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NHRA Toyota Nationals Sunday Notebook

Steve Torrence clinched the NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel championship, then went on to win his fifth straight event to highlight the NHRA Toyota Nationals. Torrence was joined in victory by J.R. Todd, Bo Butner, and Hector Arana Jr.
28 Oct 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Las Vegas

Ladders | Features | Results | Photos

ELIMINATION ROUND RECAPS

TOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:35 a.m.): Billy Torrence set low e.t. of the first round with a 3.724 but, more importantly, will face off against his son, points leader Steve, in the second round as father and son both advanced, Steve with his 17th straight round win of the Countdown. Steve needs to go one round further than second-place Clay Millican, who also won, to claim his first career championship. Three drivers – Blake Alexander, Leah Pritchett, and Brittany Force – all ran 3.73 to put themselves in the performance ballpark, and Alexander and Pritchett will face one another in a bit of a grudge between current and former Bob Vandergriff Racing drivers. Richie Crampton beat teammate Doug Kalitta for just the second time in the nine times they’ve unfortunately faced one another in the first round this season; it was Crampton’s first round win since early August in Seattle.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Tony Schumacher; Blake Alexander vs. Leah Pritchett; Billy Torrence vs. Steve Torrence; Brittany Force vs. Richie Crampton

FUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (12 p.m.): Shawn Langdon gave his teammate, J.R. Todd, a big boost in the championship battle by upsetting cylinder-dropping points leader Robert Hight with a strong 3.92. Todd had already done his part, beating Richard Townsend to take the points lead, and now Langdon will face Todd in the second round with lane choice in his corner. Matt Hagan was low for the round with a 3.908 alongside red-lighting Tim Wilkerson. Former points leader Courtney Force kept her hat in the title ring with a 3.919 to advance to face Jack Beckman, one of three drivers to run 3.93 in the frame. All of the first-round winners and two of the losers recorded three-second elapsed times.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Matt Hagan vs. Tommy Johnson Jr.; Ron Capps vs. Bob Tasca III; Shawn Langdon vs. J.R. Todd; Courtney Force vs. Jack Beckman

PRO STOCK ROUND 1 (12:18 p.m.): Tanner Gray continued to steam roll the competition, this time taking down Alan Prusiensky who turned on the red light against the championship contender. Erica Enders also came out ahead in a heavyweight matchup against rival Greg Anderson. She cut a better light and posted the better e.t. to capture the victory. Jeg Coughlin Jr. got the better of Steve Graham to keep the championship battle alive until the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Jeg Coughlin Jr. vs. Erica Enders; Tanner Gray vs. Drew Skillman; Jason Line vs. Bo Butner; Matt Hartford vs. Chris McGaha

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 1 (12:31 p.m.): Matt Smith got past LE Tonglet with a .007-second margin of victory that started with a slight jump on the starting line. That expands Smith’s grip on the Pro Stock Motorcycle lead and badly hurts Tonglet’s chances of winning his second championship. The other contenders (looking at you Hector Arana Jr. and Eddie Krawiec) got victories and will move into the second round of action. That should make for a very exciting round of racing for fans, so don’t miss out. Smith will battle Arana in must-see racing – and must-win racing for Arana. 

Second-round matchups (lane choice first): Matt Smith vs. Hector Arana Jr; Chip Ellis vs. Andrew Hines; Eddie Krawiec vs. Jerry Savoie; Hector Arana vs. Angelle Sampey

TOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1:30 p.m.): Tony Schumacher defeated second-place Clay Millican to put an end to Millican’s championship hopes while keep his own (barely) alive. Points leader Steve Torrence defeated his father, Billy, to take one step closer to his first Top Fuel championship and can clinch it in the semifinals if he can beat Richie Crampton or Schumacher loses. On the other side of the ladder, Leah Pritchett’s flashy chromed Pennzoil ride with get to pick the lane against “the Sarge.”

