QUALIFYING ROUND OVERVIEWS
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (3:00 p.m.): After a tough weekend in Dallas where he was plagued with electrical issues, Andrew Hines has arrived in Charlotte with a renewed optimism and it was rewarded with the best run of the opening session. Hines rode to a 6.842 to lead the big 22-bike field. Hines collected three bonus points ahead of championship leader LE Tonglet, who is second with a 6.876 on his Nitro Fish Suzuki. The third spot went to Tonglet’s White Alligator Racing teammate, Jerry Savoie, who rode his Suzuki to a 6.873. The biggest surprise of the round came from Karen Stoffer, who rode to the fourth-best run of the round after a 6.893. Championship contender Matt Smith is also in the mix with a fifth-best 6.897.
PRO STOCK Q1 (3:10 p.m.): Jeg Coughlin Jr. shaved two points off the lead held by Tanner Gray after the first qualifying run at zMax Dragway. Coughlin, who was the low qualifier a week ago in Dallas, set the early pace with a 6.525 in his JEGS.com Camaro. Although she claimed to “drive like an idiot”, Coughlin’s teammate, Erica Enders was second-quickest with a 6.532 while Gray finished third for the round with a 6.534. There are just 14 cars on the grounds in Concord, but 11 of them have already run in the 6.5-second zone.
FUNNY CAR Q1 (4:02 p.m.): By a margin of just a thousandth of a second, Tommy Johnson Jr. held off points leader Robert Hight for the provisional top spot after the first qualifying session at the NHRA Carolina Nationals. Coming off an impressive performance last week in Dallas, Johnson drove his Make-A-Wish Dodge to a 3.917 to edge Hight’s 3.918. Ron Capps had the third-best run of the round with a 3.925 in his NAPA Dodge. A total of ten drivers earned three-second time slips including championship contender J.R. Todd, who just missed out on a bonus point with a fourth-best 3.961.
TOP FUEL Q1 (4:38 p.m.): As if winning the first three races of the Countdown wasn’t enough, Steve Torrence padded his lead in the Mello Yello Top Fuel standings with three qualifying bonus points after setting the pace with a 3.736 in his Capco dragster Torrence, unbeaten in his last 12 elimination rounds, held off Tony Schumacher, who was second-quickest with a 3.747 in the U.S. Army dragster. Schumacher also ran 330.39 to set the top speed of the event. Mike Salinas was third-best with a 3.769 in his special Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen tribute dragster. Clay Millian, ranked second to Torrence in the standings, smoked the tires and coasted to a 6.157.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (5:30 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec stole the top spot from his Harley-Davidson teammate, Andrew Hines, during the second Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session. Krawiec powered to a 6.806 to earn three bonus points while the third Harley teammate, Chip Ellis, was second-quickest with a 6.830. Ellis missed the first session when his Vance & Hines Street Rod encountered a mechanical problem. Hector Arana Jr., who remains in the title fight despite a pair of early losses at the last two events, earned a bonus point thanks to a 6.849. Arana Jr. also set the top speed of the event so far with a 199.29 mph run on his Lucas Oil EBR.
PRO STOCK Q2 (5:49 p.m.): Two-time world champ Erica Enders, hanging tough in the battle for the Mello Yello championship, took over the top spot after the second round of Pro Stock qualifying. Enders wheeled her Melling/Elite Camaro to a 6.518, 211.69 to bump teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr. from the top spot. Jason Line was second best after a 6.525 in his Summit Racing Equipment Camaro, and Coughlin, also a title contender, earned a of bonus points after running a 6.56. Current points leader Tanner Gray, winner of the last two events in St. Louis and Dallas, matched his earlier 6.534 run but was pushed from third to fifth in the qualifying order.
FUNNY CAR Q2 (6:20 p.m.): The twilight session at zMax Dragway produced the best numbers of the day in Funny Car including a 3.875 that has Ron Capps in the provisional No. 1 spot heading into Saturday’s final qualifying. Capps picked up three bonus points in his quest for a second championship. He is just a thousandth of a second ahead of Tim Wilkerson, who posted a 3.876. J.R. Todd also picked up a bonus point following a 3.894 in the DHL Toyota. Robert Hight and Tommy Johnson Jr., two drivers expected to compete for the top spot, made runs of 3.911 and 3.901, respectively. Hight did set top speed of the event with a 330.31 mph run in his Auto Club Camaro.
TOP FUEL Q2 (6:49 p.m.): Steve Torrence swept all six qualifying bonus points available on Friday by leading both Top Fuel qualifying sessions. After opening with a 3.736, Torrence upped the ante with a 3.704 to earn the provisional top spot. Torrence bumped his biggest rival, Clay Millican to second after Millican ran a 3.718 in his Parts Plus/Strutmaster dragster. Reigning world champ Brittany Force made her best run of the weekend with a 3.724 to move into the third spot and earn a bonus point. Ten cars ran in the 3.7s during the twilight session.
Goal No. 1 for Scott Palmer and the CatSpot Top Fuel team this year was making the Countdown to the Championship playoffs, which seemed a good bet when they went to the finals at the second race of the season in Phoenix, and stayed in the top 10 through the Charlotte Four-Wide event. They dropped to 11th for two events but stayed ninth or 10th through the balance of the regular season to qualify for the chance to race for the season title.
The championship is not mathematically but merely logically out of their reach after just one round win at the first three playoff events, but a breakthrough first event win for the crowd favorites would go a long way to soothe that disappointment.
"We are trying to win a race before the end of the year," Palmer said. "Our goal is to win a race. The points don't matter to us right now other than we want to move up and we still can. We are within a couple of rounds of seventh place so there is an opportunity to move up. If we win a race, all of that will take care of itself.
"We have shown several times this year we are capable of running with anyone out here," said Palmer, who came within a round of his first victory earlier this season with a runner-up finish in Phoenix. "With the tuning alliance we have with the Capco team (of points leader Steve Torrence and his father Billy), the support of Tommy Thompson, and a crew chief like Jason McCulloch, we have everything we need to win.
"That's why we're here. That's what we want more than anything. Sure, we want to finish as high as possible in the points but if we win rounds and win a race, the points will add up for us automatically."
The memory and importance of Robert Hight’s final-round victory over his closest points pursuer, J.R. Todd in the Dallas final after making an epic comeback from a broke collarbone were still not lost on the defending champ even as he prepared for the next rung on the championship ladder.
“That was one of the biggest rounds I have ever raced right there,” he said. “J.R. Todd was 30 [points] behind me going into the final round. Had I lost I would only be 10 points ahead, which isn’t much but now we have a 50-point lead which is a 40-point swing.
"We've got a little points lead, not a big one,” he added. “J.R. is right on our tail and they're not letting up, and the way that DHL car is running we need to rack up some more points this weekend, and I think we're up for it. We have to keep pushing. We've got to keep rolling. The prediction I made going into the Countdown was that I needed three wins and no first-round losses, and I don't know that that's going to be good enough.
Throughout the Countdown, the Auto Club Camaro has been quick in qualifying and strong on race day. The crew chief combination of Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham has given Hight a competitive race car from Friday-Sunday. In Dallas, Hight picked up qualifying bonus points in both sessions on Saturday to give him a field-leading 13 bonus points over three events. Combining bonus and qualifying-position points, Hight and Co. have gathered 27 points in qualifying while Todd’s team has 17; those 10 points may come in handy come Pomona.
Tommy Johnson Jr. and the John Collins-led Make-A-Wish team scored their first No. 1 qualifier of the season last weekend in Dallas to show that they’re back on the right track after switching back from the six-disc clutch to the five-disc earlier this year in Richmond. The team sits in fourth place, 136 points behind leader Robert Hight, but could use a win. They have two runner-ups this season – in Phoenix and Brainerd – and six semifinal finishes.
“Coming off of a No. 1 qualifier last race and another semifinal appearance, we just continue to be strong and go rounds,” he said. “We need to just pick it up one notch. Charlotte’s been good to us in the past in the Countdown, so if we can get to the finals and maybe have a little luck with a couple of guys in front of us going out, we can make up some ground where we’re really in the running for the championship. We’ve still got a good shot at it, so we need to focus on maintaining that.”
With three races to go and points-and-a-half at the season finale, the team still feel very much in the title battle, despite their tree-digit deficit, but the pressure is real, according to T.J.
“If it's late in the Countdown and you’re still in it, there's a lot more pressure,” he said. “Now I need a win because you need to separate yourself from the field. The pressure is ratcheted up and I think this is going to be a stressful weekend, but I think you'll see the cream rise to the top.”
When past Charlotte winner Chris McGaha withdrew from the Carolina Nationals earlier this week, it left the Pro Stock class with something it hasn’t had all season – a short field. With just 14 cars on the property, everyone is going to qualify, but there is an enormous advantage to the low qualifier because they’ll get a bye run into the semifinals, assuming they can beat the No. 14 car in the opening round.
Should points leader Tanner Gray capture the top spot, it might go a long way towards helping him secure the Mello Yello championship but drivers farther back in the pack, such as Greg Anderson, see it as an opportunity to get back in the fight.
“This weekend, we have to find a way to run the table. It's as simple as that,” said Anderson. “Jason's car was very fast on Sunday in Dallas, mine was fast on Friday in qualifying there, so what we have to do now is make sure our Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaros are consistently fast, no matter what the conditions are. It looks like the conditions are going to be very different this weekend from what they were in Dallas, so it could be very interesting. We hope it's interesting in a good way. If we can build on what we already have, there is still hope for a very good ending to this year for us.”
Historically, a runner-up, a semifinal, and a quarterfinal finish would be a good way to start the Countdown to the Championship, yet Jeg Coughlin Jr. has done all that and still lost ground to leader Tanner Gray, who is riding a two-race win streak. Coughlin, the most battle-hardened Pro Stock driver in the Countdown with five championships to his credit, is currently 90 points behind Gray heading into the NHRA Carolina Nationals. That’s not an insurmountable number, but Coughlin is well award that he can’t fall any farther behind this weekend.
“I don't know if we could be doing anything more than we have,” Coughlin said. “This Elite Motorsports team has done everything in its power to give me a great racecar every round, both in qualifying and on race day. The game plan is to approach Charlotte just like we have the first three playoff races. We want to race hard, race smart and see if we can't add one more win light to the day then we did in Dallas and pick up a win.
“We are ready to go. There are three races left this season and we need to keep up all this momentum we've built. That's definitely our focus.”
Regardless of how this season pans out, Coughlin has had a remarkable 2018 campaign. After two winless seasons, he’s come back with victories in Chicago, Bristol, Tenn., and Sonoma, to go along with runner-up showings in Indianapolis and Dallas. For good measure, he also bagged the Super Comp title in Richmond. Coughlin has won races at 24 different venues, including zMax Dragway. He won the fall race here in 2013.
“Rickie [Jones, crew chief] has a great tuning strategy going into the week and we will evaluate as we get closer to the start of the event and be set on kill come Friday,” Coughlin said. “It's going to be a fun weekend. My nephew, Troy Jr., brother Mikey, father-in-law Al [Kenny] and brother-in-law Jason [Kenny] will all be racing, so we have a lot going on.”
After skipping Dallas, Chip Ellis will return to the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in Charlotte for another race aboard a Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod, but he’s not riding the same bike that he rode in St. Louis, where he qualified No. 1 with a career-best 6.76. Ellis will be riding a new chassis that was built in-house over the last couple of weeks at the Vance & Hines shop in Brownsburg. The main difference between the two bikes is that the square tubing that was used to fortify the old bike has been replaced by smaller diameter round tubes. There are other, more subtle differences in design.
Andrew Hines explained that although the new bike is likely to be a few pounds lighter than the Street Rod it replaced, weight savings wasn’t the reason to make the change. Hines also addressed the wisdom of parking the bike that was quickest in St. Louis in favor of an untested design.
“When we did this deal with Chip we said it was for development purposes and we meant it,” said Hines. “We have a lot of ideas we want to try and it’s really difficult for Eddie and I do that during the Countdown. We’ve already learned a few things from Chip’s bike that will likely make it on to our bikes. So far, it’s been a success. What we’re trying to do is get our bikes to leave the starting line quicker and more consistently. That’s the area where we are really lacking.”
The latest rider to make his pro debut in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class is Maurice Allen, who is riding with the Stoffer/Underdahl team this weekend. Allen, who is riding the bike that was vacated when Joey Gladstone joined the Liberty Buell team, has enjoyed a successful career racing motorcycles in his native Australia including three series championships.
“I got an email from Eddie Krawiec at Vance & Hines about six weeks ago telling me that there might be an opportunity to come to the States and ride a bike with Greg Underdahl and Gary Stoffer,” said Allen. “We’d just finished our season and I won the Australian championships, so we decided to make the arrangements and give it a try. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
Allen’s best run in Australia is a 7.16 and he figures to better that by quite a bit this weekend on a bike that has ventured deep into the six second zone. As part of his preparation for an NHRA debut, Allen began an intense diet and exercise program that has allowed him to shed 30-pounds since the end of June.
“I just started eating right and working out a lot and I’ve been fairly successful,” said Allen. “I knew I had to be in better shape to ride one of these bikes. I have been very dedicated to making it happen. I want to be able to make some good runs over here.”
For all his success in Australia, Allen admits that he’s perhaps best known for taking part in one of the most bizarre drag races ever. Racing against Ryan Learmonth in the final of the 400 Thunder Series in Perth, both riders encountered a mechanical problem right off the starting line and both riders pushed their bikes to the finish line. Allen won the epic battle by 11-seconds.
“I cooked the clutch on the burnout and then my bike stalled in gear so I had to push it with the clutch lever in,” Allen recalled. “They’ve since changed the rules but that’s a race that people will be talking about for a long time.”
The accompanying You Tube Video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKf_ZGmPjB4
Can Steve Torrence with a fourth-straight Top Fuel race? That seems to be the biggest question as the Countdown to the Championship enters the homestretch with the NHRA Carolina Nationals in Concord. Torrence has been unstoppable with wins in Reading, St. Louis, and Dallas and his lead in the Top Fuel standings is a robust, if not insurmountable 103-points over Clay Millican. Realistically, only Torrence, Millican, and perhaps Tony Schumacher are in the points battle and should Torrence gain any more ground on the field he could potentially have the title wrapped up before the Auto Club Finals in Pomona. It will be up to the rest of the field to prevent that, and so far in the Countdown, that hasn't happened.
For points leader Robert Hight, not just competing, but winning last week’s AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals, just days after surgery to repair a broken clavicle, ranks as one of the gritty and inspiring performances in the history of NHRA. Few would have blamed Hight for an early exit in Dallas but his Auto Club team was having none of it. They gave him arguably the best car in the field and he did the rest to extend his lead to 50-points over J.R. Todd. Tim Wilkerson, Tommy Johnson Jr., and possibly, Courtney Force remain well within striking distance of Hight so he’ll need another solid performance this weekend to keep alive his homes for a successful title defense.
Back-to-back wins in St. Louis and Dallas have given Tanner Gray an 89-point lead over Reading winner Vincent Nobile and a 90-point cushion against Jeg Coughlin Jr. Now, Gray will have the opportunity to defend his lead on home turf as the series shifts to zMax Dragway in Concord. The Gray Motorsports Camaro already has seven wins in nine final-round appearance this season and qualified No. 1 at three of the last four events. Given that this will be his final year in the class, at least for the foreseeable future, motivation doesn’t appear to be a problem for the sophomore sensation.
The points lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle appears to be a hot potato that no one wants to hold on to for long. Hector Arana Jr. had it after his win in Reading, but back-to-back round one losses have dropped him to fourth, 103-points back. Matt Smith gained the top spot after his clutch win in St. Louis, but he also stepped on a land mine in Dallas and suffered a rare first round loss so he is third, 48-markers back. Now, the question is, can Dallas champ LE Tonglet buck the trend and maintain the lead after this weekend. Overlooked in the battle is reigning champ Eddie Krawiec, who has had tough luck in the first three events, but remains the No. 2 seed, 47-points in back of Tonglet. Just 123-points separate the top six riders in the class, making it perhaps the most competitive battle of the four.