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NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello Sunday Notebook

Leah Pritchett got her first win since last year's Brainerd event, while Courtney Force, Vincent Nobile and Eddie Krawiec all captured wins in Atlanta.
06 May 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
NHRA Southern Nationals

Preview | Features | Photos | Results

ELIMINATION ROUND RECAPS

litton.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:23 p.m.): Add Bill Litton to the list of racers to get their first career victory against Tony Schumacher. That means, yes, Schumacher will go yet another year without winning the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello. The upset bug also bit Antron Brown, as Blake Alexander moved into the second round, while Mike Salinas edged Scott Palmer in an extremely tight drag race. The San Jose native defeated Palmer by just .009 second to earn lane choice against No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican in the second round. That wasn’t the best run; Brittany Force ran a 3.779 and looked excellent in her Monster Energy Dragster.

Second round pairings (lane choice first): Mike Salinas vs. Clay Millican; Leah Pritchett vs. Bill Litton; Brittany Force vs. Blake Alexander; Steve Torrence vs. Doug Kalitta.

tasca.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (11:55 a.m.): Bob Tasca III got his first round win of the season with a not-so-clean 4.547-second pass, upsetting No. 2 qualifier and defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight in the process. That earns him a second-round matchup with Jack Beckman, but not lane choice. A heavyweight battle between John Force and Ron Capps went the way of the 2016 champ, not the 16-time champ. That’s Capps, just to let you know. Nobody touched the performance of Cruz Pedregon, who ran a 4.005 in the first pass of the session – that’s .004 second quicker than his run from the fourth qualifying session. He’s onto something.

Second round pairings (lane choice first): Tim Wilkerson vs. Courtney Force; Cruz Pedregon vs. Ron Capps; Jack Beckman vs. Bob Tasca III; Tommy Jonson Jr. vs. Matt Hagan.

vincent.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND ONE (12:18 p.m.): Most of the racers in Pro Stock were able to improve upon their qualifying bests in the first round of eliminations including Vincent Nobile, who defeated Alan Prusiensky’s Dodge with a 6.586, 210.05, the quickest pass of the round. The best match of the round featured world champ Bo Butner, who used a microscopic holeshot to take a 6.617 to 6.615 victory over Alex Laughlin. This is the third anniversary of Butner's first Pro Stock event in 2015. Greg Anderson got a bye run when bump spot qualifier Val Smeland was unable to appear, and it was a fortunate break since his Summit Camaro got loose in high gear. Anderson shut off to a 7.795, but advanced to face teammate Deric Kramer. Jeg Coughlin also got the best of Elite teammate and Charlotte winner Erica Enders with a solid 6.593, 208.23. Chris McGaha also moved on after a win over John Gaydosh.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Tanner Gray; Drew Skillman vs. Bo Butner; Deric Kramer vs. Greg Anderson; Vincent Nobile vs. Chris McGaha

eddie.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND ONE (12:34 p.m.): With the rest of the field mired in the high 6.8s and low 6.9s, Hector Arana Jr. flexed his muscles again with an impressive 6.819, 195.90 run to easily win his round one showdown against Ryan Oehler. Given the headwind that has cropped up on Sunday, that run might be even more impressive than the 6.806 that Arana Jr. used to qualify atop the field. Arana’s father, Hector Sr., also advanced following a win over Karen Stoffer and both Harley-Davidson Street Rods moved into round two with Eddie Krawiec stopping Melissa Surber and five-time champ Andrew Hines beating Joey Gladstone. The biggest upset of the round occurred when No. 6 qualifier Matt Smith red-lighted to send Angelle Sampey into the quarterfinals. Jerry Savoie, LE Tonglet, and Scotty Pollacheck also moved into round two. Of the eight remaining riders, six are former Mello Yello series champions and they have a combined 15 titles.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Hector Arana Jr. vs. Jerry Savoie; Eddie Krawiec vs. LE Tonglet; Andrew Hines vs. Angelle Sampey; Scotty Pollacheck vs. Hector Arana Sr.

