QUALIFYING ROUND OVERVIEWS
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q3 (12:49 p.m.): The bump spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle dropped by five-hundredths of a second during Saturday’s opening qualifying session after a number of the riders in the field improved their performances from Friday. With one session remaining, the 6.905 bump spot is the quickest of the year, thus far. Chip Ellis, riding a new Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod, set the pace with a 6.817 while Matt Smith picked up a pair of bonus points after making the second best run of the round with a 6.836 that he described as far from perfect. Andrew Hines also added a point to his total after a 6.843. Reigning champ Eddie Krawiec remained the leader with Friday’s 6.806 best. Krawiec slowed to a 6.872 in Q3.
PRO STOCK Q3 (1:02 p.m.): As expected, Erica Enders’ 6.518-second run from Friday did not hold up for the top spot after in Pro stock after Saturday’s third run. Tanner Gray tied Enders with a a 6.518 but did so with a faster speed. Gray’s stay at the top was brief after Enders reclaimed the lead by a thousandth with a 6.517, 212.06. Enders added three points to her total while Gray picked up two qualifying points. Jeg Coughlin was the third-quickest of the round with a 6.522. Enders also explained that her run was far from perfect and that she expected to run a 6.50 or quicker.
TOP FUEL Q3 (1:38 p.m.): A slight glimmer of hope for the rest of the Top Fuel field after runaway points leader Steve Torrence was only the third-quickest driver in Saturday’s third session. Torrence ran a 3.744, his slowest run of the weekend. And finished the session behind Tony Schumacher, who set the pace with a 3.732 in the U.S. Army dragster and Doug Kalitta, who backed up last night’s impressive 3.729 with a 3.735 to collect a single qualifying bonus point. Clay Millican remains the No. 2 qualifier behind Torrence, but did not get down the track in his Parts Plus entry.
FUNNY CAR Q3 (1:59 p.m.): Ron Capps and Tim Wilkerson, who entered the day as the top two qualifiers in Funny Car, both smoked the tires during Q3 which allowed Robert Hight, Bob Tasca III, and Tommy Johnson Jr., to collect bonus points as the leaders of the round. Hight matched last night’s run to the thousandth with a 3.911 to earn three points in his Auto Club Camaro and Tasca became the 12th driver in the threes during the Carolina Nationals with a 3.920. Johnson also grabbed a bonus point by driving the Make-A-Wish Dodge to a 3.924. With one qualifying session remaining, Jonnie Lindberg is not yet qualified in Jim Head’s Mustang. Lindberg will need to outrun Bob Gilbertson’s 4.307 to make Sunday’s starting line up.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q4 (3:37 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec held on to the top spot, but just barely after teammate Chip Ellis rode his new Harley-Davidson Street Rod to a 6.806 to lead the final session. Krawiec, who did not score a bonus point in the final session, will have his hands full on Sunday since the top four riders in the points; LE Tonglet, Krawiec, Hector Arana Jr., and Jerry Savoie, are all on the same side of the ladder. Savoie made his best run of the event in Q4 with a 6.819 to pick up a pair of bonus points while Matt Smith grabbed the final point with a 6.836.
ROUND ONE PAIRINGS (Lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Jimmy Underdahl; Chip Ellis vs. Joey Gladstone; Jerry Savoie vs. Steve Johnson; Matt Smith vs. Karen Stoffer; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Scotty Pollacheck; Andrew Hines vs. Hector Arana Sr.; Angie Smith vs. Ryan Oehler; Angelle Sampey vs. LE Tonglet
PRO STOCK Q4 (3:53 p.m.): Drew Skillman saved his best for last with a thrilling 11th hour 6.509 that stole the top spot in Pro Stock from Erica Enders. It was arguably the most important pole of the year since Skillman will be virtually guaranteed a free ride into the semifinals. With a 14-car field, Skillman is eligible for a bye run in the quarterfinals and he’s all but certain to get there since scheduled opponent Shane Tucker is broken and will reportedly not make the call for the first round. Enders made the second-best run of the round with a 6.513 and points leader Tanner Gray also collected a bonus point with a 6.516.
ROUND ONE PAIRINGS (Lane choice first): Drew Skillman vs. Shane Tucker; Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Fernando Cuadra; Jason Line vs. Bo Butner; Erica Enders vs. Wally Stroupe; Greg Anderson vs. Vincent Nobile; Tanner Gray vs. Alan Prusiensky; Alex Laughlin vs. Deric Kramer.
TOP FUEL Q4 (4:12 p.m.): The championship battle between Steve Torrence and Clay Millican was momentarily interrupted by reigning champ Brittany Force, who captured the top spot with a 3.700, 330.72 run from her Monster Energy dragster in Q4. Force captured the green low qualifier hat for the second time this season and the tenth time in her career. Mike Salinas also improved to the second-best run of the session with a 3.720 while Torrence also picked up and additional bonus point after a 3.732. With Force as the low qualifier, Torrence and Millican are on the same side of the ladder and could potentially meet in the semifinal round.
ROUND ONE PAIRINGS (Lane choice first): Brittany Force vs. Audrey Worm; Steve Torrence vs. Chris Karamesines; Clay Millican vs. Kyle Wurtzel; Mike Salinas vs. Pat Dakin; Doug Kalitta vs. Scott Palmer; Tony Schumacher vs. Antron Brown; Leah Pritchett vs. Richie Crampton; Dom Lagana vs. Terry McMillen
FUNNY CAR Q4 (5:03 p.m.): There was a lot of shuffling within the field during the final Funny Car qualifying session including the top spot which was captured by Tommy Johnson Jr. and the Make-A-Wish team after a 3.873 effort that bested their DSR teammate, Ron Capps. Johnson, who was also the low qualifier last week in Dallas, will take on Dave Richards in tomorrow’s opening round. Johnson bumped Tim Wilkerson to the third spot in the order but Wilkerson picked up a pair of bonus points after driving his Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang to a 3.893. J.R. Todd also picked up a point with a 3.894 run in the DHL Toyota. The biggest improvement of the round came from Jonnie Lindberg who was able to earn a spot in the field with a 13th best 3.954.
ROUND ONE PAIRINGS (Lane choice first): Tommy Johnson Jr. vs. Dave Richards; Ron Capps vs. Dale Creasy Jr.; Tim Wilkerson vs. Jim Campbell; J.R. Todd vs. Jonnie Lindberg; Cruz Pedregon vs. Courtney Force; Matt Hagan vs. Shawn Langdon; Robert Hight vs. Jack Beckman; John Force vs. Bob Tasca III.
Bellemeur clinches TAFC title: With his quarterfinal win over D.J. Cox in Top Alcohol Funny Car, Sean Bellemeur became the first driver to officially clinch a 2018 NHRA Lucas Oil Series national championship. Bellemeur drove Tony Bartone's Steve Boggs-tuned Hussey Performance Camaro to a strong 5.38 to defeat Cox and put the wraps on his first national championship.
The last thing that Tony Schumacher and the U.S. Army team want to do is wave the white flag, but after losing a chance to stop the Steve Torrence Express when they faced off in the semifinals in Dallas last weekend certainly didn’t help their bid for a record ninth Top Fuel championship, and the always straight-talking Schumacher is admitting they’re in a bind, even after sorting out gremlins that have haunted their car recently.
“We finally figured out two dramatic issues with our U.S. Army car,” said Schumacher. “Now we can run at the level we need to run at. We may not win a championship with it because it might be too late. If we go off and beat Torrence right now and win the championship after struggling the way we have lately, it’s almost disrespectful to the sport. Have we pulled off things like that before? No. We’ve won races but we’ve always done it in some dramatic form and, right now, winning off of some luck would not be the way we would want to do it.
“We do have a great car after this weekend. But we’re down to 12 rounds and he’s a lot of rounds ahead of us. He’s got to go out in the first round at the next three races and we have to win them all. Is it impossible? No, but he’s dominated this year. If he wins the championship, I’ll be proud to call him champ. His team’s led the way all year, and Clay’s done the same thing. So, let’s watch them battle it. We’ll see if we can get in everybody’s way and see if we can earn some points and finish off the season No. 1, 2 or 3 but, realistically, we didn’t have that championship car until this weekend. We’re just getting back to that point.”
Charlotte holds a special place in Schumacher’s memory because it was at this event in 2008 that he scored his 53rd win to surpass Joe amato as the sport’s winningest Top Fuel driver.
“At the time you are just thinking about winning, but later on you kind of look back and see just how important those milestones are,” he said. “We sure would like to get another win for the U.S. Army there this weekend.”
Much has been made of the fact that Steve Torrence and Clay Millican, the two leading contenders for the Mello Yello Top Fuel title, race as part of single car teams but in the mind of Millican, “single car team” is a relative term.
“When we say single car team, we mean it,” said Millican. “We are a very small single car team. In fact, we bought a starter kit from Stevie [Torrence] to get going. We are a very small team and our depth of parts is not near what the other teams have. When we pack up our shop, which by the way is in [team owner] Doug Stringer’s backyard, the only thing left is a drill press and a band saw. We have no CNC machines. No mill and no lathe. We do it with our people. Grubby [crew chief David Grubnic] says it all the time that people are our most valuable asset.
“Grubby is quiet for the most part,” said Millican. “He is immersed in the dragster. About the only thing he ever says is ‘Is Hogan [Richard, Torrence crew chief] ever going to make a mistake?’ We’ve had the better car in qualifying based on the bonus points but lost some heartbreaking races on race day. They keep turning win lights on. They haven’t made a mistake. They’re perfect in the Countdown so far. I can’t be mad and hold that against him. What are the chances of that? I do know we have a heck of a run going. We’ve got a runner-up and two semi’s in the Countdown and we’re still over 100-points behind Stevie. We’re not giving up. We’ve got three races left and there is the points-and-a-half in Pomona.”
Millican obviously doesn’t feel like he’s at a disadvantage racing without a teammate. A former Super Comp racer who worked his way to the top of the spot, he’s never lost sight of the fact that he’s been able to race as a professional for the better part of two decades.
“To be honest my dream was to just drive one of these cars,” he said. “I love going fast, and for a long time I never really thought about winning. Winning has since become a huge deal with number of runners-up I had to pile up before I finally won one of these races. Weather I win the championship or not, nothing will ever top my [first NHRA win] in Bristol last year. After 19 years of trying, to win on Father’s Day after losing a child; nothing will ever top that.”
In just his second year in the class, J.R. Todd has already doubled the number of wins he secured in his rookie season in Funny Car, going from two to four, including a huge victory at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Now with a first-round win here, Todd would earn his 34th round win of the season, doubling the total of his Funny Car rookie season in 2017.His four victories on the season tie him with Hight and Courtney Force for the class lead and he’s gone on an 11-2 streak over the last four races, including his huge win in Indy. In Countdown competition, he’s advanced to the final round in two of three races, winning in Reading and scoring a runner-up behind Hight last weekend in Dallas.
After a Q1 miss in Dallas, the team made seven consecutive three-second passes, including in the losing effort in the final, but he knows a huge challenge still awaits. Todd added two more three second runs to his ledger on Friday, including a 3.894 that is currently third-best.
"No rounds are easy out here,” he said. “We had a very consistent DHL/Wix Filters Toyota all day long in Dallas. We're just going out and racing smart, that's what it takes to contend for a title. We didn't exactly run what I was hoping to in the final. I didn't have the reaction time I was hoping to in the final, either. We lost some ground to the point leader, but we distanced ourselves from the cars behind us. So we'll battle it out over the last three races with Robert [Hight]. We still have a long way to go, but we need to keep pace with Robert. It would have been nice to take some points away from him in the final, but we're still within striking distance.”
Tim Wilkerson stands by the old adage, “I didn’t come this far to only come this far.” What Wilkerson has done during the Countdown is commendable; climbing from tenth to third in the standings, but with three races remaining, he sees only opportunities to climb higher. Wilkerson enters the Charlotte race 133-points behind leader Robert Hight, which means he can’t take over the top spot no matter what happens. However, if he can cut the deficit by even one or two rounds, it will make for an interesting finish in Las Vegas and Pomona.
“It can be tricky here [in Charlotte], but we think it will work out okay,” said Wilkerson. “We didn't really hurt anything last weekend [in Dallas] except our own feelings, so we didn't have too much maintenance-wise to take care of in these couple days between races. We're pretty excited, really, about how the car is performing and how the guys are doing. Everything looks good, and even though the other teams are doing just as well, we know our Levi, Ray and Shoup Mustang is a good car. It's a good time of year to be this optimistic.”
Wilkerson enjoyed a solid first day in Charlotte with a solid opening run of 3.988. He then impressed everyone, including himself with a 3.876 during the evening session that was second only to Ron Capps’ 3.875. The run even surprised Wilkerson’s car chief, Richard Hartman, who noted that the team was hoping to run about 3.90.
Alex Laughlin admits that missing the Countdown was a tough pill to swallow but he’s also optimistic enough to understand that missing the top ten does not mean that he’s not capable of winning races or making life difficult for the ten drivers who are battling for the Mello Yello Pro Stock championships. After two runs in Charlotte, Laughlin is not in the top half of the field, but he’s less than four-hundredths behind provisional leader Erica Enders, his Elite Motorsports teammate.
“This is the worst season I’ve had since I got into Pro Stock and it’s been hard on me,” said Laughlin. “It’s hard to keep coming to the races when you continue to suck week after week. At the same time, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve wanted to be out here racing so I’m not about to give up on that. Not by a longshot. Sometimes it’s hard to have confidence in your car and it’s hard to have confidence in yourself. Deep down, I know I’m a good driver. I’ve won race before and I know that I can win again. We just need to stay motivated and not give up.”
To that end, Laughlin has shown his continued commitment to the Pro Stock class by debuting a new Jerry Haas-built Camaro at last weekend’s race in Dallas. This week, the car is wrapped in the colors of Havoline, one of Laughlin’s many sponsors this year.
“It’s a beautiful car; you should look at the detail work in the interior,” said Laughlin. “It’s really a work of art but more importantly, it’s also a good race car. I’m very comfortable in it. I feels the same as my old car from a driving standpoint but we think this car will ultimately be more consistent and more tunable. We’re still learning what it likes and what it doesn’t like.”
Laughlin also hinted that his 2019 plans are likely to include an expansion of his efforts in the NHRA Mello Yello series and he also plans to continue racing his drag radial Corvette when time permits. Laughlin recently drove his supercharged entry to a runner-up finish at the No Mercy 9 event at South Georgia Motorsports Park.
In a sport where timing is everything, Matt Smith could not be happier to be returning to zMax Dragway, his home track, for the fourth race in the Countdown to the Championship. Smith took over the points lead after winning in St. Louis, but quickly surrendered it after an early loss in Dallas last week. Despite the loss, Smith is relieved to find himself just 48-points behind leader LE Tonglet and just one point in back of second-ranked Eddie Krawiec.
“We went to Dallas with the lead and then I let the bike bog so we’re coming here to redeem ourselves,” said Smith. “I want to try and qualify No. 1 and get enough bonus points to get the difference under two rounds after qualifying. We’ve still got a ways to go and we’re in this fight. That’s why it’s great to be racing here at my home track. We test a lot here with Greg [Anderson], Jason [Line], and Tanner [Gray]. I just hope we can get dialed-in. I went to the final this spring at the Four-Wide. I came up short in the final but I think we can do well. At the very least, I need to go to the semifinals.”
As part of his preparation for the Charlotte race, Smith changed engines and installed an all-new 160-cid V-twin in his EBR-bodied bike.
“There wasn’t anything wrong with the engine, but we think its was a big part of the reason why the bike bogged,” said Smith. “We’re using kind off an odd port design and it just night not be the best thing for what we’re trying to do. The bike ran really good when we first put that engine in but I think what we’ve got now will be better. I think that we can put ourselves in a better chance to win the championship. I think we need to at least go to the semifinals. We have all the chess pieces in right places. We just have to execute. It would be great to upset the big money teams and have the little guy win. It would be huge for us to win championship after having no sponsor.”
While Smith’s primary focus will be on winning enough rounds to remain in title contention, he’s willing to admit that the prospect of joining the Denso Spark Plugs 200-mph club is intriguing. The weather conditions at zMax Dragway figure to be favorable.
