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AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals Sunday Notebook

Steve Torrence and Ron Capps won for the eighth time this season, while Greg Anderson and LE Tonglet also captured victories at the midway point of the Countdown to the Championship.
30 Sep 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
St. Louis Hero

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ELIMINATION ROUNDS RECAPS

kalitta.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:36 a.m.): An incredibly quick first round of eliminations also came with a wild race. Doug Kalitta got by Scott Palmer via a holeshot, but he also got a little bit of extra help when Palmer’s parachute fell out 800 feet down the track. The round also featured five runs in the 3.60s, the most ever in an elimination round. Brittany Force, Clay Millican, Leah Pritchett, Steve Torrence, and Tony Schumacher all made passes in the 3.60s to advance to the second round. That 3.644 pass by Force? That’s the third-quickest run in Top Fuel history. The fans at Gateway Motorsports Park have gotten a great show this weekend. 

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Dom Lagana; Brittany Force vs. Doug Kalitta; Leah Pritchett vs. Antron Brown; Tony Schumacher vs. Antron Brown.

matt.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:09 p.m.): Matt Hagan made his best run of the weekend, a stout 3.838-second run that will get him a matchup against Robert Hight in the second round. It will also get him lane choice, for what that’s worth. That’s one of two big matchups in the second round, as Jack Beckman will take on Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps. Courtney Force will take on her father John Force, and we’ve got a non-Countdown race as Alexis DeJoria will battle Jonnie Lindberg after the Swede knocked out Tim Wilkerson in the first round. 

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Matt Hagan vs. Robert Hight; Alexis DeJoria vs. Jonnie Lindberg; Courtney Force vs. John Force; Jack Beckman vs. Ron Capps.

deric.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:09 p.m.): Tanner Gray’s chances of winning the Pro Stock title as a rookie took a serious hit when he fouled out in the first round against Deric Kramer’s American Ethanol Dodge. Gray left .002-second too soon, It was only the third time this season that Gray has failed to win at least one round. Gray wasn’t the only championship contender to take a hit in St. Louis. Drew Skillman also lost when he shut off early. The top three qualifiers, all KB Racing entries, each advanced to the second round. Jason Line made the qucikest run of the session with a 6.515, 212.36 in his Summit Camaro in his win against Alan Pruisensky, who fouled.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Chris McGaha vs. Brian Self; Jason Line vs. Deric Kramer; Greg Anderson vs. Larry Morgan; Bo Butner vs. Erica Enders

angie.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:33 p.m.): The top riders in the points standings advanced to round two with one notable exception. Hector Arana Jr. lost a close 6.846 to 6.848 battle against Angie Smith’s Denso Spark Plugs Buell, severely crippling his championship hopes. Points leader Eddie Kraweic had the quickest bike with a 6.783, 196.53 in his win against David Hope and teammate Andrew Hines moved on with a win over Andie Rawlings. Contenders Jerry Savoie, LE Tonglet, Scotty Pollacheck and Matt Smith each moved on to the quarterfinals.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Karen Stoffer vs. Andrew Hines; Eddie Krawiec vs. LE Tonglet; Matt Smith vs. Angie Smith; Jerry Savoie vs. Scotty Pollacheck

dom3.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:17 p.m.): Dom Lagana continued to go rounds, reaching the semifinals for the second week in a row after he knocked off No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican with a 3.73. Millican had cylinders out, tried to pedal it, but couldn’t turn them back on. Leah Pritchett bowed out early at the hands of rival Steve Torrence after she smoked the tires early. That gets Torrence another 20 points and a matchup against yet another rival: Antron Brown. Brown took down Tony Schumacher in a battle of the titans in the second round. 

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Dom Lagana vs. Doug Kalitta; Steve Torrence vs. Antron Brown

jonnie2.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:17 p.m.): Don’t look now (okay, look), but Jonnie Lindberg is back in a semifinal for the first time since Four-Wide, and the first time in a non-Four-Wide event since he reached a final round in Las Vegas. His elapsed time (3.87) was the quickest of the round, which means he gets lane choice against No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight. Ron Capps continued to rack up the points while knocking out Jack Beckman; now he gets 16-time champion John Force, who took down his daughter in the second round of action. 