salinas.JPGTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:40 p.m.): A couple of big time upsets came through in the second round of Top Fuel eliminations, as Mike Salinas advanced to the first semifinal of his career. He defeated Clay Millican behind a 4.128-second pass and will race Leah Pritchett for a spot in the NHRA Southern Nationals Powered by Mello Yello final. Blake Alexander accomplished the same feat by defeating the defending Mello Yello world champion, Brittany Force. He gets an equally tough customer in Steve Torrence as Steve-O took down Doug Kalitta in a battle of heavyweights.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Mike Salinas; Steve Torrence vs. Blake Alexander

pedregon.JPGFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:53 p.m.): Cruz Pedregon keeps on marching. The Snap-On Tools racer has won five-straight round wins and he will take on Courtney Force for a shot at winning back-to-back races for the first time since the Fall Las Vegas and Pomona races of 2008. On the other side of the ladder is a pair of Don Schumacher Racing teammates: Jack Beckman and Matt Hagan. They both made relatively clean runs and the driver of the Infinite Hero car (that’s Beckman) will have lane choice. So, DSR will have one car in the final.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Cruz Pedregon vs. Courtney Force; Jack Beckman vs. Matt Hagan.

skillman_0.JPGPRO STOCK ROUND TWO (1:58 p.m.): After two rounds of eliminations, there is still a chance that the Pro Stock class will have its seventh different winner in the first seven events of the season with low qualifier Greg Anderson and Drew Skillman as the candidates. Anderson drove his Summit Chevy to a 6.632, 209.01 win over Deric Kramer, who shook the tires and shut off. Skillman made a solid run with a 6.625, 208.84 to beat reigning champ Bo Butner. The best hopes for a repeat winner rest with Las Vegas champ Vincent Nobile, who made the best pass of the round with a 6.617, 209.36 in his win over Chris McGaha. Tanner Gray, the winner in Gainesville, is also in the running for a second win after scoring a holeshot win over Jeg Coughlin Jr.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Vincent Nobile vs. Greg Anderson; Drew Skillman vs. Tanner Gray.

sampey.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND TWO (2:09 p.m.): One race was decided by seven-thousandths and another by eight-thousandths in a thrilling second round of Pro Stock Motorcycle racing. Three-time champ Angelle Sampey used a holeshot to take out Andrew Hines’ Harley-Davidson, 6.939 to 6.916. In the next pair, Eddie Krawiec survived a close battle against LE Tonglet’s Nitro Fish Suzuki, 6.875 to 6.878. Scotty Pollachek also reached the semifinals for the third-straight event after wheeling his Suzuki to a win against 2009 champ Hector Arana Sr. Pollacheck’s win spoiled the chance for an all-Arana final round after low qualifier Hector Jr. again set the pace with a 6.865, 197.10 in his win over Jerry Savoie, who was not far behind with a 6.890, 193.88.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Scotty Pollacheck vs. Angelle Sampey; Hector Arana Jr. vs. Eddie Krawiec

pritchett_0.JPGTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (3:16 p.m.): Leah Pritchett is back in a final round for the first time this season. She went to the first final round of her career at Atlanta Dragway and she’ll have a chance to pick up a Wally against upset-minded Blake Alexander, who defeated Steve Torrence, who smoked the tires in his Capco Contractors Dragster. Pritchett will have lane choice thanks to a slightly better elapsed time. She was behind at the step against Mike Salinas but made up the difference about midway down the strip and sped to the stripe. This was Salinas’ first trip to the semi’s.

hagan.JPGFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (3:22 p.m.): Matt Hagan is back in a final round after defeating teammate Jack Beckman with a 4.111-second pass. That won’t get him lane choice in his second meeting of the year with Courtney Force. She raced to a 4.038, which kept Cruz Pedregon from getting back-to-back race wins. This is her fourth final round (including two four-wide finals) and the third for Hagan. Force has the chance to become the fourth No. 1 qualifier to grab a Wally this season and she has been deadly consistent all throughout this weekend.

tanner2_0.JPGPRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (3:24 p.m.): Frustrated by his driving the last few races, Tanner Gray appears to have found the cure following his second-straight holeshot win. Gray stopped five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin in the second round and then followed with a 6.622 to 6.613 holeshot win against teammate Drew Skillman in the semifinals. There will be a repeat winner in the Pro Stock class for the first time this year because Gray will take on Las Vegas winner Vincent Nobile, who took out low qualifier Greg Anderson. Anderson got off the starting line first, but Nobile’s Mountain View Tires Camaro drove around him to win, 6.610 to 6.631. Gray, appearing in his 31st career Pro Stock race, is seeking his sixth-career win while Nobile is an 11-time winner and now a 22-time finalist.

