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Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Friday Notebook

01 Sep 2017
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Indy Hero

Features | Preview | Photos | Results | Hemi Challenge

QUALIFYING SESSION RECAPS

hines2.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (5:53 p.m.): Harley-Davidson teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec lit up the scoreboard at Lucas Oil Raceway with matching 6.825 elapsed times during the first qualifying round for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Hines recorded a faster speed of 194.74 mph to Krawiec’s 193.57 so he will finish the day as the top qualifier. Reigning world champ and recent Brainerd winner Jerry Savoie finished the round as the No. 3 qualifier after a 6.871, 191.82 run on his White Alligator Suzuki. The only other rider in the 6.8-second zone is current points leader, LE Tonglet, who clocked in at a fourth-best 6.894 on the Nitro Fish Suzuki.

tanner.jpgPRO STOCK Q1 (6:19 p.m.): Fresh off his win in Brainerd, Tanner Gray leads the field in Pro Stock after driving his Gray Motorsports Camaro to a 6.566 during the opening round of qualifying. Gray is racing along with his grandfather, Johnny, and father, Shane, who are qualified No. 7 and No. 10, respectively. Tanner Gray narrowly edged four-time champ Greg Anderson, who wheeled his Summit Chevy to a 6.568. The third bonus point went to Indianapolis resident Drew Skillman after his 6.571 pass in his Gray Motorsports-powered Camaro. After one of five sessions, Kenny Delco sits on the 16-car bump spot with a 6.816 pass. Delco’s car is powered by an engine built by 1982 U.S. Nationals Pro Stock champ Frank Iaconio.

hagan.jpgFUNNY CAR Q1 (7:25 p.m.): A Funny Car ran in the 3.70s for the second time in history, as Matt Hagan ran the second-quickest and third-fastest time in flopper history to set the Lucas Oil Raceway track record on Friday night. His 3.799-second pass at 338.77 miles per hour is right behind the national record of Robert Hight, but puts him in pole position after the first day of qualifying at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Hight (3.827), Courtney Force (3.847), John Force (3.849), and J.R. Todd (3.865) all rounded out the top five to pick up the qualifying bonus points.

pritchett.jpgTOP FUEL Q1 (8:03 p.m.): Four drivers posted times in the 3.60s, and Leah Pritchett landed in the top spot with a 3.667. That’s tied for the eighth-quickest run in NHRA history, and it’ll score her four bonus points heading into tomorrow’s action. Doug Kalitta (3.682), Antron Brown (3.689), and Clay Millican (3.689) rounded out the top four. Richie Crampton took his foot off the gas early in his first run in the SealMaster Toyota, but he still holds the bump spot with a 4.109 pass. Scott Palmer ran a career-best pass with a 3.754, while Ashley Sanford’s first run down the track was a 3.796. 

MOPAR HEMI CHALLENGE

comella.jpgRound 1 (11:05 a.m.): The popular Mopar Hemi Challenge took center stage this morning with 16 of the sport’s best SS/AH Hemi Barracudas and Darts competing for Class honors and a $15,000 top prize.

It didn’t take long for the first upset to occur when low qualifier Gary Wolkwitz fouled away an 8.374, the quickest pass of the round, against Jim Pancake, who was nearly perfect off the starting line. Defending event winner Jimmy Daniels made the second-best run of the round with an 8.423 against Bucky Hess, who also turned on the red-light.

Former Pro Stock racer Steve Kent advanced with an 8.533 over Dan Zrust and Steven Comella drove his Barracuda to an 8.448 on a single run when Doug Fazzolare was a no shot. The other survivors include Gus Mantas, Wendell Howes, Steven Yantus, and Steven Hebert, who advanced on a single run, but likely will not return after severely damaging an engine.

daniels.jpgRound two (12:44 p.m.): The semifinals are set in the Mopar Hemi Challenge with the survivors including defending event champion Jimmy Daniels, Steve Kent, Steven Comella, and Wendell Howes.

