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Mounting a proper defense

For most Lucas Oil Series drivers, winning one national championship is a monumental career achievement and defending that title is normally far more difficult.
10 Jan 2018
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor
The Sports Report
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defense2a.jpgFor NHRA Lucas Oil Series racers, the 2018 season includes 25 national events and 44 divisional events from February through November so predicting a champion in mid-January is almost a pointless exercise.

Almost.

Despite the parity that exists in almost every class, and the large number of racers who compete across the country each year, somehow the best racers in each class usually seem to find a way to challenge for a coveted spot in the top ten. For all the variables that exist in motorsports, the best racers are the ones who can adapt and overcome. The ability to come out on the winning end in most of the close battles often separates a championship contender from a mid-pack driver. To that end, common sense dictates that the defending champions in each class should have the best shot at a repeat title. The basic premise of “anything that can be done once, can usually be repeated” certainly applies here and in the case of the 2017 Lucas Oil Series champions, it helps that four of the seven champions crowned are repeat winners.

To kick off the new year and the new season, we’re going to look at each of the 2017 champions and assess their chances of retaining the top spot this season.

David Rampy has won five Lucas Oil Series championships and he’s by far the most successful racer in the history of the Comp class. Rampy is also one of the few individuals who races for a living, so he spends most of the year traveling across the country from Pomona to Gainesville and almost everywhere in between. Rampy understands the finer points of the Comp Eliminator class better than anyone and his Skillman Auto-backed Bantam roadster is more than competitive. At certain times during his career, Rampy has elected to modify his schedule to include more national events and fewer divisional races, which hampers his ability to win a national championship. That hasn’t been the case lately, as he’s competed in at least five divisional races every year since 2009 and has six top ten finishes in that span.  Rampy is also sitting on 96-career national event wins so he only needs four more to join John Force, Frank Manzo, and Dan Fletcher as a member of the exclusive 100-wins club. Coincidentally, Rampy won four races in 2017 to that goal is within reach.

Rampy may well get to 100 wins this season and of those wins come early in the season, before he’s completed his six allotted national events for points, he will be the favorite to capture a sixth national title. Rampy also tends to begin his season in Florida at the first Southeast Division races so he should know quickly if he’s going to pursue the title to the end.

defense2.jpgLast year, Justin Lamb joined an exclusive club when he became just the third driver to win two NHRA Lucas Oil championships in the same year, joining Scotty Richardson and Jeff Strickland. Lamb used a strong mid-season push to win the titles in Super Stock and Stock but like many racers, he didn’t start the season with the intention of pursuing either title. Lamb won just two national event titles last year, one in Super Stock and one in Stock, so he scored the bulk of his points on the divisional level.  Lamb now has four championships to his credit which makes him one of NHRA most successful sportsman drivers and he’s just entering his prime which means that he’s got the opportunity to win many more titles during his career. The big question going forward is; how bad does he want it? Lamb has a family and a career, and he tries to keep his yearly travel to a minimum. Should he get off to a slow start, he likely won’t compete in enough events to even post a top ten finish but once again, if by mid-season, the opportunity is there to win a title, he’ll likely do what he has to do in order to contend for a title or possibly two.

As former national champ Sherman Adcock Jr. once noted, “Super Comp is the only class where you can do everything right, and still be wrong.” Adcock was referencing the insane level of competitiveness in the 8.90 class where drivers often come within a hundredth or two of a perfect run, yet still receive a time slip that contains bad news. For all the randomness that is Super Comp, there are some racers who consistently rise above the means and averages and they include Austin Williams, the 2017 champ. Williams has prior championship experience thanks to his 2014 NHRA Stock title so he understands the rigors of a season-long points battle. One other thing to note about Williams; although he is not a touring pro, he does pursue a championship schedule each season and has shown a willingness to travel great distances when necessary. For example, if he’s in the championship hunt in the final weeks of the season, expect him to make the trip to the final events in Las Vegas and Pomona. While Williams would likely argue that he’s a better candidate to win a second Stock title before winning a second Super Comp crown, the fact is that he’s capable of winning either although he’s racing in what is arguably the two toughest classes in all of NHRA racing from a pure driver’s standpoint.

defense3.jpgIn 2017, Super Gas provided arguably the best championship battle of them all with the epic showdown between eventual champ John Labbous Jr. and runner-up Chris Cannon being waged until the second-to-last day of the season. Labbous eventually prevailed to win his first-ever NHRA Lucas Oil Series championship. While Labbous is a first-time NHRA champion, he has plenty of experience in pressure situations thanks to his many years of big money E.T. racing. Like the rest of the 2017 champions, Labbous is capable of a repeat, but the bigger question is, will he want to? Driving for teammate Anthony Bertozzi, Labbous maintains a balanced schedule of NHRA and bracket racing events, but if he’s not a championship contender at mid-season, he might choose to focus his efforts elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that Labbous races in Super Comp as well so even if his title defense in Super Gas falls short he’s got a second chance to pursue a title.

I don’t have any idea who the 2018 NHRA Top Dragster national champion will be but this much is a given; he or she will almost certainly need to run in the low sixes at well over 200-mph in order to do so. In the three years since the Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs.com class, the average elapsed time has plummeted and the average top speed has risen proportionally. These days, it’s not uncommon for bump spots in some areas to be in the 6.3s for a 32-car field and most of the top performers in the class are hovering around the 6.0 performance ceiling for the class. Eventual champion Lynn Ellison fit into that category with consistent 6.2s and 6.3s from his Pirate dragster. There is no reason to think Ellison couldn’t repeat his title although it’s worth noting that he competes in the North Central Division, which is home to arguably some of the best Top Dragster drivers in the nation.

defense4.jpgIs Jeffrey Barker the best racer in the history of the Top Sportsman class? After two national championships and six divisional titles, it would be hard to make a case for anyone else. Barker has already won the Top Dragster national title in two of the three years it has been contested and both times, he has posted a nearly-perfect score. Barker is not just capable of winning a third title, he should be the odds-on favorite. That being said, Barker is scheduled to race in more events in the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod series this season and his wife, Lindsey, is scheduled to return to the Top Dragster class after giving birth to the couple’s first child so he appears to be carrying a full plate this season.

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