Final round matchup (lane choice first): Vincent Nobile vs. Tanner Gray

scotty2.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:30 p.m.): Scotty Pollacheck will have another opportunity to become NHRA’s next first-time pro winner after defeating Angelle Sampey in the semifinals. Pollacheck rode his Suzuki Extended Protection Suzuki to a 6.960, 191.16 to defeat Sampey’s 6.978, 191.40 and advance to the final round for the sixth time in his career, which now spans 100 events. Standing in Pollacheck’s way will be four-time world champ and 44-time national event winner Eddie Krawiec on his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson. Krawiec, who won his first event in Atlanta in 2009, outran low qualifier Hector Arana Jr. and his Lucas Oil EBR in the other half of the semi’s, 6.871, 194.86 to 6.942, 193.88.

Final round matchup (lane choice first): Eddie Krawiec vs. Scotty Pollacheck


LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN SERIES RESULTS: In addition to NHRA Mello Yello series pro categories, racing was also contested in ten Lucas Oil Series sportsman divisions.

Final round results for all classes:

Top Alcohol Dragster
Josh Hart def. Megan Meyer

Top Alcohol Funny Car
Jay Payne def. Ulf Leanders

Competition
Van Puckett def. Brian Browell

Super Stock
Kevin Helms def. Byron Worner

Stock
Jeff Strickland def. Robbie Shaw

Super Comp
Gene Quinn def. Lauren Freer

Super Gas
Tommy Turner def. Carl Watts

Super Street
Keith Mayers def. Jesse McKnight

Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs.com
Les Feist def. Larry Roberts

Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs.com
Bob Mandell Jr. def. Vince Hoda

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PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (4:31 p.m.): On the same track where he won his first race, Eddie Krawiec claimed career win No. 45 after a final round win over Scotty Pollacheck. Krawiec, the reigning NHRA Mello Yello champion, rode to a 6.922, 194.91 on his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson to hold off Pollacheck’s 6.958, 193.18. Krawiec no holds a 17-1 advantage against Pollacheck in head-to-head races. Krawiec, who won the season opener in Gainesville, worked his way to the final with wins against Melissa Surber, LE Tonglet, and low qualifier Hector Arana Jr. Pollacheck, appearing in his sixth-career final, topped Cory Reed, Hector Arana Sr., and three-time champion Angelle Sampey.

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PRO STOCK FINAL (4:34 p.m.): By a margin of less than .001-second, Vincent Nobile became the season’s first repeat winner when he defeated reigning rookie of the year Tanner Gray in the Pro Stock final. Gray got off the starting line first with an almost-perfect .010 reaction time, but Nobile ran him down to win by a razor-thin margin, 6.599 to 6.614. Nobile has not won 12 Pro Stock events in 24 final round appearances including the Las Vegas four-wide event, held last March. Nobile was the No. 5 qualifier and scored wins against Alan Pruisensky, Chris McGaha, and low qualifier Greg Anderson. Gray, who won earlier this year in Gainesville, stopped Kenny Delco, Jeg Coughlin Jr., and teammate Drew Skillman to reach his ninth final round in just 31-career starts.

_AND4046.JPGFUNNY CAR FINAL (4:40 p.m.): Courtney Force captured her second win of the season and took over the point lead in the process by running a 4.046 and defeating Matt Hagan. Hagan left first, but that’s the only time the driver of the Mopar Dodge Charger led. Force’s consistency gave her another victory to cap off a great swing for John Force Racing.

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TOP FUEL FINAL (4:43 p.m.): The monkey is officially off the back of Leah Pritchett. She earned her first Wally since picking up the trophy in Brainerd last year – that’s the same length of the drought experienced by the entire dragster contingent of Don Schumacher Racing. Pritchett’s win light turned on as soon as Blake Alexander smashed the gas, as he turned on the red light.

E_Krawiec.jpgPro Stock Motorcycle winner Eddie Krawiec: “To say we had a breeze today is an understatement. I’d call it wind. This track rack has been very challenging for us but we just have to learn how it changes from run to run. As more cars run on it and it gets more prep, it gets better and better. Rather than being the best it can be right off the bat, it comes together later. I almost gave it away in the final. We underestimated the track and stuck the tire and my bike rattled. I just had enough momentum to get through and get the win light. There is also a crown to this track that wants to pull you right or left. It was tricky. I had a better bike than I showed especially on Friday and Saturday. We were not making the proper chassis adjustments to get bike down the track. If you give me enough time I’ll figure it out. In the first round I think I hit it. My bike was in the 6.80s all weekend except for the final but in seven of eight runs I ran 6.89 or better. That’s what we needed to do.

“The way I look at it, I’m the guy here with the Wally so that shows you how much concern I have about [low qualifier Hector Arana Jr.] No matter how you’re your bike is, you’ve got to get it done. We just need to stay focused and make sure we also have a fast motorcycle. I don’t know if we’re as fast as they [the Lucas team] is. For sure, I couldn’t have run as fast as they did today but we’re standing here with the Wally. Really, you need to race the track conditions. This [track prep] is new to all of us and we’re learning. The more runs we make the better off we’re going to be.”

V_Nobile.JPGPro Stock winner Vincent Nobile: “I didn’t beat Tanner. My car beat Tanner. He’s a good driver and I guess I’m not the kid any more. I’m an old man. I also had the car to beat this weekend. We looked at the computer and we knew we could have the fastest car in each session. I thought that was pretty big. Lump [crew chief Brian Self] did a great job turning those knobs. We also stayed in the right lane all day and that was our goal.
Naturally, gearing is also huge because of the rev-limiter. We were short on crew members this weekend, so I was the back-half guy. Our guy, Ryan [Priddy] stayed home. Normally we change the rear gear almost every run because we never seem to get it right the first time, but I got lucky. I only had to change it one time. We also found a little trick that worked. In round two we tried something in transmission box it worked well. I don’t know if it will work next time, but it worked here.

Unfortunately, Nick and Irene [Mitsos, team owners] were not here. I hate it when they miss our wins, but I can’t thank them enough for letting me come out here and play. It’s awesome that we get to run the whole season. We find a way to make it happen. There was a time when we weren’t sure what we were doing, and I would have been depressed if we had to quit. I’d probably sit at home all day and be miserable. It’s too soon to talk about championships. We’re leading in the points but more importantly, we have a consistent and fast race car. We have a hot rod. This is a brand-new car. We came out and qualified number one at our first race. Then we went to the winner’s circle four races in. Hats off to [chassis builder] Jerry Haas. I think the switch helped our whole Elite team. I’m stoked about it. To be the first double winner of the year in in Pro Stock.”

C_Force.JPGFunny Car winner Courtney Force: “It great to be out here getting a win at the track where my sister, Ashley got her first win. All day I thought about that. She doesn’t come to a ton of races so I was really excited. We had a great race car all day long. Every single guy on our crew did a phenomenal job all weekend long. We made some consistent runs, but I lost lane choice in the second round. We were spinning the tires and dropping holes, but we managed to get it fixer up. We got lane choice back for the final against [Matt] Hagan and I ended up turning on the win light. It’s a pretty good day.

“This is a tricky race track. We struggled getting down without spinning or dropping a hole. I have so much confidence in my crew chiefs, Dan Hood and Brian Corradi. They made it happen. We consider everyone at John Force Racing family. Danny is my brother-in-law and he and Brian have a bond. I enjoy learning from both of them and they do a great job working together. There’s nothing better than finishing off three [races] in a row in the winner’s circle. Now, we’ve got to focus on next race and figure out how we can maintain the points lead. We came in here second and now we’re first, and I hope to hold on to that top spot for a while. I hope we end up with a championship at the end of it.”

L_Pritchett.JPGTop Fuel winner Leah Pritchett: “When you have so much support the weight [of not winning] is not that heavy. I’ve watched [teamamtes] Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher carry that weight. When we say that we take it one round at a time that’s seriously the mind-set. Conditions were forebearing. That’s why I take my hat off to [crew chiefs] Joe Barlam and Todd Okuhara. They find what was right and wrong. This is the first [Schumacher Racing] win since Brainerd so it’s been a minute but it all has to do with the Countdown. We want to win every race, of course, but there is a method to what we’re doing.

“This win is special in a lot of ways. I know a lot of people probably don’t know but where you make your burnout where you’re going to run but there is better traction in different spots inside and outside of the groove so as a driver you’ve got to focus on that. Those are my key factors; not who I was racing. Drivers have to be perfect more than just on the Tree. It takes guts to goo 330-mph when the thing is spinning and taking it to it’s edge. We know we are capable of and that’s the culture that we have [at DSR]. We don’t let non-wins get us down. It just improves our drive and determination. We have the will to never give up. That’s what we did today.”

FEATURES

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Some drivers really sink their teeth into swings, whether they be Western, Eastern, Southeastern or less geographically descript. Brittany Force is among them. The Monster Energy driver brings up her fondness for the quick turnaround every time one of these quick trips comes up; think of her as the Jerry Savoie of short weeks – she’d race all 24 in a row if she could.

“This race in Atlanta will be the last race of three in a row and I think it just puts the whole team in that groove. It sets a pace,” Force said. “We are very happy with the new car and how it has been running. We won Houston and we were No. 1 in Charlotte. Our routine is set, and you are just more familiar with everything. You don’t have two weeks off and then have to come back to the track and think about what you have to do. It all flows and I like that momentum.”

You might feel the same way if you were piloting the Monster Energy dragster right now. Not only is that sucker fast (3.763 average on runs quicker than 3.9 seconds), it’s also getting down the track on 50 percent of its runs. Both of those are in the top half of the field and make her a favorite on race day. She now has a Wally, which she mentioned above, and it seems like a matter of time before she gets another. 2017, this is not.

And there was nothing wrong with how things worked out last year, as you may recall. While Steve Torrence and the Capco Boys are running on kill right now, they don’t have quite as big an advantage in on-track performance as it might appear. Force is 192 points behind Torrence in seventh place with a lot of ground to cover and a lot of great race cars to pass. That’s going to be difficult, but she’s got the car to do it and she’s already proven she has the driving ability to do it.

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When Antron Brown switched to Top Fuel, his credentials as a Pro Stock Motorcycle racer were not in question. It didn’t take him long to earn everyone’s respect as a Top Fuel driver, either. He earned his first win against Larry Dixon in Houston in 2008, and just three races later he took down another heavy hitter: Tony Schumacher at Atlanta Dragway.

“I won my second Top Fuel race (in Atlanta) during my first year,” said Brown. “It was incredible. I remember that we beat Tony Schumacher in the final on a holeshot. When we went out there and won that race, it was a statement that we were here to compete and win. It gave us an air of legitimacy. I’m really looking forward to getting back there with our Matco Tools/U.S. Army/Toyota team.”

Brown has won in Atlanta four times in total, tying him with Dixon as the winningest Top Fuel racer of all time at the facility. That’s incredible given how long Top Fuel racing has gone on in Atlanta (1981). Doug Kalitta has three wins at the Georgia facility, and a host of drivers have a pair – including Steve Torrence, who will look to move up the leaderboard this weekend as well.

The Matco Tools team hasn’t gotten the started it wanted to this season. Since losing Brian Corradi to John Force Racing, the squad posted a 7-6 round record. Some of that may simply be due to bad luck. The dragster is averaging a 3.761 e.t. average (on runs quicker than 3.9 seconds) and gets down the track on 45.9 percent of its passes. Both of those are among the best in the class, indicating it might just be a matter of time before everything clicks for Brown and company.

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crampton.JPGRichie Crampton will race Doug Kalitta for the sixth time this season and the fourth time head-to-head. The two raced in both four-wide races and met in every two-lane race with the exception of the NHRA Arizona Nationals (the second event of the year). Kalitta leads the head-to-head series 2-1 and defeated Crampton in both the four-wide quads.

"This is pretty incredible,” said Crampton. “I am not sure how we keep drawing our teammate. I know we both have cars capable of going rounds, so it stinks that one of us will have to be done early. I am proud of the work my Kalitta Air guys have put in, and we will be ready for tomorrow."

For the sake of lane choice tomorrow, it should be noted that Doug Kalitta qualified No. 6 while his teammate qualified No. 11. Both racers have won once this season. Kalitta opened the year with a win at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals presented by ProtectTheHarvest.com, while Crampton took home the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Wally.

“We would love not to keep racing our teammate in the first round, but here we are again,” said Kalitta. “We have a great Mac Tools machine, but we know they have all the same parts that we do. We are going to go up and give it our best shot."

Kalitta sits third in the Top Fuel standings while Crampton is currently ninth.

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J.R. Todd enters the seventh race day of the 2018 season with the best reaction time average in the Funny Car category* and a pair of Wallys to boot. He noted his own hesitance when it comes to reaction time stats in the flopper class but shared his tactics when lining up in the DHL Toyota Camry during qualifying as opposed to eliminations.  

“I’m basically trying to gauge myself,” said Todd. “If my reaction times are consistent then I know where I’m at, but if I’m all over the place then I don’t know if it’s me, the car or the track. I’ll talk to (teammate Shawn Langdon) about my lights after runs and we’ll talk about if we got all of the tree and we can gauge ourselves on that and see where we’re at.”

Here’s what Todd means when he says, ‘got all of the tree.’

“So, you go out there and you rip off an .065 and to me, that means you got all of it, right? That’s probably the best reaction time on average,” he said. It should be noted Todd averages a .0628 light. “Sometimes you get lucky and you hit the gas and the light came on, but if you’re consistently within a hundredth then you’re pretty confident when you’re hitting the three.”

That approach differs from Langdon, who Todd says is looking to absolutely get every last bit of the tree every time he lines up. The difference? Todd is looking for consistency, while Langdon hopes to get as much data as possible on his own lights. Both have been great leavers in both Top Fuel and Funny Car throughout their careers, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. One thing Todd maintains: it’s easier to cut a light in a dragster.

“It’s much more of a gentleman’s agreement. In these things? It’s nasty.”

*(only reaction times better than .250 second are considered in order to remove outliers from the pool)

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wilk.JPGTim Wilkerson earned his second and third round wins of the season while at the NHRA SpringNationals two races ago, and while he didn’t escape the first quad at last week’s NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals it seems the cagey veteran is moving in the right direction. For the third time this season, Wilkerson will start Sunday’s eliminations in the top half of the field – though he’s not convinced either of the tricky lanes at Atlanta Dragway provide a huge advantage.

"One lane is a trickier than the other, but both lanes are tricky," said Wilkerson, who won the Atlanta event in 2015 and was a finalist here last year. "This weekend, you're just racing the racetrack. But I have some 'Tim Trickery' up my sleeve tomorrow to get through there."

He earned his qualifying spot based on his run from the third session. Conditions will likely be very similar during the third round, so that 4.029-second pass just might be indicative of what happens on Sunday. His fourth run in slightly warmer conditions didn’t go quite as planned for the driver of the Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang.

"The fourth run, it finally had eight cylinders – but it had too much power,” said Wilkerson. “So, we're learning all over again. [Robert Hight’s crew chief] Jimmy Prock said this is like a puzzle, and he's right. This is a puzzle.
"That last run (a 4.931 at 154.88 mph), I thought it was going to go – it just wore a little too much clutch, got a hold of the motor, and sucked the driveshaft up. Tomorrow morning, you might get away with that. But I haven't quite figured out how to make it go fast and park it yet, and that's what needs to be done."

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The first year in a Funny Car seat has been a bit of a mixed bag for Shawn Langdon. On one hand, the driver of the Global Electronic Technology driver has four round wins to his name and is in a Countdown to the Championship position in an absolutely loaded class. On the other, he’s qualified in the top half of the field just once and has struggled over the past few races.  

“We’ve had a lot of bad luck,” said Langdon. “It’s just been a combination of struggling a little bit, not quite getting acquainted with the different prep and just some bad luck.”

The team led by crew chief Rob Flynn got Langdon into the field on the back of 3-second runs on both of the first two stops of the three-race swing, but he was bounced in the first round on each occasion. That’s while teammate J.R. Todd started the swing with a race win, one of two on the season.

“You can get up the cars as similar as you can, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Langdon said.

On a tricky track at Atlanta Dragway, Langdon got in the field at the No. 9 spot and will face Tim Wilkerson, someone who’s also hungry for round wins. That’s a tough matchup, but it looks like Langdon is moving in the right direction as far as consistency is concerned. He’s been directionally correct on his past few runs and ended up qualified with a 4.032.

“We got the consistency back in the Global Electronic Technology Camry,” said Langdon. “We are just doing small tweaks right now.”

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For the second-straight race, Jason Line is racing the KB team’s red Summit Camaro. It replaces the blue car that he parked following the Houston event. Fro history buffs, the red car is the same Camaro that Greg Anderson drove to a win at the 2012 Englishtown event and it’s also the car that carried Sweden’s Jimmy Alund to a win in Charlotte, the first for a European driver in an NHRA class. While he admits that his new ride is not perfect, Line plans to continue racing the car for the foreseeable future.

“We keep working on the car but the reality is that’s not the problem,” said Line. “We’re still trying to learn this Goodyear tire. We’re having the same problems that the Elite team has had. It’s not that the tire is bad; in fact. It’s fantastic. It’s a great tire but we’re struggling because it works too well sometimes. It wants to bite before it snaps loose so we have a hard time generating wheel speed. Instead, it will stay hooked until it runs over itself and that means tire shake. It’s just a struggle to find the balance.”

Line’s personal belief, one shared by many in the Pro Stock class, is that chassis vary very little from car to car. That’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t anticipate the KB team buying a new car anytime soon.

“Look, you can put thousandths of runs on these cars and they don’t wear out,” Line said. “They flex, but they don’t bend to the point of distorting metal. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to adjust them. It just means they’ll last a long time. Our problem is that we’re not smart enough to make it happy. We try one thing and it sort of works and confirms what we already knew. The variables are the tires and the engine and the clutch. They chassis is pretty much a constant. We’ve had this one since 2007. “

Line finished qualifying in the No. 8 spot in Atlanta and he’ll race against KB teammate Deric Kramer in the first round and the winner of that battle could face a quarterfinal meeting against another KB driver, low qualifier Greg Anderson.

“Our qualifying game needs a little work, too,” Line joked. “When cars are a few thousandths apart, it’s really hard to predict where you’ll end up. You just get who you get and hope you got the right guy. At this point I don’t care, I’ll race whoever as long as I can see four win lights.”

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“We’re going to win this race.”

Almost every racer entered in the NHRA Southern Nationals feels that way, but few feel as strongly as Drew Skillman who broadcast the above quote to the Atlanta crowd following his impressive 6.591-second run that was the quickest of the final qualifying session. Predicting a win in a highly competitive Pro Stock class is a sure way to hear your opponents laugh, but Skillman has the strength of his convictions. In a class where six different drivers have won the first six events of the season, he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be the seventh.

“We’ve had our ups and downs this season, but right now I think our car is as good as it’s been,” said Skillman. “We made some really good runs lately and I have confidence in my driving. If we can just keep doing what we’re doing, I think we’re going to be just fine.”

Skillman went to the final round of last week’s four-wide event in Charlotte but felt like he let on slip away when his Skillman Auto Camaro shook the tires. As a result, he finished fourth behind Erica Enders, Vincent Nobile, and Chris McGaha. With a competitive .029 reaction time, Skillman almost certainly would have finished ahead of Nobile and McGaha and might well have beat Enders to claim his eighth-career victory.

“That was the one that got away,” said Skillman. “I thought for sure we were going to win that race. I lost to Erica three times, but I really thought we were going to get her in the final. Oh well, that was last week. Now, I’m just focused on Atlanta and seeing what we can do here.”

While Skillman has yet to win a Pro Stock event in Atlanta, he does have fond memories from the 2012 Southern Nationals, where he doubled-up in Super Stock and Stock. He remains the only driver in the history of NHRA to win his first and second national event titles on the same day.

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Since he joined the Elite Motorsports team as a fill-in driver for three races in 2015, Jeg Coughlin Jr. has put together a very respectable 4-2 record against teammate Erica Enders. Coughlin has a winning record against almost every driver he’s faced in his 20-year career, but so does Enders, especially during her championship seasons in 2014-15. Paired again in round one in Atlanta, Coughlin claimed his fifth win over Enders in a typically close 6.593 to 6.611 battle.

“Right now, every round feels like a final,” said Coughlin, who entered the Atlanta event outside the top ten. “It’s been a while since we’ve been able to win one over Erica. She’s normally mowing the Tree down and you don’t take anyone lightly in this class, especially her. You’ve got to be on your toes every time. My car made a nice run. I had a little quiver off the starting line but it cleaned up and down track we made a really nice run. Hopefully this sets up up for a long day out here.”

Coughlin doesn’t need to be reminded that his last Pro Stock win came nearly four years ago at the 2015 Englishtown race. Since then, he doubled-up at the JEGS SPORTSnationals when he won the Stock and Super Gas titles on the same day.

“We’ve had six different winners in the first six races this year and I’d absolutely like to be the seventh,” Coughlin said. “We’ve got the car to do it this weekend. We just have to stay focused and go out there and make it happen.”

 

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Prior to Saturday’s final Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session, the pit area of the four-bike Stoffer/Underdahl team looked like a war zone. All four bikes were in various stages of disassembly, and two of the team’s Suzuki entries, ridden by Scotty Pollacheck and Joey Gladstone, were without engines.

“We broke two engines on the third qualifying run, one in Scotty’s bike and another in Joeys,” Karen Stoffer explained. “It’s a problem because we’re out of engines now. We can get both bikes ready for Sunday but that’s it. We had an engine that we sent back to Vance & Hines last week after Charlotte. They fixed it, and we got it here on [team sponsor] Ray Skillman’s plane. That was our spare. Now, we don’t have another engine to put in a bike if we have a problem on Sunday. On the plus side, we are getting a lot of practice swapping engines. Our guys can do it in no time.”

Pollacheck ended up sitting out the final session and Gladstone ran a conservative 6.960. Stoffer, who was not in the field, bumped her way into the show with a 15th best 6.956, 191.97 while the team’s fourth rider, Jim Underdahl, missed the bump with a 6.997, 191.13.

“We’ve got three or our four bikes in the field and that’s not ideal, but it’s better than it could have been,” said Stoffer. “It’s really a shame that Jimmy didn’t make it because his bike is pretty quick. Hopefully, we have some luck on race day and after this, we’ve got a couple of weeks off before we go to Chicago for the next race so hopefully we have all our issues straightened out by then. We knew from the start that it was going to be a lot of work racing four bikes. We’re still up for the challenge but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

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Even though Cory Reed is a past winner of the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future award, and a national event finalist at the 2016 Reading race when he was a member of George Bryce’s Star Racing team, he’s only recently begun to feel as though he’s got the potential to be a national event champion. Reed formed his own team, Liberty Racing, along with three-time champ Angelle Sampey more than a year ago and admittedly, progress has been slower than expected. The team’s fortunes took a big turn for the better this winter when Reed enlisted Pro Stock veteran Larry Morgan to build their S&S V-twin engines. Later, they added two-time Pro Stock champion Jim Yates as a tuning consultant to regular crew chiefs Derrel Mullis and Ken Johnson. Last week in Charlotte, Reed had a breakthrough when he nearly matched his career-best with a 6.838-second run. That momentum continued in Atlanta where Reed qualified in the top half of the field with a 6.889. In the opening round, he’ll have lane choice over No. 10 qualifier Scotty Pollacheck. Sampey is also in the mix as the No. 11 qualifier in the all-six second field.

“We’re here to prove something,” Reed said. “We finally have the bikes underneath us and I think we’ve got the potential to have a really good day. I think this will be a [rider’s] race because my team puts a good bike underneath me and I just need to do my job. We’ve come a long way as a team since last year, and I’m really excited about what the future holds.”

Reed has managed to win a round at each of the first two Pro Stock Motorcycle events of the season and as a result, he entered the NHRA Southern Nationals as the fifth-ranked rider in what has become a very competitive class.

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LE Tonglet won six events last year and he wouldn’t object to a similar record this season, but the 2010 world champ also understands the competitive nature of the class makes that feat nearly impossible to duplicate. Tonglet also acknowledges that parity is essential for the long-term survival of all pro classes and he believes that the Pro Stock Motorcycle class has more parity that it’s ever had.

“Jerry [Savoie, teammate] and I won eight races last year and I don’t want to say it was a fluke, but it’s not something you can predict,” said Tonglet. “I won six of them and I don’t think we can do that again. It’s just too tough out here. There are too many good bikes right now. Besides our team, you’ve got the two Harleys, the two Arana bikes, all four of [Gary] Stoffer and [Greg] Underdahl’s bikes and now Cory Reed’s team is running really well. I think the days of having one or two riders will all the races are over. I think that’s good for our class because people get tires of seeing the same people win year after year.

Tonglet also noted that the increased competition puts a premium on rider skill, especially when it comes to mastering the starting line sequence. He’s proud of the fact that he went the entire 2017 season without a red-light but understands that in the future, he may have to push the Tree a bit harder than normal.

“When you get this many good bikes, you can’t afford to be late,” Tonglet said. “That’s the worst thing you can do. In my last race I had a .024 light, and I was happy with that. Anything in the .20s is good for me.”

After qualifying his Nitro Fish Suzuki in the No. 4 spot, Tonglet will face Angie Smith in the first round of eliminations. Tonglet and Smith raced three times last season with Smith winning in Englishtown and Tonglet claiming a pair of wins in Sonoma and Reading.

PHOTOS

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Terry McMillen suits up for action.

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Blake Alexander is ready to go on Sunday.

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Antron Brown in his new-look Matco Tools / U.S. Army Dragster.

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Vincent Nobile has his shades on and is ready to go on race day. 

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Courtney Force signs her No. 1 qualifier green hat for a fan during driver introductions. 

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The No. 1 qualified team of Hector Arana Jr. (that's him, center-right) takes the stage during driver intros.

PREVIEW

Here are the elimination brackets and first-round pairings:

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