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Ron Capps vs. John Force; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Robert Hight

bo.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:29 p.m.): The semifinal round of Pro Stock will feature three drivers and one who have a legitimate shot at the world championship and another who competing in just his second-career Pro Stock event. KB Racing drivers Bo Butner, Jason Line, and Greg Anderson each advanced. Butner stopped Erica Enders. Anderson got a free pass when Larry Morgan stalled and Line stopped Deric Kramer’s Dodge with a 6.556. The wildcard in the round is Brian “Lump” Self, who used a holeshot to take out Chris McGaha, 6.590 to 6.559.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Greg Anderson vs Brain Self; Jason Line vs. Bo Butner

tonglet2.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:44 p.m.): The battle for the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship remains a multi-way battle after LE Tonglet took out points leader Eddie Krawiec, 6.825 to 6.831. Tonglet’s Nitro Fish Suzuki will be joined in the semifinals by Andrew Hines, who stopped Karen Stoffer, Scotty Pollacheck, who stopped reigning champ Jerry Savoie, and Matt Hines, who stopped his wife, Angie.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Andrew Hines vs. Scotty Pollacheck; LE Tonglet vs. Matt Smith

torrence.JPGTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:26 p.m.): For the fifth time in their last six meetings, Steve Torrence took down Antron Brown. That means Torrence will keep the points lead for at least another race as he reached his 11th final of the season. He’s going after his eighth Wally as he’ll battle Doug Kalitta, who figured out a way to get past the Nitro Ninja. Kalitta plain outran Dom Lagana in the semifinals and got back into his second final of the Countdown to the Championship to solidify his spot in second. He’s going after his second win of the season. 

J_Lindberg.jpgFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:34 p.m.): Jonnie Lindberg took down Robert Hight to reach his third final of the season by running the quickest pass of the session (3.898) for the second-straight round. That’s going to get him lane choice against Ron Capps, who’s going for his eighth Wally of the season. As importantly, he wants to build on his lead after Hight got knocked out by Lindberg. Capps used a pass of 3.905 to take down John Force, who ran a 3.962 after getting very close to the retaining wall and clicked it off. Lindberg is chasing his first-ever Wally in a Nitro Funny Car.

jason2.JPGPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:40 p.m.): The Summit Racing Camaros of Greg Anderson and Jason Line will race in a final round for the 36th time after Anderson drove to a 6.575, 209.75 against Brian Self and Line topped teammate Bo Butner on a holeshot, 6.578 to 6.560. Both drivers will have a chance to gain more ground on points leader Butner in an increasingly close battle for the NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock championship.

tonglet_0.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (2:44 p.m.): Former champions LE Tonglet and Andrew Hines will race for the Wally in Pro Stock Motorcycle and both riders are still very much alive in the battle for the world championship. Tonglet reached his second final round in the Countdown when he powered to a 6.811, 196.85 against Matt Smith’s 6.850, 196.33. Hines grabbed a slight lead on the starting line against Scotty Pollacheck and held on for a holeshot win, 6.841 to 6.823.

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PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (3:38 p.m.): By a margin of just six-thousandths of a second, LE Tonglet won his sixth national event of the season in Pro Stock Motorcycle. In one of the quickest side-by-side races in the history of the class, Tonglet powered to a 6.792, 197.91 to defeat Hines’ 6.790, 197.94 on a minor holeshot. For Tonglet, who now has 16 wins since 2010, defeated both Harley-Davidson entries to reach the final. He also tallied wins against David Hope and two-time champion Matt Smith.

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PRO STOCK FINALS (3:40 p.m.): Greg Anderson collected career win No. 89 when he stopped Summit Racing teammate Jason Line in the final of the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals. Anderson won the race via a holeshot, with his 6.571, 210.73 run holding off Line’s quicker and faster 6.545, 212.26. It was the 36th time the teammates have raced in the final with Anderson now holding a 20-16 advantage. The win also allowed Anderson to take over the points lead, passing his teammate, Bo Butner.

