ELIMINATION ROUND RECAPS
TOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:20 a.m.): Every higher seed advanced to the second round, including Mike Salinas. The San Jose, Calif. native ran the quickest pass of the first session (3.736) to advance to a second-round matchup against point-leader Steve Torrence, who cruised past Bill Litton. It was a clean session, featuring strong runs by Clay Millican (3.769) and Leah Pritchett (3.786). Scott Palmer got the best of teammate Dom Lagana and Doug Kalitta defeated Richie Crampton in the other intrateam battle. Brittany Force fell to Antron Brown in the heavyweight bout of the first round, and that sets up a team fight between Brown and Pritchett.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Doug Kalitta; Mike Salinas vs. Steve Torrence; Tony Schumacher vs. Scott Palmer; Leah Pritchett vs. Antron Brown
FUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (11:53 a.m.): Robert Hight and tuner Jimmy Prock found the sweet spot on the Auto Club Chevy Camaro, running low e.t. of the first round and taking down Shawn Langdon to book a matchup with Tommy Johnson Jr. That has major Countdown implications as Courtney Force fell to Mike Smith in a major upset. The Advance Auto Parts machine smoked the tires at 330 feet and Smith took advantage. That opens the door for everyone else to catch up with the points leader. Ron Capps made another clean run, his fifth 3-second pass of the weekend, and will race Cruz Pedregon in the second round.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): J.R. Todd vs. Mike Smith; Ron Capps vs. Cruz Pedregon; John Force vs. Tim Wilkerson; Robert Hight vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.
PRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:16 p.m.): Tanner Gray qualified No. 1 and continued his terrific performance with the quickest run of the first round (6.557) to defeat Val Smeland and book a round with one of his best frenemies: Jason Line. Jeg Coughlin Jr. ran just a thousandth slower than Gray and will race Greg Anderson for the 88th time in their esteemed careers. Erica Enders got past her former nemesis, Alan Prusiensky, and will race teammate Vincent Nobile in the second round. All the higher qualified contenders moved on, as McGaha went by the wayside via his third red light of the season.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Tanner Gray vs. Jason Line; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Greg Anderson; Erica Enders vs. Vincent Nobile; Drew Skillman vs. Bo Butner
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:31 p.m.): It looks like Tim Kulungian found something in LE Tonglet’s Nitro Fish Suzuki. After struggling through the first three qualifying sessions, Tonglet went low in the first round of eliminations and will race Andrew Hines in a critical second-round matchup. Tonglet gets lane choice over the Harley-Davidson rider as he chases his second straight victory on tour. Angie Smith defeated Angelle Sampey in a wild first-round matchup that could prove crucial in her surge up the standings. She faces points leader Eddie Krawiec next, while Matt Smith gets upset-minded Steve Johnson after Johnson took down Jerry Savoie.
Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Matt Smith vs. Steve Johnson; LE Tonglet vs. Andrew Hines; Eddie Krawiec vs. Angie Smith; Joey Gladstone vs. Hector Arana Jr.
TOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:26 p.m.): Tony Schumacher will battle Antron Brown in an all-Don Schumacher Racing semifinal battle, and the pilot of the U.S. Army dragster will have lane choice. Schumacher defeated Scott Palmer by just .003 second thanks to his on-track performance after Palmer scored a holeshot advantage against the veteran racer. That’s the same margin of victory Steve Torrence defeated Mike Salinas by thanks to his 3.812-second pass. He’ll get a shot at Clay Millican, who ran low e.t. of the round yet again. That’s opposite of another all-DSR matchup as Brown defeated tire-hazing teammate Leah Pritchett.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Steve Torrence; Tony Schumacher vs. Antron Brown
FUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:39 p.m.): Tim Wilkerson is headed to his fifth semifinal of the season, and the driver/tuner/owner of the Levi, Ray and Shoup Funny Car has a date with Robert Hight. Wilk ran a 4.005 and will not have lane choice thanks to Hight’s staggering 3.946, the best of the session. The closest anyone got to Hight’s stout run was the 3.972 laid down by Ron Capps, who has now made three such runs this weekend. J.R. Todd will race Capps in the semifinals after taking down upset-minded Mike Smith in the second round of action.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. Tim Wilkerson; Ron Capps vs. J.R. Todd
PRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:48 p.m.): Greg Anderson just about ran the race of his life to defeat Jeg Coughlin Jr. The veteran racer ran a 6.595 and defeated Coughlin on a holeshot by .007 in an incredible drag race. That was one of a handful of amazing contests in the second round of Pro Stock competition, as Tanner Gray and Drew Skillman both won on holeshots over Jason Line and Bo Butner respectively. That sets up a pair of incredible semifinals as all four winners ran 6.59s to get into the next round.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Drew Skillman vs. Tanner Gray; Vincent Nobile vs. Greg Anderson
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:56 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec continued his march through the field, this time defeating Angie Smith. That sets up a matchup with Hector Arana Jr., the only other member of the Denso Spark Plugs 200-mph club. They ran at opposite sides of the sheet in the second round, as Krawiec put down a 6.853 and Arana ran a 6.885. The latter will need more than that in order to chase down his second victory of the season and make up ground on the points leader. That’s of little concern to LE Tonglet, who defeated Andrew Hines and now has his sights set on No. 1 qualifier Matt Smith, who took a step back by .02 second in the second round.
Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): LE Tonglet vs. Matt Smith; Eddie Krawiec vs. Hector Arana Jr.
TOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:47 p.m.): Steve Torrence defeated Clay Millican by .001 second to move into his sixth final of the season. That win, which came by a .014-second holeshot, sets up a duel with Tony Schumacher. The pilot of the U.S. Army Top Fuel Dragster defeated teammate Antron Brown in a wet-pipe survival battle; Schumacher won’t have lane choice in the final after making a 3.939-second pass. So, the quickest dragster in the semi’s (Millican) went home and it’ll be a battle between Texas natives in the Dodge NHRA Nationals final.
FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:51 p.m.): J.R. Todd made his fifth-straight 3-second pass to defeat Ron Capps and head to his fourth final round of the season. Todd is unbeaten in five Funny Car finals, and one of those came against Tim Wilkerson at the 2017 Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals. Wilkerson will try to get revenge in his second final round of the season after defeating Robert Hight thanks to a red light start. Regardless of the outcome of the race, Todd will leave with the points lead in the Funny Car category. He also has lane choice against the veteran racer.
PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:59 p.m.): Drew Skillman is finally back in a final round. He’s back in a final for the first time since the NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, the sixth race on the Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series schedule. He defeated Gray Motorsports teammate Tanner Gray, who encountered a problem down track and ran a 6.607 to Skillman’s session-best 6.573. Skillman will face Vincent Nobile, who defeated Greg Anderson with a 6.594 against a 6.614 despite the driver of the red Summit Chevy Camaro getting off the starting line first.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:02 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr. took down Eddie Krawiec with a 6.88-second pass to reach his second final of the season. That’s a big round for everyone chasing the Pro Stock Motorcycle points leader, especially Matt Smith, who beat a red-lighting LE Tonglet to get into his first final since Chicago. Smith has had one of the best bikes the past few races and finally parlayed that into a final-round appearance atop his Elite Performance / Stockseth EBR by running low e.t. of the event. He’ll have lane choice against Arana as the two battle for a very important 20 points. Okay, they’re all important, but these 20 come with a trophy.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (3:55 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr. moved up to second place with his victory over Matt Smith, the fourth in his career in final rounds (4-0), with a dominant 6.842-second pass. It’s also Arana’s second win at Maple Grove (the first was in 2011). Smith sat up on his EBR and coasted to a 7.306.
PRO STOCK FINAL (3:58 p.m.): Vincent Nobile smashed the tree with a .013-second reaction time and overcame a little bit of a wiggle at the 330-foot mark to defeat Drew Skillman for his third win of the season. The win is Nobile’s first since the NHRA Southern Nationals powered by Mello Yello, the seventh stop on tour.
FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:04 p.m.): J.R. Todd remained undefeated in Funny Car finals by running a 3.972-second pass, .003 second quicker than his semifinal run, to defeat Tim Wilkerson for the ninth time in his short career. Todd is the Funny Car points leader, has six Funny Car Wallys, and just earned the 100th win for Connie Kalitta. That’s a good day in the office.
TOP FUEL FINAL (4:12 p.m.): Steve Torrence took the first step towards his first championship by earning his first Dodge NHRA Nationals victory. He defeated a tire-smoking Tony Schumacher with a 3.819-second pass, his seventh 3-second run of the weekend, to earn his sixth win of the season.
Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Champions
Top Alcohol Dragster
Troy Coughlin Jr. def. Josh Hart
Top Alcohol Funny Car
Sean Bellemeur def. Phil Burkart Jr.
Tom Martino def. Jay Schonberger
Anthony Bertozzi def. Anthony Bongiovanni
Shane Oakes def. Anthony Fetch
Mike Robilotto def. Chris Garretson
Ray Sawyer def. Dale Koncen
Recap: J.R. Todd, Steve Torrence, Vincent Nobile and Hector Arana Jr. earned wins in Reading. (LINK)
Scott Palmer races pseudo-teammate Dom Lagana in the first round of racing, which doesn’t seem to bother the Top Fuel racer, now in his second year of Countdown to the Championship competition. The two will race heads up as Lagana is sponsored by another Tommy Thompson company and, despite not racing for a championship, is hunting for a victory.
Palmer made four consistent runs and ended up qualified seventh with a 3.779-second pass and an average run of 3.81.
“The first run was exactly what we wanted,” said Palmer. “The second run was not what we wanted but it repeated, we were trying for that 3.77 but it responded on the third run and it went down the track four times exactly like we wanted.”
Last season, Palmer treated the Countdown as a run-up for the 2018 season. This time around, he hopes to surge up the standings. The addition of Jason McCulloch to the team certainly helps the ambitions of the CatSpot team.
“Our goal is to move up the ladder during the Countdown,” he said. “If we can move up a couple of spots (from 10th) that would be a success. We’ve got Jason McCulloch over here and he says we should expect to run for a championship. That’s a lofty goal obviously, but you look at the pairings and there are some big point matchups in that first round. We need to get past that first round no matter who we race, and we’ll gain some points on some people right away.”
“But our goal is to come out here and win a race for Tommy and bring him a trophy. If we can do that we’ll move up the standings.”
Drawing Lagana, who ran a 3.792 in the final qualifying session and averaged a 3.797 on his final three passes of the evening, isn’t ideal for the Missouri-based racer. It does, however, ensure that one of the Thompson-sponsored dragsters moves into the second round.
“There are no easy draws out here,” said Palmer. “You’re going to race someone. We ran a 3.77, Dom ran a 3.79. We’re evenly matched. You just need to go out there and get down the race track.”
J.R. Todd entered the Countdown to the Championship with the ever-mystical momentum on his side after winning the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the most recent event on tour. The driver of the DHL Toyota Camry might have something even more valuable, though: a Funny Car on the rise.
“We definitely made some changes before the Indy race, where it’s still one of the most consistent cars getting down the track, but it’s also consistently quick,” said Todd. “It’s up there with the quick cars and that gives us a lot of confidence whereas before I would say that… the new track prep came into play (earlier in the season) because the quicker cars at times couldn’t back down enough and all that factored in.”
Todd has three wins on the season, two of which came in back-to-back events (Las Vegas, Houston). The second-year Funny Car racer qualified on 3-second runs at both of those events and Todd was the No. 3 qualifier at the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, but he entered the Countdown driving one of the slowest Funny Cars in the category.
He also drives one of the most consistent. That dichotomy is starting to change. Todd enters race day with the No. 8 qualified car a race after he secured pole position, making three-straight races he was a top-half qualifier. The Yella Fellas also come into race day with the sixth-quickest car in the class, having moved up a pair of spots over the course of the weekend. Only two Funny Cars (Ron Capps, Jack Beckman) are more consistent.
“I want to say the Indy test (is what gave me that extra confidence) because we left there despite never making full pulls,” said Todd. “I remember (NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor) Kevin McKenna asking me if we were concerned because we were .05 second behind the top guys and girls following the test session, and I honestly wasn’t because we never made full pulls and never ran in the best conditions where those other teams did. That gave us the confidence to be able to run when in the tough conditions.”
That paid off at the U.S. Nationals where Todd ran away from the field during the four elimination runs on Monday. It hasn’t been quite so convincing in Reading, as Todd has three bonus points to show for himself. Beckman leads with five, which gives an idea of how tight the category is this weekend. Still, Todd has acquitted himself well in the driver’s seat this year. He’s second only to Cruz Pedregon in reaction time and, despite a self-admitted error during Q2 Friday, is a rising star in the category.
“Just when you think you have a handle on driving one of these things, they throw you a big curveball that makes you ask yourself 'what the hell just happened'” said Todd. “Every time, I'm not saying every time, but you learn a lot in these cars. On Friday night we had a clutch system malfunction and I made a stupid driving decision and stayed in the gas way too long and wrecked a bunch of parts. It's awesome the guys stayed late last night and bounced back to be low of the third qualifying session. That's pretty cool."
Greg Anderson boasts the second-quickest car in the Pro Stock category with an average elapsed time of 6.583 seconds (including all runs quicker than 6.7 seconds) but he only has one win on the season and entered the Countdown as the No. 2 seed. He trails Jeg Coughlin Jr. in e.t. average by a thousandth of a second and has the most consistent car in the class with a success rate of 82.5 percent, meaning the red Summit Chevy Camaro gets down the track quicker than 6.7 seconds on nearly 83 percent of its attempts.
That’s all very good with the exception of the win total, and even that isn’t so bad when you consider Anderson got into the Countdown in second. Yes, he would like more victories (wouldn’t we all) and a little more to show for the tremendous performance of his hot rod, but there’s still time for luck to show him through.
“I feel good (about our chances), but obviously I’m disappointed we don’t have the lead. That just means we’ll have to do a better job than we’ve been doing,” said Anderson. “We had a spurt where we had a little momentum going where we’ll need to get a little of that back. Tanner has been running really well and we’ll need to force him to make a mistake in order to get back on top.”
Part of the problem for Anderson, and K.B. Racing as a whole, is that momentum and luck aren’t the entire story. Simply adding up reaction time and e.t. average tell a part of the story, and it’s not a good one: the team is being beaten on the Christmas Tree too often. That’s not breaking news to anyone who follows the sport closely, and it certainly isn’t news to Anderson.
“I’ve got to do a better job behind the wheel, it’s simple as that,” said Anderson. “You can’t just go out there and push harder because that doesn’t help. You have to find a way to relax and let things happen. Sometimes when you push too hard, bad things happen. So, you just gotta relax and things will work themselves out.
“What it really comes down to right now, the cars are all so even, is who has the best reaction time and which car 60 foots the best. Nobody is really driving around anybody anymore because nobody has a power advantage. So, you just gotta pop the clutch on time and make sure you make a good move at 60 foot. That’s the focus for the car guys, and the car guys have to leave on time. That’s just the price of poker in this class right now and I’m good with it, I just need to find a way to do that at the level I’ve done it in the past.”
That’s well said. Anderson boasts the best 60-foot time in the class (.983) but that can vary wildly from track to track and race to race. Reaction time tends to follow a more narrow band – and that tells a less positive story for the veteran race. Anderson’s average reaction time (.039) is below the class average
(.035) and it means he gives up more than a hundredth to racers like Erica Enders and Tanner Gray. That can easily be the difference in a final-round contest.
It’s important to avoid oversimplifying this, because Anderson is still exceptional at minimizing mistakes inside the race car. That’s evidenced by his shifting ability and single red light. That being said, he knows he needs to be better if he wants to lock up his first championship in nearly 10 years.
“I’m going to have to shift my focus towards (reaction times) and more towards a good focus on the Christmas Tree,” said Anderson. “I can still do it, I may not be able to do it 100 percent of the time like they can, but I got to be able to do it more than 20-30 percent of the time like I’ve been doing it lately.”
Erica Enders didn’t end up in pole position at the Dodge NHRA Nationals, but this is arguably the best she’s performed at the Reading event. The entire full-time contingent of Elite Motorsports qualified in the top half of the field, and Enders ended up third with a 6.55-second pass. She’s looking for her second win of the year and chasing her third championship – this time out of the No. 3 position.
“I’m very optimistic and very excited,” said Enders. “We’ve definitely, especially with Jeg’s car, picked up in the performance department. This is the first weekend since Epping that our car has really been running well. If we can just continue to be consistent and to make the runs that we’re making that the sky is the limit. I’m definitely driving better, too.”
It’s hard to know when Enders is struggling behind the wheel and when she’s flying from the outside because her reaction times are generally so consistent. It wasn’t a great weekend for the racer in Indianapolis, by her own standards, but this season has been generally very good for the two-time champion as she leads the Pro Stock category in reaction time average.
“I definitely have not had my best driving year by any means, I’ve struggled personally, and it’s definitely shown on the track,” said Enders. “But that’s what we’ve been known for at Elite, is our ability to leave and people will come against us and bring their a-game and that can be aggravating because they’ll go into the next round and drop a .070 but against us it’s a .00-something, which is a compliment.”
Enders averages a .023 this season after averaging a .025 in 2017 and a .021 in 2016. She contends her best season was 2015, when she won her second-straight title. That she may still have another gear to find should send a little concern down the spines of competitors in the Pro Stock category. The same goes for crew chiefs who haven’t had to go up against the best Camaro Elite has to offer.
“There have been weekends where the car has been great and then weekends where we’ve been outrun by .03-.04, so it’s been sporadic, and it does that for a lot of teams,” said Enders. “Tanner was on top last weekend and it’s not that he’s running badly this week, but it’s just something interesting about this EFI deal. It seems to go in cycles. When you hit something on the head it really seems to work. Hopefully this is our peak.
“I personally have never won at Reading, or even done very well, honestly. I think the best I’ve done is in 2015 and it rained one day, we blew up everything we had, something like four motors. Then we ended up losing in the semi’s because we shook – just one of those deals. I went down the list of all the tracks we haven’t won at, I think there are six left, and this is one of them, so I’m hopeful we can knock this one off the list.”
The other five active NHRA tracks Erica has not won at (in case you’re looking for a checklist) include: Atlanta, Denver, Gainesville, Richmond and Sonoma. In fairness to Enders, she probably let her good buddy Allen Johnson win in Denver all those years.
If the pile of green hats accumulating outside of Matt Smith’s trailer are any indicator, the purchase of that EBR has paid off. He has now gone to the pole at three-straight races and leads the Pro Stock Motorcycle category in average elapsed time with a 6.866. All that has come to fruition since switching to an EBR at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd just three races ago.
“We’ve got a lot of bonus points already this weekend and hopefully we can go some rounds tomorrow and put ourselves into a good position to win this championship,” said Smith, who has yet to win a race on his Elite Performance / Denso Auto Parts machine.
Smith began the Countdown in the third position but picked up nine bonus points in addition to the eight he scored for qualifying No. 1. That’s 18 points to Andrew Hines’ 11, meaning Smith is just three points back of second place as we head into the first race day of the Countdown to the Championship. There are worse places to be.
“We’ve got a fast bike, we just have to have a little luck on Sunday,” said Smith. “So, hopefully everything will come together for us to exchange this green hat for a yellow hat.”
The former world champ didn’t improve on his qualifying pass from the second session, attributing it to his tuning duties on his wife Angie and friend Ron Tornow’s machines. He doesn’t anticipate that being a problem on Sunday, though.
“We missed the tune up a little bit,” he said. “I struggled with the tune up a little bit, but to be honest I was more focused on getting Angie and Ron (Tornow) who are both in my camp into the show today. So, I’ll look at my bike again tonight and do some homework and see what we can get done.
“We’re racing my good buddy John Hall in the first round tomorrow, but hopefully we can just go a-to-b, put some kind of 6.80 on the board and see that win light come on. Anything can happen though, so we’ll see what happens.”
The rise of Matt Smith just as the Countdown to the Championship begins has not gotten to defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Eddie Krawiec. The Harley-Davidson racer trails Smith in average e.t. by .003 second and average reaction time by .002 second – a thin margin, admittedly, but it’s moving in the wrong direction at the wrong time of year.
“You really can’t worry about what anyone else does because as soon as you do that you’re in a bad situation,” said Krawiec. “We just need to stay focused, race and hopefully all race day luck falls our way. You gotta make your own luck, too, but it’s just about making the right calls at the right time.”
Krawiec pointed to consistency as the most important factor for winning a championship. If that’s the case, it bodes well for the Harley-Davidson team. Krawiec leads the class in success percentage, as he gets down the track a class-leading 89.7 percent of the time compared to Smith’s 69.2 success percentage.
“It’s about getting off the starting line and doing it as the track changes,” said Krawiec. “I don’t think it’s the tuning side of it. I think we have a pretty good handle on the tuning, once we get to our tuning window we kinda know where we are. Getting it off the starting line (is important), if you can’t leave clean you’re in trouble. Making the power work for you on the surface you’re on is important. The surface has been incredible this weekend.”
Smith is the No. 1 qualifier and races John Hall in the first round, while Krawiec will take on Jimmy Underdahl from the No. 2 position. The earliest they can meet up is the final round of competition.