The first qualifying session of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season is set for Feb. 9 at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com. After the 2017 season wrapped up with two first-time champions (and four first-time event winners), the 2018 season presented the opportunity for even more fresh blood. So, who are the racers most overdue to take to the winner’s circle both as event champions and as world champs in the class they currently compete in? Let’s take it class by class.
Steve Torrence won a third of the national events in 2017, but didn't come away with the big one. That's not a flash in the pan, either. The Texan has won 11 of the last 48 events -- the same number won by Antron Brown over the same time span. Defending champion Brittany Force has seven wins over the last two years, for a point of reference. His biggest competitor is Doug Kalitta, who holds the fifth-most Top Fuel Wallys (43), behind only Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Joe Amato, and Antron Brown. Kalitta only won a single race in 2017, but he reached three finals and ended up on the wrong end of numerous nail-biters (two of his losses were among the five closest Top Fuel finals of the season).
Scott Palmer made the Countdown to the Championship for the first time by keeping things simple and running a smooth, clean campaign. This year, he’ll chase his first win in any class by turning up the knobs a little bit. Palmer set career bests on multiple occasions in 2017 and will likely do more of the same as he transitions from a five-disc to a six-disc clutch on his CatSpot Kitty Litter Top Fuel dragster. Clay Millican and Terry McMillen both earned long-awaited wins last season, making Palmer the favorite to get the monkey off his back in 2018.
This is a tricky class, but I’m giving the nod to veteran Tommy Johnson Jr., in part due to his longevity and in part due to his success at the 2017 Auto Club NHRA Finals after switching to the six-disc clutch. Johnson and the Make-A-Wish team hit the ground running with the new setup, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll struggle after an offseason of tinkering. That put Johnson over Courtney Force, who enjoyed an explosive, though winless, 2017 season.
Note: This is restricted to drivers looking for their first event win in Funny Car, which is why two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car world champion Jonnie Lindberg remains eligible for this distinction. He edged out fellow former world champion (in Super Comp and Top Fuel) Shawn Langdon, who is switching to the flopper category this season. Lindberg has already advanced to three Funny Car finals, and I don’t think it will be long before a win light comes on in a final round for the Swedish driver. (OK, I don’t think it’ll be long for Langdon, either.)
My editor told me I couldn’t just write “Tanner Gray” 200 times and call it a day — but come on. The reigning Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner looked capable of winning the Pro Stock title a season ago, and he could very well win the darn thing in 2018. His reaction times are among the best in the class (Erica Enders remains the G.O.A.T. — sorry, kid), he works with some of the best equipment in the class, and at 18, he’s only going to get better as he gets older.
If you didn’t know Deric Kramer will race with KB Racing power in 2018, now you know. The fencer/race car driver returns with a Chevy Camaro for the new season and strikes me (not literally, I hope) as the most likely to pick up a Wally in a class that features some of the most exciting young talent in NHRA Drag Racing. He’s the king of the burnouts, and now he’s looking to add some hardware to go along with all those torn-up Goodyears.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
World Champ/Event Win
It’s time for Scotty Pollacheck to win one of these dang things. He didn’t reach a final last year, though he made eight semifinals, but that says more about the Pro Stock Motorcycle class than it does about the Oregonian rider. Only four riders took home Wallys (Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, Jerry Savoie, and LE Tonglet), leaving everyone else to play catch-up. Pollacheck finished fourth and looked spectacular with the Stoffer/Underdahl contingent.
He’s a lock as the pick for the first event win in Pro Stock Motorcycle category, and given how much he improved last season, Pollacheck looks like the right pick for the world champ category, too. Hector Arana Jr. made a bevy of finals but lagged during the Countdown to the Championship while Pollacheck excelled. In a tough class (perhaps the most competitive in the sport 1-10), Pollacheck finished fourth. In a season in which Bo Butner won a Pro Stock championship, the motorcycle rider from Oregon can at least make an argument for being the most improved racer in NHRA Drag Racing — that’s quite an accomplishment.