ELIMINATION ROUND RECAPS
TOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:25 a.m.): Mike Salinas got the job done with his right foot to into the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in his career. His Tom “The Mongoo$e” McEwen tribute dragster smoked the tires at the same time as Wayne Newby’s Rapisarda Autosport dragster and both racers did a marvelous job pedaling, but Salinas’ dragster responded just a bit better. That put Salinas in the Countdown and bumped Richie Crampton out. Scott Palmer also qualified for the Countdown for the second year in his career thanks to Crampton’s first-round loss.
Second-round matchups (lane choice first): Blake Alexander vs. Mike Salinas; Steve Torrence vs. Terry McMillen; Clay Millican vs. Billy Torrence; Billy Torrence vs. Doug Kalitta
FUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12:03 p.m.): Tenth-place Tim Wilkerson was admittedly “damn lucky” to get past Del Worsham, beating the former Indy champ by just .001-second after both drivers were equally late off the line. Two pairs later, 11th-ranked Bob Tasca III, the only driver with a chance to bounce Wilkerson out of the top 10, banged the blower while leading the Wilkerson-tuned entry of Bob Bode to allow Wilk to secure his spot in the Countdown playoffs. As a result of all of that and his victory over Cruz Pedregon, Shawn Langdon also clinched his spot to seal the Countdown field. Langdon’s teammate, low qualifier J.R. Todd, advanced with a 3.996, the second-best pass of the round, but will not have lane choice as second-round opponent Robert Hight ran 3.985. Hight’s win moved him into second place in the standings.
Second-round matchups (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. J.R. Todd; Tim Wilkerson vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.; Shawn Langdon vs. Bob Bode; Courtney Force vs. Matt Hagan
PRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:16 p.m.): The top ten in Pro Stock was set during qualifying, but there was shuffling at mid-pack following the first round of eliminations. Five-time champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. moved from fifth the fourth in the standings following his win over Alex Laughlin and Jason Line’s victory over Vincent Nobile. Line also improved his position, from eighth to seventh. After winning the last two rounds of the 2017 U.S. Nationals via a holeshot, defending event champ Drew Skillman earned another when he cut a perfect .000 light in his win against Chris McGaha. Skillman entered the final day of the regular season as the No. 9 seed in the Countdown. In the battle for the top spot in the Countdown, both Greg Anderson and Tanner Gray advanced to the quarterfinals, to the gap between the two remains 13-points with Anderson clinging to the lead.
Second-round matchups (lane choice first): Bo Butner vs. Matt Hartford; Tanner Gray vs. Jason Line; Greg Anderson vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.; Drew Skillman vs. Erica Enders
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:40 p.m.): The battle for the final Countdown heated up during a thrilling first round of Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations. The drama began early in the first pair when Steve Johnson defeated Hector Arana Sr. in a battle of the class’ two most senior riders. The win allowed Johnson to move past Arana for the final Countdown spot. However, Johnson’s spot is not secure because Jimmy Underdahl score a massive upset when he took down low qualifier Matt Smith, who’s EBR bogged badly off the starting line. That set up a quarterfinal match between Johnson and Underdahl with the winner in the Countdown and the loser out of playoff contention. In addition to Arana, Joey Gladstone was also knocked out of playoff contention. All three Harley-Davidson riders, Eddie Krawiec, Andrew Hines, and Chip Ellis made it to the second round where Krawiec and Hines will race each other.
Second-round matchups (lane choice first): Chip Ellis vs. LE Tonglet; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Mark Paquette; Steve Johnson vs. Jimmy Underdahl; Eddie Krawiec vs. Andrew Hines
TOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:40 p.m.): Blake Alexander advanced to the semifinals for the sixth time in seven races by making yet another clean pass. The part-time team, sponsored by LoCo Cookers this weekend, will race Terry McMillen for a spot in the final. The Amalie Motor Oil racer took down the No. 1 seed headed into the Countdown, Steve Torrence, by just getting down the race track. On the other side of the race track, Doug Kalitta will battle the most recent winner on tour: Billy Torrence. None of the four remaining drivers have won Top Fuel at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals – that will change in a number of hours.
