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CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals Friday Notebook

31 Jul 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Seattle

Preview | Features | Results

QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

anderson.jpgPRO STOCK Q1 (4:04 p.m.): Greg Anderson made the fourth-quickest pass of the season (6.503 seconds) and tied the 19th-quickest hit of the electronic fuel injected Pro Stock era to take the lead after the first Pro Stock qualifying session. And, perhaps most importantly to the driver of the red Summit Chevy, he earned three qualifying bonus points. All that because he was .002 second quicker than Jeg Coughlin Jr. and .007 quicker than second-year racer Tanner Gray. Every single K.B. Racing car destroyed the early numbers, which may prove to be a turning point for the racing shop as we move towards the Countdown to the Championship. 

lindberg.jpgFUNNY CAR Q1 (4:50 p.m.): Countdown hopeful Jonnie Lindberg scored three vital points for making the best lap of the first session of qualifying, a 3.995 that topped the closest competitor (Matt Hagan) by more than a hundredth. Shawn Langdon scored a single bonus point with a 4.009. A computer malfunction led to Tommy Johnson Jr. and John Force’s Funny Cars being shut off at the starting line. Johnson restarted his car and made a solid hit, landing him in the top half of the field, but Force's Funny Car wounded itself during the burnout forcing the team to wait to make its first hit during Q2. In other starting-line drama: Richard Townsend broke at the ready line and returned to the pits to inspect his flopper. Cruz Pedregon also experienced problems as “El Guapo” burst into flames near the stripe yet again [VIDEO]. 

clay.jpgTOP FUEL Q1 (5:13 p.m.): Clay Millican made a stupendous run to earn three points and, at least for now, take pole position. His 3.743-second run is .011 second superior to Steve Torrence and nearly two hundredths quicker than Antron Brown who each earned bonus points in the first qualifying session. That’s more than Leah Pritchett can say after her dragster almost immediately went into tire shake, leaving her in the No. 15 position with an 8.044 time. Scott Palmer is in the quick half of the field at his sponsor’s race with a 3.815 and an average time of 3.779 thanks to great conditions at Pacific Raceway. 

jeg.jpgPRO STOCK Q2 (6:46 p.m.): Jeg Coughlin Jr. slid past Greg Anderson with a 6.501, just missing the 6.40s, to claim the provisional Pro Stock pole on Friday night. His teammate Erica Enders earned a solo bonus point with a 6.506 while Anderson ran a 6.504 to back up his 6.503 from the first qualifying session. If things hold, Joey Grose will face Coughlin in the first round on Sunday as he made his first pass to the finish line in 8 seconds. Alex Laughlin also made it to the stripe for the first time and recorded a baseline of 6.541. That wasn’t enough to get him into the quick half of the field, w which is held down by Vincent Nobile’s 6.527. 

hagan.jpgFUNNY CAR Q2 (7:16 p.m.): A tremendous Funny Car session ended with Matt Hagan moving to the top of the heap in his Sandvik Coromant flopper on the back of a 3.913-second blast. He topped frequent sparring partner Robert Hight by .006 second and the defending champion’s teammate, Courtney Force, by .014. Jonnie Lindberg, who led the first session by dipping his toes into the 3-second range, dropped all the way to eighth and now holds down the quick half of the field. John Force is the bump spot with a 6.26, his first pass of the evening after a parts malfunction during the burnout in the first session. That leaves Terry Haddock and Jack Beckman out of the field. 

torrence2.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (7:41 p.m.): Steve Torrence jumped to the top of the Top Fuel pile with a 3.723, besting the run Clay Millican made in the first session by exactly two hundredths of a second. Doug Kalitta made a massive improvement from his first run to earn a pair of bonus points thanks to a 3.73. He will enter Saturday qualifying in the No. 2 position while Millican heads into Saturday in third on the back of his first pass of the weekend. Great conditions mean the quick half of the field, set by Brittany Force’s 3.785, will be tough to penetrate on a warmer day in Kent. That leaves nothing to be said of Torrence’s current No. 1 position. 

J_Coughlin.JPGPRO STOCK FRIDAY LOW QUALIFIER JEG COUGHLIN JR.: “The whole team is real confident right now, and I think that’s what’s important and what we’re trying to build on. We had a great run in Q1, 6.505, and really felt like if the stars aligned we could run in the .40s in Q2.