Daniels ran an impressive 8.440, 156.75 in his win over Gus Mantas while Kent posted an 8.584, 156.39 against Jim Pancake, who fouled. Comella drove his ’68 Barracuda to an 8.485, 142.95 on a single run after Steven Hebert was a no-show and the round concluded with Howes driving to an 8.636, 156.25 against Stephen Yantus.

howes.jpgSemifinals (3:26 p.m.): Jimmy Daniels will take on Canadian Wendell Howes in the final round of the Mopar Hemi Challenge. Daniels, the defending event champion, used a starting line holeshot to defeat Steven Comella in the semifinals. Daniels left first by three-hundredths and won with an 8.424 to Comella’s 8.400. The margin of victory between the two vintage Mopars at the finish line was just .007-second. Daniels’ father, Jim, is also a former winner of the Mopar Hemi Challenge.

Howes will have lane choice in the final round after his 8.422, 156.61 held on to defeat the 8.583 of Steve Kent. Howes, and his son, Mark, have been supporters of the Mopar Hemi Challenge for many years but have never won the specialty event.

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Final round: (7:31 p.m.):  For the second-straight year, Jimmy Daniels, near lane, earned the title in the Mopar Hemi Challenge. Daniels, 21, drove his Ray Barton-powered Dart to an 8.404, 155.96 for the win after opponent Wendell Howes spun the tires in his ’68 Barracuda. Daniels earned $15,000 for the win in addition to the SS/AH class title.

Full story: Daniels defends Mopar Hemi Challenge title at U.S. Nationals

FEATURES

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Tony Schumacher’s love affair with the U.S. Nationals began with his debut at the event in 1996, behind the wheel of the Peek Bros. entry, where he reached the final round before falling to Cory McClenathan. He’s since won the event a Pro-class record 10 times, more than both Indy legends Bob Glidden (9) and Don Garlits (8); only Frank Manzo, with 11 wins in Alcohol Funny Car, has won “The Big Go” more times. If you add in the 1970 Funny Car win by Schumacher’s father, Don, the family has 11 Indy trophies on the mantle.

The defending event champ’s final-round record at Indy is an impressive 10-2, falling only in that first one, in 1996, and then again in 2005 to decade-long rival Larry Dixon.

“This U.S. Army team lives for the big moments,” said Schumacher who doubled up last year at Indy, also winning the Traxxas Nitro Shootout. “The U.S. Nationals brings out the best in all of us because it’s the event everyone points to. I want to be the guy standing at the plate in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and I have to get a hit. I have to deliver if we are going to win. I have been extremely fortunate during my career not only to be in big moments, especially at Indy, but to be surrounded by a team capable of that moment. We always have positive feelings when we come here, and we’ve had so much luck here. And there’s no better feeling, than being the last one standing on Monday afternoon knowing you just won Indy. That’s what motivates us. That’s what drives us to be as good as we can be.”

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antron.jpgAntron Brown enters the regular-season finale with a narrow 31-point lead over good friend and arch-rival Steve Torrence. He finished as the top seed entering the Countdown to the Championship last season and went on to win his third Top Fuel championship, so the plan is obviously to maintain that lead – a bigger challenge with the points-and-a-half format – while also hopefully winning “the Big Go” for a second time in Top Fuel and the fourth time in his career. He won it twice in Pro Stock Motorcycle (2000, 2004) and then in Top Fuel in 2011 so he knows how to win the event, but there’s a method to the Matco team’s approach.

“We attack it a little different than any other race,” said Brown. “First, we start with doing well Saturday in the [Traxxas Nitro] Shootout and hopefully at the same time get a good qualifying spot for Monday. Sunday is typically a chance to work on things for Monday and really zero in on what we want to do Monday. When we get to Monday, we want to win our fourth Indy Wally.