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Leah Pritchett vs. Tony Schumacher; Steve Torrence vs. Richie Crampton

FUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:40 p.m.): J.R. Todd defeated tire-smoking teammate Shawn Langdon with a 3.957 to increase his newly-earned points lead by another 20 markers over first-round loser Robert Hight. Bob Tasca III put a dagger into the championship hopes of Ron Capps in an all-three-second battle but will cede lane choice to a resurgent Matt Hagan, who followed his first-round 3.90 with a 3.91, the best two e.t.s of the day. Jack Beckman also kept his slim title hopes on life support by beating Courtney Force.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Matt Hagan vs. Bob Tasca III; Jack Beckman vs. J.R. Todd

PRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:44 p.m.): Erica Enders put another nail in the coffin of Jeg Coughlin Jr.’s championship hopes by taking down her Elite Performance teammate. She ran a 6.664, a full hundredth better than the yellow and black Camaro, to get a meeting with Tanner Gray in the semi’s. In order to keep Coughlin’s hopes alive she must defeat the current Pro Stock leader to book her spot in the final round. Elsewhere in Pro Stock competition: Defending Pro Stock champ Bo Butner defeated teammate Jason Line to matchup against Matt Hartford. 

Semifinal matchups (lane choice first): Bo Butner vs. Matt Hartford; Tanner Gray vs. Erica Enders

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:59 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr. kept his championship chase alive by defeating Matt Smith in the second round of action. Smith turned on the red light by hitting the throttle .015 second early. That puts Arana 102 points behind Smith with a chance to get as close as 62 points if he goes on to win the race. First, he has to take down Andrew Hines on one side of the ladder while his father, Hector Arana Sr., takes on Eddie Krawiec on the other side. Krawiec can take over the Pro Stock Motorcycle lead if he wins the contest. 

Semifinal matchups (lane choice first): Hector Arana Jr. vs. Andrew Hines; Eddie Krawiec vs. Hector Arana

TOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (2:50 p.m.): Steve Torrence locked up his first Top Fuel championship by powering to his 19th straight round win of the Countdown to the Championship, defeating Richie Crampton with a strong 3.72 to clinch the crown that eluded him last season. Torrence adds the nitro title to the Top Alcohol Dragster championship that he won in 2005. Torrence will take on Leah Pritchett, who beat Tony Schumacher with a 3.730.

FUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (3 p.m.): Matt Hagan joined his chromed-out Pennzoil Top Fuel teammate Leah Pritchett in the final round after running a 3.929 to edge Bob Tasca III’s holeshot-aided 3.952 by a mere .002-second at the win stripe. He’ll take on points leader J.R. Todd, who expanded his point lead with a 3.906 pass, low e.t. of eliminations, to defeat Jack Beckman. Todd’s points lead now stands at 54 points.

PRO STOCK SEMIFINALS (3:09 p.m.): Defending Pro Stock champion Bo Butner gets a chance to get a win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first time in his career. He has two career final round appearances at The Strip and … well, they haven’t gone great. It won’t get any easier this time around, as he faces Erica Enders. Enders took down Tanner Gray despite being left on by .005 second and stopped the bleeding for Elite Performance. Gray leaves Vegas with a 140-point lead on Jeg Coughlin Jr., but if Enders wins the race she can cut that lead to 129. She’ll have lane choice in the final. 

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (3:15 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec put himself in an excellent position by defeating Hector Arana in the semifinals. He can now take over the Pro Stock Motorcycle lead if he defeats Hector Arana Jr. in the final round of eliminations – the Lucas Oil TV rider has other ideas, of course. If Arana gets the win he will move within 62 points of current leader Matt Smith. Regardless, the final should be an excellent battle and will set the scene for a killer racer in Pomona for the Auto Club NHRA Finals. Krawiec will have lane choice in the final round. 


PRO MOD FINAL (3:15 p.m.): Sidnei Frigo, far lane, collected his second E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod event victory, defeating low qualifier Mike Castellana in the final round, 5.75 to 5.86. Frigo’s other victory came at the 2017 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.


LUCAS OIL SERIES RESULTS: With his final-round victory over Julie Nataas, Joey Severance clinched his fourth straight NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol Dragster championship. The Oregon-based racer is just the fourth in class history to earn four titles, following Blaine Johnson and Rick Santos and Bill Reichert, who won five.

Other Lucas Oil final-round results from Las Vegas:

Top Alcohol Funny Car
Sean Bellemeur def. Doug Gordon

Comp
David Billingsley def. Doug Engels

Super Stock
Justin Lamb def. Jimmy DeFrank

Stock
Chris Stephenson def. Jeff Taylor

Super Comp
Kevin Wright def. Ken Mostowich

Super Gas
Matt Blodgett def. Rob Willis

 


PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (4:16 p.m.): Hector Arana Jr., near lane, continued his ride up the standings with a huge win against Eddie Krawiec. He made his best run of the weekend to put himself within striking distance of Matt Smith. Arana will enter the final race of the season 62 points behind the leader. 

 


PRO STOCK FINAL (4:21 p.m.): Bo Butner, near lane, earned his first win at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway by defeating Erica Enders via a holeshot. He cut a .007 light to get a .013-second advantage, eventually winning by just .008 second. That win for the defending Pro Stock champion is the first since the season opener in Pomona. 


FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:25 p.m.): J.R. Todd, near lane, continued his late-season rampage, defeating Matt Hagan, 3.92 to 4.08, to extend his points lead to 74 points heading to the season finale in Pomona. The win, the fifth of the season for the DHL Toyota driver, came in his fifth final-round appearance in the last six events and he has reached at least the semifinals in the last seven events.


TOP FUEL FINAL (4:35 p.m.): A round after clinching his first Top Fuel championship, Steve Torrence, far lane, won his unprecedented fifth straight Countdown event, running a strong 3.75 against tire-smoking Leah Pritchett to run his record to 20 straight round wins.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE WINNER HECTOR ARANA JR.: "I had a really tough field today, but to be honest with you it’s really tough no matter who you get these days because the NHRA is so difficult anymore. It takes a lot in order to qualify so when you win a race you know it means a lot. Thankfully I’ve got a bad to the bone EBR Lucas Oil TV motorcycle thanks to the team I’ve got behind me from my dad to everyone else. I couldn’t be up here if it wasn’t for them."

PRO STOCK WINNER BO BUTNER: "Everyone is getting better nowadays and that’s made it really tough. I think we had a very good race car today, but (Erica Enders) has just been tough on me over the days. I think it’s funny though, sometimes you cut a bad light and you still get the job done and sometimes you have a great one and it doesn’t work out. So, this is just the way the stuff goes but it’s been a really fun deal and I’m excited to be a part of it."

FUNNY CAR WINNER J.R. TODD: "We had some fuel system issues and had to stay late on Friday night before rallying back on Saturday. That showed today because we were pretty much flawleless. That makes for a really fun car to drive because it's just so much fun. We're in a great place right now but we've still got some unfinished business in Pomona. I want to go in there, do some work and go out of there with two trophies. 

"For me, it just comes from being comfortable in the car. I just go up there and focus on my reaction times. For us as a team we just want to race smart and race consistently and I think we've been able to do that. If we can keep doing that for one more race we'll be in a good spot."

TOP FUEL WINNER STEVE TORRENCE: “[Coming into the race] it wasn’t about winning the championship anymore; every round we won it was history. You don’t have the opportunity very often to make history. I told my guys every round was just solidifying what we’ve done. I said a while ago if you win all the races the points count themselves; I didn’t really mean it. It’s just remarkable.

‘To accomplish what these guys have done in this era is really something, The competition now in my opinion is tougher than it’s ever been. It’s probably more difficult than it was 10 years ago; there are so many good cars and you have to be on your game. There’s zero room for error.’

FEATURES


The scenario for Steve Torrence to claim a Top Fuel championship to go with his 2005 Alcohol Dragster crown is simple: go one round further today than second-place Clay Millican and Tony Schumacher. If that happens, Torrence will be mathematically beyond the 191 points that Millican or Schumacher theoretically could earn at the season finale.

Torrence’s Richard Hogan-led team was able to blunt the Millican attack and its plan to pick up a handful of points in qualifying as, even though Millican ended up qualified No 1 (good for eight points), Torrence finished No. 2 (seven points) and Torrence earned nine session points to Millican’s six.

 “It helps that (we’ve) been in the situation before,” Torrence said. “We knew we still had to do the same thing. Your job doesn’t change (and) if you look at it that way, it makes it easier. You need to enjoy the moment (and) I’m having so much fun (because) at the end of the day I’m driving a Top Fuel dragster and racing for a championship. Not many people get that opportunity and I am thankful for it. I’m thankful to the Lord, thankful to my parents and thankful to all these Capco boys.

Torrence has won all four Countdown races and is rising a 16-round win streak. With a win today, he would become the first driver to win five races in a single Countdown and would become just the seventh pro driver, regardless of discipline, to win double-digit events in a single season. 

If he bags the championship as well, he’ll be the first driver to win championships in the nitro and alcohol divisions.

 

 


One year ago, Terry McMillen entered this event still looking for his first career win. He’d been to two previous final rounds -– in Gainesville in 2016 and in Seattle earlier in the year –- and hoped that he wasn’t going to have to endure a John Force-like nine runner-ups before a win. He had no idea what lay ahead even at this event let alone the next 12 months.

McMillen got his first win, beating Brittany Force in the final round, and came out firing in 2018, racking up three runner-ups – in Houston, Topeka, and Norwalk -– to get as high as sixth in points, but the best was still to come: an epic win for him and crew chief Rob Wendland at the biggest event of the year, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, giving him entrée to an exclusive club of Indy Top Fuel winners.

“I’ve always loved Indy, but when I started to look at who’s won it –- and who haven’t won it; guys like Ron Capps and Doug Kalitta who have been doing this a lot longer than I have – it really means a lot.

“It’s been amazing, the most incredible year of my racing career,” he said. “I’m just very blessed. It’s been a crazy year; it’s all just come together. I’m feeling very confident as a driver because when your car is running good, you don’t have to worry about pressing things like you normally might. You just want to go out there and be consistent. 

Although he’s in ninth place, he’s only about 30 points behind fifth-place Antron Brown, and he’s got his eyes on moving up.

“My goal now is to finish in the top 5; it’s so close and I think that if we go some rounds at the next couple of races we can get there,” he said. “We’re struggling with clutch discs right now and it’s made a big difference for us since we ran out of our regular inventory in Dallas. We’re just a little slow to 60 feet; after that we can run with anyone. If we get that fixed, we can get back to it. We’re hoping that lightning strikes twice at this same place.”

 

 


Even if the faux-chrome designs on her Pennzoil dragster and that of teammate Matt Hagan’s Funny Car weren’t as shiny and dazzling as the Las Vegas lights, Leah Pritchett and crew still would be shining bright after a superlative qualifying effort with passes of 3.783, 3.781, 3.744, and 3.731 that carried her and the car the crew has nicknamed Sylvia (get it?) to the No. 4 qualifying spot.

“All things considered, it was a great day, said Pritchett.” It’s been great, but of course there are a lot of awesome-running racecars here this weekend, ours included. We set out to put up a really good number that last run. We were really close to running at 3.72 and put two holes out right at the very end. But, really, there are not a lot of complaints here. Super proud of the team gearing up. There’s nothing like race day, the mindset that we get to do absolute battle. Right now we are definitely a unit of one. We are fighting strong to be able to stay as high in the points as possible and that’s all that matters. We’ll take it one round at a time.

“Rolling out with our chrome chariots is a testament to something looking great on the screen and fantastic and amazing in-person. Extremely impressed I would say. For us to go out on the track and capture all that attention with an insane scheme, there’s no better place to do it than Vegas. The best way to top it off is to have the best performance on the track with the best-looking car, and we’re well on our way.”

 

 


The championship picture for J.R. Todd and the DHL crew improved a whole lot Saturday after a Friday that left the second-place team scratching their heads are warily eyeing their low position on the qualifying shots after a pair of 4.3-second passes while the fast guys in the field were all in the 3.90s.

But crew chief Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith righted the ship Saturday, ripping off a 3.911 in Q3 and a steady 3.926 in Q4 to earn two bonus qualifying points and the No. 2 spot in the field, good for another seven points. They entered the event trailing points leader Robert Hight by 11, but Hight only got one bonus point and, for qualifying No. 7 just three points, chopping Hight’s lead almost in half, from 11 to six.

“Obviously, [Q3] was an important run because at that point our DHL Toyota Camry wasn’t qualified, and you’ve got to be in the show to win,” said Todd. “We just had an issue on Friday that doesn't normally happen. It was really important to get that run down the track. We knew we could do it. We just had an issue on Friday that doesn’t normally happen. We got some bonus points as well to cut into Robert’s lead a little bit. Now we need to go out and try to turn on four win lights.”

Just as interesting is that, should both drivers win their first-round races – Todd against Richard Townsend and Hight against Todd’s teammate, Shawn Langdon, the two could meet in round two in a match that would have huge ramifications for the championship.

 


Tommy Johnson Jr., crew chief John Collins, and the Make-A-Wish team haven’t totally abandoned hope of winning the championship, even though they do acknowledge they’re not in a good spot to case down Robert Hight or J.R. Todd, but their performance the last three races, in which they’ve scored a low qualifier hat trick, has been encouraging. After runs of 3.94 and 3.92 Friday, they posted the only two 3.8-second runs in qualifying Saturday.

“We came out and John said, ‘There’s more there; I know where to fix it, I think it can run an 89,’ and then to go out there and run an .89 in the warm conditions was just outstanding,” said Johnson, who has two wins in Las Vegas, including the spring race in 2017. “Then John said we’re going to run an .87 the next run, and it did. That’s just how good of a handle the guys have on our Make-A-Wish Dodge right now. John can make a change and tell you what it will run. Our car is so happy and performing so well and is so predictable. He can almost dial-in what he wants, and it’ll go out there and run it.”

“It’s not about finishing first anymore, that’s pretty much out of reach, but we won’t quit, and we’ll continue to try. All we can do is to try and win this one, win the next one and run the best we’ve ever run every round, and see if we can get as high in the points as we can.”

 

 


One of the exciting elements about this event is not one that happens Friday through Sunday, but on Monday, when many of the top teams stay to test for the upcoming season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals. The “Monday Morning Nationals” is also traditionally a place where new drivers get their feet wet. Last year, for example, Shawn Langdon took his first Funny Car ride here.

And one of the highlights of the coming Monday will be the debut of the wild Fuel Altered that’s been on display outside of Tim Wilkerson’s pit area all weekend. It’s basically an NHRA-legal Funny Car wearing a ’23-T body, extended nose, and a big wing, and running the same powertrain as in Wilkerson’s Levi, Ray and Shoup Shelby.

Wilkerson’s right-hand man, Richard Hartman, who has plenty of Funny Car driving experience, including a pair of national event runner-ups, will guide the machine on its maiden voyage. Hartman not only will drive the car but built the bodywork and mounted the wing.

“This has been two years in the making,” said Wilkerson of the beautiful ’23-T Ford-bodied machine that bears a Summit livery. “It’s what I do instead of playing golf.

“It’s the safest Fuel Altered in the world; it’s got legal valve covers, clutch can, blower restraints with a certified Funny Car chassis. If we put a body on it we could run it in Funny Car tomorrow.”

Wilkerson’s son, Daniel, was originally going to drive it but couldn’t make it out this weekend, so it fell to Hartman, who most recently drove in his own Nostalgia Funny Car, and is excited about the first laps.

“We’re just going to make some squirts, maybe 330 or half-track,” Hartman said. “Eventually we hope it runs in the fours at 300 mph. We don’t really have any set goals; we just wanted to do something different. It’s going to be fun.”
 


Jeg Coughlin Jr. does not control his own destiny in the hunt for the 2018 Pro Stock championship. But he can go out and win the NHRA Toyota Nationals to keep his title hopes alive. He trails Tanner Gray by 119 points and can cut that lead by another 80 points if Gray loses in the first round and Coughlin wins the race. 

“Every point counts and every round counts and right now we’re sitting second in points and have a long way to go in order to catch Tanner Gray,” he said. “We’ll need help from some of our competitors in order to get that job done. Sitting pole at the Toyota NHRA Nationals feels great and I’m proud of our team. We’ve stumbled a little bit in the Countdown and that’s what’s put us in that position, but I’m not complaining and I’m ready to have a great day on Sunday.”

Coughlin can take some control of his own destiny if he reaches the semifinals – that’s the earliest he and Gray can meet up. To get there, he has a guaranteed tough matchup in the second round (Erica Enders or Greg Anderson) while Gray would need to get by either Drew Skillman or Vincent Nobile in the same stanza. 

The veteran racer, for his part, isn’t hanging his head about what’s been a tough road to the penultimate race of the season. His average e.t. (6.562) is a thousandth quicker than Gray’s but his reaction time average puts him .015 behind the second-year racer. That combination has done just enough damage to his title hopes. 

“I just think we’ve lost some close races,” Coughlin said. “Jason Line and I were the same off the starting line (.020) and he had the low e.t. of the round and we were a couple thousandths behind. That’s just the parity of the class right now. You can’t afford to make any mistakes whether it’s in the pits, on the track or with last minute tuning calls. That said, we’ve had really consistent conditions through four runs and I think that’ll carry through to race day.”



Tanner Gray can lock up his first Pro Stock championship at the site of his first NHRA event victory. He doesn’t think it’s going to happen, and it would require Jeg Coughlin Jr. to lose in the first round. That’s something Coughlin has not done since Brainerd (and has done six times this year). Oh, and Gray must win the race in conjunction with that unlikely scenario. 

So, it’s a longshot but certainly not an impossibility given how darn well Gray has performed during the first four races of the Countdown to the Championship. Gray averages elapsed times of 6.563 seconds and gets down the track 80 percent of the time (86.7 percent of the time on race day) – he also pairs that excellence with a reaction time of .02. That’s the best in the category during the Countdown.

“I’ve just had a really good race car,” said Gray. (Crew chief) Dave Connolly has done a great job getting the car to go a-to-b and we’re doing a really good job staying consistent right now. We’re just trying to do what we’ve been doing all year and I’m trying to find another gear on the tree. I think the worst thing you can do is get conservative, you know? That’s when you’re going to make mistakes.”

Gray hasn’t made any mistakes during the Countdown. He’s cut 15 lights with no red lights. That’s the best of anyone during the postseason. Erica Enders and Vincent Nobile have also been spectacular and mistake free. Enders averages a .023 with nine lights and Nobile has been incredible with a .023 with 25 lights. 

The NHRA Toyota Nationals is shaping up to be one of the most decisive events of the season, starting with the first round and going all the way to the final. 



Deric Kramer is enjoying a career season with a pair of wins and five final rounds to his credit. He’s racing in the Countdown to the Championship for the first time in his career and while a championship is not in his future, Kramer is looking forward to using the data from this time around to hunt one down in 2019. 

“Honestly after we started dropping rounds early in the Countdown we started looking at these races as testing opportunities,” said Kramer. “So right now, we’re just looking to take these races and learn things for next year. This has been a great season for us and I’m just so proud of what we’ve been able to do as a team.”

The American Ethanol team has not been able to identify one problem for its Countdown struggles, which are primarily consistency related. When they’ve put a run together, they’ve been relatively quick (6.588) but a 50 percent success rate won’t get the job done in Pro Stock. 

“It seems like we’ll solve the 60-foot times and then that will cause a problem in our power down track,” said Kramer. “So, we’re still trying to fix things and figure out where exactly our problems lie.”

If you had trouble finding Kramer’s green American Ethanol Camaro this weekend … that’s because it isn’t green. The Kramer-mobile is a Batmobile this weekend in celebration of Halloween. Decked in black with a classic red Batman symbol and with a custom firesuit, Kramer came to town with one of the best “costume cars” of the Pro Stock category. 

“It’s really tough coming up with an idea because you want something that’ll look good for the car and has enough characters for everyone to dress up as,” said Kramer. “This was awesome because Sparco was able to help us out a lot with the custom firesuit and everything. I’m really happy with how it turned out.” 

Kramer gets a shot at Chris McGaha in the second round of racing.


Matt Smith saved his best run of the weekend for when he needed it the most. He ran the quarter mile in 6.923 seconds to defeat LE Tonglet and increase his lead by three points to 44. Eddie Krawiec earned a round win to move into second place which sets the top three as Smith (2479), Krawiec (2435), Tonglet (2418) and Jerry Savoie (2378).

Smith improved on his 6.931 qualifying time while running in worse conditions and he needed every bit of it. He defeated Tonglet by just .007 second, with .003 coming from on-track performance. Tonglet let Smith at every increment except for the last one, showing how valuable the EBR body on Smith’s machine is aerodynamically. 

“We still aren’t tuning this bike up the way we need to,” said Smith following the win. “We got the win there which is huge, but we’ve got work to do.”

He’s got another big round coming up as Smith will take on Hector Arana Jr. in the second stanza of racing. Arana is still in contention for the Pro Stock Motorcycle title and trails Smith by 124 markers. Only Angie Smith, Steve Johnson and Scotty Pollacheck have been mathematically eliminated from championship contention thus far. 

Still, the only way for Arana to stay in true contention is for the racer to take down Smith in the second round. Smith has lane choice, for what it’s worth, because he ran a thousandth of a second quicker in the first round. And don’t miss out on a matchup between the last two champions on the other side of the bracket: Krawiec and Savoie. 


It may take something of a miracle for Hector Arana Jr. to get back into the Pro Stock Motorcycle title race, but he can take comfort in knowing he has his program back on track. The Lucas Oil TV rider took his EBR to the pole at the NHRA Toyota Nationals and, if he wins in the first round, will get a shot at either Matt Smith or LE Tonglet in the second. 

That’s an opportunity to get back in the title hunt. Arana trails Smith by 124 points and can pick up, at most, 80 points on the leader on race day. That can make things very interesting at the Auto Club NHRA Finals in Pomona. 

"We made a really good pass in the very first session and right there it gave us the confidence boost to go as fast as we've gone in the third session,” said Arana. “We didn't have to mess around with anything after that because we already had a good baseline. We did have a little bit of a mishap in the second session, but we were able to get back on track in the third session and then just leave the bike alone for the last run. 

That’s some much-needed consistency for Arana, who hasn’t managed much Countdown success outside from his big win in Reading to kick off the Countdown. He’s managed to run quickly (6.871 seconds) but his consistency lags behind some of the other top contenders (76 percent success rate). Now he feels like he’s getting a handle on this EBR body, which is great news for the final two races – and the future of his program.

"This EBR body is really comfortable and it's just so stable aerodynamically,” he said. “It's great not just because it's safer and doesn't wiggle around so much, but it's just great to ride and to work on. We got lost for whatever reason. We started the Countdown off really good with the win and then we just couldn’t get past the first round for whatever reason.”

If he gets past the first round Sunday, he can get back into the championship hunt. At least, if he gets a little help from the rest of the field.


LE Tonglet gets a chance to help both himself and the rest of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field in the first round of racing. The Nitro Fish Suzuki racer takes on Matt Smith, the current leader, with a chance to move closer to his second championship. 

“That’s the way to do it. If we get by the first round I’ll feel a lot better,” said Tonglet, who gets to worry about both the championship hunt and the baby his wife has on the way. “We’ve just go to solve the first 60 feet of the race track. We’re usually a 1.04-1.05 to that area and we’ve been slow all weekend.”

If there’s any consolation for the 2010 champion, it’s that Matt Smith hasn’t raced much quicker. Smith has lane choice over Tonglet but is qualified with an identical elapsed time. The two riders generally find success in opposite areas: Smith with an incredible aerodynamic EBR body and Tonglet with the torque-friendly Suzuki. 

You can’t tune out the aerodynamics of a great motorcycle body, but you can fail to take advantage of what’s been a terrific racing surface. Tim Kulungian, who tunes Tonglet’s motorcycle, made a drastic move in the third qualifying session which did not prove successful. 

“Now we know what doesn’t work,” said Tonglet. “That’s important, I guess. But now’s the time for us to make the move we actually want to make.”

If Smith gets the win, it’ll be another big step towards a championship for the veteran racer. 

PHOTOS


Raceday started out, as it traditionally does, with the SealMaster Track Walk, allowing Las Vegas fans to traverse the actual racing surface of The Strip.


A new wrinkle in the pre-race ceremonies is on-stage interviews with story makers. Host Brian Lohnes interviewed Pro Stock Motorcycle championship rivals LE Tonglet and Matt Smith, who were set to race in the first round.


Jordan Vandergriff, left, who will join the Top Fuel ranks next year in his uncle Bob’s D-A Lubricants-sponsored dragster and teammate Blake Alexander, who debuted the D-A livery at this event, talked about their 2019 plans.


Chris Powell, second from right, President and General Manager at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, acknowledged the upcoming retirement of NHRA Senior Vice president Graham Light with a commemorative photo montage and an expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas for Light to see his favored Anaheim Ducks take on the Las Vegas Golden Knights the next time the two NHL Pacific Division rivals face off at T-Mobile Arena.


The pits at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway are packed with fans who turned out to see eliminations at the second to last event of the season.


Past NHRA Funny Car world champ Jack Beckman is always a fan favorite, sharing his time and autograph with fans young and old.


(Above) NHRA on FOX reporter Lewis Bloom was on hand to talk to Rickie Smith after he won his opening-round race in the E3 Spark Plugs Pro Modified class to set himself up for a possible championship if he could win his second-round race with Rick Hord. Smith lost in round two and the championship went to Mike Janis and his team (below). [Story]


Steve Torrence was congratulated by Mello Yello's Al Rondon after locking up his first TOp Fuel championship in the semifinals. [Story]

LADDERS