"It was off to a great start, .966 down low [60-foot time] which is one of our better short times, but it just drifted out of the groove to the let as I was getting it into second [gear]. I was just cracking the whip because I know we’d just lost some momentum. I was pleased to hear we got to No. 1 and that it held. We’ll sleep on that tonight and start pecking away at it on Saturday. We’ll definitely have to be on our best behavior to stay No. 1 and then make great calls in the pits Sunday and be good behind the wheel and have the racing gods in our corner like we did last weekend in Sonoma.” [VIDEO]

M_Hagan.JPGFUNNY CAR FRIDAY LOW QUALIFIER MATT HAGAN: “We had a really good run in the first session that put us in the back of the pack to make the tuning decisions. This new Dodge Hellcat body is doing really well, and the car is running better than what we’re trying to run with it. I think [crew chief Dickie Venables] went up there trying to run a .93 or so, to make sure we went down there, but we’ve been really impressed with the aerodynamics and everything else.

“Right now, it’s about dialing in the car and the new body. It’s going to take a few more runs but I think Dickie has a handle on it. The drivability of the car is good and its responding to the corrections I’m making. All in all we’re very happy with it.” [VIDEO]

S_Torrence.jpgTOP FUEL FRIDAY LOW QUALIFIER STEVE TORRENCE: “We’ve done well here before in the past and have some good data. It’s always fun to come here and race; it’s a little smaller venue than some of the places we go to and kinda like the place where I grew up racing at.

“We’re confident going into tomorrow. We’ll see how the weather pans out but coming out of the box and making a good run and being able to back it up on that second one, that builds our confidence. It was a good day.” [VIDEO]

Friday recap: Torrence, Hagan, and Coughlin grab top spots on opening day in Seattle

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Nick Duda, near lane, won the West Coast Grudge exhibition, driving his turbocharged small-block Chevy-powered ’63 Corvette to victory over Rett Bertellotti’s big-block-powered, nitrous-assisted ‘72 Chevelle.

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Super Stock racer Rodger Comstock was involved in an on-track incident during the first round of qualifying at the CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals in Kent, Washington. Comstock made contact with the right-hand wall and then coasted across the centerline and into the left-hand wall, before his Super Stock 2016 Cobra came to a stop. Comstock exited the car under his own power and has been transported to a local hospital for further evaluation. (animated gif)

FEATURES

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As the sponsored Top Fuel car of event sponsor CatSpot, Scott Palmer has a little extra weight on his shoulders. He’s been there before, back when O’Reilly was his car sponsor and also sponsored a handful of NHRA national events, but this time feels very different to him.

“Back then, we were just a car in the staging lanes, not a competitive car, and I don’t think a lot of people expected much from us,” he said. “Now we’re a top 10 car and that means we need to run like one. 

palmer2.jpg"I've struggled a little bit with my lights and part of that is in my head. Steve and Billy Torrence have been helping me a lot with my driving. You've gotta remember, I'm a guy who's raced in defense my whole life. Racing offensively takes a different mindset and I'm going to figure it out. We've got a car that runs strong and it's time for me to step up."

Palmer, who made the Countdown to the Championship last season, sits eighth right now with three events to go, and as good as he’s running, he’s not taking anything for granted.

“I feel good but it’s not solid yet because Indy is points and a half,” he said. “We’re only nine points ahead of [Richie Crampton and [Mike] Salinas is only like four rounds [78 points] behind us in 11th. We’ve got a better car than we did last year, but so does Salinas and Richie.

"I enjoy the pressure; I really do," he added. "But I can also tell you that once the car starts, I don't feel any more pressure than what I put on myself. I probably put more on myself than I should and that can be a problem because you can try too hard and do something that hurts 
the run. 
 
"I put pressure on myself because the car runs so well and I enjoy knowing that Tommy (Thompson, founder of CatSpot) will see us running well. I've seen people in my 15 years out here get a sponsor and never improve their performances so my goal here is to become a respectable, competitive Top Fuel car that can win races and I think we're there now."

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The destruction of Steve Torrence’s dragster and, with it, his championship hopes, last year in the Countdown playoffs event in Dallas taught the team that they need to have a race-ready backup dragster in the trailer. The Capco team began running its backup chassis in Denver and will run it through this weekend to ensure that if it’s needed, it’s completely ready to go.

“We found out the hard way last year that no matter how closely you try to build your cars, they’re never the same,” said crew chief Richard Hogan. “Even if the crash didn’t destroy so much of our control systems, you just can’t start all over with a new chassis. These chassis, especially the ones from [Morgan Lucas Racing] are almost identical, but you can’t make two cars exactly alike down to the control systems. The electronics are so dialed into the specific car that it’s hard to just transfer it from car to car. It’s better to have a complete second car ready to go and tested, so that’s what we’ve been doing.”

The team’s primary car, which won in its last outing in Epping, is being front-halved and will return to action in Brainerd; a third complete car awaits in the shop in Brownsburg, Ind. The backup car did not win in its first two outings, but Hogan has a lot of confidence that it can.

“You never know when you’re going to need to bring it out,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be because of a crash. The car could get damaged in the transporter or even going through the pits. You could knock the front end off going into the sand or grazing the guardwall. You just never know, but we know we could put this car back into service at any time with full confidence.”

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West Coast fans may be puzzled to see West Coast Funny Car mainstay Gary Densham on the entry list in Seattle after not racing last weekend in Sonoma -– which is much closer to his SoCal base –- but there’s a logical (and financial) explanation.

Densham, who was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame earlier this year, has been in the Northwest with his son, Steven, and their good-running Nostalgia Funny Car for the last several weeks.

“I try to get as many races for the dollar as I can,” he explained. “Some of my crew lives up here and some in Southern California, so there’s always places for them to stay in either place, but not in Sonoma. It’s a long ways down to Sonoma from here so it just made more sense to keep the car here than drive down then turned around an come back.

Densham even got to drive the nostalgia car at the event last weekend at Pacific Raceways and, showing that he still knows how to drive, he reached the final round, where he lost.

densham2.jpg“Driver error,” he conceded.

There’s a significant different between that car and his normal Funny Car. The nostalgia car runs a quarter-mile, with good runs down into the 5.70s as opposed to three-second passes to 1,000 feet in his Mello Yello car.

“They’re really louder, too; they run those engines to 10,000 rpm in the lights” he said. “Our car doesn’t even have the header cutouts or spill plates or other aerodynamics like a lot of cars. It’s even got a manual shifter still. It’s probably the most nostalgic of the nostalgia cars.”

After this weekend, Densham will head to Brainerd to run the event there as a favor to a longtime crewman whose home is in the area but won’t go on to Indy.

“I already rationalized that Brainerd is on the way home,” he laughed. “That’s drag racer geography for you.”

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Funny Car rookie Richard Townsend had a bit of a rough go last weekend in Sonoma, making contact twice with the guardwall in his fan-popular Nitroholic Toyota -– the second time ending up clouting the wall just before entering the sand trap -- just another curve in the learning road.

“We had made some changes to the air-line system in the car, but – my mistake – we didn’t check out our safety system. For the first time we put the parachute button on the steering wheel and I started relying on instead of a handle like I’ve always had. When they didn’t come out I didn’t want let go of the brake handle to go to the manual levers. Then I went over a bump and it kicked me sideways about 18 inches right before the sand trap. I didn’t want to turn it too hard and roll into the sand.”

Exacerbating the problem he had in Sonoma, the increased downforce created by the better bodies and 300-plus-mph speeds of the Mello Yello Funny Cars is also greater than Townsend’s former ride in a 250-mph nostalgia Funny Car; consequently, the faster car doesn‘t steer as well.

“It’s a really big difference, and because Lance [Larsen] crew chief has this car running 300 mph all the time, it’s something I’m learning. I had a lot of other drivers come up and tell me they had experienced the same thing, and remember to always get the ‘chutes out first. NHRA told me never to be afraid to put out both parachutes. I didn’t want to do that sometimes because we’d end up on the track, but NHRA told me they’d be happy to come get me everything.

“First thing we did when we came here was to run all of the systems with the body on it to make sure it works, then I spent about 10 minutes in the [cockpit] with my eyes closed to get used to doing it old school. I’m gonna be swiping the levers like before. It’s really changed our priorities. Before, our first goal was to always make the car fast; now it’s to have a safe car. It gives me a lot of confidence as a driver, too.”

“It’s all part of the learning process for us; fortunately we got away cheap,” he said. “We didn’t hurt the car badly and I didn’t get hurt.”

Townsend, a frontrunner for the Auto Club Road to the Future award as the season’s top rookie, will finish out his inaugural season in Dallas, Las Vegas, and Pomona.

“Unless we win this race,” he said, elbow-nudging the reporter. “Then we’ll go to Brainerd and Indy.”

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hartford.jpgThe CatSpot NHRA Northwest Nationals marks a significant anniversary for Pro Stock racer Matt Hartford. It was after this race last year that he stopped getting his power from Pro Stock icon Warren Johnson – he was the only one still using the multi-time world champ’s skill – and went a different route. He finished out 2017 with Gray power under the hood but after they couldn’t come to terms on a deal for 2018, he went with the powerhouse Elite team.

The impact of the change has been almost immediate and obvious. Earlier this year he won his first Pro Stock race, defeating engine “teammate” Erica Enders in the final in Houston and, despite missing five raced due to financial considerations and his important role at Total Seal, Hartford already has nine round wins this season, three times more than he accumulated in the previous two seasons and more than double his career total.

He’s 12th in points but because he missed that handful of races, a spot in the Countdown field is pretty much out of reach.

“Coming into the Western Swing I thought we still had a chance, but we needed Jason [Line] and [Deric] Kramer to have a couple of bad races, and they’ve had really good races. That kinda put an end to those hopes.

“But missing five races and even if you lost first round, that’s still 160-something points, which would have made a difference for us. If we had gone to all of them and won a round or two, I think we’d be eighth or ninth right now.”

Although he hasn’t won a round the last two races, he’s ready to start adding to his career-best season.

“We’ve stunk the last few races, but we’re going to fix that,” he said. “It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve been out here beating in the fire to do well, but at least we’ve seen the other side now.

Hartford’s Chevy is bannering local machine company Rottler on its sides this weekend. Rottler has a strong relationship with Total Seal, supplying all of the company equipment that does its cylinder-sleeve honing.

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It’s a true sign of the parity and tough competition in Pro Stock that Drew Skillman, who won four times last season, is winless this year, but he’s also got good company in former world champ Jason Line, also still looking for his first winner’s circle visit this season. Skillman at least has tasted victory, winning in his FS/A Mustang Stocker in Denver, but the Pro Stock Wally continues to elude him since his big win last year in Indy.

“Pro Stock is just so fricking hard,” he admitted. “It can be a nightmare. We have all the power we need, but if you miss anything, it makes a huge difference. You miss the clutch by a couple of grams or miss the shock adjustment, it just sucks. You can have a really great car one weekend and then not touch it and it sucks at the next race. It’s the most frustrating thing I’ve ever done.”

If there’s good news, it’s during this part of the mid/late season that his team normally excels. He won this race last year and then won Indy and was runner-up in Dallas.

“We’ve just been in a slump, which happens,” said Skillman, who has won just one Pro Stock round in the last three races. “But right now, I feel like we’re really close. We usually suck at the beginning and at the end of a season, so this is our time.”

PREVIEW

L_Pritchett.JPGExpect Leah Pritchett to come back with a vengeance after double-stepping the throttle and red-lighting in round one in Sonoma last weekend. Pritchett, who won the previous weekend in Denver from the No. 1 qualifying spot, had qualified No. 1 at the event before that (Epping) and then qualified No. 2 in Sonoma, clearly has the best car in the class right now. Clay Millican, who broke up her No 1 streak by qualifying low in Sonoma (his seventh of the season), points leader Steve Torrence, and resurgent sergeant Tony Schumacher figure to provide her strongest opposition.

C_Force.JPGFunny Car points leader Courtney Force is overdue for a return to the winner’s circle she lasted visited in Richmond six events ago. In the last three races, she’s lost in the first round twice and went to the semi’s once, clearly not indicative of the early-season performance of the Advance Auto Camaro, which has qualified No. 10 times in 15 events this season. A win by Courtney would not only right the ship but give John Force Racing its third Western Swing sweep as teammates John Force (Denver) and Robert Hight (Sonoma) have already clocked in with wins preceding this event.

G_Anderson.JPGEven though he’s only won once this season (at the Swing opener in Denver), Greg Anderson is the only driver in Pro Stock to have clinched his berth in the Countdown to the Championship, such is the consistency of his Summit/KB Racing Camaro. Anderson’s longtime rival, Jeg Coughlin Jr., has triple his season wins but just found his mojo as summer kicked in, while fellow three-time season Tanner Gray works to escape a three-race stretch of failing to make at least the semifinals.