“Our goal all season was to get into the Countdown as the No. 1 seed. That’s been our game plan. Those extra points for being first in the regular season can be crucial. We see the U.S. Nationals as the first race in the Countdown. Resetting the points will make the points tighter but it already is pretty tight.”

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The drag racing world was understandably surprised when Troy Coughlin Jr. resigned his position with Kalitta Motorsports. That includes Scott Palmer, whose spot in the Countdown Championship was clinched thanks to Coughlin’s departure from the SealMaster Toyota dragster seat. 

“I was pretty shocked,” said Palmer. “Coughlin sent me a message, saying ‘Hey I voted for you in the Traxxas Shootout, and I just feel like I need more experience before driving a car like that.' ” 

The pilot of the CatSpot Kitty Litter dragster said he wasn’t terribly worried about losing his No. 9 spot, but that he definitely breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the news. Palmer got the go ahead from team owner Tommy Thompson to order a slew of new parts ahead of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, just in case things got dicey. 

“We went after Brainerd and got the car front-halved, got two completely new blocks, five or six new crankshafts, new cylinder heads, new keepers, everything in there is fresh,” said Palmer. “Tommy Thompson told me, 'Don’t leave yourself any room to have any chance to have any regrets. You may never have this chance again.' ”

Lucas Racing did the chassis work on the dragster; more specifically, it was Richie Crampton. That’s right, the new driver of the SealMaster Toyota. NHRA Drag Racing is a very small world.

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Fresh off their Top Fuel championship season in Australia, Santo Rapisarda's Australian-based team has returned to the United States, where they wreaked a little havoc last season in an extended stay on the NHRA tour. Driver Wayne Newby and the Rapisarda Racing team had only planned to run Indy last year, but ended up competing at the season’s final seven events, with Newby driving five times and Larry Dixon twice (Reading and Dallas) with solid results.

The team keeps a Top Fuel chassis in the United States and tested during the annual pre-event session at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, which yielded a string of 3.8-second passes under the tuning hand of Rapisarda’s sons Santino, left, and Santo Jr., (pictured above with driver Newby, center).

“I thought we were a little slow, but the car was consistent,” said Santino. “It’s not what we were looking for but I think we can stand on it a little bit and hopefully run between .76 and .78 on our pass today. That’s not great but it will be a start.

“We’ve made some updates to the chassis and updated some other technology on the car since we ran here last year, including a six-disc clutch that we’re still learning.”

Whether the team continues with the rest of the tour depends at least in part to their success this weekend. At last year’s Charlotte event, they reached the semifinals and only a supercharger o-ring problem perhaps prevented them from beating Doug Kalitta and reaching the final.

“Dad says if we can win Indy we can go to Charlotte,” Santino said with a smirk. “No pressure, right?”

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hight.JPGWhen Jimmy Prock came back to John Force Racing, he brought the six-disc clutch with him. It took some time for the team to get the hang of the new clutch, but the recent performance of Robert Hight’s Funny Car suggests the “Prock Rocket” has figured things out. 

First, there are the two wins for the Auto Club Chevy Camaro during the Western Swing that helped pull Hight into third place (he’s in second entering the Big Go). But even before conquering the six-disc clutch, the car was good enough to go the distance during eliminations if a little luck went Hight and Prock’s way. It didn’t, but it could have. 

Now, if the Auto Club team gets lucky it becomes an unfair contest. That’s not just because the Chevy can set records (Hight’s name now sits next to both the elapsed time and speed record), it’s because of how consistent the flopper has been the past few races. That’s something the team struggled with, particularly in the middle of the season. Now? Not so much.

The team has been quicker than 4 seconds in all but one of their last elimination eight runs. That’s a remarkable stretch in a class as volatile as Funny Car. Including qualifying, and they’ve made it down the track quicker than 4 seconds in 12 of their last 14 passes. It’s worth noting one of those failed passes came because of a Hight double-step at the line, not because of a bad tune-up. Prock has a handle on this race car. 

