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JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals Sunday Notebook

Jeg Coughlin Jr. snagged his first Pro Stock victory in four years, while Matt Smith earned his first win in a couple years, Robert Hight won for the first time in 2018, and Clay Millican got his second win in as many races at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals.
03 Jun 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Chicago

PreviewFeaturesPhotos Results

ELIMINATION ROUND RECAPS

NDE_6029.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:23 a.m.): Luigi Novelli turned on his first win light since 2006 by defeating No. 1 qualifier Steve Torrence, who lost traction midway down the strip. His 4.003-second pass paced him to a victory, one of a handful of upset wins in the first round. Brittany Force and Tony Schumacher, the No. 2 and No. 3 qualifiers, also bowed out in the first round of competition. That was to the delight of Billy Torrence and Kyle Wurtzel who will move to the second round of action. Of note: Five of the eight second-round participants do not have Top Fuel trophies. 

Second round matchups (lane choice first): Doug Kalitta vs. Luigi Novelli; Clay Millican vs. Scott Palmer; Leah Pritchett vs. Kyle Wurtzel; Blake Alexander vs. Billy Torrence

NDE_6618.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (11:57 a.m.): The good news for J.R. Todd is he had the quickest elapsed time of the first round of eliminations. The bad news for the driver of the DHL Toyota Camry is he lost to Bob Tasca III, who drove around Todd thanks to a superior reaction time. That holeshot victory was much needed for the driver of the Motorcraft Ford Mustang. He won’t have lane choice over No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan, but it’s hard to imagine Tasca will mind much. After an upset-filled Top Fuel first round, almost every single higher-seeded driver won in Funny Car. The only lower-seeded winner? Robert Hight over Cruz Pedregon. Go figure.  

Second round matchups (lane choice first): Matt Hagan vs. Bob Tasca III; Courtney Force vs. Robert Hight; Ron Capps vs. Shawn Langdon; John Force vs. Jack Beckman

NDE_7530.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 1 (11:59 a.m.): Despite a very close field, the top eight qualifiers in Pro Stock all managed to make it to the second round including low qualifier Greg Anderson, who stopped David River with a 6.579, 210.93. The quickest pass of the round came from Jeg Coughlin Jr., who wheeled his familiar black and yellow JEGS.com Camaro to a 6.562, 210.50. Coughlin will be paired with Houston winner Matt Hartford in the second round. As another sign of the ongoing competitiveness of the class, the elapsed time for all eight winners ranged from Coughlin’s 6.562 to a 6.584 by Erica Enders.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Matt Hartford; Tanner Gray vs. Erica Enders; Greg Anderson vs. Deric Kramer; Jason Line vs. Vincent Nobile


NDE_7613.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:32 p.m.): A strong tailwind resulted in a dramatic performance improvement for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class with many riders improving more than a tenth of a second over their best qualifying runs. Chief among them was two-time world champ Matt Smith, who ran a 6.784, 198.34 to re-set low elapsed time of the event. Smith’s wife Angie followed suit with a 6.821, 196.99 on her Denso Buell. Low qualifier Andrew Hines was also impressive with a 6.801, 198.32 in his win over Cory Reed, who broke on the starting line. Hector Arana Jr. just missed another 200-mph run with a 199.02 run on his Lucas Oil EBR.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Angie Smith vs. Hector Arana Jr.; Matt Smith vs. Jimmy Underdahl; Eddie Krawiec vs. LE Tonglet; Andrew Hines vs. Ryan Oehler

NDE_7252.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:20 p.m.): Blake Alexander’s impressive day continued with a triumph over tough customer Billy Torrence in the second round of action. That gets him a rematch against Leah Pritchett, who Alexander lost to in the final of the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello. He red-lit in that round, something he’s looking to redeem himself for – he’ll get his chance in the semifinals. After a strange delay, Clay Millican and Scott Palmer faced off with the Topeka winner (Millican) turning on the win light (and throwing off the blower belt). So, there’s a chance we’ll get a repeat winner this weekend. 

