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Dodge NHRA Nationals Saturday Notebook

Courtney Force earned her 11th pole of the season, while Clay Millican (Top Fuel), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) all snagged pole position at the Dodge NHRA Nationals.
15 Sep 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage

Preview | Features | Results


eddie2small.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE (1:41 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec jumped all the way to the No. 2 spot by running the quickest lap of the session, tying Matt Smith overall on e.t. and trailing the rider of the Elite Performance / Stockseth EBR on speed alone. The two are matched up with 6.828-second passes. Hector Arana Jr. is behind the two with a 6.832 overall, but Andrew Hines earned the solo bonus point with a 6.873. That didn’t move him up the ladder as he’s qualified with a 6.847. The biggest movement came from the bottom of the ladder, as Ron Tornow, Kelly Clontz and Ryan Oehler all punched their ways into the field. Jim Underdahl, Karen Stoffer and Hector Arana have work to do. 

jeg2.JPGPRO STOCK Q3 (2:07 p.m.): Jeg Coughlin Jr. fell out of the top spot for a handful of runs before jumping back to the top of the Pro Stock leaderboard with a 6.545-second run. Those three points will come in handy after Tanner Gray ran a 6.548 which stood tall until The Natural chopped it down. The top of the Pro Stock sheet is bunched tightly as the top seven racers are separated by .02 second. Jason Line and Greg Anderson both stepped up into the quick half of the field, joining teammate Bo Butner in a three-car stack. 

stevesmall.jpgTOP FUEL Q3 (2:35 p.m.): Steve Torrence got back on track with a 3.762-second pass that snagged three bonus points for the Kilgore, Texas native. That’s the first time in three tries someone bested the David Grubnic-tuned dragster driven by Clay Millican. So, the Great Clips / Parts Plus machine got a paltry two points for their 3.766 pass and remains at the top of the ladder. Torrence is now qualified third, just behind Leah Pritchett who made a 3.799 run. Antron Brown earned a solo bonus point for making a 3.767-second lap. There are now 13 dragsters in the 3-second range, with Bill Litton holding down that bump spot (he ran a 3.908).

todd.JPGFUNNY CAR Q3 (3:04 p.m.): J.R. Todd made a stout 3.947-second pass to earn three bonus points, by far making the best run of the penultimate qualifying session. He was followed by Ron Capps (3.972) and John Force (4.007) in a session filled with cars struggling to get down the strip. Todd moved into fifth in the qualifying order, right behind teammate Shawn Langdon, and .04 second behind Courtney Force, who still holds down the No. 1 spot. The top 10 cars are separated by just .053 second as Matt Hagan sits in the No. 10 spot with a 3.96 and one session remaining. 

matt.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (4:35 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr. bounced back in the final session with a 6.84-second pass to earn three bonus points. That wasn’t enough to knock Matt Smith off the pole, but it was a get healthy session for the rider of the Lucas Oil TV EBR after a poor pass in the third session. Eddie Krawiec (6.848) and Smith (6.862) also earned bonus points and are stacked second and first in the overall qualifying order. LE Tonglet also made a strong run for the first time this weekend, snagging the fifth spot in the qualifying order with a 6.863. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Matt Smith vs. John Hall; Eddie Krawiec vs. Jim Underdahl; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Ron Tornow; Andrew Hines vs. Mark Paquette; LE Tonglet vs. Scotty Pollacheck; Joey Gladstone vs. Angie Smith; Angelle Sampey vs. Angie Smith; Steve Johnson vs Jerry Savoie

tanner_0.JPGPRO STOCK Q4 (4:59 p.m.): Tanner Gray snatched the pole right back from Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the final qualifying session with a 6.542, his second No. 1 of the season and sixth of his career. Those three bonus points go right to the bank as the points leader will get a chances to win his second race in a row and sixth of the season. Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr. also made strong passes in their Elite Motorsports Camaros to earn bonus points, while Greg Anderson took a step backwards in the final qualifying session. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Tanner Gray vs. Val Smeland; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. John Gaydosh; Erica Enders vs. Alan Prusiensky; Drew Skillman vs. Fernando Cuadra; Bo Butner vs. Kenny Delco; Vincent Nobile vs. Matt Hartford; Greg Anderson vs. Deric Kramer; Jason Line vs. Chris McGaha

millican.JPGTOP FUEL Q4 (5:32 p.m.): Clay Millican earned another three bonus points to finish the weekend with 11 out of a possible 12 bonus points. His 3.746-second pass did not move him up the qualifying ladder, but it did hold off all comers – such as Tony Schumacher (3.754) and Leah Pritchett (3.758) who are directly behind him in the run order. Steve Torrence earned a lone bonus point and moved into fourth with a 3.762. The quick half of the field is filled with 3.7s and all but the bottom three qualifiers made 3-second runs. That should make for a solid day of racing Sunday. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Jim Maroney; Tony Schumacher vs. Dan Mercier; Leah Pritchett vs. Audrey Worm; Steve Torrence vs. Bill Litton; Mike Salinas vs. Terry McMillen; Antron Brown vs. Brittany Force; Scott Palmer vs. Dom Lagana; Doug Kalitta vs. Richie Crampton

tj.JPGFUNNY CAR Q4 (6 p.m.): Tommy Johnson Jr. didn’t earn his first No. 1 qualifier of the season (Courtney Force earned her 11th), but he did get three bonus points by making a 3.921-second pull. A pair of Don Schumacher Racing Funny Car followed her as Jack Beckman (3.939) and Ron Capps (3.942) earned the remaining bonus points. John Force made a terrific run (3.945) to get himself into the No. 7 position. J.R. Todd holds down the top haf of the field after making a 3.97-second run in the final qualifying session. The top 11 cars made 3-second runs, which should make for a fast Sunday. 

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Courtney Force vs. Mike Smith; Tim Wilkerson vs. Terry Haddock; Tommy Johnson Jr vs. Jim Campbell; Jack Beckman vs. Cruz Pedregon; Ron Capps vs. Jonnie Lindberg; Shawn Langdon vs. Robert Hight; John Force vs. Matt Hagan; J.R. Todd vs. Bob Tasca

Saturday recap: Courtney Force secures 11th pole, while Clay Millican, Tanner Gray and Matt Smith kick off Countdown on top. (LINK)


Clay Millican picked up six points on Steve Torrence during the first day of the Countdown to the Championship; in other words, the Tennessee native enjoyed a perfect Friday. His crew chief, David Grubnic, employed an aggressive strategy to get the most out of the Great Clips / Parts Plus dragster during the first two qualifying sessions. 

“Our group of guys are incredible because we normally have a target,” said Millican. “Gruby normally comes to me and says ‘we’re trying to run x.’ But (Friday) he came to me and said, ‘I can’t tell you what to expect out of the car until we’re about to start it.’ 

“Our goal is 100 percent to get those three bonus points and because we were at the back of the pack because of being number two in points he was judging the tune up based on the way the other cars were running. The only car we had to worry about was Steve Torrence. Then in the other session we got to go last. That’s a little hard on the guys of course.” 

Most of the tune-up is already programmed into the car. The knobs have been turned, the screws have been tightened, the fuel is in the tank, you name it. But last-minute adjustments can be stressful as a car is being pushed towards the starting beams and a burnout is about to be performed. It’s a testament to the trust Grubnic has in his crew that they can pull it off. 

“Obviously, none of this matters if you don’t do well on Sunday, but at the end of the year those six points could be the difference between being a champion or not being a champion,” Millican said. “That’s what we want to be: champion.”

He’s off to a solid start.  

Terry McMillen is just a hundredth outside of the quick half of the field with a 3.809-second pass he made in the second Top Fuel qualifying session. The pilot of the Amalie Motor Oil dragster hoped for a little more, but now has a baseline to tune off of for the rest of the weekend after failing to get down the track in the first session. 

“We wish we had done a little bit better on our first run, but our second run was a 3.80 flat and while we were looking for a little more I think we can pick up on that today,” said McMillen. “All that matters is that we’re in today, nobody is taking that away from us today.”

He’s also playing crew chief for his son, Cam McMillen, who is making his first Jr. Dragster run at a national event Saturday. Cam turned five following Terry’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals victory and is now a licensed racer. 

“I’m a little nervous, but he’ll do fine,” said Terry. “He did great (during his licensing run at Lucas Oil Raceway) and as long as he makes that turn at the end, it’ll be fine.”

Both father and son will deal with the same track (relatively) – and it’s much different than the one Terry went down on Friday evening. McMillen is well aware of the tricky conditions crew chief Rob Wendland has to battle during the third and fourth session of Top Fuel qualifying. 

“It’s a whole different day because we’ve got the sun out today and some moisture coming up today with some direct UV right on the track,” he said. “So, it might be tricky today until the water bleeds out of the track. Honestly, I think tomorrow will be absolutely amazing, but we’ll see what we’re able to do today.

“Right now, we can’t run that 3.74 that Clay Millican ran last night. (Crew chief) Rob Wendland is picking at some things that will get us to that point one day, but we’re not there yet. As my time in the Countdown continues on, we’ll try to put us in that position. I’d like to see something like a 3.78-.76 today. It just depends on what the track does when we get up there.”

Shawn Langdon enters the final Funny Car qualifying session in the No. 4 position with a 3.944-second pass, but the Global Electronic Technology team could use a little more consistency right now. The Funny Car has only made it down the track once out of three sessions thus far, while J.R. Todd has two successful runs and three runs quicker than 5 seconds. 

Still, the newfound quickness is a reason for at least minor celebration for the team. Langdon’s average e.t. is 4.026, so anything in the 3-second range is an improvement for the Global Electronic team. More importantly, Langdon is currently running quicker than teams he’s run slower than most of the season. He’s the ninth-quickest car entering Reading and currently qualified fourth: you do the math. 

Okay, we’ll do a little math for you. Langdon already had a consistent car. He made it down the track 56 percent of the time, which is above the 50 percent mark that is the Funny Car average. But his Funny Car is dead average in e.t. (4.028 is the class average), so something that to change. 

“We’re trying to run more consistently,” said Langdon. “We have the potential to run with everyone or faster. It’s just a progression process on this tune-up that we got on a few races ago and we’ve made some progress with it.” 
This new progression process began in Seattle and came as a basic necessity of Kalitta Motorsports’ Funny Cars to step up. 

“We just couldn’t keep up with the other cars down low and any time we pushed it we would smoke the tires,” said Langdon. “We had a consistent race car, but we had to be four or five hundredths slower to have that consistency. So, we basically threw everything away to start fresh. That was a big gamble, but I think that was worth it.”

So far, that’s been successful for Langdon from a performance standpoint. It’s certainly proven valuable for Todd, who is qualified right behind his KMS teammate and won the most recent event on tour. If the two can go deep on race day, it’ll bode well for the duo’s championship chances. 

Vincent Nobile started the season just about as perfectly as possible. He grabbed pole position at the Lucas Oil Winternationals and went on to win the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals and the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello. He reached three final rounds in the first seven races of the season, but since then has been stuck in a semifinal rut. 

There are worse ruts to be in, of course. He enters the Countdown in fifth place and despite losing in back-to-back first rounds entering the playoffs feels his car is back. 

“We had a few issues after our early success this year that we struggled with for the longest time,” said Nobile. “We finally figured out what one of our issues was and I think we’re back. Certainly, the other teams have gotten better, not saying that we were better than the other teams at the beginning, but we were kind of behind the eight ball for a while.” 

Nobile started the weekend on the right foot. He went 6.572 and 6.576 and is qualified fifth while teammates Erica Enders and Jeg Coughlin Jr. are in the top two spots. The New Yorker knows conditions are vastly different Saturday and it’ll be tough for crew chiefs, though not impossible to pick up. 

“You know, today is a whole new today,” said Nobile. “The sun is out, and the track is drier, so I think it’ll be a little bit faster if the track can hold it. We made a couple of mistakes yesterday and I think we can improve but only time will tell.

“After yesterday, we started out good and made a good run. It’s always good to not start behin the eight ball. All the teams are pretty equal, there’s so much parity in the class and you go from race to race and it’s typically a new winner from race to race. Whoever makes the better call will win the race. Anybody can go No. 1, it’s just a matter of who has their act together.”

LE Tonglet won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis but knows starting the Countdown to the Championship with a victory will be equally difficult. That’s not to take anything away from the U.S. Nationals – but Maple Grove has not been kind to the rider of the Nitro Fish Suzuki. 

“We’ve struggled here in the past, but somehow we made it to the final round here last year,” said Tonglet. “What’s really important for us is that we get all four qualifying sessions in.”

So far, so good. Neither of Tonglet’s runs on Friday were anything to get excited about, unfortunately. He averaged a run of 7.067 seconds and is qualified 11th on the back of a 6.947. The quick half of the field is set by Angelle Sampey’s 6.903 at present. That is a mark easily beaten based on Tonglet’s history, but tuner Tim Kulungian has work to do. 

“If luck is on your side, you’ll be alright,” said Tonglet. “Every track we go to is different. It takes different gear combinations and different fuel. There’s just so much humidity here that it makes things a little bit difficult.”

Tonglet’s teammate, Jerry Savoie, made a pair of solid passes on the first day of qualifying and is qualified sixth with a 6.889. That’s something Tonglet’s bike can be tuned off. If the Louisiana native can get into the top half of the field, he’ll be dangerous going into race day. That’s something he’s proven time and again. 

notebook-bug.jpgoehler.JPGRyan Oehler is picking away at his tune-up, both at the Dodge NHRA Nationals and throughout his rookie season. The Illinois native builds his own engines, works on the bike himself and his rag-tag crew is currently sitting on the bump spot through three rounds in Reading. This is, in his own words, the most difficult thing he’s ever done – and that’s exactly why he’s doing it. 

“We came out here for the challenge,” said Oehler. “We want to be out here battling with 16 other riders every weekend.” 

Oehler certainly puts in the work. He tested before coming out to Reading, just like does before nearly every national event, in addition to working his 9-5 job. That’s something some racers have the luxury of not doing. When he’s at the track, it’s all business (er, motorcycle business, that is). 

“We’re experimenting a little bit to find that edge now that we’re out of Countdown contention, but on Saturday is when it’s time to get serious,” said Oehler. “The track was good on Friday night. Everyone should have improved in my opinion. 

“I can’t speak for the Suzukis because they perform differently in different environments, but there’s a lot of bite here and they perform well in low traction environments. We have all this torque and don’t know what to do with it. Here, this is a good day and a good track. We ought to be able to do something here.” 

Oehler improved by .005 second in the third session, which merely kept him on the bump spot. He’s up .017 on Jim Underdahl heading into the final session which is hardly safe given the three riders chasing him: Underdahl, Karen Stoffer and Hector Arana Sr. 

“Our goal is to go rounds and the only way it’s easier to do that is to get somewhere into the top 10,” said Oehler. “Otherwise you’re praying for a miracle or for someone to screw up. That does happen because it’s drag racing. Now going into the last five races it’s important for us to perform because we’re in the conversation for Auto Club Road to the Future Award and we really want to make a great case for ourselves.”
A great way to do that is to get himself solidly into the field. He’ll need to make a big jump in e.t. in the final qualifying session to do that. Going up a spot requires a .012-second improvement in the fourth session. 


C_Millican.JPGNobody had an answer for Clay Millican or tuner David Grubnic during Friday qualifying. The Great Clips / Parts Plus dragster made a pair of passes at 3.7 seconds, matched in that category only by Mike Salinas. Millican was quicker though, averaging a time of 3.735, while Salinas averaged a slip of 3.771. That sort of consistency did more than earn Millican six valuable bonus points (though that helps), it set the Tennessee native up for Saturday. Points leader Steve Torrence failed to acquire any bonus points, meaning Millican is now 14 points back of first as we enter competition on Saturday. 

C_Force.JPGCourtney Force failed to get down the race track during the first session but had no such problems during the second. The Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro ripped off a 3.907-second pass to go to the top of the sheet, bettering the exceptionally consistent Tim Wilkerson by .005 second. Force extended her points lead, but Wilkerson arguably had the best day of qualifying by being one of just three Funny Cars to post a pair of 3-second runs. Ron Capps (3.972 average) and Jack Beckman (3.974 average) also snagged a pair of 3-second passes and are qualified fifth and eighth, respectively. 

E_Enders.JPGElite Motorsports dominated the first session of Pro Stock and Erica Enders came back to launch another salvo in the second. Her 6.55 kept her at the top of the pecking order, while Jeg Coughlin Jr. landed right behind his teammate with a 6.552. The two-car Gray Motorsports team of Drew Skillman (6.56) and Tanner Gray (6.563) came right behind the Elite Motorsports duo and another Elite racer, Vincent Nobile, rounded out the top five. Perhaps most notably were the respective struggles of Jason Line and Greg Anderson, neither of whom cracked the top half of the field during the first day of competition. 

M_Smith.jpgYet another red machine led Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying, this one piloted by Matt Smith. He slowed during the second qualifying session, but his 6.828-second run during the first session was good enough to get him to the top spot. Hector Arana Jr. sat out the second session but remained in second with a 6.832, while Andrew Hines also failed to improve during the second session and say on a 6.847. Eddie Krawiec improved during the second session and jumped up to fifth with a 6.859. Kelly Clontz, Ron Tornow and Hector Arana Sr. are still trying to book their tickets into the show.