That makes Hight a favorite to take home his fourth Indy Wally. His last win at the U.S. Nationals came back in 2013, over Jack Beckman, who he lost to in the Norwalk final earlier this season. 
“I’ve been in quite a few finals here and have gotten beat, and I’ve won it. (Crew chief) Jimmy (Prock) and I have won it several times together, and we’re back together,” said Hight.

Armed with a very dangerous clutch, Hight’s going to be a contender once the Countdown begins, too.

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Nobody ran quicker during testing than Jack Beckman, who unofficially beat his career bests in both speed and elapsed time ahead of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. His 3.827-second, 337.07 mph run during the pre-Indy test session last week doesn’t count, technically, but it sure helps morale, and that data matters, too. 

"I think if you go to a test session and your car goes to the finish line under power on every run, you're not pushing the envelope enough," Beckman said. "The whole point of a test session isn't to just go and make laps, it's not practice. It's trying things you think might work and they don't all work."

The Infinite Hero crew certainly did that. While the unofficial record run stands out, Beckman and company smoked the tires plenty during their numerous laps at Lucas Oil Raceway. That’s all according to plan for the team that hopes to improve on their spot in the Funny Car standings at the Big Go, a race Beckman won in 2015. 

"Every spot you can advance could be instrumental when the Mello Yello championship trophy is handed out. It's important to move up in the standings this weekend but it's more important to win Indy. And if you win Indy, the points will take care of themselves."

He’s currently in fifth, just 20 points behind Tommy Johnson Jr., and 54 behind Matt Hagan. Beckman could jump all the way up to second with a win if Robert Hight stumbles. After winning a pair of races in a short span, Beckman has advanced past the second round just once in the last five races. That has bumped him back to fifth from third since his win in Norwalk six races again. 

The veteran driver is hoping a successful test session, which he ranked amongst the top five in his career (“and I’ve tested a lot,” Beckman quipped), will lead to improved results. That starts with one qualifying session on Friday evening.

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wilk.JPGTim Wilkerson hopes to do more than officially seal a spot in the Countdown to the Championship this weekend. He wants to get into the winner’s circle for the first time since the 2016 NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. This would be an excellent weekend to end that 36-race drought, as he celebrates the 20-year anniversary of his first final-round appearance. 

Wilkerson’s first final round came against Whit Bazemore at the U.S. Nationals in 1997. Bazemore came away with the trophy in that final just a year after Wilkerson’s professional debut, but the driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang Funny Car got his Indy win in 2003. He defeated Johnny Gray that year, and went back to an Indy final in 2012, where he fell to Mike Neff.

"I've been racing at Indy for a whole bunch of years. Heck, I used to bracket race here in the 80s," said Wilkerson. "It's a neat race, and the reward is bigger in more ways than one. The paycheck is bigger, but it isn't just about the money – a win this weekend would go a long way for our team. It would be a nice boost of morale going into the Countdown to the Championship."
 
Wilkerson enters Indy No. 8 in points with a big cushion over 11th place driver Cruz Pedregon. He hasn’t officially clinched his place in the Countdown, but he’s closer to passing 7th place racer J.R. Todd than losing his spot in the top 10. 

"We're in a good position going into this race, because we're No. 8 in the points," said Wilkerson. "We would really have to mess up to not make the Countdown, so right now we're fighting to get the highest position possible. Those 10 points may mean something at the end of the year, and we really need to do well and make sure we're positioning ourselves the best we can for those last six races."  

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forces.jpgWith seven Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in the family — and 11 for John Force Racing as an entity -- it’s no surprise that Indy has a big meaning in the Force household. Patriarch John has won the event four times (1993, ’96, ’98 and 2003) and eldest daughter Ashley Force Hood three times, back to back in Funny Car (2009-10) and initially in the Alcohol Dragster class in 2004.