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Doug Kalitta vs. Clay Millican; Leah Pritchett vs. Blake Alexander

NDE_7436.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:34 p.m.): Robert Hight made his best pass of the weekend and beat John Force Racing teammate Courtney Force with a holeshot. A .063 reaction time did the job and the 2017 Funny Car world champion will have a crack at Bob Tasca III in the semifinals. Hight’s 4.064 elapsed time is good enough to get him lane choice over Tasca for what it’s worth – the driver of the Southern California Auto Club Chevy is hoping to get his first Wally of the season. Oh, and John Force and Ron Capps will race in the other semifinal in case you wanted a reason to watch later. 

Semifinal matchups (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. Bob Tasca III; Ron Capps vs. John Force

NDE_7540.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:40 p.m.): For the third time in the last four races, Greg Anderson has reached the semifinals. Anderson, the low qualifier, put his Summit Camaro into the final four after a 6.618 to 6.595 holeshot win over Topeka champ and teammate Deric Kramer. After such a dramatic fall off in performance, Anderson joked that he might have gotten into the wrong car this morning. He won’t have lane choice in the semifinals when he faces Vincent Nobile. The highlight of the round was the match between rivals Erica Enders and Tanner Gray. The two bitter rivals matched each other with .006 reaction times and Gray was inches ahead at the finish, .6.600 to 6.601. Jeg Coughlin Jr. will face Gray with lane choice after making the quickest pass of the round with a 6.567.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Vincent Nobile vs. Greg Anderson; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Tanner Gray

NDE_6786.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:45 p.m.): Fans in Chicago got to see the sport’s third official 200-mph Pro Stock Motorcycle run after Hector Arana Jr. rode his Lucas Oil EBR to a 6.793, 200.89 in his win over Angie Smith. Arana Jr. was the first and so far only rider to eclipse the double-century mark earlier this season in Gainesville. There will be a new winner this season after Eddie Krawiec fouled out against 2010 world champ LE Tonglet. Krawiec had won two of the first three races this season. Two-time world champ Matt Smith made the quickest run of the round with a 6.788, 198.96 in his win over Jimmy Underdahl, who fouled.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Hector Arana Jr. vs. LE Tonglet; Matt Smith vs. Andrew Hines

NDE_7330.JPGTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:41 p.m.): It’ll be a rematch of the 2017 Thunder Valley NHRA Nationals. Clay Millican got the best of that matchup in emotional fashion, defeating Leah Pritchett for his first ever national event victory. He also won the most recent event on tour, while Pritchett took home the Wally from the event before that. So, these are certainly the two hottest cars on property and should make for an exciting final round. Millican has lane choice against Pritchett despite the parachute popping out early in his Great Clips / Parts Plus dragster. The team will look for a smoother ride in the final round. 

NDE_7387.JPGFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (2:57 p.m.): Ron Capps and Robert Hight will face off in the final round for the first time this season in what feels like a throwback to the 2017 campaign. Both racers are looking for their first win of the season, which yes does seem odd given that they own the last two championship trophies. That’s just the way things have gone for the two teams this season. Capps gets his choice of lane over Hight thanks to a 4.058 elapsed time, his best pass of the day. Rahn Tobler has the NAPA Auto Parts Charger running consistently and that could spell trouble for Jimmy Prock and company, but it’s hard to count out the Auto Club Chevy.

NDE_7530_0.JPGPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (2:59 p.m.): The JEGS car will be in the final round of the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals after Jeg Coughlin Jr., outran Tanner Gray, 6.574, 201.67 to 6.592, 201.73 in the semifinal round. Coughlin will be looking to win his first national event in nearly four years when he races Greg Anderson in the final. Anderson has tied Warren Johnson by reaching the final round for the 150th time in his career and he also took over the points lead after defeating a tire-shaking Vincent Nobile in the semifinal round. Anderson has maintained that his Summit Chevy has yet to make a respectable run during elimiantions. Neither Coughlin nor Anderson have won yet this season meaning that Pro Stock will crown it’s eighth different winner in the first nine events of the season.  

_NDA3167.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:05 p.m.): Eight years after he burst on the scene with a stunning win at the 2010 Chicago race, LE Tonglet will have the opportunity to win again in the Windy City when he takes on Matt Smith in the final. Tonglet got to the final with a 6.814 in his win over Hector Arana Jr., who had to shut off after his Lucas Oil EBR got close to the retaining wall. Smith will have lane choice after his 6.796 to 6.818 win against low qualifier Andrew Hines. Smith is appearing in the final round for the 48th time in his career.

LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN RESULTS

Top Alcohol Dragster: Joey Severance def. Dan Page
Top Alcohol Funny Car: Shane Westerfield def. Kris Hool
Competition: Michael Mans def. Greg Kamplain
Super Stock: Justin Lamb def. Dave Dupps Jr.
Stock: Jeff Adkinson def. Justin Lamb
Super Comp: Austin Williams def. Koy Collier
Super Gas: Koy Collier def. Larry Bernhausen
Super Street: Val Harmon def. Cole Cummings
Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs.com: Kyle Seipel def. Aaron Stanfield
Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs.com: Don O’Neal def. Lester Johnson

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PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (3:59 p.m.): Matt Smith earned his first win since the 2016 season when he rode his Victory-bodied bike to a 6.816, to 6.862 win over LE Tonglet. Both riders struggled to keep their bikes straight in the stiff wind, but Smith managed to make the better run to end a winless drought that extends back to the 2016 Auto Club Finals in Pomona. Smith now has 19 wins in his career, and has beaten Tonglet in two final rounds. Ironically, the final pitted two riders who have already changed teams four races into the 2018 season. Smith began the year as a member of Joe Riccardi’s San Marino Excavating team but left after one race. Tonglet started the season racing with his father, Gary, and brother, GT, before rejoining Jerry Savoie’s White Alligator team after the season-opener in Gainesville.

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PRO STOCK FINAL (4:05 p.m.): Greg Anderson and Jeg Coughlin Jr., two of the biggest rivals in the history of the Pro Stock class, met in the final round in Chicago where Coughlin ended a winless drought that extends to the 2014 Englishtown race after Anderson fouled. Coughlin would have been nearly impossible to beat thanks to a .006 light and a 6.574, 201.67. Coughlin now has 77 career wins including 59 in Pro Stock. He has raced Anderson 19 times in final rounds and has a slim 10-9 advantage. Coughlin, using engines from Elite Performance, became the eighth different Pro Stock champ in the first nine race of the season.

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FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:10 p.m.): Defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight got his first win of the season with a 4.073-second pass as Ron Capps ran out of juice at about half track. That completed the get healthy weekend for Hight and the Auto Club team which badly needed to get on the leaderboard, while Capps came up just short after qualifying second. Hight became the first driver to win from the No. 12 spot in four years. 

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TOP FUEL FINAL (4:13 p.m.): Clay Millican is a championship contender. He earned his second-straight Wally by defeating Leah Pritchett, moving dangerously close to points leader Steve Torrence in the process with a 3.894 run. That’s a big step for a racer who seemingly couldn’t buy a win a couple years ago to one who has now won three times over the last two seasons. 

C_Millican.JPGTop Fuel champion Clay Millican: “It’s really crazy. It took me 19 years to get that first win and then less than a year to get the second and less than two weeks to get the third. I like that trend. This place is really special. I got my first Top Fuel experience in competition on this race track in 1998. I was the very first car to pull out on this facility. Shortly after that, I did a reverse burnout and got to meet [late NHRA Chief Starter] Buster Couch live in person. That was not my most favorite conversation. He said. ‘I don’t know when you did before you got your Top Fuel license, but you might think about going back to it.’ He did not like me doing a reverse burnout.”