Semifinal matchups (lane choice first): Blake Alexander vs. Terry McMillen; Doug Kalitta vs. Billy Torrence
FUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:55 p.m.): Shawn Langdon, who won Top Fuel at Indy in 2013 and who is trying to become just the fifth driver to win the event in both classes, advanced to the semifinals and jumped into eighth place in the standings by besting Bob Bode but experienced a small fire underneath the body on a troubled 4.24. He’ll nonetheless have lane choice over Matt Hagan, who coasted to a 4.39 in beating points leader Courtney Force. Defending event champ J.R. Todd won his sixth straight round at Indy and will take on Tommy Johnson Jr., who has never won the U.S. Nationals.
Semifinal matchups (lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. J.R. Todd Shawn Langdon vs. Matt Hagan
PRO STOCK ROUND 2 (2:04 p.m.): In his second season in the Pro Stock class, Tanner Gray will enter the Countdown to the Championship playoffs as the top seed in the Pro Stock class. The order at the top of the field was determined during the second round of eliminations when incoming leader Greg Anderson lost to Jeg Coughlin Jr. on a holeshot, and Gray beat three-time world champ Jason Line. Gray will have a 30-point lead on Anderson when the playoffs start in two weeks in Reading, Pa. Gray is also in the semifinals of the sport’s biggest event and will take on defending Indy winner Drew Skillman, who defeated Erica Enders. The other semifinal pairing will feature Coughlin against reigning champ Bo Butner.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Bo Butner; Drew Skillman vs. Tanner Gray
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (2:12 p.m.): The winner-take-all battle for the final spot in the Pro Stock Motorcycle Countdown to the Championship went to Steve Johnson following his clutch win over fellow Suzuki rider Jimmy Underdahl. The win vaulted Johnson up to eighth during what is his 21st season in the class. Johnson will face 2010 Indy winner LE Tonglet who rode his Nitro Fish Suzuki to a win against Chip Ellis. The all-Harley battle between teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec went to Krawiec, who wrapped up the top seed with a close 6.90 to 6.92 win on his special edition Mello Yello Harley Street Rod. The quickest run of the round came from the Lucas Oil EBR of Hector Arana Jr., who came from behind to stop Mark Paquette, who led early with a .004 reaction time.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): LE Tonglet vs. Steve Johnson; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Eddie Krawiec
TOP FUEL ROUND SEMIFINALS (3:09 p.m.): Doug Kalitta advanced to his 100th career final round, his third career Indy final round and his first in 10 years. The last time Kalitta raced for a Wally in Indy, he did so against Tony Schumacher and came up short. The Mac Tools racer will chase his second trophy of the season, and he’ll do it against Terry McMillen. It’s McMillen’s first appearance in an Indy final and his fifth final of the season. Kalitta will have lane choice against McMillen as he tries to become the first Top Fuel pilot from Kalitta Motorsports to win the U.S. Nationals since Connie Kalitta did so in 1994.
FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (3:15 p.m.): J.R. Todd will get the chance to become the first Funny Car racer to win Indy back to back since Mike Neff in 2011-12 when he takes on 2016 event winner Matt Hagan in the final round. Hagan defeated Todd's Kalitta Motorsports teammate, Shawn Langdon, with a 4.129 to not only advance to the final but also to jump to second place in the standings while Todd bested Tommy Johnson Jr. with a 4.045 to earn final-round lane choice over Hagan.
PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (3:23 p.m.): Low qualifier Tanner Gray will face off against five-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Pro Stock title. Gray earned punched his ticket to his seventh final of the year and 14th of his career when he defeated defending Indy winner Drew Skillman by six-thousandths of a second. Coughlin joined Gray after a semifinal win against Bo Butner. Both Gray and Coughlin ran matching 6.651 elapsed times and Gray will have lane choice based on his faster speed. Gray has already locked up the top spot in the Countdown to the Championship while Coughlin can move to third with a victory.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:27 p.m.): Eight years after he announced his arrival to the spot with a U.S. Nationals victory and a Mello Yello series championship, LE Tonglet will once again race for the title at NHRA’s biggest event. Tongelt defeated Steve Johnson in the semifinals, 6.876 to 6.934 to move to the final round where he will face off against defending Indy winner Eddie Krawiec. Krawiec also ran a 6.876 in his semifinal win over Hector Arana Jr., but had a slightly faster speed than Tonglet so he will pick his lane in a Harley-Davidson vs. Suzuki final round.