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FUNNY CAR FINAL (3:46 p.m.): The Funny Cars left nearly as one, but Ron Capps led at nearly every increment down the strip to capture his eighth Wally of the season. Jonnie Lindberg ran a respectable 3.904-second pass, but it was no match for the 3.879 laid down by Capps and crew chief Rahn Tobler, who extended their points lead as the tour moves to Dallas. 

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TOP FUEL FINAL (3:50 p.m.): Just like in Top Fuel, the points leader came out on top. Steve Torrence outran Doug Kalitta in one of the best side-by-side elimination drag races ever. Torrence ripped off a 3.684-second pass next to Kalitta’s 3.698, which was good enough for him to earn his eighth Wally of the year. His next race will be a home race. 

LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN FINALS:
COMP: Shaun Vincent def. David Billingsley
SUPER STOCK: Slate Cummings def. Tyler Wudarczyk
STOCK: Tyler Wudarczyk def. Matt Lund
SUPER COMP: Tommy Phillips def. Ryan Herem
SUPER GAS: Dwight Nuest def. Randy Shipp
TOP DRAGSTER: Danny Nelson def. Mike Coughlin
TOP SPORTSMAN: Rich Smith def. Tom Schmidt
FACTORY STOCK: Pete Gasko Jr. def. Kevin Skinner

PRO MOD FINAL: Troy Coughlin took over the points lead in the J&A Service Pro Mod Series following his final round win over Khalid alBalooshi. Coughlin, who was once more than 150-points behind leader Mike Castellana, now finds himself 26-points in the lead following a 5.792 to 5.850 final. Coughlin has now won two events this year including the Bristol race in June. Recently, he has been on a tear, reaching the final round in five of the last six events.

Coughlin started eliminations from the No. 12 spot and worked his way to the final with wins against Rickie Smith, Steven Whiteley, and Pete Farber.

alBalooshi, behind the wheel of his Rickie Smith-tuned Bahrain1 Camaro, reached the final round by beating Carl Stevens Jr., Jim Whiteley, and Steve Matusek. After qualifying No. 10 in the record field, he ran as quick as 5.778 in eliminations.
 

FEATURES

grubnicresized.jpgClay Millican was quick to point out the man behind his national record breaking 3.631-second pass is David Grubnic. The crew chief of the Parts Plus / Great Clips dragster rarely seems pleased with, well, anything. That poker face finally cracked following the record-setting run on Friday night. Grubnic allowed himself a smile after Millican’s pass, but on Saturday it was back to business. 

“Our primary goal is to win the championship,” said Grubnic. “And we’re coming from behind, so we have to get every point we can and we have to win on Sunday. So, we have to keep our egos in check and a bunch of other things in check.” 

That run came out of necessity for Millican and Grubnic. As the team chases down Tony Schumacher (and the other five teams that were ahead of them on Friday night), every bonus point is valuable. Millican snagged all six points during the first two qualifying sessions, which moved him into fifth place at the time. 

“When you analyze a run, and you look at it, and you pick it into hundredths of a second, you look at where can you steal,” said Grubnic. “So, we picked at it and it gave us some results, but sometimes it won’t. But if you don’t take risks… it’s all about risk vs. reward. If you don’t take risk you won’t get the reward. Sometimes you’ll get the reward, and other times you’ll fall on your sword.” 

Both a crew chief and a philosopher, Grubnic went into more detail about how he came to throw that tune-up into the Parts Plus / Great Clips dragster: 

“We anticipated 67s or 66s or even better out of Leah’s car. So, to defend our position, you can’t watch these runs manifest themselves and then decide all of a sudden you want to change your car. You have to go up there with that in place. So, that’s what we anticipated. But as the session unfolded, we saw nobody was running. Leah ran a 69, Army ran a 68, we didn’t see those 65s. We still had Alan Johnson next to use and I anticipated a 67 out of him. So, we run up there with a similar set up and I expected a 66. Considering the numbers were up and where we were up, and the track, I thought… let’s see what she’ll do. So, I knew there was something more in the run from Brainerd (a 3.655), and I just cut it loose.”

