NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


NHRA Toyota Nationals Friday Notebook

28 Oct 2016
NHRA National Dragster staff

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is back in Las Vegas for the second-to-last race of the 2016 season, and as expected, points and the championship chases in the four classes are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Though Mother Nature slowed things a bit today with intermittent showers stopping the action throughout the day, both rounds of qualifying got in, and several of the title contenders were able to earn “little points” and help their causes. When all was said and done, Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Drew Skillman (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) earned the provisional pole in their categories.

Here are today’s highlights:

1. Funny Car track records smashed
Fans were treated to both the quickest and fastest Funny Car runs ever recorded at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The previous 3.91 e.t. mark was eclipsed multiple times, ultimately bested by the 3.872 that gave Matt Hagan the provisional pole. The speed record was upped to 331.94 mph by John Force.

2. Savoie dominates, takes bite out of lead
Jerry Savoie gained a little ground on the two Harleys when he dominated the opening day, including posting a strong 6.90 in the opening session that gives him the provisional No. 1 spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Savoie was also the quickest of Q2 with a 6.92. The next-best run of the day was a 6.94 by points leader Eddie Krawiec.

3. Pritchett paces Top Fuel
Two races ago in Reading, Leah Pritchett earned the first No. 1 start of her career. Now, she is on-pace to earn a second top start after clocking a track-record 3.705 under the lights tonight. The previous track record was a 3.722.

4. Skillman carries over Dallas momentum
Dallas champ Drew Skillman’s strong performance as of late continued when he was able to run a 6.681 and nab the top spot in Pro Stock heading into tomorrow’s final two sessions. Skillman led a strong overall day for Gray Motorsports, during which they locked up three of the top four spots.

5. Big runs by the “little guys”
The favorable weather conditions didn’t just produce great times for the full-time, big teams. Several of the smaller part-timers had a great opening day as well. In Top Fuel, rookie runner Tripp Tatum made the best run of his career, posting a 3.771. In Funny Car, John Bojec, who broke through for his first three last time out in Dallas, put another three on the board, running a 3.99 to finish in the top 12. Paul Lee, who is making his debut with the Kalitta Motorsports team, earned the first three-second time ticket of his career, posting a 3.98.

Funny Car | Pro Stock | Pro Stock Motorcycle | Etc.

You could excuse Top Fuel fans whose tenure extends back into the 1980s for shedding some non-nitro-induced tears when Leah Pritchett pulled her Don Schumacher Racing dragster to the starting line for her first run Friday. Pritchett, who has driven with more liveries this year than any driver in recent memory, was sporting bright yellow Pennzoil color reminiscent of former Top Fuel champ Eddie Hill’s "nuclear banana" Pennzoil dragster.

"Our team has had such a special, memorable season but helping to bring back the look of Pennzoil's iconic dragster that has an old-school feel but with its modern upgrade reflects the Pennzoil PurePlus Technology," said Pritchett, whose mount blends to traditional Pennzoil yellow from a brushed aluminum nose that resembles a silver bullet. Pennzoil is the official oil technology for Don Schumacher Racing.

Antron Brown and the Matco Tools team have an enviable 9-1 record through four Countdown events and entered the second-to-last race of the year with an almost insurmountable 150-point lead over Doug Kalitta and a history of success at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – three wins and two runner-ups – but the points leader is taking nothing for granted.

“We’ve had a lot of success here, but that doesn’t mean anything,” he asserted. “We can’t just hit the rewind button and hit play it again. These other teams aren’t playing; this ain’t recess out here. Look at the races. We’re winning and losing now by inches. There’s no more full-car leads or winning races by a tenth; now we’re winning by thousandths, and we have to give it all we’ve got.”

Steve Torrence’s championship hopes pretty much went out the window with early-round losses at the Countdown events in Charlotte and St. Louis, dropping him from third to sixth place, but he’s been sticking close to points leader Antron Brown in other ways. Following the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in Dallas, the two pals spent time together at Torrence’s home in Kilgore, Texas.

“My only chance [to win the championship] was to hold Antron hostage for a couple weeks in Kilgore,” joked Torrence. The two ate barbecue, Mexican food, and pecan cobbler between rounds of target shooting with everything from rifles to shotguns to fully-automatic machine guns and 50-caliber weapons.

“He was really good at it,” Torrence said of Brown’s skill. “He picked it right up. It was a lot of fun, something different for us to do away from the races. It’s been a long season, and it’s nice to be able to just relax with good food and good friends.”

Sitting in third place, 172 markers behind points leader Antron Brown, Shawn Langdon realizes that a more realistic goal for the last two races of the season is to overhaul second-place Doug Kalitta, who entered the event just 22 points ahead of him. It’s a far cry from where Langdon started the season, failing to win even a single round of racing at the year’s first five events. He recovered with wins in Bristol and Norwalk and entered the Countdown in seventh, but has zoomed to third.

"Starting the Countdown in seventh, we've made a really good move and have a great chance to finish second," said Langdon, the 2013 Top Fuel champion. "We still have a very, very outside chance to win a championship, but second place is nothing to hang your head about in this class. There's so many tough, competitive teams, and we're just going to continue to try and win races.

"At the end of the day, Antron is just doing an excellent job. They’re running away with it.  We’ve been the only thorn in their side [beating Brown in St. Louis] in the Countdown. They’ve won every other race.  When teams are on fire like that, sometimes it’s just hard to put them out and you’re just out there racing for second place. Yet, we still have a chance, and we’re going to continue to do our best. We’re not giving up just yet.”

Tripp Tatum was the pleasant surprise of Top Fuel qualifying as he ripped off a career-best 3.771 in the Lagana brothers’ Nitro Ninja dragster to earn the provisional No. 8 spot. The rookie driver opened with a 3.826, then bettered that in the cooling conditions.

“How about those Lagana boys?” he said. “The car drove around a little on me, but it was still a good run and came back clean.”

The Las Vegas event marks one year since he earned his Top Fuel competition license, and his most recent effort resulted in qualifying for a tough field at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals with his first 3.7-second run. Tatum has qualified at all three events he has attended – Gainesville, Norwalk, and Indianapolis – and scored his first round-win in his first start.

Leah Pritchett broke the incoming track record of 3.722 with a stout 3.705 from her Pennzoil machine early in the second qualifying session, recovering nicely from a tire-smoking first effort to hold the hot hand heading into Saturday’s final two qualifying sessions.

“We were overly aggressive in Q1 because he had a new clutch pack we had to run,” she explained. “We backed it off but not too much, so we expected to throw down, but being only the third pair out, we thought other cars might throw down, too, but they couldn’t check us. End of story.

“It feels good to be [qualified] 1 and 2 in the last two races and be leading here,” she said. “I’m living a dream right now. We’re keeping our heads down but still enjoying it. We’re out of the absolute points lead, but we’re looking forward to finishing out this season as strong as possible, and if we have anything to say about how strong we’ll be next season, I think we’re proving it right now.”

It isn’t quite the 64 FUNNY CARS! of the 1970s, but with 24 nitro Funny Cars on the grounds and 28 Top Alcohol Funny Cars, the pits do resemble the proverbial “fiberglass forest” once promised by the late, great Steve Evans in screaming radio ads of the era.

The 24 nitroburners represent the largest field of entrants since an equal number competed at the 2011 Auto Club NHRA Finals. Thirteen drivers at that event -- Matt Hagan, Robert Hight, Cruz Pedregon, Jeff Arend, Jack Beckman, Tim Wilkerson, Ron Capps, John Force, Alexis DeJoria, Gary Densham, Jon Capps, Bob Bode, and Paul Lee – also are competing here. Jim Head has been replaced by his son, Chad, and Arend is driving for Peter Russo, who ran that 2011 event.

Among the drivers from the 2011 event not competing this weekend are Mike Neff, Melanie Troxel, Johnny Gray, Bob Tasca III, Tony Pedregon, Jeff Diehl, Terry Haddock (who is racing here in Top Fuel), and Cory Lee.

Predictably, both ends of the incoming 3.916, 326.71 track records were smashed, ending up a 3.872 (Matt Hagan) and 331.94 (John Force).

Tommy Johnson Jr.’s opening pass of 3.922 at 321.88 gave him the No. 4 spot, but it didn’t come without a cost as his Make-A-Wish Dodge ended up in the sand trap after a parachute malfunction. One ‘chute came out but didn’t blossom correctly, and the second never fully left its pack.

“I threw the ‘chutes and went right for the brakes but didn’t feel the impact, so I knew something was wrong with the ‘chutes,” said Johnson. “I stayed on the brakes hard, then went back for the chutes one more time, then I had both hands on the brakes one more time. There was definitely something funny going on because the engine was still turning over and pulling me through, too, so I couldn’t even lock [the tires] up. I got it slowed down enough that I don’t think we hurt anything.”

Anthony Begley made his NHRA nitro Funny Car debut in Q2  in Rod Bailey’s Chemical Warfare entry. Begley, a respected and versatile wheelman who has piloted both big-show and nostalgia Funny Cars (the latter, a tribute to the L.A. Hooker owned by former NHRA regular Graeme Cowin), Top Fuel, Pro Mod, and Comp entries Down Under, has been driving fuel coupes for the last seven years, but without many similar cars in the country – currently, Funny Cars race against Top Fuelers in ANDRA competition, with a one-tenth handicap) -- there hasn’t been much competition. He’ll find that here this weekend as 24 cars are entered.

The plan to come to the United States has been under way for several years, and it wasn’t an easy trip. The car and equipment spent a month in a shipping container aboard a ship, then another couple of weeks frustratingly stuck in customs. The car, which is tuned by Bailey and Bret Ehmer, was built by Grant Downing for Californian John Lindsay, then was purchased by Bailey and raced in Australia before returning to its birthplace.

“We haven’t made as many passes as we’d like in Australia, so we’re coming here for the experience,” said Begley, who also will drive the car at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona. “If we qualify, that would be great, but we’re just excited to run. The car has gone as quick as 4.30 in testing and gone .880 to 60-foot, so it has all the makings. We just need more laps.”

Jeff Arend, once a tour regular as a race-winning driver for Kalitta Motorsports, is making his first start since the spring Las Vegas event, again wheeling the Monte Carlo owned by Australians Peter and Helen Russo. He qualified at that race with a 4.16, but fuel-system problems led to some torched clinder heads, which the team hopes it has rectified with the addition of the fuel-system trick-of-the-year “all-in-one” valve.

The Russos keep the car garaged in Colton, Calif., just about 25 miles east of Pomona, and the car had basically not been touched since its last outing. Arend, who assists Mike Smith (with input from Paul Smith) in the tuning, made a planned half-track shutoff pass in Q1, a 4.97.

“We just made the half-track because by then you can see what everyone is doing, but we’re going to sit out tonight’s run because we don’t think we’d be in the top 12, and it would just be a wasted run,” he said of the rule that only allows Friday’s quickest 12 runs to carry over into Saturday. “Then, we’ll just make a full run Saturday. If we can go 4.10 and not hurt the motor, that would be a great weekend for us, and we’ll look forward to Pomona [the Auto Club NHRA Finals]."

Paul Lee is not only making his season debut at this event but also his debut as a member of Kalitta Motorsports in a Toyota Camry tuned by Todd Smith with assistance from Del Worsham's DHL crew chiefs, Jon Oberhofer and Nicky Boninfante, and lots of parts previously proven on Worsham’s Toyota. Lee, who drove Worham’s car at a match race earlier this year in Southern California, has not otherwise competed since the 2015 Auto Club NHRA Finals and is spending the end of this season getting ready for a full 2017 campaign.

“It’s great to be back behind the wheel and with the Kalitta team,” said Lee, who ran his first three, a 3.986 in Q2, bettering the career-best 4.007 recorded at this race last year. “It’s going to be a tough field to make. It wouldn’t surprise me if it ends up being an all-three-second field.”

Phil Burkart Jr. is another driver making his season debut, but even he didn’t know he’d be doing it until less than two weeks ago when Utah-based Aussie expat Robert Schwab called him to ask the veteran to drive his car. Schwab previously drove the car himself for a couple of seasons, beginning with its debut at the 2004 Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, before taking an extended hiatus.

“Robert has spent the last 10 years putting it all together for this,” said Burkart. “He’s done a lot of research and even built his own clutch dyno to understand the differences between the five-disc clutch he used to run and what it takes to run the six-disc clutch. It’s all new stuff, plus a newer Murf [McKinney] chassis and a '15 Charger body from Schumacher.

Burkart, a four-time national event winner with two top-10 finishes to his credit, brings wealth of experience to the job, and now that his current gig – driver for Jim Blake’s Follow A Dream Top Alcohol Funny Car – has ended for the season, he was available and ready.

The team planned to make two half passes today, then go for a full pull Saturday. In their first run, tire shake knocked the chutes out of the pack.

Bob Bode, who has sat out since the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, has made his annual westward trek from Illinois to run in Las Vegas, but the welcome was not a warm one as he backfired the blower on his opening pass. The team sat out Q2 to prepare for Saturday’s final two sessions.

Matt Hagan’s Mopar Charger had the best run of both of Friday’s qualifying sessions, giving him six points and cutting his deficit to points leader Ron Capps – who earned two on the day – to 85 points, and with two sessions to go and bonus and position points still available, he’s looking forward to getting Capps lead down to less than 80 to cut a round off of his lead.

“Little points matter,” he said after his track record 3.872 gave him the provisional No. 1 spot. “It all adds up at the end of the day. We’ve seen these championships come down to two points. But we still have a long way to go. We’re still 80-something back, and that’s a long ways when you’re chasing a car like Capps and Tobler have. But I have Dickie Venables in my corner, and he’s a badass; he’s proved that time and time again every time I step on the fuel pedal.

“Tomorrow, who knows? We run after dragsters, but today was cool because we had cloud cover and the track was tight. We’ll come out and fight hard again and scoop up as much as we can. We have nothing to lose right now, so you swing hard and hopefully you connect. It’s a battle out there.”

With this race typically falling on Halloween weekend, it is not uncommon to see drivers, crews, and others dress up in costumes throughout the event, but Bo Butner is taking things to a whole new level, dressing up his car as part of the overall Halloween theme for his team. When Butner rolled up for his first pass of the weekend today, fans quickly noticed his typically white car was now orange with a new wrap that replicates the General Lee from the 1970s TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard.

“My fiancée, Randi Lyn, loves dressing up, and she’s like, ‘Man, we ought to do Dukes of Hazzard.’ I said, ‘Well, if we’re going to do it, we might as well dress up the car,’ ” said Butner, who ran a pair of 6.71s on his two attempts today. “Of course, everybody grew up to The Dukes of Hazzard. It was great. It still is to me. Actually, that’s how I got my nickname, Bo, from watching that show. I’m James Butner III, and I have a son James IV, so there’s way too many Jims, so when I was young, I went to Bo. It’s from that show.”

The car debuted today, but the team will go full Dukes of Hazzard tomorrow when they all dress up like characters from the show to go along with the General Lee paint scheme.

“Watch, we have Boss Hog, Enos, Daisy Duke — we’ve got everybody out here,” said Butner. “It was a great show, and it was good fun, and that’s what we like.”

Aaron Strong, one of the six candidates for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, is hoping to make a strong impression for voters of that award, which honors the top rookie of the season, this weekend, and he got off to a solid start on that quest. Strong made a nice, clean 6.77 pass on his opening attempt, and that placed him in the top 12 after one round of qualifying.

“We’re always happy when we can go A to B on our first run,” said Strong. “It gives you something to tune off of. We’re trying to work a little harder on that to not get behind the eight-ball, especially on Friday because if we can get in the top 12 Friday then the time carries over for Saturday.

“That happened to us at Dallas last race. We lost our second hit Friday, and Saturday we kept chasing, chasing, and then we made our bests run in elimination round one Sunday, but we were qualified low. If we could have made that run in Q4, we could have maybe moved up the ladder a little bit and had a little slower first-round opponent, then made a better first-round run and get the round-win. It is important.”

Strong improved on his second pass today, posting a 6.75, but that wasn’t quite enough to keep him in the top 12, so the rookie will enter tomorrow with no official time on the sheets.

The Gray Motorsports team got off to a very quick start here in Las Vegas with Gray-powered entries occupying the Nos. 1 (Shane Gray, pictured), 2 (Alex Laughlin), and 4 (Drew Skillman) spots in the order, and that continued a trend for the Gray camp, which is also buzzing from some strong times in the circle-track ranks.

“Gray Motorsports is having a really good weekend,” said Gray, who paced the first session with a 6.683. “We’ve got a couple of 410 Sprint Car engines on the pole down at Charlotte at the World Finals at the World of Outlaws race, too. We’re having a good weekend for the engine side.”

The Gray Motorsports strong showing carried into Q2, in which Skillman moved to the No. 1 spot with a 6.68 that was .002-second quicker than Gray’s earlier run. Neither Gray nor Laughlin improved on their second passes and finished the day second and fourth, respectively.

What a difference a year makes — last year, Erica Enders came to this race with a shot at clinching her second straight Pro Stock world championship, something she accomplished on Sunday. This year, Enders is just looking to end the year on a high note after struggling throughout the season as her team builds up its Mopar program. Enders’ Friday in Las Vegas went much like her season as a whole with a struggle on her early attempt that was aborted due to tire shake, followed by a run that showed potential in Q2. Enders posted a 6.73 in the second session, and that was enough to give her a spot in the top 12 at days’ end.

“My guys continue to dig deep week in and week out, knowing that the results aren’t going to be exactly what we want them to be,” said Enders. “It’s interesting, when we were pulling into the water box for Q1 earlier today, my crew chief said, ‘A little different situation.’ Last fall when we were here, we were going for the championship, same as the year before. Either way, I get to live a dream, doing what I love with the people I love the most.”

Dallas winner Drew Skillman continued his performance surge of late, pacing the opening round of qualifying at the NHRA Toyota Nationals. After running a 6.69 that had him ranked fourth after the first session, Skillman moved to the head of the class with a 6.681 in Q2 that bettered session-one leader Shane Gray, from whom Skillman gets his engines, by .004-second. If Skillman’s time holds through tomorrow’s two sessions, it would be his first No. 1 start of the 2016 season.

“We had a rough start [to the season],” said Skillman. “KB [Racing] just kicked everybody’s butt, but we’re getting a good run now. We’re starting to run the car better. We struggled really bad at the beginning of the Countdown, but we feel like we’re going in the right direction, so hope for the future.

“I thought that was going to be close to low e.t. I thought there may be a 6.67 out there, but we got it done with a 6.681, so I’m happy.”

Though he feels like his team got everything out of that last run, there was a bit of a miscue on the starting line when Skillman went onto the two-step a little early.

“I kind of feel like a moron,” said Skillman. “I got on the two-step before he staged. I was trying to use my peripheral vision and just screwed up a little bit. It didn’t really affect the run, but it just didn’t make me feel super great. I’ve been trying some stuff staging, and I thought he was in — I was just trying to use my peripheral vision — and apparently he wasn’t. That was my fault, not his. He was doing his normal thing. We made a good run, kept my composure, everything went well. I’m really happy with this car and my whole team. Everyone’s doing a great job.”

Freddie Camarena is back aboard his Pro Stock Motorcycle this weekend, and he enters the event with added pep to his step after winning the Division 7 NHRA Summit Racing Series Finals here in Las Vegas earlier this month.

“To be honest, we were just coming over here to make some passes to get ready for this national event,” said Camarena, who thanked longtime sponsor Prolong for supporting both his bracket and Pro Stock Motorcycle efforts. “I was coming up with all my friends and have a bunch of fun racing. I didn’t even know I qualified for it, and all of a sudden, Team Fontana calls me going, ‘Hey, you made enough points to go to the E.T. Finals,’ and I’m like, ‘OK, cool, I get to go make more passes.’ All of sudden, we just started going rounds. It was a crazy, crazy weekend because I never expected in my wildest dreams I would win that. I thought, ‘Man, how am I supposed to compete against these guys that bracket race in and out every weekend?’

“Overall, it was an unbelievable weekend. Coming here, we were just saying, ‘Eh, we’ll go make a couple passes and go down the track a couple times and get some seat time for the national event.’ It was unbelievable. It was a dream come true, really. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine we’d be sitting in the winner’s circle.”

Though bracket racing and Pro Stock Motorcycle racing are completely different animals, the strong showing at the Summit Finals, which included a semifinal finish Sunday in addition to his Saturday win, did have an impact on Camarena and his approach this weekend.

“I have to say it probably gives me more confidence coming into this weekend,” said Camarena, who posted times of 7.12 and 7.07 today. “It’s a little different deal coming over here because it’s all about horsepower and how much tuning you can do, but as a rider, it gives me a lot more confidence because I’ve already ridden, I’ve already been on this track. We went 14 or 15 rounds, so I have a lot of runs down this track. For me, it gave me more confidence coming here. There’s 28 motorcycles here, though. It’s going to be a tough, tough weekend. We’re taking it sort of like the bracket thing. We’ll go out, make four good passes, have some fun, and it puts us where it puts us. I think it’s going to help me as a rider, being calm here and just do the best that we can and have some fun; have the same mindset as the E.T. Finals.”

To say Chip Ellis has struggled over the last two races would be a huge understatement. After starting the Countdown to the Championship off very well, winning in Charlotte and advancing to the semi’s in St. Louis, Ellis’ Buell developed a mechanical gremlin that caused it to shut off on both runs in Reading and on most of his Dallas attempt. Across those two weekends and in a test session between them, Ellis and crew changed everything they possibly could on the bike in hopes of fixing it but continued to struggle. This weekend, they have changed one final but big thing in hopes of changing their fortunes for the better: the bike itself.

“This is the one that we started out the beginning of the year with, the EBR1190RX bodywork,” said Ellis. “We switched back to our old bike because we were having the same similar problem with this bike that we were with the other bike. Well, we found out what was wrong with the other bike and decided to go back to running this bike. It ran pretty good last week when we tested here with a pretty conservative tune-up, so we’re excited to see what it can do with everybody here.”

Ellis tested the new mount last week here at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and reports it made several solid passes, giving him hope for this weekend. Ellis got things off to a bit of a slow start, posting a 7.15 that had him 18th after the first session. Ellis was able to improve on his second pass.

Hector Arana Sr. got off to one of his best qualifying starts of the season, landing him No. 4 in the order after Q1 with a 6.97.

“It’s awesome to have a good first qualifying run because from there we can build on it,” said Arana, who has struggled a bit in recent qualifying, placing in the bottom half at nine of the last 11 events. “As soon as we get back [to the trailer], we’re going to look at the Racepak, we’re going to get the data, and we’re going to look at the Motech, and we’re going to keep on working. We need to get this Lucas Oil bike back to the top.”

Arana was able to make another six-second pass in Q2, but he didn’t improve on his earlier pass and slipped down a spot to fifth heading into Saturday.

The 2016 season has been a bit of a disappointment for former world champion Matt Smith. Though he has shown moments of real promise, Smith’s overall 2016 effort, which includes two DNQs and a win-loss record of 9-12, hasn’t been at the level which he or his team had hoped, and with those numbers and the fact Smith is currently ranked ninth in points, the team’s efforts have shifted toward 2017 and working out any remaining bugs to come out strong and vie for both race wins and a championship next season.

“We want to win a race, but the main thing is get all the little bugs worked out so we don’t have these problems next year,” said Smith. “We’ve got some new engine parts, some new transmission parts. We’re trying to put forth the effort for next year. We’re doing a lot of testing for next year, new stuff that’s going to go in our Victory motor for next year. We’re just trying to get all the bugs worked out since this year is kind of thrown away. We’re just trying to fix all the stuff, so hopefully next year we won’t have these problems.

“Sometimes you struggle, but then you’re fast, too. We’ve been fast at times, but we’ve just really struggled with electrical and transmission issues. We think we’ve got the transmission problem fixed. We’ve made some new gears, we’ve made some new stuff, and kind of built a whole new transmission for the new motor for next year. We pull at that over into this motor, and it’s showing very good promise. I actually tested it last week on Angie’s bike, and it shifted good on every pass, so I rolled it over to my bike, and everything looks good.”

Smith’s initial runs with the new parts were solid. Smith opened with a 6.98 that placed him fifth after one session, then moved up a spot when he posted a 6.974 in the second round of qualifying.

Last season, Jerry Savoie took Andrew Hines down to the final day of the season in the points chase, and if his performance at the last two events is any indication, he may just be in contention come Sunday in Pomona again. Savoie had the dominant bike in Dallas before coming up short in the final round, something that had haunted him for the past couple of weeks.

“We had a good weekend in Dallas, and then in the final round, we had the mishap, and I beat myself up for like eight, nine days,” said Savoie. “It was pretty tough. A .120 light, golly after the weekend we had, was just crazy. Come to find out, we pulled the clutch cover off over here, and we found pieces in the bottom, so it actually all wasn’t the rider; it was the bike, too.”

Helping ease the pain of that final-round loss was a great opening day at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, during which Savoie had the quickest run of both rounds of qualifying. His stout 6.904 from the first session kept Savoie No. 1 in the order. The run was four-hundredths better than any other rider today.

“The first session was pretty good. We should have went 6.88. It kind of nosed over in 4th [gear] a little bit, but we figured with the cooler temperatures, it should have ran better,” said Savoie, who gained two points on points leader Eddie Krawiec, who had the second-best times of each round today. “The points deal, I’ll say it like we say it in Louisiana, we say, 'mo points,' and we’ll take all they give to us. As a rider, you try to do the same thing every time. It’s up to the crew chief and the crew to put the tune-up in, and Tim [Kulungian] and the guys, they are great.”

Thursday’s Sportsman qualifying was interrupted by an incident involving Comp racers Ray Skillman and Travis Gusso. The cars of Gusso and Skillman went out of control past the finish line and both came to a stop in the sand trap. Gusso exited the car under his own power. Skillman was extracted from his car by the NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA and transported to the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada. He suffered a broken vertebrae, a broken rib, and cuts and bruises. He was expected to be back at the track Saturday.

As is the case every year, the event weekend kicked off with the NHRA Fan Fest on Freemont Street, which was again a huge success, drawing large crowds of fans. The event featured many of the top stars from the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, including John Force Racing drivers Robert Hight, Brittany Force, and John Force.

The display of event sponsor Toyota is always a big draw, thanks in large part to the ferris wheel that is open to all in attendance.

Rickie Smith enters the event in an enviable position, leading the J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series points by 93 markers ahead of defending world champ Troy Coughlin, meaning that all he needs to do to lock up his third championship is to successfully qualify for the field, certainly not a tough assignment for the guy who won the entire race in 2014 to clinch his most recent title. After struggling in Q1, Smith hammered out a 5.90 in Q2 that gave him a pretty solid spot in the top half of the field.

“The championship is what I want,” said Smith, who has two victories in 2016. “I would love to win the race, but you have to look at the big picture and that’s to win the championship. We have to make the right calls for that, but anything can happen. There’s nothing guaranteed in a class like this, but you would hate to get this close and lose the championship. I really enjoy racing, but it’s a lot of stress this time of year.”

Coughlin realizes he’s got his work cut out for him but will keep his head down.

“We're definitely a long shot to win the championship again this year, but we do have a shot so anything can happen," Coughlin said. "We'd need Rickie to [not qualify] and then we'd have to win the race outright to pass him, which will be very tough to accomplish. Still, we do have a chance, and that's all you can ask for.”

Coughlin won the championship in 2012, then finished second to Smith in 2013 and 2014 before taking back the championship last season. Both teams tested at the track in the week leading up to the event.

Johan Lindberg, older brother of 2015 Top Alcohol Funny Car champ (and probable 2016 champ) Jonnie Lindberg, made his NHRA debut Friday morning in a Camaro owned by Steve Harker, who will take over the car in 2017 in his comeback from a crash earlier this season. Johan, who won the FIA European Top Methanol Funny Car championship in 2015, is shaking the car down for Harker. Johan 's first NHRA pass was a strong one, registering in at 5.86 seconds.