LUCAS OIL DRAG RACING SERIES RESULTS:
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER: Josh Hart def. Dan Page
TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR: Sean Bellemeur def. Chris Marshall
COMP: David Rampy def. Greg Kamplain
SUPER STOCK: Dennis Steward def. Dale Hulquist
STOCK: T.C. Morris def. Jerry Emmons
SUPER COMP: Joe Hessling def. Gary Stinnett
SUPER GAS: Devin Isenhower def. Steve Hoyt
SAM TECH FACTORY STOCK SHOWDOWN: Leah Pritchett def. Mark Pawuk
TOP FUEL HARLEY FINAL: The final round showdown between Tii Tharpe and Doug Vancil to settle the championship started with the duo cutting identical .043 reaction times, but shortly after Vancil’s Vance & Hines entry began to falter and Tharpe rode his Spevco machine to the win light and the championship with a 6.44 pass for his fifth win of the season.
E3 SPARK PLUGS NHRA PRO MOD FINAL: Stevie “Fast” Jackson, who has won just about everything possible in the world of small tire and drag radial racing, scored the biggest win of his career when he drove his Shadow 2.0 Camaro to the Pro Mod title at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. The final round, featuring Jackson’s supercharged entry and the turbocharged Q80 Camaro of Jose Gonzalez, was far from perfect. Both drivers encountered problems but Jackson held on for the win with a 6.167 to Gonzalez’s 6.882. The battle was a rematch of the final round earlier this season at zMax Dragway in Charlotte where Gonzalez claimed his first career win after Jackson crashed his Bahrain1 Camaro. There have been six different winners in eight NHRA Pro Mod events this season.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (4:18 p.m.): LE Tonglet, near lane, claimed the 19th NHRA national event title of his career and his second Indy title by riding his Nitro Fish Suzuki to a final round win over reigning world champ and defending Indy winner Eddie Krawiec. Tonglet was slightly quicker at the start and made a better run down track to win by a 6.864 to 6.884 margin. Tonglet, the 2010 world champ, has now won three times this year in four finals including the recent events in Richmond and Sonoma. Tonglet will enter the Countdown to the Championship as the No. 3 seed in the class, behind Krawiec and his Harley-Davidson teammate Andrew Hines.
PRO STOCK FINAL (4:22 p.m.): Tanner Gray, near lane, ran the table at Indy by qualifying No. 1, and winning the sport’s most prestigious event with a holeshot victory over five-time world champ Jeg Coughlin in the final. Gray left first .003 to .023, and held on for the win with a 6.641 to Coughlin’s quicker 6.639. Earlier in the event, Gray overtook Greg Anderson to clinch the top seed in the playoffs. The reigning rookie of the year has now won 10 of the 42 events he’s competed in dating back to the start of the 2017 season. Gray has also won five times in seven final rounds this season and has a 36-13 record in elimination round this year.
FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:29 p.m.): J.R. Todd, far lane, knows how to win the big ones. The Kalitta Motorsports racer won his hometown race for the second-straight year, this time from pole position, to earn Connie Kalitta his 99th career Wally. He’ll enter the Countdown to the Championship in fifth place with a car that can take him to the top.
TOP FUEL FINAL (4:33 p.m.): Terry McMillen, near lane, hung with his run just long enough to capture his first Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals win. The Amalie Motor Oil Top Fuel Dragster driver went from the No. 13 qualifying position to the winner’s circle with a 4.037-second run, topping Doug Kalitta by just .007 second.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE WINNER LE TONGLET: “Eddie beat us in Reading last year and I haven’t forgotten. We had transmission issues but today we showed that we can beat him, and we can out-run him. In the final when I popped the clutch in the left lane it went immediately to the left and I just sort of kept it in the left tire track and I stayed straight from then on and we were able to get the round win. We just go up there and try our best and whatever happens, happens. It’s just a lot of fun having Jerry [Savoie] as a teammate and riding one of his bikes. They are so smooth and fast.