“Indy’s the mothership,” said John Force, who also has 11 No. 1 qualifiers at Indy, a record. “You just want to be part of it. There’s an old saying in IndyCar, ‘You can win the championship, but you’ve got to win the Indy 500.’ In drag racing, you could win the championship, but if you ain’t won Indy, you ain’t won (nothing).

Force’s four wins are one victory shy of Ed McCulloch’s record of five U.S. Nationals victories in a Funny Car. 

Daughter Courtney would love to join her big sis, Ashley, on the list of Indy Funny Car winners, and knows full well the meaning it would bring to her.

“Growing up, I knew this was a big deal, even as a little kid, that this was the biggest race of the season,” Force said. “I grew up watching my dad compete in this race as a little kid, and this is the race that ends summer and starts that battle for the title. Everyone knows just to be out here, just to be qualified for the U.S. Nationals, and to have a car that is competitive in this race, is such a huge accomplishment.”

In five races, Courtney’s best result came in 2014, when she advanced to the semifinals, but she has enjoyed success on the fabled racetrack, winning the Traxxas Shootout last year.

“To be able to tell people that you’ve won the U.S. Nationals takes you to a whole new level,” she said. “And that’s what we hope to do this weekend. We hope to get that job done, and walk away with the U.S. Nationals victory for the first time. I want to do it because I’ve seen my dad do it multiple times, my sister Ashley, other teammates. I hope we can do it. We’ve got a great hot rod. We haven’t gotten a win yet, but to get the first one of the year here, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

“Lots of memories coming here,” the team's Top Fuel driver, middle sister Brittany Force, agreed. “We’ve been coming since we were kids. Being in the winner’s circle with my dad, my dad winning the Big Bud Shootout and celebrating in the winner’s circle with him. It’s pretty surreal that I’m here with the Monster team, and we get to compete in the Traxxas Shootout and come out here for the U.S. Nationals. It’s the biggest race of the year, and we’re hoping that we kick ass and end up in that winner’s circle and take home the Wally.”

Teammate Robert Hight has won Indy three times (2006, ’08, and ’13) and former teammate Gary Densham won in in 2004.

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After racing the last two seasons with a Warren Johnson-built engine under the hood, Matt Hartford’s Nito Fish Camaro is being powered by an engine from Gray Motorsports this weekend.

“We’ve been struggling and we need to see if the problem is in the car, the set-up or the engine,” said Hartford. “The problem is that we don’t have a second car like a lot of these teams so we can’t just take data from a team mate. We have to use what we have, which is this one car.”

Hartford reached out to the Gray team and they were happy to lease an engine for the weekend even though they already have four teams at Indy.

“When I approached Shane [Gray] he told me we’d get the same power that all of their team cars get,” said Hartford. “We went testing this week and Tanner ran 209.91 [mph], Johnny ran 209.90, Shane ran 209.86 and we ran 209.95 so I’d say that’s pretty fair. From Seattle, we didn’t change anything but the engine. We didn’t touch the chassis or the clutch.”

Hartford currently doesn’t know if the switch will be permanent, but he indicated that he’s likely to continue using Gray engines if he turns in a competitive outing this weekend.

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It’s been a trying season for Vincent Nobile and the Mountain View Tire team since they have not been to a final round since Englishtown and has only one other semifinal finish to his credit.

“It’s not looking too promising right now; we’re struggling,” said Nobile. “Every week it seems like it’s one thing or another. We fix one problem and another crops up. It’s frustrating, but we don’t give up.”

Despite his struggles, Nobile has a respectable 16-17 round win record this season and he’s locked into the Countdown to the Championship. He enters the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals as the No. 8 seed.

While the team attempts to get a handle on their combination, Nobile indicated that he’ll likely pass on this weekend’s impromptu burnout contest.

“I might do one long burnout if we’re trying to break-in tires or something like that but otherwise, we’ve got a lot of other things on our plate,” Nobile said. “We just can’t be making changes to our combination or throwing away runs. That’s just not a smart thing to do right now.”