“The air is good and if the wind cooperates we might see 200,” said Smith. “We might even see side-by-side 200s because it’s pretty good out there right now. It all depends on which direction the wind is blowing. If we have a tail wind, we’re good to go."
As a general rule, there are two types of racers in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. There are those who count points and those who lie and say they don’t. After winning four Pro Stock Motorcycle world championship, Eddie Krawiec isn’t afraid to admit that he watches points religiously.
“Look at where we are right now with a bunch of riders still in the hunt, it’s exciting,” said Krawiec. “Little [qualifying] points are big points and you need to try and have low et every round and then hope that the competitors in front of you falter. It’s so close right now that even one or two bonus points is a big deal. I’ve lost a championship by two points so I know. You have to count all of them.”
Krawiec entered the points battle as the No. 1 seed, but now finds himself in second place, just 47-points behind leader LE Tonglet. Matt Smith is also lurking in third place, one point behind Krawiec while Hector Arana Jr., Jerry Savoie, and Andrew Hines are all still very much alive for the title. Obviously, Krawiec would love to join teammate Hines as a five-time championship, but he also sees the benefits of having a multi-bike battle all the way to the late rounds of the Auto Club finals in Pomona.
“I’m hoping to start my roll right now,” said Krawiec. “Having so many bikes so close makes you a better racer. If you choke at this point, its on you. This is where the better rider will shine. You can’t make any mistakes. Everyone on the team has to do their job. I want to win the last three races but I also hope it goes down to Pomona and to the final rounds in Pomona. Ultimately, we’re putting on a show for the fans. When you have a close battle, brings an extra dynamic to the class. No one wants to see someone lock it up two or three races early. That takes focus away from class. I want focus on class and that means some real drama at the last race.”
Steve Torrence has held the points lead in Top Fuel since the Phoenix race in February and he added six more bonus points to his total yesterday after leading both qualifying sessions. Torrence holds the top spot with a 3.704 run in his Capco dragster but he isn’t yet convinced that he’s going to wear the green hat on Saturday night. Torrence certainly believes he can run quicker on Saturday at zMax Dragway and he also admits that Clay Millican, his closest points rival, is capable of taking the top spot with a 3.6-second run. Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, and Tony Schumacher are all solidly qualified in the top half of the field and will be looking to unseat Torrence from the top spot.
After two qualifying runs there are already 11 Funny Cars in the three-second zone with a couple more knocking on the door. At this point, no one has run quicker than 2016 world champ Ron Capps, who leads the pack with a 3.875 in his NAPA Dodge. Capps is just a thousandth of a second quicker than Tim Wilkerson, who has been the surprise of the Countdown so far. One driver who should be due for an improvement is current points leader Robert Hight, winner of the last two events in St. Louis and Dallas. Hight finished Friday’s qualifying in the seventh spot after a 3.911 best.
Erica Enders has not given up hope of winning the 2018 Mello Yello Pro Stock championship and yesterday, she added five bonus points to her total. Enders enters Saturday as the top qualifier with a 6.518 in her Melling/Elite Camaro. Much like Torrence, Enders is also convinced that she’ll have to better Friday’s run in order to maintain the top spot. Enders’ teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr., is ranked second after two runs with a 6.525 and points leader Tanner Gray holds the fourth spot after a 6.534 best. The top eight drivers in Pro Stock are separated by just .032-second. With 14 cars in the field, the low qualifier will be eligible for a quarterfinal bye run.
The top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle changed hands twice yesterday. Andrew Hines established the mark early with a 6.842 and his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec later took the spot with a 6.806 in the second session. Chip Ellis, the third Harley rider, is currently the No. 2 seed after a 6.830. One rider to watch is points leader LE Tonglet, who enters the day in the No. 6 spot on his Nitro Fish Suzuki. There are 22 bikes attempting to qualify for the 16-bike field so the battle to make it to Sunday’s driver introductions will be fierce. Among the riders who are currently not qualified are Countdown riders Angie Smith and Steve Johnson. After two runs, it takes a 6.958 to make it into the show.