QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (2 p.m.): Just when it looked like points leader and Friday low qualifier Matt Smith would add another three points to his account after a 6.887, world champ Eddie Krawiec put the brakes on that deposit with a stunning 6.873 that boosted him into the No. 1 qualifying spot. Behind Krawiec and Smith were Hector Arana Jr. (6.933) and Angie Smith, who made a strong 6.942 pass.
PRO STOCK Q3 (2:20 p.m.): Friday leader Jeg Coughlin Jr. reasserted his dominance over the field with another best-of-session pass, a 6.602 that was only .003-second shy of his Friday killer pass and earned him three bonus points. Erica Enders and Alex Laughlin ran side-by-side 6.612s, but Enders got the higher seed and the two points based on her superior speed (208.33 to 206.86). They now sit Nos. 5 and 6 on the qualifying order. Val Smeland sits on the bump spot with a 6.753 with one session to go, and Shane Tucker and rookie Robert River are also on the outside looking in.
EL Q3 (3:15 p.m.): Steve Torrence took back a bit of the momentum from low qualifier Clay Millican after both ran strong 3.74 passes with Torrence getting to the finish line .006-second quicker, 3.743 to 3.749. Torrence got the three points but Millican held on to the No. 1 over spot with his Friday night 3.726. Homestate racer Kebin Kinsley earned a bonus point with a surprising 3.803 from Roger Hennen’s Road Rage car, which is being tuned at this event by Texas native Jim Oberhofer. Richie Crampton is on the bump with a 3.942 with three drivers trying to knock him out in the final session.
FUNNY CAR Q3 (3:55 p.m.): Bob Tasca III stole the No. 1 spot from Friday leader Tommy Johnson Jr. with a 3.950, eight-thousandths quicker than the event’s previous best pass. Robert Hight (3.984) and J.R. Todd (3.991) had the only other three-second runners that session to earn bonus points. Veteran Jack Wyatt, on his first pass of the event, lost a run that probably would have qualified him because qualifying mate Todd Simpson crossed the centerline in front of him, taking out the timing lights. The bump is 5.553 held by Terry Haddock.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (4:30 p.m.): Matt Smith and Eddie Krawiec continued their back and fourth battle for class supremacy in Q4. Smith’s EBR was quickest in the final session with a 6.881, a few thousandths ahead of Krawiec’s 6.889, but Krawiec held on for the No. 1 qualifier spot, the 42nd of his career, with his earlier 6.873. Veteran Steve Johnson, the class' elder statesman, was impressive with the third best run of a hot session with a 6.932.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Anthony Vanetti; Matt Smith vs. Karen Stoffer; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Kelly Clontz; Angelle Sampey vs. Scotty Pollacheck; LE Tonglet vs. Andrew Hines; Steve Johnson vs. Hector Arana Sr.; Jerry Savoie vs. Joey Gladstone; Angie Smith vs. Ryan Oehler
PRO STOCK Q4 (4:50 p.m.): With hotter temperatures both in the air and on the track, Jeg Coughlin Jr. was easily able to hold onto the No. 1 spot, his second straight and the 27th of his career. His teammate, Erica Enders, clocked the best run of the round (6.617) just ahead of a trio of 6.618s by Jason Line, Vincent Nobile, and Alex Laughlin. Drew Skillman, last year’s runner-up in Ennis, also was right there with a 6.619 while Coughlin ran just 6.625 as the teams set up for Sunday.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Val Smeland; Greg Anderson vs. Alan Prusiensky; Jason Line vs. Kenny Delco; Vincent Nobile vs. Fernando Cuadra; Erica Enders vs. Chris McGaha; Alex Laughlin vs. Matt Hartford; Tanner Gray vs. Deric Kramer; Drew Skillman vs. Bo Butner
TOP FUEL Q4 (5:20 p.m.): Clay Millican was low of the session again, this time with a 3.743, giving him 11 of 12 possible bonus points and the No. 1 position, his ninth of the season, as he tries to chase down points leader Steve Torrence. Torrence could only muster a 3.832, eighth best of the session. Tony Schumacher, who sits third in points behind Torrence and Millican, made the biggest move, crushing a 3.745 to go from the No. 12 spot to No. 3 while Terry McMillen got a bonus point with a 3.777. Also of note, Doug Kalitta ripped off a 3.789 to go from No. 10 to No. 6. Richie Crampton ended up on the bump spot with a 3.94 with Cory McClenathan and two Texas Terrys -- Brian and Totten – on the outside of the field.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Richie Crampton; Steve Torrence vs. Bill Litton; Tony Schumacher vs. Shawn Reed; Terry McMillen vs. Mike Salinas; Brittany Force vs. Scott Palmer; Doug Kalitta vs. Antron Brown; Blake Alexander vs. Billy Torrence; Kebin Kinsley vs. Leah Pritchett
FUNNY CAR Q4 (6 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. reclaimed the No. 1 spot that he owned when the day started, rocketing to a 3.918 to take the top spot from Bob Tasca III, who had run 3.950 earlier in the day. It’s Johnson’s first No. 1 of the season and the 16th of his career. A couple of past world champs, Ron Capps and Cruz Pedregon, made big moves. Capps went from No. 9 to No. 6 after a 3.986 and Pedregon jumped from 15th to eighth following a 3.999 to make it an all-three-second top half of the field. Texan Terry Haddock ended up on the bump spot with a 5.142 with Todd Simpson and Jack Wyatt outside the field.
First-round pairings (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Terry Haddock; Bob Tasca III vs. Matt Hagan; Tim Wilkerson vs. Jeff Diehl; J.R. Todd vs. John Hale; Jack Beckman vs. Courtney Force; Robert Hight vs. Jim Campbell; Ron Capps vs. John Force; Cruz Pedregon vs. Shawn Langdon
It’s tempting to call Clay Millican and the Parts Plus team an underdog in their championship battle with Steve Torrence and Tony Schumacher. You couldn’t blame the single-car Doug Stringer-owned team if they felt that way as they as they look across the lane from their pit spot at the extremely well-funded and well-staffed two-car Torrence Racing team or up the lane to Schumacher as part of the Don Schumacher Racing mega team, but don’t tell that to Millican.
“I surely don’t look at it that way,” Millican explained. “I don’t begrudge them that they have the money and the parts and the people; Billy [Torrence] and his family earned that money, they worked hard for it. We don’t have the deep inventory that other teams do, but we’ve run this way all year. I’m just proud of the way that our team has run this year with what we have. When we leave the shop the only thing left there is a drill press and a band saw; we don't have CNC machines or people there working. Everything we have is in the trailer. We don't have a lot but what we've got runs good. We have a great car, two wins, and still own the national record.”
While the team may not have the funding of the other teams, he’s certainly got equity in the experience he has. Although he’s never experienced the pressure of an NHRA title battle, Millican’s been there plenty of times on the IHRA side, winning six championships and even losing one, to Paul Romine, by just seven points.
“Honestly, it’s just been a lot of fun; I’m enjoying the heck out if it,” he said, breaking into his broad Tennessee grin. “We’ve got a runner-up and semi and you’d think we’d be in better shape, but not when the other guy is winning both races. It’s really amazing what they’re doing. We need him to go out early this weekend. If not, we’re all in trouble unless he goes out first round everywhere and we win all three.”
Millican and crew chief Dave Grubnic helped their cause Friday but sweeping qualifying with six points after running low e.t. of both sessions to trim a but into Torrence's lead.
Counting Sunday, there are still four races to earn eliminations points, including the points-and-a-half season finale in Pomona -– amounting to roughly 500 points –- so no one is truly out of the championship hunt as the Countdown hits its midpoint, but there’s no doubting it’s been a disappointing opening for defending world champ Brittany Force and Advance Auto Parts/Monster Energy team.
Other than a get-well win in Houston, the team has been behind the eight ball since their championship defense took a stiff uppercut when Force crashed at the Winternationals. They’ve won just 10 rounds in the first 20 races compared to 28 at this point last season and entered the event in ninth place, 261 markers behind points leader Steve Torrence.
After back-to-back-to-back first round-round losses in Indy, Reading, and St. Louis, where they qualified no better than eighth and twice in the bottom half of the field, the team front-halved the chassis before this event to help solve their issues with tire smoke.
After smoking the tires in Q1, crew chief Brian Husen dialed her in for Q2 with a 3.781 that boosted her to third on the qualifying sheets (her e.t. was tied by Steve Torrence, but at a faster speed). The sense of relief was palpable.
“That was an awesome run,” she said. “I hate saying this every weekend but we have been struggling and we need to step up in points and go after some wins. We are determined to turn this car around. We front halved the car between races and to come out here and make that first pass is a little nerve-racking. The first run we were trying to run too hard on a track that wasn’t good enough. The second run Brian leaned into the cockpit right before I pulled my visor down and said, ‘Trust me it is going to go down there this time.’ I knew we were going to be OK.
“I was inside the cockpit just telling this race car to hang in there and get to the finish line. When I crossed the finish line I was screaming inside my car. You would have thought I won the race.”
That’s a mission for tomorrow, where a solid points day and some stumbles by those ahead of her could put her back into the hunt with three races remaining, including next weekend in Charlotte. And anyone who remembers last season -- and that certainly includes Force -- where her team scored two wins and a runner-up in the final three races knows that a hot streak at the right time can change everything.
Tim Wilkerson is among the biggest movers through two Countdown races, zipping from No. 10 to No. 4 with back-to-back runner-ups in Reading and St. Louis.
“I’m up there [butts], that’s for sure,” he agreed with a chuckle. “One of Schumacher’s crew guys told me I was either going to get them all fired or make them test every week. I think we’ve put all of the struggles of earlier this season behind us and we're just trying to make it go. I’m just working hard on it.”
Wilkerson was in the other lane against Robert Hight in the final in St. Louis and outperformed him in round two, but smoked the tires and took second place for the second race in a row.
“It shouldn’t have done that,” he said, “You just couldn’t guess how that track was going to be. We went 4.00 against Courtney [Force in the second round] –- just where I wanted to be -- then had to change engines for the final because we broke a lifter in the semifinals when I had to pedal it 19 times, but it should have gone down there in the final, not smoked the tires.”
Wilkerson had a front-row seat when Hight’s car disappeared in a fireball and crashed hard into the guardwall.
“It shook the tires and I was jut fixing to lean back into it when Robert blew up,” he said. “I pushed the parachute button because I didn’t want him to run into me if he came back across the track. I paced him and stopped beside him. He was kinda flailing to get out of his belts and couldn’t do it, but I got there before even the Safety Safari could so I just tried to keep him calm. The car was still on fire a little, but his firewall was gone, so I was ready to straddle the cockpit and shield him with my body to protect him if it flared up again. The Safety Safari showed up a few seconds later and took care of everything.
“I’m just glad he’s OK and back to driving. I wouldn’t want to gain points on him because he was out; he’s my friend first above everything else. Him being OK is more important than winning any race.”
Tommy Johnson Jr. and crew chief John Collins and Rip Reynolds entered the final four events of the season without a win or even a low qualifying effort to their credit, but after qualifying No. 1 Friday night, they’re poised to undo half of that shortfall and if T.J. is right, maybe the other half on Sunday.
It’s been a long process.
“We changed from the six-disc clutch back to the five-disc in Richmond [in early June] because we had a lot more data on it to deal with the new track prep,” said Johnson, whose 18 career wins do not include a custom cowboy hat from the Texas Motorplex. “We’ve been playing with it and you can see that I’m getting back the car I’ve always had at the end of the year, a really competitive and consistent car. John is really comfortable with the five-disc and knows what changes to make to make it work.
“Even though we’re only 100 points behind the leader, there’s an awful lot of racing still to do. The next two races are really critical; if you’re going to have a shot, you need to be in that position by the time you leave Charlotte. I think it’s all about peaking at the right time. I used to think that at the first race of the Countdown, but now I think it’s more about the middle, because you need to finish it. The way our car has been running, I think that’s where we are now.”
Alex Laughlin is wheeling a new Jerry Haas-built Camaro this week, having finally traded in his venerable Camaro for some new iron. The old car, which Laughlin used to win his first NHRA national event in St. Louis in 2016, had an estimated 2,000 passes on it as it was a hand-me-down car when he got it. The new car, previously owned by Utah racer Jeff Isbell, only has about 25 runs on it before it was parked by the owner for financial reasons.
Laughlin, who experimented with a Chevy-powered Dodge Dart in Brainerd and Indy, made three successful halftrack test passes in the “new” Camaro at Osage Casino Tulsa Raceway Park on Tuesday before heading to the Motorplex for his first race since Indy, where he fell short of making the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, finishing 11th, as he did in 2016, his last full season.
“I’ve never made the Countdown, and that sucks,” he said. “I know we have a good enough car to win but I’m getting tired of people telling me that I can be the upset car in the playoffs. That’s not what I want to be known for. We have a top-running car but we’ve had a problem this year with either the car sucking or me sucking, We were never good at the same time.
This weekend he’s flying the colors of Gas Monkey and Havoline with another good-looking wrap and he’s working on his sponsorship deals for next season, where he expects to again compete at all 24 events, in addition to running his other race cars, including the radial small-tire supercharged Corvette in which he scored a runner-up last weekend at the No Mercy event at South Georgia Motorsports Park.
Robert River, the 25-year-old son of longtime Pro Stock racer Dave River, made his Professional debut two weeks ago in St. Louis and missed the field by three-hundredths, but is back for his second try this weekend.
The second-generation racer has been competing in Top Sportsman for a few years in an ex-Joe Sway Pontiac Firebird Pro Stocker
“There are definitely some similarities,” he said, “so it’s not like I was going from an open-wheel sprint car to a Pro Stocker, but these aren’t the easiest cars to drive. The burnout is a little different and even though the Top Sportsman car is only about five-tenths slower than the Pro Stock car, that’s a big difference.
“I’ve wanted to race Pro Stock since I was 4 years old,” he added,” and even more once I began working on my dad’s cars. I was never going to step on anyone’s toes to get a job, but when my dad offered me the chance, I was ready.
“It’s pretty special. There’s wasn’t any real pressure or nerves because I’ve made lots of runs but it was pretty surreal, just knowing who was running ahead of me and running behind me. It was a lot to take in. Plus, to make my debut in St. Louis just like my dad did in 2009 was very cool. Even though we didn’t qualify, it was a great experience for me and the team.”
“I was real impressed with the composure he showed on the biggest stage in the drag racing world; I remember how much in awe I was when I made my first runs” said his proud father. “We had a couple of problems in the first two sessions [in St. Louis] but we made a good run in Q3 and then had another problem in Q4 but this is a motor that we put together in our garage. It was an Elite motor than MB [Tom Martino and Bob Benza] worked on for us, but now we’re trying to do our own work.”
After two sessions here Friday, River remains outside the show with a 6.927.
Matt Smith continued his torrid race with his sleek red EBR-bodied machine, grabbing the provisional No. 1 qualifying spot Friday with an opening pass of 6.876. With that confidence, he experimented in Q2 and it didn’t pan out with a 6.941, but at least he knew what had changed.
“It was pretty hot both runs yesterday but the track was actually pretty good for how hot it was,” he said. “We went 1.06 [60-foot clocking] on both runs but I tried something on the second run that it didn’t like, so we’ll go back to that setup.”
The obvious change for Smith seems to be the expensive and coveted EBR body, but Smith says it goes beyond that.
“The biggest difference with the body is the back end of the bike; it allows the air to get out from underneath the body,” he explained. “Last year, the front of my bike was good but the tail section with the bagger, went all the way down to the wheelie bars and it didn’t let the air out going downtrack.
“But we’ve been working on our power all along; it first started to show in Sonoma where we won the [Mickey Thompson Tires Pro Bike Battle]. The new body just helped everything out. We’ve been running real good since Brainerd and with two final rounds in a row hopefully we can keep this thing going. I told people after Indy we’re going into the Countdown strong, They knew we’re here and I made the comment then that we can win three of the six races in the Countdown and run for this championship. We’ve dug down and worked on these motors. We’re going to do our best, try to stay focused and try to do our job. As long as we don’t have any parts failures, we’ll be good."
Clay Millican and crew chief Dave Grubnic took the top spot in Top Fuel on the last pass under the Friday Night Lights, a 3.726 that half a tenth quicker than the dual 3.781s of Steve Torrence and Brittany Force and earned the Great Clips team six more bonus points to add to the 21 they’ve already racked up in the qualifying; by comparison, points leader Torrence has just 15. It’s likely that Millican’s run will hold up through the final two runs, which would mean even more points as he tries to slow Torrence’s momentum. Twenty cars are entered and the bump spot I current 4.121 by Terry Brian.
Tommy Johnson Jr. is halfway to what would be his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season as his Make-A-Wish Dodge was the quickest of the five cars to make a three-second pass, all of which came in the nighttime session to give you an idea how the cars fought a hot track Friday. Cloudy weather is expected today between possible rain showers, so Johnson’s 3.958 certainly is not safe atop the pack. Eighteen Funny Cars are attempting to make the field and Texan John Hale, in his first race of the season, is currently on the bump with a soft 8.16.
Friday Pro Stock qualifying leader Jeg Coughlin said he does not expect his 6.599 to hold up through Saturday qualifying, and with the KB Racing double threat of Greg Anderson and Jason Line each just .001-second behind him and one another, it’s easy to see why. Reading winner Vincent Nobile is just a hundredth behind them followed by a quartet of drivers with 6.61s and points leader Tanner Gray in eighth with a 6.621.
Matt Smith has been the low qualifier in Pro Stock Motorcycle at three of the last four events, with the miss being two weeks ago in St. Louis where he ranked fifth. It didn’t take him long to get back to No. 1 with a 6.876 on his first pass down Texas Motorplex and a run that help up even under the cooler conditions of the second session, where reigning world champ Eddie Krawiec was quickest with his second straight 6.89.