The follow-up question: Is there more in the car? After a long pause, Grubnic finally relented.

“Possibly.”

Classic Grubnic. 

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rapisarda_0.JPGSantino Rapisarda, the crew chief for the Rapisarda Dragster, estimates the team makes about 30 runs during the ANDRA Drag Racing season. If all goes according to plan, the Australian-based crew will make at least 24 in NHRA action in 2017. So, when it’s all said and done, the Rapisarda clan will have run nearly two Australian seasons. 

“Pretty much we do another Australian season during the Australian offseason,” said Rapisarda. “So, we come here, do another full season and then go back and we’re ready to go again. We get to come and do a bunch of laps in another country during the offseason.” 

While the data is mostly transferrable, the differing quality as it relates to track prep between an NHRA track and what the team races on in Australia means Rapisarda needs to approach each series a little differently. When the team races with the NHRA, well, think of it as the difference between racing on a hot track vs. a cold track. 

“Since we’ve been able to get this car run somewhat competitively, it somewhat hurts us because you have to go back home and back it down,” said Rapisarda. “Then we come back here and we have to change our mindset because you can’t back it down because the tracks are better. It goes hand in hand. You get used to babying the car a little bit (in Australia), but here you have to come out and throw down.”

The Rapisarda dragster still features a five-disc clutch, which is quickly becoming an endangered species in Top Fuel. Dom Lagana recently switched from five-disc to a six-disc, and Scott Palmer plans to make the change by the end of the season. The change will obviously help performance, but it also comes with a more work. 

“It keeps me and my brother (Santo Jr.) on our toes,” Rapisarda said.” 

As a relatively young crew chief, Rapisarda hasn’t been afraid to seek out help from more veteran crew chiefs like Todd Okuhara, who was in the Rapisarda trailer Saturday morning.

“We’re not too proud to ask for help,” said Rapisarda. “These guys have made hundreds of runs, so it’s like, it’s obviously not his car, but he can guide us in the right direction. He’s made the mistakes and knows what not to do. Once we develop a window of tune-up from track to track we can unlock the training wheels. That can make us more competitive.”

Getting help from the crew chief who, until two nights ago, held the national record seems like a smart move. The crew chief who dialed up the current national record, David Grubnic, also hails from Australia. So, what did Rapisarda think of his countryman’s effort? 

“Honestly, we started screaming a little bit when we saw that number come up on the board,” said Rapisarda. “First my brother let out a scream and then we all started screaming a little bit, just because it’s ultimately impressive. It’s unbelievable. It’s like a video game. It’s like he’s making it happen out there. Whatever Grubnic has going on… hats off to him.”

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_NDA0942.JPGScott Palmer has a couple of back-to-back home races on his schedule. The Missouri native was born in Texas and lives about three hours from Gateway Motorsports Park. It’s always good to be “home,” even if it comes with the usual slew of headaches; notably the “nearly 500” text messages Palmer hasn’t gotten a chance to get back to. 

“We get all the boat racers, all the car racers, and all everybody you ever grew up with in your whole life, even if you haven’t seen ‘em in 20 years,” said Palmer. “I love it when the boat guys come out. We see them at every race.”

Palmer is backed by Tommy Thompson, who races boats very successfully, and the racer has plenty of boat racing ties himself. That has created some crossover fans. When you see a Tommy Thompson t-shirt at an NHRA race, you can bet they’re rooting on Palmer and the CatSpot Kitty Litter team. 

He’s got a tough matchup in the first round against Doug Kalitta as Palmer chases his first win of the Countdown to the Championship. 

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An early-season victory seemed to bode well for 16-time Funny Car champion John Force. Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but the seven previous times Force won the historic Gainesville event, he had gone on to win the championship. To earn his 17th title, he and crew chief Mike Neff have some work to do. 

Force entered the Countdown in seventh place, 80 points behind Ron Capps. In the two races since then, the driver of the Peak Camaro has dropped 77 points back in the standings and now sits in eighth. A second-round defeat in Charlotte combined with a first round loss in Reading is concerning on its face, but perhaps more telling is the overall drop in performance. 

After qualifying third in Brainerd and then fourth in Indy, Force qualified ninth in Charlotte and then 13th in Charlotte. Those bottom-half qualifying efforts come at the same time teammate Robert Hight and Courtney Force are snagging qualifying bonus points left and right. The driver tested in Reading following the Dodge NHRA Nationals with some positive results. 

A 3.885-second pass at 325.77 mph is the best pass Force has made since the first qualifying session at the U.S. Nationals. Warm weather has contributed to slower passes, but the Camaro has made it down the track quicker than 4 seconds in just nine of its 18 runs since that 3.849 in Indy. For Force to get back into the title hunt, he’ll need more runs like that. 

The forecast is promising, which certainly won’t hurt any of the John Force Racing cars. Now we’ll see if Force has turned that corner he keeps talking about. 

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wilk.JPGVeteran Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson reached the Sonoma Funny Car final and looked poised to make another final at the U.S. Nationals before crossing the center line. Both of those defeats came against J.R. Todd, who Wilkerson finally beat a week ago in Reading. That got Wilk his first round-win of the Countdown, but he’s still looking to capture the performance he first found in Phoenix – way back in the second race of the season. 

"We're going to have to figure out how to make our car run like it did at the beginning of the year in Phoenix,” said Wilkerson. “I really haven't got that back since I lost it, and that's kind of irritating me.”

Wilk, who owns, tunes, and drives the Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang, referenced his struggles to find the 3.80-range since the Phoenix event. During eliminations, Wilkerson has made a handful of runs in the 3.90s (10, to be exact), but none quicker than that after Phoenix. That’s an area he knows he needs to find as the NHRA tour moves to quick tracks, or those masquerading as quick tracks like Gateway Motorsports Park appears to be prepared to do. 

“It's coming around, but making it run a lot of 90s and making it run a lot of 80s is a different story,” said Wilkerson. “The rest of those boys out there on the big teams have it figured out, and I don't – but I've been doing a lot of homework.”

Wilkerson’s Mustang has made several passes in the 3.80s during qualifying, most recently in Brainerd under very favorably conditions. The heat can be an equalizer for teams that don’t ordinarily run as quickly as those out of the multi-car camps. Perhaps the cool conditions predicted in St. Louis can help Wilkerson find the 3.80s for the first time in a while. He hopes he’ll get that time slip on Sunday when it counts. 

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courtney3.JPGCourtney Force will race a teammate in the second round for the third race in a row and fourth time in six races. She set up a matchup with her father, John Force, by beating J.R. Todd in the first round, while John defeated Brian Stewart in the opening stanza. She’s 2-1 in the most recent matchups against teammates, and 2-0 in her back-to-back meetings against John Force Racing Funny Cars. 

That doesn’t mean much as she races the 16-time champion. Qualifying was a struggle for the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro. The 3.877-second pass that qualified Courtney No. 7 overall was the only successful pass of the four sessions, something that’s become somewhat familiar. She’s looking to regain the consistency she’s had the last two Sundays. 

Force’s Funny Car got down the track like a bracket car in both Charlotte and Reading during eliminations. If crew chiefs Dan Hood and Ronnie Thompson can keep that ride going, Force will continue to run down points leader Ron Capps. That’ll be music to Force’s ears. 

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jason_0.JPGReigning NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock champion Jason Line considers himself an engine builder first and foremost, so the fact that the KB Racing team’s three entries swept the top three spots during qualifying was particularly gratifying. With the Countdown in full swing and valuable points at stake, Line and his teammates, Greg Anderson and Bo Butner, can’t spent too much time celebrating that accomplishment. Line entered the St. Louis event ranked fourth in the standings, 90-points behind Butner.