“[Former team owner] Peter Lehman was here this weekend and he got me my start. He’s the one who took me from forklift driver to Top Fuel driver. It was pretty cool to have him here and watch me win. When I first did this my goal was just to drive one of these things. It never thought about winning. I just wanted to see what it was like to drive one. It’s crazy to come here and win 20-years later. It was 100-percent the Parts Plus team that did it. I was horrible on the Tree all weekend. It didn’t matter how bad I was on the starting line. We had the team pull together and keep turning those win lights on.”

R_Hight.JPGFunny Car champion Robert Hight: “It was a great weekend although qualifying didn’t go so well. I don’t think I pulled parachuted before the first round. We just weren’t making it down the track, but we didn’t lose faith. I’ve got a great team and I always believe in them. I was beginning to think this track had my number. This is the 14th time I’ve raced here, and I’ve never won this race. I think John Force kicked my ass a few times and I just never won. As a driver you want to win at every venue you go to. I remember rolling in here as a crew guy and looking at the way the stadium seats wrapped around. This is definitely one of the top sports in the country.

“This is my fourth final of the year, but I haven’t won any races. But, last year we won the championship and didn’t win until Denver so I’m way ahead of last year. Also, how about my boss? [John Force]. After all he went through this weekend that was pretty impressive. You’re just not going to keep a guy like him down. There is a reason he’s won 16 championships. You can see how much he loves what he does. He was going to race this weekend. No matter what. I’m really proud of that team for making the semi’s. Also, one week ago, my daughter, Autumn won her first Jr. Dragster race. When I got here I heard quite a bit about how she won before dad won. Seriously, it’s been a cool week. I won my first race but it’s just as exciting, or maybe even more exciting having your daughter win her first race.”

J_Coughlin.JPGPro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr.: “Who was counting? It feels fantastic. I’ve been fortunate to visit the winner’s cirtcle on occasion over the last 30-years quite a bit and today is one of those days I won’t ever forget. In 2016 and 2017 were a little bit of a challenge. Anyone who follows the sport knows we have an unbeleiveable team with Elite Motorsports. To go through last year; we were fast but just hot and cold. This year, we’ve won five of the nine events and I’m proud to put our name in that hat under the Elite Motorsports banner and there is no better place to do it.

“The JEGS Allstars yesterday was an unbelievable event and I watched every singe round. It just fired me up. I wanted to be in every race car that went down the track. I drove today like a true sportsman. I was aggressive and stayed consistent. The team gave me a great car and we were low E.T. four rounds in a row and didn’t’ look back. I think we did it in grand style to break the ice. We’d like to travel across the way to Richmond and put a nice exclamation point on it next week.”

M_Smith.jpgPro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith: “We always run good here in Chicago. In Q2 we were No. 3 qualifier going into Saturday I knew we had a good bike and I just missed the tune-up on Saturday both runs. I learned something, and we applied it and had the quickest bike in every round today. Testament to my crew. These guys have stuck with me in the last three or four years. We pulled this bike out when the other guy bailed on me the first of the year. We didn’t really work on it all winter. It’s a fast hot rod. It’s hateful. It ran 6.7s on every run except for the final. We would have run another 6.7 in the final but it took me to the wall and I just about gave up but I stayed in it and got the win.

“We had to ride the bike in the final. It went left and kept going and going. I almost gave up on it. I glanced over and didn’t see LE over there. I said screw it. Richard [Freeman, Elite Performance owner] is buying me a new body so if we tear it up, we’ll just tear it up. I’ve hit the wall before in Englishtown. Only time I’ve ever had an accident the foot peg went through my foot and I was out for the rest of the year but I’m just out here trying to win a race so I was willing to do whatever to make it happen.”

 

FEATURES

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There will be a pair of Capco Contractors dragsters on the dragstrip for the fifth time this season as Steve Torrence and Billy Torrence hit the strip at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals. Steve is looking to defend his Chicago title, while Billy hopes to get his first national event win in the Top Fuel category. The father of the Top Fuel points leader had his best day at the dragstrip this season ruined by Steve in a semifinal bout at the NHRA Arizona Nationals by mere thousandths of a second. 

“The only thing that would have been better was if it was in the final round,” said Torrence. “Maybe we can make that happen this week.”

The pair own two of the best dragsters in the category, averaging 3.76 (Steve) and 3.769 (Billy) on the season. That ranks as second and sixth quickest in the category, illuminating just how tight Top Fuel is once you get into the quick half of the field. Billy doesn’t plan on making a run for a Countdown to the Championship spot, but the Texan sits just 87 points out of 10th just before the midway point of the regular season, showing he’s got what it takes to mix it up with any full-time racer. 

Meanwhile, his son is 95 points clear of second-place racer and most recent tour winner Clay Millican. Steve is on track to take pole position into the Countdown for the second year in a row and hopes to do one position better than he did in the 2017 campaign. The Kilgore, Texas native has the car to do it and sits fourth in the class in reaction time average (.0685), third amongst full-time racers. Doug Kalitta leads with a .0596 mark. 

With all that in mind, Torrence is looking for his fourth win of the season and seventh over the last 24 races, more than any other Top Fuel racer. If the Texan can accomplish that, he would leave Chicago with a firm grasp on the points lead, though he’s more interested in keeping his dragster consistent for the next few months than the points in June.

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T.J. Zizzo loves racing in Chicago, there’s no question about that, but qualifying in the No. 5 spot didn’t exactly reward him with an easy matchup. He’ll race Scott Palmer in the first round, who’s now racing with Jason McCulloch in his crew. Both can make stout runs and it means that no matter what an independent racer will advance to the second round of action.

"We added Jason (McCulloch, championship-winning tuner) to the team this weekend and because he's new to our operation we are taking measured steps together," Palmer said. "We've got to see some runs with Jason's ideas mixed in there. It'll take a little time, but we knew that. 

"Basically, there was one really good qualifying session here (on Friday night) and we couldn't be as aggressive as we wanted because we haven't been getting the 60-foot times we need to run the bigger numbers. They're prepping the track differently lately and its thrown everyone a little bit of a curve ball.”

Zizzo, on the other hand, was the picture of consistency. He dipped into the 3.7s once and hovered around the 3.8s most of the weekend. That’s especially spectacular considering how rarely the team pulls the dragster out of the trailer. Both racers are capable of going rounds on Sunday, but first they have to get past each other. 

Update: Zizzo remained consistent but came up short against Palmer in the first round of action. He ran a 3.807, hitting the stripe just behind Palmer, who ran a 3.781 in the CatSpot dragster. 

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Blake Alexander doesn’t want to be an underdog anymore and going another couple rounds at the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals can only help his cause. The North Carolina native went to his first Top Fuel final at the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello and fell short against Leah Pritchett when he turned on the red light, but he’s got a chance to redeem himself against the same competitor in the semifinals in Chicago. 

By any standard, this season has already been a great success for Alexander. He’s driving a great race car, fielded by Bob Vandergriff Racing, and he’s picked up a handful of round wins. The driver is constantly improving in his second Top Fuel season following several years behind the wheel of a Funny Car. Alexander is hard on himself, but he’s also proud of the strides he’s made. 

“I heard people calling me an underdog in the Atlanta final and I wasn’t sure if I liked that,” said Alexander. “I think we’ve got a really good car right now and deserve to be there.” 

He’s not wrong, really. Perhaps it speaks more to how tight the class is overall that cars like the Vandergriff fielded machine is so close to the one driven by Pritchett. Or maybe Alexander is just eager to prove himself. One way or another, it’s clear from his reaction times and his quick success in a great car that the driver is going to get that first win sooner rather than later. 

Having a car that can win matters just as much as being a driver that can turn on win lights. Alexander has all the ingredients to get the job done, and having people that believe in him… well, that’ll come in time. 

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Matt Hagan earned his second No. 1 qualifier of the year and his first since winning the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals to start the season. Since then, the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger has run well, just not quite to the standards of the team led by crew chief Dickie Venables. A lot has changed since then, including the way the track is prepared by the NHRA. 

“We’ve changed everything,” said Hagan. “To start the year off we had a whole different track prep than we do now, so we had to regroup and make big changes to this Mopar Funny Car. Obviously, it’s taken a few runs, and taken a few races to get there, but I feel like we’ve closed the gap on (points leader) Courtney (Force) now.” 
“Our Mopar Express Lane Dodge is running strong. We can go down there and throw down a good number. The confidence has definitely grown. We have all of the power that we need.”

Hagan has a tough draw in Jonnie Lindberg on Sunday, but the performance of his own Funny Car speaks for itself. The flopper made a pair of 3-second runs and Hagan is fourth-best in the class in reaction time averages. There are no guarantees in drag racing, but the best anyone can do is deserve success. The driver at least has confidence on his side. 

“Very confident going into tomorrow, but it’s race day and you just never know what’s going to happen,” said Hagan. “Blessed to have that No. 1 spot right now. Everyone thinks these Chevys are running up front, but we’ve got these Mopars going again. Just give Dickie enough time and he’ll figure it out. I like him being in our corner and knowing that we’re going to get there, it’s just a matter of runs.”

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After dabbling with the six-disc clutch, Rahn Tobler, crew chief of the Ron Capps-driven NAPA Auto Parts Funny Car, has decided to go back to the five-disc. That’s partially influenced by the experience with the six-disc this season, but also by the new track prep instituted by the NHRA that may make the five-disc clutch advantageous for their particular tune up. 

“Tobler decided to go back to the five-disc, which is what we won the championship with two years ago, and almost won it again last year, and more than anything just the consistency he knows how to get out of these nitro Funny Cars with the five-disc,” said Capps. 

Capps qualified in the No. 2 position and races Illinois native Justin Schriefer in the first round of action. The 2016 Funny Car world champion is still looking for his first final round appearance of the season and he feels he’s in prime position to get there with the old clutch setup in his car. 

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. I already feel like we already have our old NAPA car back. I feel like we have that car back that has consistency and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do in the heat and in the cool conditions.”

The NAPA car performed well on Saturday and with similar conditions on tap for Sunday, it could be a long day for Capps and company.

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Just when it looked like John Force had put the worst of his troubled behind him, he shot towards the wall during the final qualifying session on Saturday night and contacted it. He walked away from the incident mostly unscathed and will race on Sunday, but it’s just the latest in a string of bad luck for the 16-time world champion. 

“I gave it a quick pedal and it just shot to the right,” said Force. “I kept trying to get it off the wall, but it kept pulling me over. I think the body might have been on the front tire and that affected the steering. I got it stopped and got out. I am sore, but I won’t let this race car beat me up.”

Force says this run wasn’t like the incidents that plagued him at the beginning of the season, but that might come as small consolation to the racer who has truly been put through the wringer. 

“We had some things figured out and that run wasn’t anything like the start of the season,” said Force. “We are making progress with all three of the Chevrolet Camaros. Courtney’s hot rod is flying and I ran good yesterday. We are all trying to run fast. You have to out here against this competition.”

He remains as resilient as ever, insisting that his hot rod won’t ever beat him. It’s hard not to believe him. Force will race Tim Wilkerson in the first round on Sunday. 

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Reigning  world champion Bo Butner hasn’t won a race since the season-opener in Pomona but he hasn’t lost his dry wit. Assessing his qualifying performance, where his Butner Auto Chevy was ninth-quickest with a 6.584 best, Butner was quick to put a positive spin on it.

“Well, we were tenth at the last couple of races and now we’re ninth so it’s hard to say that we haven’t made progress,” said Butner. “That’s about as positive as I can be. Obviously, we lost the handle on the car and we’re still fighting to get it back. I do believe we’ll be better today [Sunday] than we were during qualifying.”

The month of June marks the busiest time in the NHRA season with four races in four weeks but Butner still plans to address the team’s performance issues by testing. He and teammate Jason Line plan to go to Bristol Dragway on Tuesday and Wednesday to test before heading the Virginia Motorsports Park later in the week for the next event.

“Obviously, we’re not totally lost because Greg [Anderson] is flying with his car,” said Butner. “The problem is that we can’t just take Greg’s tune-up and plug it into the rest of our cars. We have five cars on the KB team and all of them are slightly different. I think my car and Jason’s car are probably the closest in terms of tune-up. It’s not the driver because I’ve made some decent runs. I mean, as a driver you can always do a better job but that’s not why we’re qualifying in the bottom half of the field. No, the car has an issue and we need to figure out what it is. I’m guessing it is a problem with the [EFI tune] but we should know more after we test this week.”

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When it comes to his relationship with the Elite Performance team, Matt Hartford describes himself as a happy customer. After leasing engines from several other teams over the years, Hartford recently joined the Elite group and he was rewarded with his first win in Houston. Hartford’s strong performances have continued including the JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals, where he finished qualifying as the No. 3 seed behind Greg Anderson and Tanner Gray.

“I’m very happy with our program right now,” said Hartford. “I am the highest qualified car from the Elite team and that just goes to show you that they don’t play favorites. We were promised that all of their engines are almost exactly alike and so far, that’s been the case. I think I’m low man on the totem pole but I obviously have competitive power. I drove like an idiot in qualifying or I might have given Greg a run for the top spot. It’s okay though; we qualified well and we got some bonus points and I’m pretty happy.”

Hartford has attended six of the nine races held so far this season and he’s 12th in the points standings so he hasn’t given up all hope of making the Countdown to the Championship although he admits that he’s a longshot.

“I just don’t think I’m going to enough races to make it,” Hartford said. “I’ve love to race for a championship but with my work schedule and our budget it just doesn’t make sense to go all over the country chasing this deal. I’m pretty content right now to race the races that we can afford to go to and that our schedule will allow and to be competitive whenever we show up.”

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Vincent Nobile took over the points lead after his win in Atlanta and he doesn’t plan on giving it up anytime soon. Nobile also understands that the recent performance improvements shown by his Mountain View Racing team have led to higher expectations.

“I know that Pro Stock is tough but the truth is that we should be winning races,” said Nobile. “We’ve been making good runs and for the most part we know we have a top three car. When you have that you should be able to win a few rounds each week.”

Nobile starts Sunday’s JEGS Route 66 NHRA Nationals from the No. 5 spot, which is actually a spot he prefers.

“We’ve won a bunch of races from the fifth spot including Atlanta this year,” said Nobile. “Obviously, everyone wants to qualify No. 1 but in the fifth spot you tend to avoid the really fast cars until at least the semifinals and maybe you don’t have the pressure that goes with being No. 1. Don’t’ get me wrong. I’d like to get those green [low qualifier] hats anytime I can but otherwise, No. 5 is fine with me.

“This week, I shook the tires pretty hard on two of my runs and I think that’s why we ended up fifth,” said Nobile. “We know why it shook so we should be able to fix it. Conditions are a lot different today so we’re going to see some good runs and the cars will require a much different set-up. Its going to be an interesting day. We just need to get lucky.”

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After coming close to winning the Mello Yello Pro Stock Motorcycle championship the last two years, Jerry Savoie and his White Alligator team believe that they have become more attuned to the big picture so they’ve had a shift in philosophy during the 10-race regular season for the bike class. That new approach includes more testing and more experimentation, even if it means the team is slightly less competitive in the short-term.

“We’re working on our depth and our diversity so that we’re better prepared when we get to the Countdown,” said White Alligator crew chief Tim Kulungian. “We’ve always been working on new ideas; we constantly have three or four projects going on. We’re not afraid to try something different if we think it will yield results later on. Winning races is awesome and if need be we’re fully prepared to go back to what we did last year if need be. We’re always trying to put out best foot forward.”

Last year, Kuungian got his first taste of tuning two bikes and he immediately realized that it was far different than tuning just one bike.

“First off, no two bikes are equal no matter how hard you try to make them equal,” he said. “Secondly, with two bikes you really have to stay on top of your parts inventory. You need to make sure that every engine you have will work in each bike. It’s a big jump going from one bike to two but Jerry has given us all the resources we need to succeed, including the manpower to handle it.”

In Chicago, Savoie posted a 6.881, 193.90 best to qualify in the No. 5 spot and Tonglet is right behind him with a 6.891, 194.66 on his Nitro Fish Suzuki. Ironically, Savoie made his run during Q1 on Friday afternoon while Tonglet sealed his position in the field on Saturday evening in Q4.

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Angelle Sampey isn’t the only high-profile rider who will be a spectator on Sunday as Karen Stoffer also missed qualifying for the tough 16-bike field. Stoffer rode her Skillman Auto Group Suzuki to a 7.047, 188.99 best missing the 7.039 bump spot. Stoffer has only failed to qualify 12 times in 218 races since turning pro in 1996.

“I have no idea what went wrong,” said Stoffer. “We were all over the map on our tune-up and we just couldn’t find it. Some tracks are like that; you struggle to find exactly what the bike wants. It wasn’t just us. There were a lot of heavy hitters that either didn’t qualify or qualified in the bottom half of the field. And then there is the big teams that obviously have more knowledge than we do. They might have fixed this issue, whatever it is, in four runs. We just couldn’t find it.”

Stoffer’s three teammates, Joey Gladston, Scotty Pollacheck, and Jim Underdahl, also struggled and were ranked 10, 11, and 12 respectively. In order to address the team’s performance issues, Stoffer’s husband and crew chief, Gary, plans to tear her Suzuki TL1000 down to the bare frame and replace all of the wiring and electronic components. Stoffer hopes to have the project completed before next weekend’s event in Richmond.

“It’s about a two-day project if you get after it and get don’t run into any unexpected problems,” said Gary Stoffer. “At this point I think it’s our only option. There is obviously something wrong with this bike and it’s up to us to fix it. We’ll get there.”

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Angie Smith picked up a qualifying bonus point in Q3 and ended up in the No. 7 spot, which is a dramatic improvement over the first three events of the season where her Denso Spark Plugs Buell was not ranked higher than No. 10 at any event. Smith’s uptick in performance is the result of several factors, not the least of which was a mid-week test session in Michigan on her way to Chicago.

“We tested this week and it made all the difference in the world,” said Smith, who is currently ranked 15th in the Mello Yello standings, but is not far from the top ten. “We have a new engine in the bike and a new clutch set-up and the biggest thing is that we wanted to test the clutch so I could get used to it. I made a few good runs [in testing] and I feel a lot more comfortable now.

Smith was in the sixes on three of her four runs in Chicago including a best of 6.924, 190.59 but she is optimistic there is more performance to be gained.

“I’m really encouraged because we didn’t make one straight run in qualifying,” said Smith. “In the first session, I was even with Drew [Hines, low qualifier] to the eight-mile. I was right with him and then we got caught up in that crosswind and that sort of three me off my game. We made some adjustments to make the bike go a little more straight so I know we can run 6.80s today.”

PHOTOS

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Former Chi-Town Hustler driver Ron Colson, Don Schumacher and Jeg Coughlin Sr. led the SealMaster Trackwalk.

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J.R. Todd gets ready for action in his DHL Funny Car.

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Steve Torrence and Richie Crampton share a laugh ahead of racing.

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Richie Crampton and his daughter take the stage during pre-race ceremonies. 

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None the worse for wear after Saturday's brush with the wall, John Force takes the stage at pre-race ceremonies. 

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Matt Hagan and the Mopar Funny Car team take the stage with their No. 1 qualifier hats. 

PREVIEW

Here are today's elimination ladders and first-round pairings:

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