“That’s not the first time they [Vance & Hines] brought out a third bike out and the same outcome happened the last time they brought it out. They can bring as many as they want and we’re just going to knock them down one by one. They are labeled the kings, but we can outrun them, and we can beat them, but we have to be perfect. They haul butt in qualifying but on race day anything can happen and usually they slow down on race day and we tend to speed up. We’re going to do better than we did in 2010 and we’re going to come out victorious again.”
PRO STOCK WINNER TANNER GRAY:"I think the engine program is in better shape than when we were last year because I'm used to racing five or six races out of the week and that's kind of foreign to some of the guys out here. I honestly wish we could make more runs. So, this doesn't really affect me because I love racing. If it were up to me, we'd add more races to the schedule instead of cutting to it -- I know that wouldn't go over so well with some of the other guys, but that's honestly how I feel about it. This is my full time job and this is what I've wanted to do since I was a kid.
"This is one of the top wins for me as well as that Countdown win in Charlotte. That will always be a big one for me because I was a rookie going in there and there was so much pressure one. Everyone from the shop was there and both sides of my family as well."
On his dad, Shane Gray, getting emotional at the starting line: "I feel like I'm not a very emotional guy, you know? That can be good or bad. But I think if I win a championship I'll get emotional, but I think for my dad it was just a big deal to see me do something he did four years ago. It's just different to be behind the car and see someone else do something you did."
FUNNY CAR WINNER J.R. TODD:"It’s by far a dream come true. So few people win Indy, let alone go back-to-back. For whatever reason this year has just felt different. Last year, the confidence just wasn’t there but this year it just is. We went testing and things went well for us, so we were able to just come out swinging on Friday night. Truthfully, Friday night doesn’t mean anything, but we made those runs count. Then we made some great runs in the heat and that carried over again today.
"Funny Cars on a super-glued track are incredibly challenging to drive, but you throw in the new track prep deal that we’ve had this season and it takes it to another level. You cross the finish line with the steering wheel totally cocked to one way or another. A lot of the time you’ll smoke the tires just trying to correct the car. We were fortunate enough today to keep the thing mostly down the middle of the track."
TOP FUEL WINNER TERRY McMILLEN: "This is so surreal because this is one of the most prestigious honors out there other than winning a championship. Don’t get me wrong, winning Vegas with that being my first win ever was incredible, but to have your name on Indy. That you won Indy, that’s one of the biggest accomplishments that you can ever have. Hats off to my crew, because those were incredibly difficult conditions and they were able to give me a car capable of winning.
"I’ve always known that this year was going to be a good year. Could I have scripted that it was going to be this good? Probably not. Everybody is back for a second year, so we didn’t have to have boot camp and we had more time to spend on the computer and as we started to get momentum – this is our fifth final round – and so we really have some potential to be champions right now. It’s incredible."
TJ Zizzo proudly called himself and the rest of the Rustoleum Top Fuel Dragster team the best part-time squad in NHRA Drag Racing right up until Blake Alexander won twice on a part time schedule earlier this year. Giving up the belt, so to speak, to the Bob Vandergriff Racing-fielded operation meant swallowing a little bit of pride, but it doesn’t take anything away from one of the best part-time teams to ever roll out of the trailer.
The Rustoleum-backed crew qualified in the No. 8 position and will now race the LoCo Cookers dragster driven by Alexander in the first round of competition. Both teams ran relatively consistency throughout the weekend and qualified within .003 second of each other. Zizzo made his best pass in warmer conditions, but Alexander made one more 3-second pass than the Chicago-based racer.
“We’ve had a good hot rod for years,” said Zizzo. “This race car does not know if we skip events. All our guys have been together for a long time and we’ve been able to keep together for as long as 25 years, so that’s why this happens. When you take events off you forget stuff, whether it be from the driver standpoint, cylinder head standpoint or what have you. But because we’ve been together so long we can back each other up and get it done.”
Zizzo used to stretch his budget to a wider swath of races, but recently applied a more focused approach in order to hit the competition harder when he made his appearances. That pick-your-spots approach has paid dividends for the fan favorite, and he’s hoping he can do more of the same at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
To do so, he’ll have to beat a racer with the identical approach. Alexander won at his last stop on tour, the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals. The first-round matchup, which will likely be the first to hit the track on Monday, will be must-see action.
The Rapisarda team performed admirably on short duty during its 2017 stint, winning a handful of rounds and finding consistency while attending races from the U.S. Nationals all the way to St. Louis. An end date has yet to be finalized on the 2018 tour, but the Wayne Newby driven, and Santino Rapisarda-tuned, dragster is officially in the field at the 64th edition of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
“There are just a few little bugs popping up here or there, we had a little ignition problem in our fourth run,” said Rapisarda. “So, we’ve just been trying to get some data on a really hot race track.”
The team got the dragster down the track 61.9 percent of the time during the 2017 season with an average elapsed time of 3.824 seconds. That’s behind last season’s average of 3.789 seconds and 63.2 percent, but frankly those numbers are stout considering the changes that needed to be made in short order as the squad went from Australia to the United States.
One thing working in the team’s advantage this season is the new NHRA track prep, which more closely mirrors the prep used at league races in Australia.
“This is definitely more similar to what we have in Australia because over there we don’t have all that intense a track prep as we used to have over here,” Rapisarda said. “It’s still really hard because everyone is so competitive here obviously on a weekend like this. We just need to try to be on the edge of how good we can run.”
The team will try to take down No. 1 qualifier Mike Salinas in the first round Monday after qualifying with a 3.887. That is the only 3-second run the Rapisarda squad made during qualifying; but, if it’s any consolation, Salinas also made just one 3-second pull during five qualifying sessions. So, there’s some equity in the unknown for both teams on race day.
The regular season ends when the final pair of Top Fuel Dragsters head down the track Monday evening, but we already have a sense of the quickest cars in every category so far this season. One thing is for sure: Top Fuel has rarely been this competitive. Only five hundredths of a second separate the quickest dragster, piloted by Steve Torrence, to the slowest, driven by Richie Crampton.
Of course, referring to any Top Fueler as slow is something of a misnomer, but it’s especially true when Crampton’s dragster clocks in at an average of 3.847 seconds. That’s just .055 second behind Torrence’s Capco Contractors machine. Crampton enters eliminations in 10th place but with plenty of pressure to defeat No. 2 qualifier Clay Millican in the first round.
The two dragsters are separated by .046 second in average elapsed time this season, as Millican is tied with defending Mello Yello Top Fuel World Champion Brittany Force for tthird place in the category. It’s especially crowded at the top, as can be seen in the accompanying table. There’s no driver at the top of the sheet that can be taken lightly, no matter how the final day of regular season racing shakes out.
That makes race day a must-see event for any NHRA Drag Racing fan. What makes the Countdown to the Championship so exciting is the potential for crew chiefs to make their hot rods even better. Bobby Lagana, Richard Hogan, David Grubnic, Mike Neff, et al aren’t satisfied with the performances of their cars just because they’re at the top of the heap. They’re looking for the opportunity to put a gap on the field.
J.R. Todd’s No. 1 qualifying effort in Funny Car put him into a fairly exclusively club of dual-threat drivers who have grabbed the pole in both Top Fuel and Funny Car classes.
Also on the list, which dates back to the 1970s, are legends Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, and Kenny Bernstein; former world champs Gary Scelzi, Frank Hawley, Del Worsham, Scott Kalitta, Mark Oswald, and Gene Snow; 1970s stalwarts like Leroy Goldstein, Butch Maas, and Mike Snively; and more contemporary pilots like Tommy Johnson Jr., Jim Head, Melanie Troxel, Whit Bazemore, and Mike Dunn.
“I was backing up from my burnout [in Q5] and I look up at the big screen and the camera is one ‘Snake’ right there on the starting line,” said Todd, who previously had nine No. 1s in Top Fuel. “He’s always busting my chops, but it’s cool to have guys like that paying attention and reaching out, texting and calling, just to check up on you and how things are going. He’s on that list and was one of my heroes, and it still kills me that guys like that pay attention to someone like me.”