“It’s definitely time to make a move,” said Line. “We can’t afford to let Bo or anyone else get too far ahead. There is still time to get it done, especially with the [points-and-a-half] at Pomona but this is an important race for sure.”

Earlier this season, Line’s Camaro was arguably the best car in the class. He won the season-opener in Pomona and qualified No. 1 at the first four events. More recently, he’s struggled to gain consistency with tire shake being the primary culprit. On Saturday at Gateway Motorsports Park, Line qualified No. 3 with a 6.512, 213.30. 

“We didn't run bad, and my Summit Camaro wants to be fast," said Line. “We're still struggling to keep it under control a little bit. We're getting closer to having it under control, and that's a good thing. The last run [Q4], we kind of used it as a test and went back to what we did in Reading – and it behaved like it did there, so that showed us something. We're definitely closer.”

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_NDA0881.JPGThere is really no way to sugar coat this; the Elite Performance Pro Stock cars were horrible during Saturday’s third qualifying session. All three in-house cars, driven by Erica Enders, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and Brian “Lump” Self, shook the tires and were out of power long before half-track. The only ray of light came when Alex Laughlin put up a 6.551 in his Elite-powered Gas Monkey entry. The final session yielded a much better result with Coughlin running a 6.579, Self driving to a 6.594, and Enders making the best run of the bunch with a 6.561. Enders, as much as anyone else on the team, hopes that qualifying round represents a turning point in the season for the Elite program.

“[Saturday] was fair at best,” Enders said. “That last run was a step in the right direction. The first session of the day, all our team cars blew the tires off so we basically came back and changed everything. We turned right around and every single one of us went right down the runway so that is a step in the right direction. We got to go to bed knowing that at least our race cars go down the track. That's always a comforting feeling because you know you have a chance.”
 
It’s been a few months, but Enders clearly remembers that she won in Epping earlier this year. She also is a two-time winner at Gateway Motorsports Park, having won consecutive Pro Stock trophies in 2012 and 2013.
 
“It's been a struggle for about 10 races now, really ever since we won that race up there in Epping,” Enders said. “We continue to work on it. We've made about 125 test runs since Indy just trying to figure it out so it's not for a lack of effort or check writing for that matter.”
 
“With just four Sundays left in the Countdown, we've got a lot of work to do to see if we can move up in the points,” Enders said. “Part of that is knocking off the drivers ahead of us in the points so I say line 'em up and let's go. We've worked our way to the top of the mountain twice before so we know what it takes. The plan is to keep chasing it until it's over.”

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larry.JPGIt has been nearly two full years since Larry Morgan lit the win light in a Pro Stock car, but the driver who was once nicknamed “eye of the tiger” for his starting line prowess proved that he can still get the job done. Morgan gave up a couple of hundredths of a second on the starting line to Alex Laughlin’s Gas Monkey Energy Camaro, but came back to win, 6.555 to 6.572. The margin of victory was just .0005-second.

“It looked close,” said Morgan, who last won at the 2015 Auto Club Finals when he defeated current points leader Bo Butner in the first round. “I guess I had a little bit of room but not much. I’m just glad to be back in a Pro Stock car supporting the class.”

Morgan’s RacerDirect.net Camaro is powered by an engine from Elite Performance so he knows he has plenty of horsepower. The problem is that Morgan has limited experience with electronic fuel injection so that’s been an ongoing issue since his return to the class at Indy.

“Frustrating, very frustrating,” Morgan lamented. “Sometimes, I can’t even do a burnout. I go up there and look like an idiot. Or a rookie, or maybe both. I’ve made thousands of runs in a Pro Stock car but this EFI deal is a whole different animal. We’ve got one big throttle body and it doesn’t let get into the engine the way it should. I’d be in favor of two smaller throttle bodies on top of the engine so you can get the thing to idle but what do I know?