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Teary-eyed, and his voice cracking with emotion, Allen Johnson made it official on Friday when he announced his retirement from the Pro Stock class following the 2017 season. A die-hard who has never raced anything other than a Mopar product, Johnson has been a staple in the class for more than two-decades. Heading into Indy, he has competed in 497 events and logged 27 wins in 59 final rounds. He owns an impressive career record of 455-365 in elimination rounds. Johnson’s greatest feat is the 2012 Mello Yello Pro Stock title.

“It’s with a heavy heart today I’m announcing our retirement as a full-time professional race team,” said Johnson. “We’ve celebrated an NHRA World championship, captured wins at historic tracks like Gainesville, Pomona and Bandimere, and basically lived our dream for 22 years. We couldn’t have done it without the help and hard work of our J&J Racing team members over the years.
It’s been an amazing run for my dad [Roy] and I, but it just felt like now was the right time to step away from the Pro Stock chapter of our careers.”

Johnson’s 27 wins include seven wins at Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, home of the Mopar Mile-High Nationals. He appeared in the final round of that event 11 times between 2017-16 and has lopsided 37-3 record in elimination rounds at the high-altitude facility.

“We thought we were done at the end of 2015 and Marathon Petroleum Corporation stepped up to help us out,” Johnson added. “The Marathon deal was a one-year deal, but [at the end of 2016] they were so satisfied, they asked us if we wanted to do another year. I can’t thank them enough for what they’ve done for our team the last two years.”

Johnson did not speculate on his future plans but it has been widely rumored that he will stay involved in the sport in some capacity, either as a team owner or by returning to his sportsman roots. Before joining the Pro Stock class, Johnson raced in Comp Eliminator. Father Roy, is also a former Comp racer who most recently competed in Stock Eliminator with a Dodge Challenger Drag Pak entry.

“I've spoken with a couple of individuals about maybe taking my seat,” Johnson said. “I’d like to keep our engine program going and keep my dad working from daylight to dark so you may see a part-time Dodge or you may see a full time Dodge out here next year.

“The Pro Stock class is alive and well. We have new people coming in and the EFI is fun. My dad used to do all the tuning and it’s actually been fun for me to get involved and do that part of it. I do think Pro Stock will a little better next couple of years. One thing we won’t be doing is going back to growing tobacco. Some things have happened and you see us out here a time or two next year.”

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arana.jpgIt’s been a year since Hector Arana Jr. red-lighted in the final of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, but the Lucas Oil Buell rider has not forgotten. Arana Jr. won the sport’s premiere event in 2011, but he wants another Wally.

“I went red,” Arana said. “Nothing else to say about it, but you know, it happens. It's unfortunate it came in the final round of the sport's biggest race, but it did. All you can do is not dwell on it and move on. It's a part of racing Pro Stock Motorcycles. The bikes react so quickly at the hit of the throttle so we're always close to the edge.”

Born in Miami, Arana spent almost half of his life growing up in Indiana and has a business degree from Purdue University. He only recently moved to New York after marrying Nicole Nobile, sister of Pro Stock ace Vincent Nobile.
 
“It's Indy. It's the ‘Big Go.’ It's the biggest race of the year so we're very excited to see what happens this year,” said Arana, who is coming off an impressive No. 1 qualifying effort two weeks ago in Brainerd.

Arana will once again be racing as part of a single-bike team while his father, Hector Sr., continues to recover from shoulder surgery. The elder Arana will be on hand to help tune the bike along with crew chief Jim Yates. The Arana's have also opted for a new bike this weekend with Hector Jr. riding an EBR-bodied machine for the first time in two years.

“After Brainerd, we got the bike back to the shop and found out the motor on our bike was hurt,” Arana said. “You never like to hurt a motor but it's promising to find a reason why you slowed down. We were able to fix it and we'll have two good motors for Indy.”

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hines.jpgSince returning from Brainerd two weeks ago, the Brownsburg-based Vance & Hines team has not gotten much rest as they continue to struggle to learn the nuances of their new Harley-Davidson Street Rod bikes. Riders Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec, along with crew chief Matt Hines, have tried a variety of different combinations since the bikes debuted in Englishtown, but have yet to find a set-up that they deem satisfactory.

“We’re missing something and we’re not quite sure what it is,” said Hines. “Actually, we know what it is. We just don’t know how to fix it. We can’t get these bikes to leave the starting line. We run great speed and we run great numbers in the back-half, but we’re missing it in the first sixty-feet of the track and that’s crucial in this class.”

Hines and Krawiec have tested several times recently, but  this time they opted to reconfigure their chassis set-up in order to get the bikes to leave the starting line more quickly.

“We’ve done some major chassis work lately,” Hines said. “We worked on both of these bikes for the last couple of weeks. It’s been exhausting, but thankfully our shop is only three miles down the road so we didn’t have to travel far to get to this race. In a perfect world, we’d have had time to test but that didn’t happen. We’ve just been working.”

Hines is the defending event champ and also won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in 2012. Krawiec won “the Big Go” in 2014 aboard the team’s old Harley V-Rod model.

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scotty.jpgWith four bikes under one canopy, the Underdahl/Stoffer trailer was a beehive of activity with the team preparing bikes for Karen Stoffer, Scotty Pollacheck, Jimmy Underdahl, and Andie Rawlings. Since Pollacheck has all-but clinched his spot in the Countdown to the Championship, he’s facing a lot less pressure than he might otherwise be feeling prior to the start of NHRA’s biggest event.

“I’m in a good place right now,” said Pollacheck. “I think that all I have to do is make one qualifying run and I’m locked into the Countdown. That takes a lot of pressure off. This is a lot better than last year when I was nowhere close to the top ten.” 

Pollacheck has accomplished a lot this season, including his first 6.7-second run in Sonoma, but he’s still seeking his first win in the NHRA Mello Yello Series. After 90 professional stars and five runner-up finishes, the Oregon-based Pollacheck thinks it’s time to get his first win.

 “I keep waiting but it’s not easy by any means,” he said. “We’ve come close few times but the timing hasn’t been right. We struggled a little at the last couple of races but we have a bike that is very good. It’s consistent and not all over the map. We really just need to have a bit of luck and I think we can do some good things in the Countdown.”

PHOTOS

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Raceweek kicked off in big fashion with the annual press conference Wednesday at Monument Circle in downtown Indianapolis.

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On display downtown were the Top Fuelers and Funny Cars that will take place in the Traxxas Nitro Shootouts Saturday (Top Fuel) and Sunday (Funny Car).

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The special affair also was the site of the lottery draw for the final spots in the Shootouts. Terry McMillen, right, won the Top Fuel draw and was congratulated by his rival, Scott Palmer.

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The Mopar Hemi Challenge is always a highlight of Friday’s action at the event. The first round kicked off early Friday morning.

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Former NHRA Pro Stock racer and doorslammer legend Herb McCandless, right, joined announcer Brian Lohnes to offer color commentary during the Hemi Shootout.

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A celebration of the life of Terry Chandler was held prior to the day's lone qualifying session. The well-attended event drew racers from all classes to remember Chandler, whose generosity and huge heart was evident in her sponsorship of the Make-A-Wish and Infinite Hero Funny Cars, racecars fielded primarily to promote the two benevolent organizations.

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Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Funny Car, was among those who shared memories of Chandler with the group.

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An impressive line up of COPO Camaros paraded down the return road to the delight of the fans.

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John and Courtney Force and teammate Robert Hight met with fans and signed autographs at the Chevrolet display.

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Fans also got a chance to interact with the stars of NHRA's Pro Stock Motorcycle class at an autograph session in the pits.

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As NHRA and Mello Yello celebrated a renewal of their partnership for NHRA's premier racing series, NHRA President Peter Clifford, third from right, was joined on the starting line by Mello Yello's Ben Reiling and Al Rondon, Coca-Cola's Bob Kramer and Paul Hourigan, and reigning Mello Yello Top Fuel champ Antron Brown.

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As part of the announcement, a special-edition Mello Yello paint scheme was unveiled on Brown's Matco Tools Top Fueler.

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Indiana governor Eric Holcomb, who grew up in nearby Clermont, and his wife, Janet, were on hand for the start of qualifying and were interviewed by announcer Brian Lohnes.

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"Wild Bill" Wichrowski of the popular Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch is among the many celebrities taking in the magic of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.

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The Larsen Motorsports jets closed out the evening under a dramatic Indy sky.

PREVIEW

The regular season of the NHRA Mello Yello Series wraps up with the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle remain wide open, while Top Fuel and Pro Stock have been more or less decided with only the Big Go remaining on the schedule before the Countdown to the Championship begins. The first of five qualifying sessions kicks off at 6 p.m. Eastern.

S_Langdon.jpgTop Fuel has three spots up for grabs, but only three drivers racing for them after Troy Coughlin Jr. announced his resignation from Kalitta Motorsports on Saturday. Richie Crampton will fill the SealMaster Toyota dragster seat for the remainder of the season, but won’t be a factor in the chase for a world title. 

That opens the door for Shawn Langdon to leap from 11th to 10th in the final race of the season, while Terry McMillen and Scott Palmer have all but locked up their spots in the Countdown. Langdon needs only to make a qualifying pass at Lucas Oil Raceway (without sustaining an oil-down penalty) to pass Coughlin in the Top Fuel standings. 

The top of the field remains tight. Antron Brown holds a 31-point lead over Steve Torrence, and a 60-point advantage over teammate Leah Pritchett. Both could pass Brown, but they’ll either need to do very well in qualifying or knock the Matco Tools pilot out before the final round. That might be a big ask: Brown has reached the final in five-straight races. 

A_DeJoria.JPGIn Funny Car, the chase at the bottom is much more exciting than the one at the top (unless your name is Robert Hight). Alexis DeJoria swooped into the No. 10 spot thanks to her win in Brainerd two weeks ago, and she currently holds a 12-point lead over Cruz Pedregon. This battle, which features drivers from 10th to 14th, will likely go all the way to Monday’s eliminations. 

At the top of the table, Ron Capps leads Hight by 136 points. If both Hight and Capps qualify for the field, the most points the second-place driver can pick up on Capps is 150. That’s a big ask, but it’s not impossible given the way both cars have run at recent events. If Hight pitches a nearly perfect game, and Capps loses in the first round, it could happen. It’s just a long shot. 

T_Gray.jpgThere will be no such No. 1 seed-stealing in Pro Stock. Bo Butner locked up pole position in Brainerd, so it’s up to Tanner Gray and Greg Anderson to battle it out for the No. 2 spot. Gray or teammate Drew Skillman have won each of the last five races, solidifying the pair as championship contenders. Gray has reached the final round in two of the last three races. 

He’ll also get a chance to race both his dad, Shane Gray, who he’s gone head-to-head against twice this season (and beaten twice), and his grandpa. Johnny Gray is coming out of retirement for one race only, which means we’ll see three generations of Grays in Pro Stock this weekend. 

A_Smith.JPGOnly 105 points separate Karen Stoffer in ninth from Cory Reed in 13th in Pro Stock Motorcycle. LE Tonglet and Jerry Savoie are, without a doubt, the story of the two-wheel class this season, but there is much to be decided at the bottom of the field this weekend. Angie Smith holds the bump spot with 394 points, which gives her a 47-point lead over Steve Johnson. 

Angelle Sampey is 90 points away from 10th, just a point ahead of Reed. They’ve got their work cut out for them if they want to catch up to Smith, but stranger things have happened. One thing working in Smith’s favor is that she’s picked up round wins in back-to-back races. If she can grab another one at the Big Go, she might be safely into the Countdown.