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Dodge NHRA Nationals Friday Notebook

The Countdown to the Championship kicked off at the Dodge NHRA Nationals with Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car), Erica Enders and Matt Smith at the top of their respective classes at the Dodge NHRA Nationals.
14 Sep 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
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Preview | Features | Results

QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

jerry.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (1:33 p.m.): Matt Smith made a 6.828-second pass at 198 mph to leap to the top of the class to earn three points to kick off the Countdown to the Championship. He was followed by fellow EBR rider Hector Arana Jr., who was close behind with a 6.832. From there the times dropped off a little as Harley-Davidson rider Andrew Hines notched a 6.847. Things dropped off from there as Steve Johnson ran a 6.888 and Jerry Savoie had a 6.889. Ron Tornow held down the bump spot with a 7.357 as a handful of racers struggled with the race track in the first session. That includes Hector Arana Sr., whose bike failed to start. 

erica.JPGPRO STOCK Q1 (1:53 p.m.): Elite Motorsports dominated the first qualifying session, and no one did better than Jeg Coughlin Jr. The former Pro Stock champion ran a 6.555 to lead the field, followed by teammates Erica Enders (6.562) and Vincent Nobile (6.572). Many races struggled with the early portion of the race track, including Chris McGaha who sits on the bump spot with a 14.393. The cool track also proved fruitful for those at the top end of the leaderboard – it just so happens most of those racers are from the Elite Motorsports camp. That makes the second session all the more important for all involved. 

hight2.JPGFUNNY CAR Q1 (2:25 p.m.): Fast Jack? More like quick Jack Beckman, amiright? Sorry, but the driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Funny Car made a stellar pass to earn three bonus points and the top spot in the first round of Funny Car qualifying. He was followed by Tim Wilkerson, who earned two points with a 3.968-second pass. It’s fair to wonder whether Ron Capps would have been further up the table than fourth had his parachutes not come out sooner, but tuner Rahn Tobler has something to work with after a 3.996. Robert Hight (3.981) completed the 3-second runs from the first session, which were yielded thanks to great conditions. 

salinas.JPGTOP FUEL Q1 (2:52 p.m.): Nobody came close to the magnificent run laid down by Clay Millican and the Great Clips / Parts Plus team in the first Top Fuel qualifying session. His 3.747-second hit was .031 second better than Mike Salinas’ pass and another .001 superior than Antron Brown. Steve Torrence missed out on picking up a bonus point by .006 second. None of that matters to crew chief David Grubnic and the Doug Stringer-owned Great Clips team. It wasn’t the start to the weekend Leah Pritchett hoped for as the Mopar 1320 Top Fuel Dragster smoked the tires at half track.

rawiec2.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (4:33 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec did not bog. The defending 2017 Mello Yello Pro Stock Motorcycle champion made a 6.859-second pass to earn a pair of bonus points as the second-best run of the session. Matt Smith once again rolled his Elite Performance / Stockseth EBR to the top, though he did not improve on his e.t. from the first session. Joey Gladstone also earned a bonus point, a nice move in the right direction for the newly-minted Team Liberty racer. The struggles continued for Hector Arana, who did not get down the track; the same can be said for his son, Hector Arana Jr., who did not make an attempt. 

drewresized.jpgPRO STOCK Q2 (4:54 p.m.): Erica Enders made a nearly perfect run, combining a .001 reaction time with a 6.55-second pass to snatch the preliminary No. 1 qualifying position from teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. She moved to the top by .002 second, while Coughlin improved on his time from the first session. Drew Skillman and Tanner Gray formed a two-car Gray Motorsports bloc to follow them and Vincent Nobile rounded out the top five with an Elite Motorsports-powered machine (and a 6.572-second timeslip). The biggest shock after the first day is the location of Greg Anderson and Jason Line: they’re at the bottom half of the table with work to do on Saturday. 

courtney2.JPGFUNNY CAR Q2 (5:27 p.m.): Courtney Force rebounded with a killer 3.907-second pass to claim the preliminary No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car. The driver of the Advance Auto Part Funny Car did not get down the track successfully in the first session, but more than made up for it in the second. She was followed by Tim Wilkerson, who once again picked up bonus points in the Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang. The independent racer continued to rise the ranks while Cruz Pedregon’s poor luck continued Friday. Tommy Johnson Jr. (3.939) and Shawn Langdon (3.944) both bounced back to get into the top four, while Ron Capps (3.948) rounded out the top five. 

claysmall.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (6:06 p.m.): Nobody got past Clay Millican in the second qualifying session as the Tennessean stepped up to a 3.723, but Leah Pritchett came closest. She made a 3.758-second pass in her 1320 Mopar Dragster to move all the way to No. 2 after failing to get down the track in the first qualifying session. That got her past Mike Salinas, who slipped to No. 3 despite improving on his previous time. The number of 3-second passes increased as conditions continued to improve at Maple Grove Raceway and teams will have another crack at the exact same time on Saturday. 

Friday recap: Clay Millican leads Top Fuel qualifying as Courtney Force (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) lead respective categories at Dodge NHRA Nationals. (LINK)

FEATURES

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Brittany Force earned one of her Countdown victories at Maple Grove Raceway in 2017 and (obviously) hopes to do so again to kick off the 2018 playoffs. It’s unfair to the Advance Auto Parts / Monster Energy team to say Force needs to win in order to get back into the Countdown struggle (though doubtless some will), but a healthy weekend would at least show the team is capable. 

Low e.t. hasn’t been the problem for Force, but consistency has been. The dragster has gotten down the track quicker than 4 seconds 56 percent of the time, which is not quite up to snuff with some of the top-level contenders in the sport. That’s not going to cut it when it comes to making a late push for a championship. 

“This is a new start coming out of Indy, the biggest race of the season and the last race of the regular season,” said Force. “We locked into the Countdown and now the points have reset. It is game on and there are six races left. I have a new motivation and different energy going into the next six races. There is no room for mistakes. All you are concentrating on is getting the car down the track. We want to qualify well and go rounds on race day. That is the focus for Reading.”

“We have had great luck at Maple Grove Raceway in the past,” Brittany Force said. “We won there last season and we have been to a lot of final rounds there. It seems to be our track. We are hoping to turn some things around in the Countdown. We haven’t picked up a win since Houston. We are excited to get on track and drive this Advance Auto Parts dragster into the winner’s circle.”

The team tested at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis and made a couple of clean passes. The team seemed pleased with its results, though admittedly no team has talked about its displeasure with testing progress. At this point in the season, all Force can hope for is progress on the tune-up and a little bit of luck. The latter has not been on Force’s side this season. 

“This is a new start coming out of Indy, the biggest race of the season and the last race of the regular season,” said Force. “We locked into the Countdown and now the points have reset. It is game on and there are six races left. I have a new motivation and different energy going into the next six races. There is no room for mistakes. All you are concentrating on is getting the car down the track. We want to qualify well and go rounds on race day. That is the focus for Reading.”

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Steve Torrence finished the regular season with fewer points than he did a season ago, but the racer just might be better set up to make a run for a championship this time around. He’s got a better backup car, a deep staff and the extra year of experience in his back pocket as the Capco Contactors team prepares for the Dodge NHRA Nationals. 

“We’re further ahead than we were last year,” said Torrence. “We have a really good car right now, and we just need to stay focused on what we’ve been doing. We stumbled a little bit in Indy last weekend and went the other way on a tune-up call that could have easily parlayed into a second-round win and eventually another final-round or a win. 

“I’m as confident now as I’ve ever been because these guys I’m working with are unparalleled. Nobody has run away with it this year and some of the cars behind us are coming around, but we just need to maintain the course we’ve been on for the first 18 races.”

He has the quickest car in the category and the most consistent, followed closely by the U.S. Army Dragster piloted by Tony Schumacher, but he’s a hundredth off the reaction time lead. That’s an area he led for most of the 2017 season.

“The best I’ve ever driven was last year, but I’m not too far off either,” said Torrence. There’s a little bit of work I can do there. I’m going to do what’s gotten us here and try to.”

Billy Torrence will not race this weekend as he attends to business back home in Kilgore, Texas. They still have a blocker at the Dodge NHRA Nationals, though, as Dom Lagana makes his annual appearance in Reading.

“I don’t have my dad out this weekend and we use him as a blocker, we also use Dom as a blocker,” he said. “He has a lot of great stuff. Dom can go out and run what he needs to in order to help us. The whole Nitro Ninja team, the CatSpot team they’re all out here to help us. We’re not a multi-car team but we’ve got multiple cars out here that can help us. I think that it will be a benefit for us to have him out here this weekend.” 

That doesn’t mean blocker in the traditional sense, though. All three of the assorted Capco Contractors racers do not plan to lie down for each other if it gets to that point this weekend – or at any point during the Countdown. 

“I think that we’ve already shown that we don’t lay down for anybody,” said Torrence. “We’re going to race and if it gets to that point we’re going to go race. I don’t know how some of these other teams do it, but I gotta race that guy. He’s out here for CatSpot this weekend and that’s who’s paying the bills, not Capco.” 

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Robert Hight enters Reading, and the Countdown, as the defending Mello Yello Funny Car champ. He defeated Ron Capps and teammate Courtney Force on the final day of the season to capture his second title and things are shaping up to go much the same way this time around. 

“Courtney and I battled last year for the championship and we are in position to do it again this year,” Hight said. “The main goal for our entire team is for one of our Funny Cars to be the champion at the end of the Countdown. We want another Top Fuel championship too, but right now my focus is on that Funny Car championship. We were close to getting the No. 2 spot to start the Countdown but we are only 30 points back and I am confident with this Auto Club team.”

Hight and Force are tied on e.t. average and his Funny Car is just a little less consistent than some of the leaders in the clubhouse. He’s one of the most consistent leavers in the category and will once again be one of the favorites to take home the championship – especially since he has an opportunity to take home the first win of the Countdown. 

“Maple Grove Raceway is a very fast track and you can put up some killer numbers,” said Hight. “The weather has been really tricky with rain or cold fronts that really cost us qualifying runs or change the track conditions on race day. You have to do some serious guessing on the tune-up in those instances. We just haven’t caught a break there in the past few years. The bottom line is we have to perform in qualifying and on race day. Everybody is in the same situation.”

This should particularly be a friendly track to the Jimmy Prock-tuned Funny Car driven by Hight. That goes for a majority of the Countdown races which should (note: should) feature cooler weather than we raced in most of the Summer. Another factor in Hight’s favor is his ability to pick up bonus points all season, something that matters even more during Countdown when points are at a premium.  

“The key to succeeding in the Countdown is getting some of those qualifying bonus points and going rounds,” Hight continued. “Of course, you want to win races, but I think if you can consistently get two or three round wins every race you will put your team in position to win the championship at the Auto Club Finals,” Hight said. “There are a lot of things that motivate me and one of them is having so many of the races sponsored by Auto Club. Half of the Countdown races have ties to the Auto Club and we definitely want to do well and give our fans a great show.”

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Courtney Force didn’t get the qualifying start she wanted, a 7.752-second pass that landed her at the bottom of the Funny Car time sheet. She maintained her 20-point lead on first place because Matt Hagan also failed to get down the track – don’t worry, we won’t be live-tracking points like this every session until Pomona. 

“This is a track I’ve struggled at but came close to turning things around last year with our finals appearance. I know there’s a lot of potential here with the great conditions and record setting times that are usually here. However, being that we are coming to this track earlier than usual in the Countdown, it could definitely change the conditions we are used to,” said Force. “I feel that Corradi has had better experience on this track in the past and could definitely bring some of that insight to our car this weekend. We are hoping he is the missing piece that can get this car turned around on such a great track.”

That certainly didn’t come to pass in the first session which was feast or famine for most teams. Teammate Robert Hight made a killer 3.981-second run that earned him a single bonus point but was nothing compared to the 3.954 run by Jack Beckman. The cooler session later in the day should play into both teams’ hands as they lead the category in average elapsed time, and those bonus points could prove crucial down the stretch. 

“I’m looking forward to the fact that this is the first time Maple Grove is kicking off the Countdown to the Championship as race #1 and am hoping we can stay out ahead by the end of the weekend to further our points lead. Our Advance Auto Parts team is excited and ready to start this battle for the Championship.” 

Force finished the Countdown in third place after starting the playoffs in seventh a season ago. A much better start to the Countdown this time around gives her a leg up as the Advance Auto Parts racer seeks her first Funny Car championship. 

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tanner.JPGTanner Gray remembers everything. When the Pro Stock No. 1 seed says he enters the Countdown to the Championship more experienced, it’s not just a cliché or another way to talk about the muscle memory accumulated over time. Let’s start with what’s changed since the Countdown started a year ago in Charlotte.  

“Last year I felt like we were inexperienced in all aspects,” said Gray. “It was a learning curve for Dave to be a crew chief in that spot. I don’t feel like he was ever in a championship contending spot as far as having the points lead and for me it was a learning experience as far as it being my first year. 

“Now, I know what we need to do and I know what it takes to get it done. Overall, I guess it’s just a matter of having more experience than we did last year, and I feel like the car is running really well. We just need to not have any stupid mistakes and see where everything falls.” 

After starting the Countdown strong with a win in Reading, a win that served as the end of a peak for Gray Motorsports, the team fell off a cliff. The team swept the Western Swing and dominated the latter half of the regular season but was out of the championship hunt by the time the NHRA tour moved to Las Vegas. The cars weren’t performing, but Gray was hard on himself as a driver. 

“I didn’t think I did a very good job during the Countdown,” said Gray. “We should have won here when I shook against Greg, I had a red light in St. Louis and I lost to Drew on a holeshot in Las Vegas. So, I definitely didn’t have a Countdown that I was happy with. It’s just going to be about minimizing those mistakes and being stronger everywhere else, too.”

Remembering those mistakes is only worth how much it helps him improve. We’ll find out soon.

Oh, as an aside: Gray is in an all-white Camaro starting today. Keep an eye out for that.  

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Defending Pro Stock champion Bo Butner comes into the Countdown to the Championship in the No. 8 spot, a far cry from being the top seed a season ago. While that’s not where he wanted to enter the playoffs, he feels encouraged by the recent performance of his Jim Butner Auto Sales Chevy Camaro. 

“We have to win, not races necessarily, but we have to get to finals,” said Butner. “You have to take out the guys in front of you and that means you can win in two ways. You can win by both getting points and by taking points from the people in front of you. We just have a lot more work to do than we did last year. I feel good about it because I think our car is back.” 

Asked about whether or not the performance of his car over the course of the season (.015 second behind e.t. leader Jeg Coughlin Jr.) has forced him to gamble on the Christmas Tree, Butner had this to say: 

“Yeah, absolutely. You have to go up there and hit the tree real good,” said Butner. “Back in the day a .030 used to be good enough, but now you have to be in the teens or a .01 or better. So, yeah, it starts in qualifying. Then again you need qualifying points, too. So, you need to go in shallow or you need to practice hitting the tree.” 

Butner averages a .033 light, which is above the Pro Stock average of .035. It’s also behind the average set by leader Erica Enders (.023). Butner has turned on the red light twice this season, the same number of times as Enders. 

“You do pump yourself up (trying to hit a good light during qualifying), but I’m also getting pumped up by going out and chasing points,” said Butner. “A good race for myself and a bad race for somebody else really makes a difference.”

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Eddie Krawiec bogged during his first Countdown to the Championship run, which is an inauspicious start to his title defense. The good news is he feels confident about his ability to bounce back in the second round, in part because his teammate made the third-quickest pass of the first session. 

“We’re not going to bog during the second round,” he said while flashing a smile and pulling his helmet down over his head.

So, that conversation was over. 

Teammate Andrew Hines ran a 6.847 in the first round, just .019 second behind session leader Matt Smith. That’s something Krawiec’s bike can be tuned off of. Those Harley-Davidson motorcycles are nearly identical – Hines’ elapsed time average is a thousandth quicker than Krawiec through the first 18 race of the season, which should give an idea of how interchangeable they are. 

Krawiec all but locked up the championship at the penultimate race of the season in Las Vegas a season ago. He did that by reaching the final at nearly every race during the Countdown; the veteran doesn’t have to do that this season, but with the competition stiffening at the top of the pack, getting to the late rounds couldn’t start. He can start that off with a better qualifying pass in the second round. 

PREVIEW

The Countdown to the Championship begins at Maple Grove Raceway in a change from last year’s championship chase. Only two No. 1 seeds carry over from last year’s edition of the Countdown, adding another twist to the 2018 season. Cool, misty weather awaits racers at the start of the playoffs, giving crew chiefs a challenge at one of the most infamous race tracks on the Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing circuit. 

S_Torrence.jpgSteve Torrence enters not just as the top seed in Top Fuel, he also comes into the Countdown as the overwhelming favorite for the second-straight season. The Texan oozes confidence for good reason: He’s been here before and has even better equipment than he did last season. The back-up car Torrence has up in the trailer is better than the one the Capco Contractors team pulled out after a devastating crash in Dallas last season, so if the worst happens: this team is ready. 

C_Force.JPGCourtney Force last won at the Virginia NHRA Nationals in Richmond, which must seem like a long time ago for the Advance Auto Parts racer. That doesn’t mean she’s struggled, necessarily, but semifinaling your way to success certainly doesn’t feel the same as winning. There’s no reason to believe crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Danny Hood will struggle in Reading, a place that historically bends to those with big performance available. It all depends if the testing the team has done on-track in the past few races pays off. 

T_Gray.JPGThat isn’t a worry for Tanner Gray, who enters Reading with the mystic of momentum on his side in two doses. He won the most recent race (check) and the Countdown opener a year ago. We’re not sure if either of those things mean anything, necessarily, but winning is never a bad thing and the teenager is a damn superstar. His car, tuned by Dave Connolly, has recovered superbly from where it was at the beginning of the year (when he won the Gatornationals for goodness sakes) and he’s driving better than ever. Godspeed, everyone else. 

E_Krawiec.jpgThat leaves Eddie Krawiec, who looked like the favorite to win a championship for the second year in a row since winning the Gatornationals. He has competition, including his teammate, Andrew Hines, and LE Tonglet. But it’s hard to look past the Harley-Davidson Screamin Eagle Street Rod rider at this point. No one is as consistent a rider and no one, save Hines, has a more consistent bike. This is as close to a home race as Krawiec gets and whether that helps or not, it’s a little bit of narrative juice he’ll lean into all weekend.