The Countdown to the Championship begins in Reading this season, meaning cool (and hopefully not stormy) weather awaits racers hoping to make a good first impression on the first playoff leg. NHRA National Dragster’s resident Tricky Tipster got 18 races to get their impression on the four Professional categories and is ready to offer prognostication on the Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
Forget the last 18 races: Torrence proved over the last 42 races he owns the best Top Fuel team in the business. Whether or not that translates to a 2018 championship remains to be seen, but the Capco Contractors team will be the one to beat week in and week out. Starting out the Countdown to the Championship with a victory would be a step in the right direction, both mentally and, you know, because the points spend the same in September as they do in November.
A lot of people will talk about championship experience and momentum entering the Countdown and Tony Schumacher’s tightly cropped haircut (okay, at least the first two things). How about this: The only dragster to compete with the Capco Boys on elapsed time is the one driven by Schumacher. That’s not a bad category to be in.
This is about the closest Brown will get to a hometown race this year — whether that matters or not is up for debate, but it’s a fact that there will be plenty of home support in the stands this weekend. It’s also a fact that the Matco Tools Dragster has turned around after a rough season. The average e.t. (3.812) paired with arguably the best driver of all time in the seat makes for a killer combination.
Parts Plus/Great Clips
The separation between greatness and … you know, the other thing, is never more apparent than when watching Nitro cars rumble down a racetrack. So too it is true with Millican this season. He might take the pole and dominate en route to a Wally (and go straight to his first title) — or he might fail to get into the top half of the field. It all depends how well crew chief David Grubnic reads the racetrack. And how many cracks at it he gets.
Mopar 1320 Dragster
Pritchett did not have the Countdown she wanted in 2017: expect that to change this time around as the entire team prepared differently this time around. Crew chief Todd Okuhara and assistant crew chief Joe Barlam have the entire team locked and loaded for a deep run, something evidenced by a dominant performance in Denver and a consistent dragster over the last few races. Pritchett has been solid in the seat, and she’ll have something to say in Pennsylvania.
The sample size remains small, but Old Bill drives the third-quickest and second-most consistent dragster in the category. He also posts the third-best reaction times in Top Fuel — yes, better than his son, Steve Torrence, who I picked as a favorite this weekend. Listen, at some point you gotta figure the law of averages does a little correcting here … or it’s possible the elder Torrence would have multiple Top Fuel titles if he ran full time. Come to think of it…
A very interesting season for Kalitta can get a whole lot more interesting if he opens the Countdown with a victory — just like he did a year ago. The dragster has been slow (you know, relatively) and not consistent enough to justify it. Kalitta is one of the greatest drivers to ever live, and that still means something in this crazy world. Don’t count him out.
Amalie Motor Oil
The winner of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals won a Countdown race a season ago — winning this one would mean a whole lot more to him from a points standpoint. He hasn’t had a consistent enough race car to make him a favorite, but he certainly has one that can turn on four win lights on any given Sunday. His reaction times have also been quite good, making him a threat every weekend.
Auto Club Southern California
The defending Funny Car champion may not boast the hefty win you might expect but look under the hood and you’ll find the stats to back up his spot at the top of this list. His average e.t. (4.002) and reaction time (.070) speak to his ability to win every weekend, and Maple Grove is the kind of track crew chief Jimmy Prock thrives at.
Mopar Express Lane
Hagan sneakily had a very strong regular season, winning three times (he has had at least three regular season wins four years in a row) and now boasts an e.t. average of 4.014 to go with one of the best reaction time averages in the category. He’s capable of getting that third championship if the Charger runs consistently over the next six races … and at his sponsor’s event this weekend.
Advance Auto Parts
Force earned the No. 1 seed fair and square, but a few of the contenders caught up to the Advance Auto Parts team by the time the regular season wrapped up. Whether that’s because crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Danny Hood were testing or not remains to be seen — going out and dominating in Reading would be a great indicator; but one thing’s for sure: Force is a championship contender.
NAPA Auto Parts
The unshakable duo of Capps and Rahn Tobler went through a bevy of changes at the beginning of the season in the clutch department and came out the other side without being any worse for wear. In fact, Capps is only a hundredth behind Force and Hight in terms of average e.t. and remains a consistent leaver. The NAPA team will be a factor in Reading.
DHL Funny Car
The remarkable consistency of the Yella Fellas Funny Car has been slightly marred by its lack of quickness, especially in killer conditions. Todd is a superstar behind the wheel, and that package gets to the finish line often enough that he’s a threat to win every weekend. It might not happen enough for Kalitta to bring home a title, but it could happen enough for the team to win at Maple Grove.
Infinite Hero Foundation
One of the strangest Funny Cars to watch in 2018 has been the purple Funny Car of Beckman. The numbers are mostly very good, but there have been events (like the U.S. Nationals) where the flopper bows out surprisingly early. Some of that can be attributed to the dense Funny Car field, and that may be an issue again as a car that’s good, but perhaps not great, may struggle to punch its way deep on Sunday.
Tommy Johnson Jr.
Johnson won in Reading two years ago and has won only three times since then. That’s not a great win percentage, but the stats that turn on win lights (e.t. and reaction time) indicate the Make-A-Wish Funny Car is close to the rest of the pack. All that and $3 get you a cup of coffee, but it’s some comfort to fans hoping this Terry Chandler car gets in the winner’s circle soon.
Global Electronic Technology
This team is starting to come into its own after a trying season, and Langdon’s first win in a Funny Car appears to be right around the corner. His combined e.t. and reaction time average is 4.104 seconds, just .003 behind Johnson and .011 behind Beckman. That’s striking distance and means Langdon has a chance this weekend.
Gray Motorsports Camaro
In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, Gray brings the goods. His performance at the U.S. Nationals leaves no questions unanswered, and after a tough start to the season, his e.t. average is down to 6.595 seconds and his combined r.t./e.t. average is 6.619 seconds. That’s third-best in Pro Stock (.011 behind leader Jeg Coughlin Jr.). He’s the racer to beat.
Jeg Coughlin Jr.
If he doesn’t roll out to “Return of the Mack” every time he pulls to the starting line, someone is doing something wrong. Nobody races smoother than “The Natural” when he’s in a groove — and that’s bad news for everyone else right now. He enters the Countdown with the best average e.t. in Pro Stock (6.582). That’s scary for everyone else.
Melling Performance Camaro
Enders is behind the wheel of a championship-caliber car since she brought home her second title. That’s good news for fans of great drag racing and bad news for everyone else who wants to win a Pro Stock title. She has the best reaction time average in the category (barely, Tanner, barely) and one of the best cars in Pro Stock. Enders has never won in Reading. That could change this weekend.
Summit Racing Camaro
The Mustache wants to win this championship more than you want him to lose it. He only has one race win this season because of a bad run here or there during eliminations — which, you know, is a problem in drag racing. The flip side is that he’s gone late on Sundays, which is a fine way to get a lot of points. His combined e.t./r.t. average is 6.622, just .014 second behind Coughlin — so don’t count him out.
Mountain View Tire Camaro
A great start to the season in the win column was followed by a great regular season in terms of on-track performance. Nobile is a great dark-horse pick at nearly every race because he doesn’t beat himself. A cliché? Sure. Pair it with this stat: He has 121 lights in eliminations starting in 2016 and only one red-light and a reaction time average of .034.
American Ethanol Camaro
Kramer is a lot like Nobile … with a twist. Kramer has incredible equipment and is nearly unbeatable when he doesn’t make mistakes. But his six red-lights this season show he has a knack for beating himself. The less that happens during the Countdown, the better his chances of making a run for his first championship.
Skillman Auto Camaro
No, he hasn’t won this year, but his Camaro has been running better than ever. He’ll tell you the problem is 100 percent the person behind the wheel, and he’s not 100 percent wrong. He’s also not 100 percent right. As with all things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. If Skillman gets balanced in Reading, he’ll bring home the Wally.
Harlow Sammons Racing Camaro
What started as a championship caliber season for McGaha unraveled down the stretch, but he’s still capable of winning every time he shows up. The power is there but planting it to the ground for a quarter mile has proven difficult as of late. If he can find the couple hundredths that have been missing lately, he’s got a shot.
Harley-Davidson Screamin Eagle Street Rod
It’s a coin flip between which Harley-Davidson rider to select as the favorite for any given race, so let’s pick the one with four wins this season. He’s averaging a combined r.t./e.t. average of 6.91 seconds and as the defending champion can start off his title defense with yet another Countdown victory.
Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle Street Rod
Hines doesn’t have a win this year, but that doesn’t take any shine off his performance, which outmatches his riding partner by a thousandth of a second. He’ll end the season with at least one win (go ahead, screenshot this), and it could very well come this weekend.
Elite Performance / Denso Auto Parts EBR
He’s got a bike that can do the talking for him, but that doesn’t mean he’ll let it. Smith is a championship contender yet again, so long as the bike leaves the starting line successfully. That’s the biggest challenge for Smith as he gets acquainted with his new toy.
Nitro Fish Suzuki
The most recent winner on tour enters the Countdown with a better package than he did a season ago — that could spell trouble for everyone else on track. He’s outspoken about his confidence, and his consistency on the Tree might make him the best candidate to take down the Harleys.
Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil TV EBR
There’s no question Arana boasts a quick bike and a killer reaction time average, the pair of which is the quickest in the class (6.905), but he can be his own worst enemy on the track. He gets down the track less often than both the Harleys and Tonglet, and his pair of red-lights show his vulnerability. If he can clean that up, he’s a contender.
Yellow Corn Buell
The dude can ride no matter how many cylinders or what kind of bodywork he has beneath him, but it’s tough to know exactly what kind of power output he’ll be working with at the Dodge NHRA Nationals. Here’s what we do know: His lights will be good, and he’ll be motivated, as always.
White Alligator Racing Suzuki
The Alligator Man is talking about retirement. That sounds like a load of alligator-you-know-what to us, but he’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve no matter what happens. He’s got a quick bike, and that still means something in this mixed-up world.
Rak Pak Suzuki
Mr. J is riding in the Countdown to the Championship, and that means he has a chance to give a speech at the end of the year. Whether that changes his approach this weekend remains to be seen (we doubt it), but he has a decent bike and is full of surprises (sort of).