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Gray thinking big ahead of Dodge NHRA Nationals

In terms of a blueprint for starting a critical juncture of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season well, Tanner Gray came about as close as possible to a perfect one at the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship opener in Charlotte.
21 Sep 2017
Posted by NHRA.com staff
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Tanner Gray

In terms of a blueprint for starting a critical juncture of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season well, Tanner Gray came about as close as possible to a perfect one at the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship opener in Charlotte.

The rookie phenom continued to roll at his first playoff race, qualifying No. 1 and winning his fifth race of the season heading to this weekend’s 33rd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. It has Gray in a prime position to contend for a world championship, but the 18-year-old rising star is well aware that plenty of work remains if that is to be a possibility.

“It is really important to stay focused,” Gray said. “This is what we race for all year, the opportunity to race in the Countdown and ultimately to contend and win the championship. My team is in the driver’s seat. They have a great handle on the car, our dynamic as a team is on point and we are all having a lot of fun. Coming off of a win in Charlotte increases the focus and proves that our team has what it takes to be champions. There is a lot of racing left and this class is so competitive, we have to continue to collect round wins to make this championship possible.”

Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including live final eliminations coverage starting at 2 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Sept. 24. It is the second of three straight races to open the Countdown to the Championship, and Gray is simply looking to keep his fantastic stretch going in his Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro.

He has combined with teammate Drew Skillman to win the past seven races, with Skillman’s four victories coming in that span. It’s certainly the perfect time to get hot, as the Charlotte win gave Gray a 25-point lead over Bo Butner heading into this weekend. He is up 35 points on Anderson and 74 on reigning champ Jason Line after knocking off both in the playoff opener, while teammate Skillman remains within striking distance at 93 points back.

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“Drew (Skillman) and I are pretty close,” Gray said. “We talk after qualifying and in between every round about what the car did, what we did as drivers and how to continually improve. We are also each other’s biggest competition. When we race each other we both know what each has because it’s the exact same thing. There isn’t room for error. Knowing that I have a teammate like Drew helps my confidence. It is our goal to meet in the final every race day.”

That will be the plan this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway going against a talented list of drivers. With each race in the Countdown to the Championship the pressure will also rise, but Gray has handled each moment thus far impressively, a nod to a great team led by crew chief Dave Connolly. He’s expecting no let-up this weekend at the Dodge NHRA Nationals, furthering that momentum from the Charlotte win with a strong week of testing.

“Coming off of a win in Charlotte to start the Countdown gives us five wins on the season and a heck of a lot to look forward to as we go to Reading this weekend,” Gray said. “We tested at zMAX (Dragway) this week and put up some impressive numbers, so between our test session and the round wins, we are looking to continue this momentum during the Countdown.”
 
Back-to-back Top Fuel world champ Brown looks to rebound after an early Charlotte loss, chasing seven-time 2017 winner Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta, the Charlotte winner and points leader.

Robert Hight took the Funny Car points lead with a win in Charlotte, and will look to hold off reigning world champ Ron Capps and defending event winner Johnson.
 
Reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Krawiec has all the momentum after back-to-back wins, including the playoff opener to take the points lead from LE Tonglet, who has five wins in 2017.
               
The event features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. After Nitro qualifying, fans can watch the spectacular Hanna Motorsports First Strike and Top Secret Eastern Raider Jet Funny Cars. They are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with pre-run flame shows.
 
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:45 and 4:15 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 23, at 12:45 and 3:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24.
 
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call 610-856-9200. Tickets also are available online at www.maplegroveraceway.com. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate.