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Auto Club NHRA Finals Saturday Notebook

10 Nov 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Pomona

Preview | Features | Results | Photos

QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (12:40 p.m.): Matt Smith continues to step up his performance, this time making a 201.1-mph run. That’s the fastest run ever recorded in Pro Stock Motorcycle. He paired it with a 6.754 to stay at the top of the field and earn four bonus points. That picked up one point on Eddie Krawiec, increasing his lead to a solid 10 points. Perhaps more importantly: Smith has the best bike at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona right now, and everyone else only has one run left to catch up before race day begins. 

PRO STOCK Q3 (1:04 p.m.): Erica Enders made the quickest run of the round (6.53), which kept Tanner Gray from earning four bonus points in the penultimate qualifying session. Gray still managed to pick up a point on Jeg Coughlin Jr., increasing his lead to 134 points and moving up a spot on the qualifying sheet. If Gray can hang in the top six, he will clinch the Pro Stock championship. Drew Skillman (6.537) also made a stout run, showing the Gray Motorsports teammates are on the same page as they prepare for the final qualifying session. 

TOP FUEL Q3 (1:45 p.m.): Steve Torrence’s qualifying didn’t get started well in Q1 Friday, where they broke a clutch lever and smoked the tires, but he has been the one smoking since then, running 3.704 in Q2 and then 3.701 in Q3 today, which was the best pass of the session. The only driver who didn’t beat Torrence was his father, Billy, who ran 3.729 while Blake Alexander continued to shine on the Pronto/Bob Vandergriff Racing machine with a 3.732. Leah Pritchett still leads with her monster Friday run of 3.649.

FUNNY CAR Q3 (2:15 p.m.): Any anxiety that points leader J.R. Todd and the DHL team had after a pair of 4.20s Friday melted away with a solid 3.959 that secured their place in the field. They can now turn their attention to clinching the championship Sunday by reaching the semifinals or having Robert Hight fall before them. Todd’s run was only the seventh best of the session, which was led by Tommy Johnson Jr.’s 3.899 and Ron Capps’ right-there 3.900. Nine cars are now qualified in the three-second zone.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (3:39 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr. made the quickest run of the final session (6.783) thanks in no small part to Matt Smith deciding to sit out the final session. Smith sat out after realizing his wife, Angie Smith, qualified in the No. 16 spot. The two Smiths will race in the first round on Sunday. The No. 1 qualifier sits half a round ahead of Krawiec, more than three rounds ahead of Arana and the same for Tonglet. That’s a great situation to be in, but Smith cares about one thing: Winning the race on Sunday. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Matt Smith vs. Angie Smith; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Freddie Camarena; Eddie Kraweic vs. Karen Stoffer; Andrew Hines vs. Steve Johnson; LE Tonglet vs. Ryan Oehler; Jerry Savoie vs. Joey Gladstone; Angelle Sampey vs. Scotty Pollacheck; Chip Ellis vs. Hector Arana Sr. 

PRO STOCK Q4 (4:03 p.m.): Tanner Gray became the youngest champion in Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series history by qualifying in the top half of the field on Saturday. He ran a 6.534-second pass to qualify him sixth, good enough to make him the champion … and book him a matchup against his dad, Shane Gray, one last time. Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified No. 1 yet again with another stellar pass and will undoubtedly be the favorite on race day. He secured 15 bonus points during the weekend, but that wasn’t enough to keep him in the championship hunt. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Kenny Delco; Jason Line vs. Vincent Nobile; Erica Enders vs. Deric Kramer; Drew Skillman vs. Alan Prusiensky; Greg Anderson vs. Fernando Cuadra; Tanner Gray vs. Shane Gray; Alex Laughlin vs. Chris McGaha; Matt Hartford vs. Bo Butner

TOP FUEL Q4 (5:10 p.m.): Just as they did Friday night. Leah Pritchett and crew chief Todd Okuhara laid the smack down on the field under the lights, powering the Mopar dragster to a scintillating 3.631, tied for the second quickest pass in history behind Clay Millican’ s 3.628 national record set at the season opener here in Pomona. The run solidified her top spot and made sure she held on for her fourth No. 1 of the season. Steve Torrence (3.661), Brittany Force (3.667), Clay Millican (3.681), and Blake Alexander (a career-best 3.692) all ran in the 3.60s in the final session.

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Bill Litton; Steve Torrence vs. Cameron Ferre; Brittany Force vs. Shawn Reed; Clay Millican vs. Terry McMillen; Blake Alexander vs. Mike Salinas; Antron Brown vs. Doug Kalitta; Billy Torrence vs. Richie Crampton; Tony Schumacher vs. Scott Palmer

FUNNY CAR Q4 (5:35 p.m.): Ron Capps and crew chief Rahn Tobler took advantage of the outrageous conditions to run 3.848 to steal the top spot from their teammates Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr., who both ran 3.867. It’s Capps’ first No. 1 qualifying position since the 2016 event in Bristol more than two years ago. Points leader J.R. Todd qualified No. 4 and second-place Robert Hight No. 5, meaning the two could square off in Sunday’s second round should they beat their respective first-round opponents, Jim Campbell and Bob Tasca III.

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Ron Capps vs. Ray Martin; Jack Beckman vs. Jeff Arend; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Cruz Pedregon; J.R. Todd vs. Jim Campbell; Robert Hight vs. Bob Tasca III; Courtney Force vs. Bob Bode; Tim Wilkerson vs. John Force; Matt Hagan vs. Shawn Langdon

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE NO. 1 QUALIFIER MATT SMITH: "Every pass we made we were low of the round. We sat Q4 out just for saving parts and not wearing our stuff out. It's ready to go four rounds tomorrow but our third pass was just phenomenal. We didn't 60 foot real good, but we have a really good tune up and we have a lot of power and that 201.1 is just really hateful. I told someone from the word go that if we could win three races during the Countdown, we could win the championship -- and if we win the race tomorrow, we'll accomplish that goal."

PRO STOCK NO. 1 QUALIFIER JEG COUGHLIN JR.: "First off, I want to congratulate Tanner Gray and Gray Motorsports on their Pro Stock championship season. We made another great run there in that last pass. Rick Jones just made another great tune up before that pass and that's kind of what we were shooting for right there. I could tell once it got into third gear it was on a good one and the thing was singing all the way to fourth gear. What's been great about this Countdown is how aggressive Rick has been running the car and that's paying off for us."

FUNNY CAR NO. 1 QUALIFIER RON CAPPS: “I was acting pretty giddy about the green [low qualifier] hat; you’d think I’d never gotten one before, but its been a long time. That was a real E-Ticket ride, the first one like that since we had the headers laid back a couple of years ago when you really had to drive it. I was so happy for [crew chief Rahn] Tobler; I thought he misspoke when he came on the radio and told me what it ran. He’s really worked hard on getting the five-disc [clutch] to run with the six-disc under cool conditions.”

TOP FUEL NO. 1 QUALIFIER LEAH PRITCHETT; “Just like yesterday, we weren’t sure if we were going to have those conditions and due to the circumstances [a lengthy oildown] we did. Todd [Okuhara, crew chief] and I had a lengthy conversation in the staging lanes and I could see that the [supercharger] pulleys are already on the car and he already hade his mind made. I asked him, ‘Are we going for a world record here?’ and he said we definitely weren’t trying to go [3.]65 again. For those who know Todd, when you see him smile and he gives me that very last fist bump and he says a low .60, man it could have been a high .59 if things went well. Even though the conditions for Sunday are going to be different it still gives us a lot of confidence for raceday.”

 

FEATURES


Leah Pritchett’s pole-grabbing run last night in Top Fuel, a 3.649 at 329.34 mph, popped a lot of eyeballs for the number that did not show up on the scoreboard, the Mopar machine’s 299.13-mph speed at the eighth-mile timers.

It’s tied for the third fastest speed ever recorded to 660 feet, behind current Funny Car racer Shawn Langdon’s 299.33, recorded in the second round of eliminations in Brained in 2016 and the 299.20 clocked by Tony Schumacher on a 3.649 qualifying run earlier this season in Phoenix and matched by Antron Brown during qualifying in Topeka in 2017. Sometime soon, someone will clock the sport’s first 300-mph pass at the eighth-mile.

“Going fast is super fun, and I even have a little crick in my neck right now because I’m going through the lights and wanted to look up [at the scoreboards] and see how fast I was going,” said Pritchett, whose team owns seven of the top fastest eighth-mile speeds. It went out there and shook a bit, and when it takes that shake and it gets right through there, that’s when you know; you know even before halftrack what kind of run it’s on, and when it sticks and it doesn’t want to move around, you know this is it. These are the moments, besides eliminations, that you cannot wait for because that’s the epitome of all of the power and all of the work coming down to that ‘Olympic moment.’ We don’t have our ‘Olympic moment’ for a championship anymore, but for qualifying, that is an ‘Olympic moment.’ “

Following a runner-up two weeks ago in Las Vegas, the team is finding its stride late in the Countdown to the Championship, too late for a title run but a good tune-up for next season.

“I think we’re peaking just fine,” she said. “If anything, it’s going to be a good start for 2019. We’re going to do our very best to get that No. 2 spot. That’s behind us; we’re concerned about what’s on the track now and what we can do. We can’t change the past; we can only focus on the future. The momentum we had in Vegas has definitely been transferred here. I was the one who put the stop to the momentum in Vegas [by double-stepping the throttle in the final], and I’m making sure I don’t put the stop to it here.”

Last weekend was a good one for NHRA Top Fuel racers at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, home of the annual NHRA Arizona Nationals. This time, however, the competition was on the man-made lake in the Lucas Oil Drag Boat Series World Finals, where Scott Palmer’s Liquid Voodoo Top Fuel Hydro – painted similar to his Tommy Thompson Motorsports/CatSpot-sponsored dragster – won in record-setting fashion with fellow asphalt racer and longtime friend Kebin Kinsley behind the wheel, and Shawn Reed won the Pro Mod championship again, piloting his blown-alcohol-powered Top Secret boat.

Kinsley, who recently took over the controls from longtime Palmer wheelman Scott Compton, powered the boat to more than 265 mph – more than 30 mph faster than their closest competitor – en route to the win in a boat in which he crashed five year ago in Augusta, Ga. The boat submarined right off the line and sunk to the bottom; Kinsley got out OK, and Palmer and company fixed the boat and turned it into a winner.

Because his own race rig was on hand, Palmer himself thrilled the boat drag fans decided with a run down the dragstrip in the CatSpot Top Fueler Saturday night. Earlier this year, Palmer was runner-up in his first Top Fuel final-round appearance at the NHRA Arizona Nationals, finishing second behind Steve Torrence.


Reed won his Lucas Oil Pro Mod championship in seven years, including the last three, but had to do this one from behind after breaking the throttle cable at the penultimate event. His two closest competitors both lost in the first round in Phoenix, but he was able to win his round to claim the championship.

Reed’s drag boat racing actually helped him on the asphalt as he first met Barbara Hughes, owner of Hughes Oilfield Transportation, at the boat races. The two Washingtonians hit it off, and she began giving him money for his boats and then followed him onto the asphalt, where she is now the primary backer of his Paton family-owned dragster.
 

 

Bill Litton is eager to saddle up for his qualifying run (or runs) today in the Worsham Family dragster after watching the Worshams concentrate their Friday efforts on their Funny Car, being driven at this event by Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Ray Martin (who also is competing in his alky car).

“I feel a little like an astronaut, where they keep moving the rocket closer to the launch pad and then you get to put your helmet on and then they launch you,” he explained. “I’m ready. We’ll make at least one run today and hopefully get solidly in the field and only run Q4 if we need to.”

The event marks the end of longtime Top Alcohol Dragster racer Litton’s rookie season in the nitro class, and he’s one of 12 drivers eligible for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award given to the year’s top rookie driver. He has the most round-wins – three – of any of his fellow nominees, and he scored them over drivers like Tony Schumacher, Brittany Force, and Leah Pritchett, so he’s definitely in the running.

“Winning the rookie award would be awesome,” he said, “and go a long way towards helping our program. I’d like to be back out here again doing the same thing next year, but we all know how much money this costs. That’s why I’m never upset if we only get to make one qualifying run. I understand budgets; hell, I feel blessed to even be able to do a burnout in one of these cars.”
 

 

Veteran privateer nitro racer Terry Haddock suffered a significant setback in his efforts after a nasty fire in the first qualifying session Friday did considerable damage to the Mustang-bodied Funny Car he’d been working on all season.

Haddock’s black Ford lit up before the finish line and burned through the shutdown area before ending up in the sand trap, where it continued to burn as the NHRA Safety Safari presented by AAA raced to the scene. Haddock was able to get out fairly quickly and was not injured.

While the team has not been able to access all of their run data due to the fire, Haddock said it appears that the fuel pump seized and shot a spark up the fuel line into the fuel talk, which ballooned and blew its seams and also damaged the adjacent oil reservoir, setting the car ablaze once the oil hit the headers.

“It was running along pretty good, and then I saw a flash in the fire windows,” he said. “I immediately squeezed the [fire extinguisher] handle and got on the brakes, but by that point, the fire was so bad that the brake fluid was boiling. It was all downhill from there. I sucked in some smoke, so by the time I got out of the car, I was out of breath and couldn’t get the body lifted up, so it kept burning.

“It’s pretty heart-breaking. I’m not sure how I’m going to overcome this, but I’m stupid, and I always find a way.”
 

 


A day later, Bob Bode is still reliving his close call in last night’s second session after his Ar-Bee Bags Mustang hooked a hard right and crossed the centerline – the first time he has crossed the middle boundary in about 10 years, according to his recollection – and nearly collided with his greatest benefactor, Tim Wilkerson, who not only sold him the car that he runs but also tunes it for him.

“It moved over to the centerline a little, and I brought it back a little – I didn’t want to be too quick with it like I used to be with my old car – but I lifted with three-tenths of a second and it just skated,” he recalled. “I was in my lane, and the next thing I knew I was looking at his bumper. We’re not really sure if something happened with the car or we ran over something on the track, but it happened so fast.”

Bode is not beyond taking personal blame, too, questioning whether or not he reacted as swiftly and surely as he thinks he did. To get the answer, he bought a GoPro camera last night and has mounted it in the cockpit to check his behind-the-wheel action for future runs.

The pass he lost last night was going to be a good one as his .869 60-foot time was the fourth best of the session behind only Jack Beckman’s .860 on his 3.90,Tommy Johnson Jr.’s .864 on his 3.88, and – fortunately for both of them – Wilkerson’s .866 on his 3.93 that got in front of Bode and kept him out of harm’s way.
 

 


It was a long and busy Friday night for the Jim Dunn Racing team after they discovered a cracked frame rail during a routine inspection after Friday night’s second qualifying pass. Team manager Jon Dunn said they think that the crack, just behind the motor plate on the right side, might be the result of some rough braking by driver Jim Campbell after a late parachute two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

Dunn drove to their shop in nearby Ontario to retrieve a car-hauler trailer, then personally drove the chassis to Victory Race Cars in Hesperia, about 50 miles north of the track in low desert. 

“I got there about 11:30 p.m. and pulled out about 4 this morning to come back to the track,” said Dunn. “I told all of the crew guys that I would take care of it and to get some rest for today. My dad thanked me and told me that back in his day he would have been rebuilding the chassis himself in some parking lot. But we got it done and got back in plenty of time. NHRA came over and checked it out and gave it their OK.”

The hard work was rewarded with a 4.000 in Q3, just a thousandth of a second shy of what would have been the team’s first three-second run in two seasons.

“A thousandth of a second; can you believe that?” said Campbell. “I put in there real thin [shallow staging for maximum elapsed time] and that still happened. We’ll get it before long.”

Jeg Coughlin Jr. all but ceded the championship to Tanner Gray at the NHRA Toyota Nationals, but a perfect day of qualifying Friday at least kept things mildly interesting for those hoping for a miracle in Pro Stock. Coughlin earned the maximum bonus points (eight), while Gray only earned one, keeping Coughlin alive in the championship hunt. 

It looked for all the world like Gray would (unofficially) knock Coughlin out of contention by taking over the No. 1 spot during the second qualifying session, but terrific passes from Erica Enders and Jason Line gave Coughlin a chance to stay alive. Then, Coughlin made a phenomenal run with some help from crew chief Rickie Smith. 

"Seeing some of our competitors better our previous No. 1 mark in front of us, like our teammate Erica Enders, she had lowered the boom right there,” said Coughlin. “I was a little nervous, to be honest, because the right lane, which is what we were driving in, had been a bit tricky. But when I let the clutch out, this thing was singing the whole way through. It was a little high from first to second gear, but we really didn’t have any issues, and we were able to get all the way through there."

Conditions are expected to be similar on Saturday, which bodes well for Coughlin in terms of repeating his runs from Friday. With that said, it also means competitors like Gray can step up – if he qualifies sixth or higher, he will clinch his first-ever championship. Coughlin remains in great spirits, which is understandable given how successful his season has been, and still could be with a win at the Finals. 

“My crew chief has been extremely aggressive, and that was our goal coming into the Countdown,” said Coughlin. “We’ve really done well in that respect but have just had trouble with round two on Sundays. It feels good, and we’re building our data going into each session with ourselves and each of our team cars. I think you’ll see our whole pack nip away at it.”

If Tanner Gray is concerned about clinching his first Pro Stock championship, you wouldn’t know by looking at him. He picked up one bonus point during Friday qualifying but saw points fall off his lead over Jeg Coughlin Jr. Still, there’s reason to be encouraged based on the performance of his car – and frankly, based on its performance all season.

“I guess we’ll see what happens, man. I just want to qualify, make a few good runs down the track, and see where we end up on Sunday,” said Gray. “It’s a lot of pressure I guess, but I’m trying not to do anything stupid and just get it done now. There’s not really a whole lot more to it than that.”

He’s technically right. There’s not much more he can do at this point other than point his car down the track and let the clutch out. As long as he takes care of his part of the bargain, most of the pressure lies on crew chief Dave Connolly, who also seemed to be in good spirits. 

“Hopefully we’ll get some of those bonus points. Either way, I think we’re good as long as we qualify well and make a few good hits,” said Gray. “Davey’s chilling, making sure we’ve got a handle on this thing.”

If anyone is nervous, it’s probably Tanner’s parents, Shane and Amber Gray. And even then, if past performance indicates anything, it’s that Tanner will qualify toward the top half of the field and take care of business. That doesn’t mean it’s over, or that it won’t be stressful – that’s just a part of NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing. It wouldn’t be fun if it was easy, right? 

Jason Line made a pair of consistent runs on Friday and set himself up in the No. 4 qualifying position entering action Saturday. The driver of the blue Summit Chevy can secure his 50th Pro Stock victory by winning the Auto Club NHRA Finals, something he has been chasing all year – and in earnest since winning the NHRA Carolina Nationals presented by WIX Filters. 

“We have a great chance to win the race,” said Line. “It could definitely be a little bit faster right now, but I think we’re doing the best we can based on what the racetrack is giving us.”

Nobody has run quicker than Line during the Countdown to the Championship. Including Friday’s runs, Line is averaging a 6.571-second pass. That’s .002-second quicker than the next two cars in line (Erica Enders and Tanner Gray). While that might sound a bit like too little, too late, it’s encouraging as K.B. Racing prepares for next season. 

While Line is primarily focused on getting his car, and teammates Greg Anderson and Bo Butner, ready for the Auto Club NHRA Finals, it doesn’t hurt to think Line could contend in earnest for a title in 2019. The 2016 champ was very much an also-ran in 2017 and again in 2018, but a contending car next season, paired with a little more consistency on the Tree, might change that. 

“We can easily pick up two or three hundredths if the track gets better,” said Line. “We’re putting as much power as we can into it, but this is all the track will hold for now. Hopefully the track will get better – and normally it does. So, we’ll see what happens.”

Matt Smith got a great start toward earning his third Pro Stock Motorcycle title by setting an Auto Club Raceway speed record on Friday with a 200.65 mph hit. That also made him the third member of the Denso Spark Plugs 200-mph Club, joining Hector Arana Jr. and Eddie Krawiec – perhaps not coincidentally other riders he’s battling for a championship.

Smith leads Eddie Krawiec by single digits, and it’s impossible for him to make it 30 points, the number necessary to make it a full round lead. That’s why Smith is so dead focused on winning the race. Gathering as much data as possible (and making great runs) during qualifying can’t hurt, but the points matter less to Smith than getting down the track all four times – especially given the weather, which we discussed Friday.

“I thought my weather station was broken at first,” said Smith, after taking the provisional No. 1 spot. “I went and checked with Elite Performance, and they were getting the same results. I’ve never run in this dry air before, and so I threw some numbers together and it all kind of worked.”

In many respects, this resembles Smith’s chase for his first championship 11 years ago, when he won the Auto Club NHRA Finals to win the whole deal. 

“This would be our third championship, and back in 2007, we needed to win the race in order to win the championship,” said Smith. “So, this is pretty similar to that deal, and that’s kind of our goal. I’ll just let the bike do the work.”

Angelle Sampey endured a tough 2017 season while helping put together a new Pro Stock Motorcycle team with Cory Reed. That hard work began to pay off this season, particularly during the Countdown to the Championship. Sampey’s average e.t. is up to ninth-best in the category during the Countdown, and she’s getting down the track 84.4 percent of the time. 

“The engine program is definitely moving along,” said Sampey. “These engines are still new to us, of course. Last year was a struggle, and we didn’t know much about them. We had issues with parts breakage and stuff blowing up. We didn’t have much of a chance to learn anything, which we have fixed this year.

“Right now, we have stuff working, and we’re climbing that hill. Apparently, Matt Smith is a long way ahead of us, but I think we are headed in the right direction. The best part is that now we’re past the breakage, I think the fun has come back. That’s the reason we’re out here is to have a good time, you know? I just think that means the offseason is going to be great because of that.”

Sampey last won in 2016, defeating Jerry Savoie in Englishtown. That probably feels a lot longer ago than it was given how much has changed since then. Sampey assured us her next win will be extra special because of all the hard work Reed and new teammate Joey Gladstone are putting into the program. 

“It’s just so rewarding to put in this work and know you’re the one doing it,” said Sampey. “It’s a totally different feeling. So, when we get to that next win, and I know it’s coming, it’s going to be the best one yet.”

Sampey is currently qualified No. 12 and is chasing her first win in Pomona since 2004. 

Eddie Krawiec knows he has a great opportunity to capture back-to-back championships. He also knows qualifying points don’t matter at this point. Here’s what does matter: Getting his Harley-Davidson Street Rod set up correctly for race day. The Harley team has struggled with its 60-foot times all season, but Krawiec in particular has taken a step back recently. 

“We’ve been seeing times of 1.080 or worse basically, and honestly, it’s just been how our package has been responding to the new track prep,” said Krawiec. “But before the third qualifying session, we’re going to try something a little bit different. We’re going to throw something totally new at it and see if we can make a move.”

That change seems to have paid dividends. Krawiec ran a 6.789, making him the only non-Matt Smith rider to pull one off this weekend. He’s still a full three hundredths behind Smith, but that’s at least enough to show the Harley-Davidson squad they’re moving in the right direction. 

With Krawiec qualified No. 2 and Smith qualified No. 1, there’s a very good chance the pair won’t be able to meet up until the final – if they both make it that far. The defending 2017 champion is currently 10 points behind Smith and can pick up 30 points with every round-win. All that matters to Krawiec is the same thing that matters for Smith – winning the final race of the season. 

Easy, right?

PHOTOS


Matt Smith made the fastest Pro Stock Motorcycle pass in history, 201.10 in the day's first qualifying session and held onto the No. 1 qualifying position.


Smith's wife, Angie, had to sweat out the final qualifying session in the No. 16 spot, and will race her husband in Sunday's first round.


LE Tonglet will be among the riders who try to stop Matt Smith from claiming his third world championship Sunday.


Local favorite Jeff Arend qualified Peter Russo's entry in the Funny Car field.


Randy Bowers and Travis Salter were involved in an incident during the second round of eliminations in the Super Gas category during the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series portion of the Auto Club NHRA Finals. Bowers was in the left lane and made contact with the retaining wall past the finish line. The car continued and clipped Salter’s car before coming to a stop in the safety net. Salter was uninjured. Bowers was awake, alert and transported to a local hospital for evaluation.


With the conclusion of qualifying, Tanner Gray was crowned the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello world champion. At 19 years, six months. he becomes the youngest Pro champ in NHRA history.

PREVIEW

Leah Pritchett rode a streaking comet to a 3.64 to lead Friday qualifying, a run more than five-hundredths quicker than No. 2 qualifier and national record holder Clay Millican’s 3.702. The top three-quarters of the field is incredibly quick, from Pritchett down to No. 12 Terry McMillen at 3.794. The record bump in NHRA history is 3.808, set last year in Indy, but probably not within reach based on the career bests of the drivers currently sitting 13-17. Conditions should be great again today for quick passes, especially if we get into another twilight situation.

Last year, Robert Hight’s championship run was in severe jeopardy entering Saturday, and it took him until a masterful pedaling job in Q4 to make the field (albeit in the No. 15 spot), but the Auto Club driver made sure Friday that he wouldn’t face the same scenario this year by pounding out a 3.936 in Q2. Now it’s points leader J.R. Todd who might be in a bit of peril after clocking a pair of 4.20s Friday that are in now but might not survive two more sessions. It’s a similar situation to what Todd and the DHL team faced two weeks ago in Las Vegas, but there they bounced back with run of 3.91 and 3.92 Saturday. They’ll need more of the same today to keep their title dream alive.

Jeg Coughlin Jr. earned eight bonus points, cutting Tanner Gray’s Pro Stock lead to seven on Friday. In other words: the driver of the yellow and black Camaro did just about all he could to stay in the title race. He’ll need to do it again Saturday, and he’s going to need help. If Gray qualifies sixth or better, he will lock up his first title. Meanwhile, Coughlin must continue to rack up bonus points at a precipitous rate while hoping Gray does not. There’s no defense in drag racing, but Coughlin can hope his teammates (like Erica Enders) continue to race out of their minds to keep Gray near the middle of the pack.

Matt Smith enjoyed a similarly spectacular day, securing all eight bonus points and extending his lead over Eddie Krawiec to nine and keeping both LE Tonglet and Hector Arana Jr. three rounds behind him. Smith is focused on winning the race Sunday, but those little points could determine who wins the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship if the Elite Performance EBR rider falls short of that admittedly difficult task. For Tonglet and Arana, the goal is simple: Pick up as many qualifying points as possible and get ready for Sunday.