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Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals Friday Notebook

Robert Hight (Funny Car), Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) are the provisional No. 1 qualifiers after the first day of action at the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals.
06 Apr 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
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Preview | Features | Results | Photos

QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

anderson.JPGPRO STOCK Q1 (1:11 p.m.): The first pro qualifying session of the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals is in the books and, naturally, Greg Anderson is at the top of the heap. The former champ ran a 6.669 to beat out Ken Black (a Las Vegas resident) teammates Deric Kramer (6.681) and Bo Butner (6.702), while Alex Laughlin (6.705) and Tanner Gray (6.71) rounded out the top five. Chris McGaha shook and sits at the bottom of the field, while Jeg Coughlin Jr.’s new-look Chevy Camaro only got him to the middle of the pack on its first trip down the strip.

hight.JPGFUNNY CAR Q1 (1:38 p.m.): Only two cars made it down the track quicker than 4 seconds, but a handful were within a few hundredths of the 4-second first as crew chiefs dipped their toes in the water during the first Nitro pass on the new four-lane strip. Robert Hight and crew chief Jimmy Prock made the best run, a 3.963 hit, while Ron Capps, the 2017 runner up, ran a 3.992. That’s a solid start on a track with virtually no data given the pavement is brand new now that the track is four lanes wide. Jonnie Lindberg (4.011), John Force (4.03) and Shawn Langdon (4.03) rounded out the top five. Cruz Pedregon smacked the center wall, which disqualified both his and Del Worsham’s times.

billy2.jpgTOP FUEL Q1 (2 p.m.): Billy Torrence, who went to the semifinals in his first appearance of the season earlier this year in Phoenix, is the low qualifier after the opening session with a 3.819 in the black-over-white Capco Contractors machine. World champ Brittany Force probably would have been low had not her Monster machine banged the blower before the finish line as she coasted to a 3.846 at just 301 mph. Phoenix runner-up Scott Palmer got the final bonus point for a 3.877 that currently has him in the No. 3 spot.

laughlin2.jpgPRO STOCK Q2 (3:48 p.m.): Greg Anderson is the provisional No. 1 qualifier (he loves Las Vegas, you already knew that), but Alex Laughlin has something of a bracket-racing machine through two runs on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His first pass was at 6.705 and his second was only .002-second slower with worse conditions; that time earned him a pair of bonus points. Anderson earned three bonus points in both sessions, so it’s been a perfect weekend so far for the veteran, while Deric Kramer and Bo Butner stood on times from the first session after day one. 

johnson.jpgFUNNY CAR Q2 (4:27 p.m.): A couple of solid passes by Tommy Johnson Jr. landed him the No. 2 qualifying spot after the first day of action, which happens to be his 50th birthday. His best run so far is a 3.983, which puts him .02 second behind Robert Hight, who is the provisional No. 1 qualifier at the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals. Johnson’s teammate Ron Capps is the only other driver to make a 3-second run so far, while Courtney Force (4.005) and Jonnie Lindberg (4.011) round out the top five. Perhaps most surprising is Matt Hagan’s placement on the bump spot with a 14.504-second pass. 

antron.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (4:45 p.m.): Defending event champ Antron Brown jumped to the top of the pack with a 3.772 in the day’s second pass with Doug Kalitta hot on his heels with a 3.786 and Leah Pritchett third with a 3.802, with all three field leaders coming in the second effort. First-session leader Billy Torrence slipped to fifth after failing to get down the track, and was also passed by Tony Schumacher, who zipped to a 3.817. 

G_Anderson.JPGPRO STOCK LOW QUALIFIER GREG ANDERSON: "I’m loving this event so far, and this place has always been special to me and the four wide makes it even more special. I’m excited to be here, I’ve had a great day with two great days in two great lanes on a great race track. I can’t say much more than that, I’ve always loved this track and I’m excited for the K&N Challenge, which is an event I’ve always loved, too.

"The bottom line is that you get a lot of data and a lot of expert opinions on it and we really hit it on the bullseye. From the information and data we got, we really put a lot of ingredients into the mix and that paid off for us. So, this challenge is what you want, you know? You don’t want everything to be the same and for it to be mundane. You want stiff challenges, just like majors on a golf course – it’s good to have stiffer challenges and I think our guys step up to that challenge."

R_Hight.JPGFUNNY CAR LOW QUALIFIER ROBERT HIGHT: “To come out on a green racetrack in the heat of the day and be the No. 1 qualifier says a lot about the work they put into this place. Our track guy, Lanny Miglizzi, says it’s the flattest track in the country."