For what it’s worth, two of the last three Indy winners – Jack Beckman in 2015 and Matt Hagan in 2016 – won from the No. 1 spot. Last year’s winner came from the No. 6 spot and that was, of course, J.R. Todd.
Only four drivers -– Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ed McCulloch, and Jim Head -- have won the U.S. Nationals in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, but Shawn Langdon could very well join them this year.
The first-year flopper driver took the Top Fuel title at Indy in 2013 while driving the Alan Johnson-tuned Al-Anabi dragster and is well positioned to add a Funny Car crown to join the very elite quartet above.
Langdon, whose Tom McEwen tribute Global Electronics Technology Toyota qualified No. xx, has been steadily improving since the middle of the Western Swing, going from steady 4-teens to 4.0s and 3.90s and his reaction times have sharpened as well, from .081 early in the season to .066 over the last four events.
“It’s been a lot of things: clutch, engine, chassis, and me as a driver,” he said. “At the start of the season, I was fighting myself and the car was fighting me, too. In a lot of ways we started over around Sonoma. We made some chassis changes and some changes to the steering, and it really improved the drivability of the car. Before that, I felt like I couldn’t drive it. I’d steer too early and the car would be all over the track because I was mentally behind it and I was just holding on until the end of the run. It feels a lot more like a dragster now, where it doesn’t need as much input. Now when the car makes a move I feel I can get it back in the groove. I’m more comfortable now than I’ve ever been.
“I feel damn good about our chances. We’ve worked on some reaction-time stuff an that’s a lot better now. It’s been a slow progression, handling one thing at a time. I’m not saying that these guys aren’t good, but there’s no way they’re two-hundredths of a second better than me. I was .071, .063, .059 from dead shallow [staged]. It’s all starting to come together.”
Langdon also has a Super Gas win at Indy, in 2010, where he came close to becoming the first driver to win in two classes at the U.S. Nationals with a semifinal finish that year in Top Fuel, losing in the final four to eventual event winner Larry Dixon.
A Funny Car win thus would also gain Langdon entry to another exclusive Indy club: drivers who have won in three classes at The Big Go. Brad Plourd has won in Comp (2017), Stock (2013), and Super Comp (2005) while Scotty Richardson collected victories in Super Stock (2000), Stock (1996), and Super Comp (1995). “Ohio George” Montgomery also has won Nationals titles in three classes: Little Eliminator (1959 and ’60, when the race was in Detroit), Middle Eliminator (1963), and Super Eliminator (1969).
Antron Brown is the only NHRA competitor to win in two Pro classes at the U.S. Nationals, winning in Pro Stock Motorcycle in 2000 and 2004 and in Top Fuel in 2011.
Ron Capps is probably as tired of hearing about it as we are speculating about it, but here goes one more time: Will this be Capps' year to finally win Indy?
For whatever reason, a win at The Big Go has eluded one of Funny Car’s most successful drivers. That’s not to say that he hasn’t had success at Lucas Oil Raceway. He won the event’s companion Sunday shootout three times and also won the final round of the rain-delayed Brainerd event over John Force on a Saturday here in 2014.
Monday success? Not so much.
In fact, his runner-up here last year to J.R. Todd was the first time he reached the final round of the U.S. Nationals.
“I’ve been close over the years but we’re waiting on that one moment,” said Capps, who first visited Indy as a crewmember on several West Coast Alcohol Dragsters. “I think the Indy gods hopefully will let me get by.”
Capps has been associated with Indy winners throughout his racing career, driving for past winners Don Prudhomme and Don Schumacher and having Ed “the Ace” McCulloch as a crew chief.
Asked whether an Indy win would mean more to him that his 2016 championship, Capps waffled slightly.
“Ed McCulloch won the race what six times and he had told me at one point that those wins were bigger than winning a championship,” said Capps. “I’ve won a championship, and there’s nothing better than that, but until I win this race I won’t know; maybe it’s close or exactly like it or better. I know it’s a big deal, trust me.