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_NDE6589_0.JPGSince the start of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs more than a decade ago, it’s been a long-held belief that any racer who can consistently go to the semifinals will enter the final two events in Las Vegas and Pomona with a shot at the championship. So far, Hector Arana Jr. is right on track with a pair of final four finishes in Charlotte and Reading. Arana, however, thinks that he’ll need to make the final in St. Louis to remain within striking distance of leader Eddie Krawiec.

“We haven't had the best qualifying results this weekend but we hope to turn things up a notch,” Arana said. “You almost feel like you have to get to the finals to make up ground. The two guys in front of us [Krawiec and LE Tonglet] aren't making any mistakes so you need to go further than them on race day.”

As the No. 8 qualifier, Arana faces a potential quarterfinal match against low qualifier Andrew Hines. However, Kraweic and Tonglet are on the other side of the ladder, giving him an opportunity to garner points. Arana posted a best pass of 6.833 and will race Karen Stoffer, who ran a best of 6.850. Arana and Stoffer have raced four times this year and Arana has yet to lose.
 
“We've been struggling with leaving the starting line and we don't know exactly why,” Arana said. “I can't say that I'm happy. I wish we had one more qualifying round. There's one more thing we would like to try before race day but we don't have an extra session so all we can do is go back and study our graphs, look at everything and put together our best educated guess.
 
“I'm riding the bike the same. There's an issue with either tires or wheelie bar set up. We haven't changed it but this is a different tire than we ran earlier in the year. We have a few runs on it now but it seems to not be as consistent as the other tire we had and we just have to figure it out better.”

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Andrew Hines figured to be a huge favorite in his round one match-up against rookie Andie Rawlings so he and the Vance & Hines team decided to deviate from their usual race-day strategy in an effort to finally eclipse the 200-mph mark. They missed the mark with a 6.960 at just 197.42, but Hines did get the win.

“We looked at the weather conditions this morning and figured there might be a 200 out there so we took a shot at it. That meant a gear change and we can’t change transmission ratios as easily as some other teams so we just changed the rear sprocket. It didn’t work out quite like we wanted it to.”

Hines’ bike fell off in the first sixty-feet from its normal 1.06-second-pace to a 1.14 and he was never able to make up the difference. Hines ran 160-mph at half-track about two mph than his normal speed.

“If we had that two mph back we might have been able to run about 199-and-a-half but I don’t think that 200 was possible,” Hines said. “We took a shot at it and now we’ll put the bike back to a more conventional set-up and just go one and try to win the race.”

Hines will not have lane choice in the quarterfinals when he takes on Karen Stoffer and her Big St. Charles Suzuki.

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LE Tonglet didn’t need anyone to tell him that his 2017 season was almost certainly on the line when he ran points leader Eddie Krawiec in the second round. Tonglet had been the points leader for most of the season after winning five regular season events on his Nitro Fish Suzuki but after opening the Countdown with two wins, Krawiec not only took over the lead, but built a sizable advantage.

“Yeah, we kind of shot ourselves in the foot in Charlotte when I got beat in the second round,” said Tonglet. “We’ve been playing catch-up ever since. Eddie went out there and beat me in the final in Reading and we knew we couldn’t afford to let him get any further ahead.”

Tonglet, who got his first taste of a playoff battle in 2010 when he won four of six events to claim the Mello Yello title, was more than ready for Krawiec with a nearly-perfect .001 reaction time. Kraweic countered with a competitive .028 light but Tonglet extended the lead to win, 6.825 to 6.831.

“We made another pretty good run there,” Tonglet said. “We ran a 6.82 in the first round and another 6.82 in that round and the conditions were not quite as good. I’m not really concerned about the numbers. I just needed to see that win light. I certainly don’t think Eddie is going anywhere so we need to take advantage of this deal and finish it off.”

PHOTOS

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Robert Hight joined Brian Lohnes for the SealMaster Track Walk. 

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Brittany Force and Courtney Force get ready for race day.

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David Grubnic wrenches on Clay Millican's Top Fuel dragster. 

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Doug Kalitta greets the fans at pre-race.

PREVIEW

Here are the brackets and first-round matchups:

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