(On testing in Bakersfield, Calif., between events): “It’s a good day when John [Force] and I can come back to the pits with the bodies on the car. We went there Wednesday --- we wanted our teams to spend Easter Sunday at home with their families, so they left Indianapolis Monday morning -- and we each made three runs and left there with a lot of confidence. We each made three runs and believe we have [the blower explosions] behind us now and we can concentrate on racing.”

(On what has been the mechanical problems they’ve had: “I don’t really want to say, but it was the same thing on both cars. When I blew up in Gainesville that was my 36th run of the year and we hadn’t had any issues so we thought it was some ‘disease’ [Force’s team] had that we couldn’t catch, and obviously it bit us, too.”

A_Brown.JPGTOP FUEL LOW QUALIIFER ANTRON BROWN: “We came out in Q1 and I think everyone underestimated the track. We thought it was going to be green and everyone was weak because they didn’t think there’d be much traction, We came back for the second round and got it back close to being a normal tune-up and it went right down the track smooth and easy. We’ll just keep pressing to make it better and better for Sunday.

“We haven’t been hitting our marks like we want this season and Vegas has always been a breakout race for us. We’ve been struggling and we’re still second, so imagine how we’ll be when we hit our stride. If I look at the first three races of the year, I feel like we could have won all three of them. We just didn’t execute what we know we’re capable of.”
 

FEATURES

antrom.jpgAntron Brown has a chance to reach a couple of milestones at this event as the veteran rider is poised to compete in his 1,000th round of racing and, if he can win three rounds Sunday, he’ll become just the fourth driver in NHRA history to win 50 Wallys in NHRA Top Fuel history.

Brown sits at 998 rounds, with an impressive career win-loss record if 681-317, or 68.2 percent. Brown competed in Pro Stock Motorcycle for the first 10 seasons of his career (1998-2007), compiling a 221-129 record (63.1 percent) but really upped his game after moving in 2008 to Top Fuel, where to date he’s assembled a superlative 460-188 record (70.9 percent).

Brown scored his first 16 wins on two wheels and 49 since on four wheels, and only Tony Schumacher (83), Larry Dixon (62), and Joe Amato (52) have more wins in Top Fuel. Since 2012, the three-time Top Fuel world champion has won twice the number of races (34) as the next highest Top Fuel driver, good pal Steve Torrence (17), in that time period.

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It’s been six months since Terry McMillen scored his breakthrough Top Fuel victory at last year’s fall event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but the popular driver of the Amalie Top Fueler is still reveling in the experience and looking forward to adding a four-wide Vegas trophy to his shelf.

Of course, it really a whole new track from when he won the Toyota Nationals last October, with two new lanes and refurbishing of the original two, so there’s a lot to be learned.

“It’s about what you’d expect from a new track; the first 750 feet or so loo real strong and the last 250 don’t have the rubber yet,” he said. “The sportsman cars are helping the starting line, but they’re not powerful enough to drag the rubber that far. It’s going to take a few sessions to get I right, but I’m still excited. I’ve had a lot of people come up to me who were here last year and saw me win.”

“We just need to get it running good enough early,” said crew chief Rob Wendland. “You get enough momentum and it’s not really a problem and in fact it can help us. We’ve seen tracks where we were spinning a little at the bottom end it helps us; it certainly helps us on tires. You look at a place like Phoenix [Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park] and it’s that way and we run big speeds there. It’s also a bit of an equalizer for teams like ours; you just can’t give it all the horsepower you have. You have to be a crew chief and finesse it down through there.”

Despite just one round win in the first three events, McMillen remains optimistic about the year ahead.

“The car is consistently running better numbers than we ran last year, but we’re just coming up short still,” said McMillen. “We ran a strong 3.75 in the first round in Pomona but got beat by [Tony] Schumacher’s 3.69. We smoked the tires in Phoenix then won our first round of the year in Gainesville with a 3.76, but we didn’t think that kind of number would hold in round two so we backed it down and got beat by Millican’s .75. It’s coming around though. Everything otherwise is going great; we just need to find our spot and get into a rhythm."

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Four-wide drag racing elicits strong opinions whether you’re asking a racer, a fan or, well, you get the idea. Getting the thought process of Leah Pritchett, who is trying to find her footing in the early part of the 2018 season, proved enlightening.

 “Some drivers feel strongly one way or another toward four-wide racing as a whole but, for me, I take the approach of, ‘How can you excel at something you don’t embrace?’” The racer said. “Can it throw all of us off our very much dialed-in precision routine? Yes. Are there larger chances for error? Yes. Does race-day mentality change once past the Christmas tree? Yes. Does it require a maximum level of focus? Of course. But that’s what the four-wide racing brings, beyond just the cars being physically lined up four-wide across.”

That sounds a lot like her U.S. Army teammate Tony Schumacher, who at least projects as much focus as anyone in NHRA Drag Racing. Schumacher brings a similarly glass-half-full approach to the four-wide format, which he has yet to win.

“One cool way to look at it is you only have to win three rounds – or finish top-two in the first two rounds and win the third – and you have yourself a Wally,” said Schumacher. “How many times have I won three rounds and not come away with a Wally?”

That’s certainly one way to look at it. There are only three rounds of racing with four cars in each round – the best two cars advance in each. That means you can sneak your way into the final before needing to win a round, adding another level of uniqueness to an already unicorn-like format. The Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals could be a get healthy weekend for Pritchett, while Schumacher is simply looking to capitalize on a solid start to the season.

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Bob Tasca III returned to full-time NHRA Drag Racing this season with Ford back on board and first-time crew chief Eric Lane turning the knobs. The Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals proved to be his best race so far, as the Rhode Island native qualified in 10th, his best position of the season. He also ran more consistently than he did in either Phoenix or Pomona, perhaps showing the team is headed in the right direction.

“We are really dialed-in on the warm weather tune-up,” said Tasca. “We made some great runs in warm conditions in Gainesville. It’s going to be in the mid-80s in Las Vegas which will play to our favor. We’re still going to have an opportunity on Friday night to swing hard.”

Tasca plans to test on Monday, which is common following both Vegas races, so the Quick Lane Mustang will get a handful of runs no matter the result on Sunday. His eliminations run in Gainesville was his first quicker than 4 seconds on a Sunday this season, but it came in a losing effort against Ron Capps. Still, that’s a positive move for the team in a loaded class. The next step is getting quicker, as the team is still significantly slower than most of the competition so far.

“I fully expect us to be in a position to be inside the top-eight in qualifying in Las Vegas,” said Tasca. “We want to qualify in the top-half. We want lane choice. I can't chalk up lane choice to any of our losses this year. However, I can certainly chalk up our first-round losses to not qualifying well. When you have one of the best running cars in Gainesville, but you didn’t hit the Friday night session right, that’s disappointing. We had the third-best car in Gainesville with (Jack) Beckman and (Ron) Capps. That’s what qualifying in the bottom-half will do to you on Sunday.”

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_NDB3427.JPGTim Wilkerson didn’t get out to the start he wanted in 2018, but with the season still very young the veteran racer feels there’s plenty of time to turn things around. Wilkerson is hunting for his first round win of the year and suffered some damage to his LRS Ford Mustang at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.

"We've had a lot going on since Gainesville,” said Wilkerson. “After we had the blow-up there, we brought the car back to [chassis builder] Murf McKinney, and he fixed it up. We got a new carbon fiber body because the other one was damaged. We have a new bottom end guy who was with us in Gainesville, and he's going to come to Vegas and we'll see about using him. There are a lot of things happening for us, but I'd like to think they're all good things, and that we're moving in the right direction."

The Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals offer a chance to get back on track for Wilkerson. He’s had success at the first four-wide event in Charlotte, but he’s not convinced that success will translate to The Strip outside of Sin City.

"We have a pretty good handle on that Charlotte racetrack, and I think that's why we've done pretty well at the four-wide race in the past. I don't know if that can translate to Las Vegas or not, but we're hoping to turn our woes around.”

When Wilkerson has gone down the track, he’s been quick, but that lack of consistency has been the thorn in the racer’s side thus far this season. So, with a new body and a repaired chassis he’ll be on the same footing as everyone else while checking out what’s effectively a brand-new surface in Las Vegas. That could give one of the best minds in the sport an advantage – time will tell.

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tj.jpgToday is April 6, and the 50th birthday of Tommy Johnson Jr. It’s also the birthday of one of his former car owners, drag racing legend Don Prudhomme, who also is here as part of the NHRA Legends Tour.

Johnson has had good fortune in Las Vegas, especially on his birthday weekend, scoring his first win as a driver for “the Snake” on his birthday weekend here in 2001 and won it again last year.

“I like this place,” he said. “Some tracks it just seems like you always do well at and some tracks you can’t hit your ass. I love this place, but never do good in Atlanta. We made it to the semifinals there last year and I felt like we’d won the race.”

T.J. also got a surprise when he walked out of the trailer this morning and saw his girlfriend, Amy, who had traveled stealthily from the Avon Ind., home to be here on his big day.

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campbell.JPGIt’s been a rocky start to the year for Jim Dunn Racing, qualifying on the bump and losing in round one in both Pomona and Gainesville and missing the field in Phoenix, but driver Jim Campbell nonetheless is optimistic about this weekend.

“No ifs, and, or buts – we’ve struggled,” he admitted, “but I think we’ve got it figured out, and we’ve got a new blower for this weekend,” he said. “Dom Lagana set it up for us and he knows blowers, so it should be good.

“We hope to go out and run a low 4.0 in the first session and then hopefully a three tonight. We’ve had a lot of clutch issues that was causing tire shake that I’m still learning how to pedal through it. I’m learning when to pedal and when not to. It’s OK to pedal through tire shake but no spin; that’s when you grenade them. Ans we don’t want that. I just listen to The Master and be The Grasshopper.”
 

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Former Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. enters the Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals with a new-to-him Chevy Camaro. After struggling for more than a year with the current combination, the Jegs.com team decided to switch things up with by bringing out a car previously driven by both Richie Stevens Jr. and Val Smeland.

“Richard Freeman recently reacquired it and we decided after our somewhat roller coaster start to the season to put it in service and see if we can't break free and run at the top of the class again,” said Coughlin. “We've got great racecars, lots of horsepower and championship-winning crew chiefs over here so our expectations are always very high.”

The team spend a few days testing in Tulsa to get the car tuned and ready for the fourth event of the 24-race season. With only one round win through three races, Coughlin is looking to get back on track with new pipe as he sits outside the top 10 heading into the first of two four-wide events. The racer has never won a four-lane event, something he’s looking to change this weekend.

“It's going to be a jam-packed weekend of drag racing," Coughlin said. "We've been fortunate to win our share of national events out there as well as the K&N race. That one always is pretty special because it brings the eight best drivers from our class together. You have to slay the giants to win
that one.

The specialty race has been kinder to Coughlin. He has appeared in the K&N Horsepower Challenge 14 times and won it twice, though his last win came in 2000. Coughlin won the Challenge in back-to-back years in 1999 and 2000, the first two years he participated in the specialty event. He’ll race Jason Line in the first round of action on Saturday.

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laughlin.JPGTwo of three elimination days have ended in red-light fouls for Alex Laughlin, prompting change for the driver of the Gas Monkey Energy Chevy Camaro. If there’s good news for Laughlin, it’s that all his lights have been tight to zero – whether he’s been green or red.

“I was actually just talking to Mark (Ingersoll), my crew chief, about slowing my clutch pedal down a little bit,” said Laughlin. “Even one of Bo Butner’s guy came over and was telling me, ‘dude, you’re .00 whether it’s red or green.’ Being red out there, I need to slow it down for the first time. That’s a good problem to have because if you’re .040 and that’s as good as you get, then that’s as good as you get.”

Tweaking the clutch pedal likely refers to adjusting the clutch linkage, something common in the Pro Stock category. You’ve likely heard racers like Tanner Gray and Erica Enders talk about the practice as they’re the best in the class at hitting the tree. Laughlin is in the middle of the pack this season with a .0363 reaction time average, but his two red lights tie him for the class lead with Deric Kramer.

Lining up for a four-wide race, of course, is an entirely different animal.

“It’ll be different because I always like staging second and I’ve got a really good internal body clock,” said Laughlin. “You’re not really counting them out loud, you know, you just kinda feel what 7 seconds is. And out here, you can’t do that because the first person lights their bulb and that starts your clock, then the second and third person light their bulbs and that kind of wants to reset you, but you can’t let it because it doesn’t reset the clock. So, now, I’m going to just have to stage first.

“I don’t like sitting there with my foot on the pedal waiting for somebody else to stage just because, my thing is, I like to roll in, push the clutch pedal down real hard, and then I’m right back off it. This time, I’m going to have to be holding on to it. I haven’t staged first in I don’t know how long, maybe a year, so we’ll see so how that goes.

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The Mountain View Tire team started its season on the right foot by qualifying No. 1 at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals and since then has a few round wins under its belt. It’s been more than a year since Vincent Nobile last grabbed a Wally, but the New Jersey native is confident the next one is coming sooner rather than later.

“I’m feeling pretty confident,” said Nobile. “Last weekend we missed the track a little bit, but we were fast. First round we were the second-quickest car by one-thousandth to Greg, who was No. 1. Then, we were all in the staging lanes when Matt Hagan and Robert Hight blew up, and we were there for an hour and the air got 2 percent worse. That just messed up our tune-up, so we slowed down a bunch and we lost lane choice and that kind of goofed everything up.”

Despite that, Nobile advanced to the semifinals and currently sits ninth in the points. With points as tight as they are this early in the season, there’s plenty of time to charge up the standings if Nobile gets that long-awaited win.

“I think we had a good weekend in Gainesville, naturally we go to every race wanting to win, but a semifinal finish isn’t bad,” said Nobile. “Unfortunately, in Phoenix we had some bad luck, had an electrical malfunction and the car wouldn’t start. Pomona was really good actually, we qualified No. 1 and lost a close race to Deric Kramer.”

Right now, Nobile is in the middle of the pack in terms of reaction time average (.0354) and elapsed time average (6.573) and there’s still room for the racer to improve. That’s great news given his hot start in new pipe after sitting out the last five races of the 2017 season.

PHOTOS

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Race weekend officially kicked off Thursday night on the Brooklyn Bridge of the New York New York Casino with the NHRA Fanfest, that included a huge autograph session.

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The Force team – Robert Hight and John, Brittany, and Courtney Force – were among the stars of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series that took part in the annual event.

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Fans have come out in record numbers to see the first four-wide event west of the Mississippi and get up close and personal with the race cars. Scott Palmer, the king of the throttle womps, always draws a large crowd.

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The crew for Gatornationals champ Richie Crampton prepared the DHL/Kalitta machine for the opening round of qualifying.

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Clay Millican is sporting a special paint scheme for event sponsor Denso Spark Plugs on his Parts Plus/Great Clips Top Fueler.

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The new four-wide layout of the The Strip at Las Vegas Motorsports Park has transformed it into a jewel in the Nevada desert.

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Four-wide action got the fans on their feet early. In this Q1 quad, reigning Funny Car champ Robert Hight, far lane, took the early qualifying lead.

big.jpgIn the Big Tire shootout, Giuseppe Gentile, second from top, took the win with his twin-turbo Mustang, fending off the challenges of, from near, Kevin Crain, Troy Baugh, and Mary Baltzell.

small.jpgRyan “Toaster” Jones, far lane, won the Small Tire challenge with his single-turbo 400-cid LSX -powered Chevy II, besting a quad that also included, from near, Jeff Young, Frank Yee, and Vic Brum.

jets.jpgTwo pairs of jet cars helped bring the day to a fire-breathing conclusion.
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PREVIEW

The Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide NHRA Nationals will bring four lanes of professional NHRA Drag Racing out West for the first time starting with Pro Stock qualifying at 12:30 PT. No racer has more than one win three races into the season, and if defending event champions Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) and Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) pick up victories only Gray will earn his second win of the year (and first in the four-wide format).

S_Torrence.JPGSteve Torrence will look to avenge a semifinal defeat against his good friend Brown in the 2018 running of the event. Torrence earned his first win of the season in Phoenix but fell in the first round after crossing the centerline in Gainesville. He currently leads the points over Brown by seven, and it’s tight at the top, as Torrence and Schumacher (fourth) are separated by only 19 points. The top five racers are separated by fewer than two rounds worth of points thanks to the relative parity in the early going. That should only continue as the elder Torrence, Billy, rejoins the action for the first time since his season debut at the NHRA Arizona Nationals.

M_Hagan.JPGThings aren’t quite as tight in Funny Car, where Matt Hagan holds a 21-point lead over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman, a 49-point advantage over Courtney Force and a 50-point lead over teammate Ron Capps. The first three are the three event winners three races into the season and Capps seems the most likely to get on the board of those who haven’t won a race yet. Of course, those close behind, Robert Hight and Tommy Johnson Jr., shouldn’t be counted out either. Johnson won last year’s two-wide race and Hight is the defending champion and have raced relatively well this season despite a little inconsistency. Still, it looks like Hagan and Beckman are the racers to beat in the early going of the season.

B_Butner.JPGThen there’s Pro Stock, where the entire top 10 is separated by fewer than 80 points. Bo Butner is in first place with 243 points and Erica Enders is holding down 10th with 79. The parity in the class can perhaps best be described in two key ways: First, Chris McGaha. The racer has been in third following his win in Phoenix, a higher position than he was at any point during the 2017 season. Second, Deric Kramer. He’s in fourth place three races into the season, a better standing than he was ever in a season ago. Their great runs early in the season, in addition to three different winners in the class, have kept things tight all the way through the naturally aspirated category.