“Some say make [winning Indy] a big deal, some say don’t. I asked Don Garlits, ‘Hey, what can you tell me that might help?’ And he said, ‘You’re doing everything right; when it’s time, it’s time.’ “`
Capps is not alone in not being able to be hoist an Indy Wally. None of Doug Kalitta’s 44 wins have come at Indy, and retired world champs Eddie Hill, Gary Ormsby, Mark Oswald, Chuck Etchells, Dick LaHaie, Scott Kalitta, Allen Johnson, and Jim Yates also never won at the U.S. Nationals.
The battle for the top ten is settled since Alex Laughlin cannot mathematically catch No. 10 seed Bo Butner even if he wins today’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. At the top of the field, the race for the No. 1 seed is far from settled with just 13-points separating Greg Anderson and Tanner Gray, who are first and second, respectively. Gray claimed 15 bonus points during qualifying to Anderson’s nine, but the deficit remains at less than one round of competition.
Anderson and Gray have also had the two quickest cars in the field and finished in the top two qualifying spots in the order. Gray will take on John Gaydosh in the round one while Anderson is scheduled to run Steve Graham. The short version of the points outcome is that Gray needs to win one more round than Anderson in order to enter the Countdown as the leader and it’s entirely possible that the two rivals meet in the final round.
“Qualifying didn't decide who will be the No. 1 seed going into the Countdown, but today will,” said Anderson. “All the cars are so even, and there are so many fast cars out here. It's like the scoreboards are stuck on 6.62. We started off real good, and then we just slipped a stitch each run. The track kept getting hotter, and there was more humidity and heat in the air. We just kept losing a little bit each session, and we knew that wasn't going to cut it. We made some pretty big changes before the last [qualifying] run on Sunday.”
“We figured we had to do something to put some performance back in the car,” Anderson said. “We were losing ground somehow to the field, so we did something different, and we hit the nail on the head. That will help all of the KB Racing cars. It's an easy change and a good lesson learned, so that will help us.”
In addition to his four NHRA Mello Yello series Pro Stock championships in 2003-05, and 2010, Anderson has finished second on seven occasions including the last three years.
The top ten Pro Stock qualifiers at Indy each ran 6.629 or quicker but surprisingly Matt Hartford wasn’t one of them. Hartford, who won his first Pro Stock event earlier this season in Houston, was disappointed that his Total Seal Camaro could muster only a 6.645 best. As a result, he’s the No. 11 qualifier and will battle No. 6 ranked Deric Kramer in the opening round of eliminations.
“We have the power to qualify in the top half of the field but we missed the good session on Friday night so here we are,” said Hartford. “All weekend we’ve been battling the first half of the track. The track temp has been hot and we’ve just missed the set-up. I honestly think we had the power to be as high as third or fourth if we’d made a really good run in the best session. It is what it is and we’ll just take our best shot today. We won’t have lane choice but I don’t think that’s a big issue. They both seem equal. Equally tricky but equal.”
“We’ve been fighting the clutch this week,” added crew chief Eddie Guaranaccia. “When the track temp gets this hot your tuning window is pretty small and we’ve been off a tick. And, when you get a field that is this close, that little hitch can mean the difference between being No. 3 or No. 11 in qualifying. It’s almost like rolling the dice; a total crapshoot.”
Hartford has run 11 events this year using engines leased from the Elite team and he’s qualified for all of them including a best of third in Chicago and Norwalk. In addition to his win in Houston, he’s got quarterfinal finishes in Las Vegas, Topeka, Norwalk, and Epping.
The dramatic highs and lows of Indy were on full display during Sunday’s final Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session when three-time world champ Angelle Sampey bumped Angie Smith from the field. Smith entered the final session on the bump spot and was first to make an attempt on her Denso Buell. She encountered a transmission problem after the burnout and despite the best efforts of her crew chief and husband Matt to fix the issue, she wasn’t able to make a full run. Smith was understandably devastated, knowing that at least one of the bikes behind her would likely bump her from the field. She didn’t have to wait long as Sampey was next up and delivered the knock out blow with a 6.940 that was good for the No. 11 spot in the field. There were tears on both ends of the track; tears of sorrow for Smith and tears of pure joy for Sampey, who has only failed to qualify three times in her entire career.
