event victories.