There are 12 Countdown to the Championship spots available over the four Mello Yello categories and 25 racers competing for them entering the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Some of those racers, specifically the 12 currently in the top 10, have a better shot at making the Countdown to the Championship than others. To help straighten things out before the Big Go kicks off on August 30, I’m taking a class-by-class look at the field starting with Top Fuel.
Let’s start with the basics, which are laid out in more detail here. There are 195 points available to all competitors at the U.S. Nationals thanks to a modified points and a half system (compared to the 130 points available at a standard NHRA event). Qualifying points are modified, as are points awarded for round wins and the bonus points given out after each round of qualifying. Let’s dive into the pro categories.
All the drama is at the bottom of the table in Top Fuel as Steve Torrence all but locked up the No. 1 seed at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd. He holds a 187-point lead over Tony Schumacher entering the U.S. Nationals, which means if both racers qualify in Indy, the chase is over and Torrence will take enter the Countdown with the No. 1 seed for the second year in a row.
So, let’s turn our attention to the four spots that have yet to be filled. Terry McMillen, Brittany Force, Scott Palmer and Mike Salinas occupy the seventh, eighth, ninth and 10th spots while Richie Crampton and Blake Alexander are in 11th and 12th, respectively. Alexander is 172 points behind Salinas and will be eliminated from Countdown contention if Salinas or Crampton qualify for the U.S. Nationals.
The battle between Crampton and Salinas remains much tighter. Crampton is only two points behind Salinas and can pass the driver of the Scrappers Racing Top Fuel Dragster during qualifying by either picking up qualifying bonus points for the first time this year or simply finishing higher in the ladder by multiple spots (and in the top half of the field). Here’s what the numbers tell us:
Crampton averages a .074-second reaction time and has one red light this season. That’s .004 second better than Salinas, who also has turned on the red light once in 2018. Salinas holds the edge when it comes to power, though. The San Jose, Calif. native’s dragster averages an elapsed time of 3.828 and gets down the track quicker than 4 seconds 49.4 percent of the time. Crampton, who will race in Craftsman Tool colors for the first time this season, averages a 3.847 e.t. and a 44.3 percent success rate.
Salinas holds only a slight edge over Crampton in terms of performance, and the Kalitta Motorsports racer has historically been one of the best leavers in the class. That makes this one of the best Countdown battles in recent memory.
Only three spots remain available in Funny Car, but the battle for them is more competitive than in any other Mello Yello category. John Force, Shawn Langdon and Tim Wilkerson are in the top 10 in varying levels of safety while Bob Tasca III, Cruz Pedregon and Jonnie Lindberg all hope to break their way in. I’ll start with the outliers: Force and Lindberg; specifically, the 16-time champion and 2018 Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals winner.
Force leads Tasca by 132 points and a first-round victory combined with a first-round loss by Tasca would punch Force’s ticket into the Countdown. That would not necessarily eliminate Tasca from the playoffs – but more on that later. Lindberg trails Wilkerson by 98 points and needs to pass Tasca and Pedregon, so he finds himself in a tricky situation as he approaches the U.S. Nationals. To make the Countdown, Lindberg needs to either win the race or reach the finals and dominate during qualifying. All that while Wilkerson and Tasca fail to leave the first round.
The story for Pedregon is very similar, though having 30 extra points means he only needs to pick up a pair of round wins while receiving some help. He can get to 867 points if he can earn the maximum points available, but it’s worth noting he’s averaging 30 percent of the total points available at the first 17 stops on tour this season. That means Pedregon would earn 60 points at the U.S. Nationals, far short of what he needs to punch into the playoffs.
Tasca holds the best shot at getting into the top 10 as he trails Wilkerson by 24 points and a car that has, at times, outperformed the LRS Ford Mustang this season. The AutoAlert Ford Mustang driven by Tasca averages an e.t. of 4.034 and gets down the track 51.2 percent of the time. That’s a bit quicker than the 4.047 of Wilkerson, but it’s not quite as consistent as the veteran (52.9).
Langdon isn’t quite safe in ninth place at 791 points, 44 markers clear of Wilkerson, but he’s a full 68 points ahead of Tasca. If Langdon takes care of business in Indy, the first-year Funny Car driver will have no problem reaching his first Countdown in the Global Electronic Technology flopper.
Let’s keep this short: Bo Butner leads Alex Laughlin by 189 points. When he makes his first pass at the U.S. Nationals, he will qualify for the Countdown to the Championship. That will fill the Pro Stock field. This is going to be an incredible Countdown field.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
There are a lot of open spots and a lot of motorcycle riders still mathematically in contention for those spots. Let’s put them into baskets with snappy titles.
Scotty Pollacheck is going to make the Countdown. He might not have officially clinched a spot, but he leads 11th-place rider Jim Underdahl by 137 points and would have to be passed by four different riders to fall out of the field. There are only 150 points available to the top rider if everyone qualifies at the U.S. Nationals, and that number only drops for the second-best rider and so on. To long, didn’t read: If Pollacheck qualifies, he’s in.
Angie Smith and Angelle Sampey are in a good position that can be made a lot better if they perform well in Indy. (And they pay me to write this!) Seriously, though. Both Smith and Sampey are on bikes that have performed significantly better since the Western Swing started and if they keep it together over Labor Day weekend, they’ll be just fine. Sampey is more vulnerable than Smith, but both riders are very likely to qualify for the Countdown. It’s the 10th spot where things get dicey.
Some Men Want to Watch the World Burn
Hector Arana, Underdahl and Steve Johnson (10th-12th) are separated by 19 points. Any of these veteran riders have a great shot at getting into the Countdown, though Johnson has the best shot based on the bike he has underneath him. He’s averaging an e.t. of 6.922 (class average is 6.904) and getting down the track 68 percent of the time. That’s not much quicker than Arana and Underdahl, but it is more consistent. Here’s where Underdahl has a big advantage: reaction time. Underdahl gets off the line sixth-quickest in the category with an average light of .035.
So, the Calculator is Saying There’s a Chance
Ryan Oehler, Karen Stoffer and Mark Paquette are all still in contention by the fingertips of their gloves, but it doesn’t look great based both on recent performance and simple math. I’m not denying the possibility of a great run in Indy, or the individual talent of the riders, but the bikes just haven’t been there so far this season and there are a lot of riders between where they are and where they want to be. It’s a tough road.
Watch Out for the Young Guns in 2019
Joey Gladstone had a bike capable of winning in Sonoma but a first-round loss to Sampey in Brainerd badly hurt his chances of making the Countdown. Then, the closest thing the National Hot Rod Association has to Adrian Wojnarowski broke that Gladstone will ride good friend Cory Reed's bike in Indy while the former rookie of the year would sit the Big Go out. That (obviously) removes Reed from contention and, in my eyes, all but sidelines Gladstone based on the performance of Reed's bike this season. Of course it could happen, and it'll be a great story if it does, but it's a longshot.