From Pomona to Indy, revisiting the Road to the Countdown

A lot happened during the first 18 races of 2017, moments that continually left us amazed, sometimes stunned, often confused, and yet deliriously delighted. Here’s a look back at some of the big themes of the year to date.
11 Sep 2017
Jacob Sundstrom, NHRA National Dragster Associate Editor
Road to the Countdown
Torrence Countdown

The Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals marked the end of the 18-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series regular season and set the fields for the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs that follow. A lot happened at those first 18 races of 2017, moments that continually left us amazed, sometimes stunned, often confused, and yet deliriously delighted. Here’s a look back at some of the big themes of the year to date.

Best bet to win a championship

Steve Torrence entered the 2017 season with eight Top Fuel wins in 166 races. He won seven times in the 16 races that followed. It’d be hard to pick against the Capco Contractor team entering the Countdown, especially after its impressive performance at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Torrence is on one heck of a hot streak, and there’s no reason to think it’ll stop in Indy.

Pollacheck_2017CI1_TL_12091.jpgBiggest position improvement

Leah Pritchett, Tony Schumacher, Robert Hight, Bo Butner, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Erica Enders, and Scotty Pollacheck all made big moves from a season ago as they enter the Countdown. All three Pro Stock racers moved up three spots, the Top Fuel pilots climbed four places, Funny Car driver Hight jumped up five, and Pollacheck ratcheted up a whopping eight places in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings. For some, it’s about finding their previous form. For others, this is uncharted territory. One thing they all have in common: It’s a welcome change of scenery.

Most pleasant surprise

Scott Palmer left the Circle K NHRA Winternationals tied for ninth place and never slipped out of a Countdown spot. The Tommy Thompson-backed team kept chipping away at its tune-up (with a little help from Steve Torrence and Bobby Lagana), and got into the Countdown for the first time. It’s an impressive statement and a welcome surprise to see Palmer, crew chief Ashley Fye, and the CatSpot Litter dragster in the Countdown battle.

Pedregon_2017EN1_TL_05445.jpgWelcome back to the dance

Cruz Pedregon is back in the Countdown for the first time since 2015. It might be by the skin of his teeth, but it’s unlikely he’s complaining after the struggles he and first-time Funny Car crew chief Aaron Brooks have endured this season. There’s still work to do on the Snap-on Tools flopper’s tune-up, but just getting back to the playoffs is an accomplishment for Pedregon.

Biggest shock of the season

Troy Coughlin Jr. entered the season as the favorite to take home the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, which honors the top rookie of the year. Things didn’t go as planned for the Top Fuel rookie, who shockingly resigned his post with Kalitta Motorsports a week before the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. He’ll be back in a nitro car eventually, but his departure from the class was the shock of the season.

Sampey_2017II1_MG_15493.jpgMissing in action

Former Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey missed a Countdown spot by 91 points, a far cry from her 2016 season, where she entered the Countdown in third place. Inconsistent performance plagued her during the regular season, resulting in only one round-win and qualifying in the bottom half of the field at every event. This came after starting a new team with 2016 Auto Club Road to the Future Award winner Cory Reed, who also missed the Countdown.

One last hurrah

During the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, Allen Johnson announced that he will retire from a full-time schedule at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The Pro Stock veteran owns 27 wins, a world championship in 2012, and legions of fans, especially in the Dodge world. Johnson said he won’t be disappearing from NHRA Drag Racing completely after this season, but Pro Stock won’t be the same without his Dodge at every event.

Teamwork makes the dream work

We can call the Stoffer-Underdahl team experiment an unqualified success. All three full-time bikes made the Countdown in the team’s first season together as Karen Stoffer, Joey Gladstone, and Scotty Pollacheck all look like title contenders. Pollacheck in particular looks like a real threat, Stoffer continues to improve after switching to a carbureted engine, and rookie Gladstone gets better and better at every event.

Gray_2017LN1_MG_03935.JPGRookies make the cut

Tanner Gray and Joey Gladstone might be rookies, but they’ll be racing for a shot at a championship this season. Gray has really set the world on fire in his rookie campaign. He enters the Countdown as the No. 2 seed in Pro Stock with four wins under his belt and a perfect record against points leader Bo Butner. Gladstone is still looking for his first Pro Stock Motorcycle Wally, but he has been solid in his rookie season.

From heartbreak to Countdown berth

After getting gut-wrenchingly close to reaching the Countdown on multiple occasions, Terry McMillen will finally get the chance to race for a championship. The pilot of the Amalie Motor Oil dragster clinched his Countdown berth when Troy Coughlin Jr. resigned his position with Kalitta Motorsports, but he all but locked up his spot when he reached the final round in Seattle. There has been plenty of heartbreak in McMillen’s career, but now he’s in the dance.

Millican_2017EN1_TL_05323.jpgMost likely to win from the bottom of the field

Getting the first win of his career out of the way was only the beginning for Clay Millican. Crew chief David Grubnic has the Great Clips/Parts Plus dragster absolutely flying right now, and a first-round upset in Indy against Kebin Kinsley won’t do anything to dampen the spirits of the happiest man in drag racing. Millican can consistently run in the 3.6s, which makes him a threat to beat anyone in the field. He’ll be a dark horse in the Top Fuel ranks to win the championship.

Most likely to repeat

Don’t bet against Antron Brown — ever. Steve Torrence has turned around his lopsided record against the back-to-back champ, but Brown enters the Countdown as the No. 2 seed with four wins and 10 final-round appearances. Of the four defending Mello Yello champions, Brown is the most likely to go on another big run once the NHRA Carolina Nationals begins. Remember, he won that event a year ago.

Peaking at the right time

Drew Skillman came into Chicago in eighth place in the points standings without a race win this season. Six events later, he enters the Countdown in fourth place with four wins to his name as a serious contender for the Pro Stock championship. Skillman is one of the best in the class on the Tree, gets tremendous power from Gray Motorsports, and appears to be peaking at just the right time.

DeJoria_2017LN1_MG_05021.JPGWhat could have been

Oh, what could have been if Alexis DeJoria and Jonnie Lindberg had raced full seasons. DeJoria missed three events in the middle of the regular season due to personal reasons, and Lindberg started late and then missed a pair of races because car owner Jim Head had prior commitments. DeJoria and Lindberg missed the Countdown by 15 and 65 points, respectively. It’s not tough to imagine where they might have been had they appeared at all 18 events ahead of the Countdown.

Record-breaking battle

Watching Robert Hight and Matt Hagan exchange blows in Funny Car has been one of the highlights of the season so far, and it’s probably not over yet. Hight took the speed record from Hagan at Heartland Park Topeka for fewer than 24 hours before “Hulk Hagan” and crew chief Dickie Venables grabbed it right back. Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock hold both ends of the Funny Car record after stellar performances in Sonoma and Brainerd, but don’t count out Hagan and Venables in this prize fight.

Call it a comeback

2016 was not a good year for Erica Enders. She didn’t reach a single final and posted a losing round record (12-23), prompting a switch back to the Camaro that she knew and loved for 2017. So far, so good. Her 22-17 round record is nearly a mirror image of what it was a season ago, and she has reached four finals and taken home a Wally this year. That improvement gives her a 6th-place start in the Countdown, three spots higher than a season ago.

Bike battle is wide open

The Countdown format gives anyone a chance at winning a championship, but Pro Stock Motorcycle in particular features a bevy of bikes with a legitimate shot at bringing home the bacon. LE Tonglet has separated himself from the pack during the regular season, but every rider from Eddie Krawiec down to Scotty Pollacheck could go out and win a race anywhere from Charlotte to Pomona. It’s going to be a great ride.

Line_Anderson_2017PC1_MG_13419.JPGUnfamiliar territory

Last season, Jason Line and Greg Anderson entered the Countdown Nos. 1 and 2 in points, respectively, and with seven Wallys apiece. What a difference a year makes. This season, Anderson heads into the playoffs in third with two wins, and Line begins the Countdown in fifth with only one win to his name. The rest of the class has caught up to the Summit Racing Camaros, and it’s going to be a tough battle for them to get another Pro Stock championship.

Tonglet_Savoie_2017BM1_JF_01262.jpgThe Gator and the (Nitro) Fish

When LE Tonglet joined forces with defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Jerry Savoie and tuner Tim Kulungian, we guessed that it would succeed. Few anticipated it would be such a success so quickly, though. Tonglet has five wins in seven final-round appearances, and one of those final-round losses came against Savoie. The defending champ has a pair of Wallys himself, and the White Alligator Racing duo looks like the team to beat entering the Countdown.