“I felt like that was going to be the last run I ever made,” Sampey said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen next year and if I wasn’t sure if we would qualify or if we would go to the Countdown races if I didn’t get into the top ten. It’s really emotional but I decided to calm myself and enjoy that run just in case it was my last run. I had all the confidence in the world in Larry Morgan’s power and my crew chiefs Ken [Johnson] and Derrell [Mullis] but I was just preparing myself mentally for it just in case. When I got to the top end and they told me I got in, it was super emotional.”
As if qualifying at Indy isn’t important enough, the sequence of events could also alter the landscape of the upcoming Countdown to the Championship points battle. Had Sampey not qualified, she almost certainly would have been bumped from the top ten. As it stands, she’s now ninth and has a chance to move up. Smith is eighth and could get knocked out should several riders behind her win the first round of eliminations on Monday.
“I almost gave up this weekend because I was so frustrated,” said Sampey. “Before that last qualifying run Ken [Johnson, co-crew chief] told me, ‘I’m not about to quit so don’t you quit on me.’ That was all I needed to hear. We made a good run and got in the show and that was huge for our team.”
Matt Smith’s 6.814-second, 199.14 mph Pro Stock Motorcycle run from Sunday afternoon is a legit contender for the run of the event regardless of class. Smith’s V-twin has been one of the best bikes in the class all season and he’s seen a marked improvement since switching to the sleek new EBR body at the last event in Brainerd. He delivered the quickest run in qualifying during what many had considered to be the slowest of the five sessions begging the question of what would the bike have run if he’d have made that run during Friday’s nighttime qualifying run.
“On Friday, I’d have probably run 6.77 or 6.78 and might have run over 200 [mph],” said Smith. “I just didn’t make a really good run until Sunday. We just had a few small issues with our bike and it took me a while to find them. This thing is mean. It’s hateful. This is probably the best bike I’ve ever had. I just need to be able to avoid bad luck and make four good runs today [Monday].”
Smith also spend time on Sunday consoling his wife, Angie, who was bumped from the field during the final session by Angelle Sampey. Even though Angie’s Denso Buell won’t be part of Sunday’s final eliminations, she’s very likely to remain in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, which is her primary goal. Angie entered Monday’s final eliminations as the No. 8 seed and could only be bumped out if she’s passed by three riders, a highly unlikely scenario considering the ladder.
“I told Angie that she’s going to be just fine,” said Matt. “Sure, she was upset and I don’t blame her but she’s done a good job this year and she deserves to be in the Countdown. As long as all the fast bikes to what they’re supposed to today, including myself, she’s going to be just fine as far as the Countdown goes. I sure don’t plan on cutting anyone any slack today.”
Matt Smith’s first round opponent is Jimmy Underdhal, one of the riders who could potentially bump Angie from the Countdown.
The SealMaster Track Walk allowed fans to take a stroll down the hallowed racing surface of Lucas Oil Raceway prior to the opening round of eliminations.
Two of the legends of the sport –- Jerry “the King” Ruth and Ed “the Ace” McCulloch –- took part in the Track Walk and were interviewed by NHRA’s Joe Castello. As the story goes, Ruth already had his nickname when McCulloch burst onto the Northwest racing scene, and figured that "nothing beats a King but an Ace" in selecting his own nickname.
Four-time Indy winner John Force and Ron Capps, who is still looking for his first Indy title, chatted prior to driver introductions.
Mike Salinas’ team posed for a “family portrait” celebrating their surprising No. 1 qualifying berth in Top Fuel.
Billy Torrence, who won his first Top Fuel Wally two weeks ago in Brainerd continued his winning ways but bowed out in the semifinals to Doug Kalitta.
Shawn Langdon, gunning to become just the fifth driver to win in both Top Fuel and Funny Car in Indy, advanced into the semifinals of Funny Car before the dream died.
Tii Tharpe, right, and Doug Vancil battled all season in the Mickey Thompson Tires Top Fuel Harley Series and the championship came down to the final round, where Tharpe beat Vancil to claim the crown. [Story]
Your 2018 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals champs, from left: L.E. Tonglet, Tanner Gray, J.R. Todd, and Terry McMillen
Here are the first-round matchups and brackets for all Mello Yello professional categories: