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Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals Sunday Notebook

24 Jun 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Norwalk

Ladders | Features | Photos | Results

ELIMINATIONS ROUNDS RECAPS

tmac_0.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND 1 (11:25 a.m.): After changing “everything, including the kitchen sink” in their clutch system overnight, crew chief Rob Wendland tuned No. 15 Terry McMillen to an upset of No. 2 qualifier Brittany Force with a 3.812. No. 12 qualifier Blake Alexander also pulled an upset, beating better-qualified Antron Brown by .003-second. Low qualifier Clay Millican had low e.t. of the frame, a 3.759, to defeat Dom Lagana, that was three-hundredths better than the next-best driver, Leah Pritchett, who posted a 3.794 in defeating Doug Kalitta, and the two will race one another in round two.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs, Leah Prictehtt; Blake Alexander vs, Tony Schumacher; Richie Crampton vs. Terry McMillen; Steve Torrence vs. Mike Salinas

hagan.jpgFUNNY CAR ROUND 1 (11:47 a.m.): In a thrilling side-by-side duel decided by inches, No. 3 qualifier Matt Hagan slipped past teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. on a holeshot with a 3.994. Johnson had low e.t. of the round with a 3.990, but was the hard-luck loser of the first-round. No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force matched Hagan’s 3.994 to beat John Smith, while teammate Robert Hight posted a 3.998 in his round one win over Dale Creasy. No. 11 qualifier Jack Beckman had the lone upset of the opening round, knocking off No. 6 qualifier Tim Wilkerson. Overall, the eight first-round winners ran between 3.994 and 4.066.

Second-round pairings (lane choice first): Robert Hight vs. John Force; Matt Hagan vs. Jack Beckman; Courtney Force vs. Shawn Langdon; J.R. Todd vs. Ron Capps 

enders.jpgPRO STOCK ROUND ONE (11:52 a.m.): Holeshots highlighted the opening round of Pro Stock and points leader Greg Anderson was one of the victims. Anderson ran a 6.603 in his Summit Camaro, but it wasn’t enough to beat Drew Skillman’s slower 6.607. Erica Enders also advanced using her clutch foot when her 6.632 stopped teammate Alex Laughlin’s 6.614. Topeka winner Deric Kramer tried to join the club with a perfect .000 reaction time against Vincent Nobile, who countered with a .004 in a close 6.616 to 6.632 victory. The quickest pass of the round was made by red hot Jeg Coughlin Jr., who dropped a 6.588 on Charlie Westcott’s Ford.  

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

underdahl.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND ONE (12:06 p.m.): Just one Pro Stock Motorcycle from the bottom half of the field upset a higher qualified rider but it was a big one as No. 16 see Jimmy Underdahl used a starting line holeshot to take out low qualifier Matt Smith, 6.926 to 6.899. Underdahl is joined in the quarterfinals by fellow Suzuki riders Jerry Savoie and LE Tonglet, who defeated Hector Arana Sr. and Mark Paquette, respectively. Hector Arana Jr., the No. 2 qualifier, made the best pass of the round with a 6.866 on his Lucas Oil EBR. Arana Jr. will have lane choice when he races Tonglet in round two.

Round two pairings (lane choice first): Hector Arana Jr. vs. LE Tonglet; Angelle Sampey vs. Eddie Krawiec; Jim Underdahl vs. Angie Smith; Jerry Savoie vs. Andrew Hines

alexander.jpgTOP FUEL ROUND 2 (1 p.m.): Blake Alexander has reached the semifinals for the third time in four outings this year in the Bob Vandergriff Racing/Pronto Auto Service Center dragster after defeating Tony Schumacher on a 3.79 to 3.77 holeshot. Alexander, runner-up earlier this year in Atlanta, will face Leah Pritchett, who beat him in that final as well as in the semifinals in Chicago, in the next round, where she has lane choice after defeating low qualifier Clay Millican with a 3.78. On the other side of the ladder, a resurgent Terry McMillen will pick his lane over points leader Steve Torrence, who eked out a .007-second victory on a holeshot over Mike Salinas.

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

courtney.jpgFUNNY CAR ROUND 2 (1:13 p.m.): It will be the fifth father-daughter matchup of 2018 after both Courtney Force and John Force won their second-round races. Courtney ran low e.t. of the round, going 3.971 to drive around Shawn Langdon, while John slipped past Robert Hight with a 4.085. Courtney holds a 3-1 advantage in head-to-head matchups with her father in 2018, including a final-round win at Richmond. On the other side of the bracket, J.R. Todd stayed consistent with a pass of 4.004 against Ron Capps. He’ll have lane choice over Matt Hagan, who went 4.010 to beat teammate Jack Beckman.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): J.R. Todd vs. Matt Hagan; Courtney Force vs. John Force 

skillman2.jpgPRO STOCK ROUND 2 (1:21 p.m.): In the first two rounds Drew Skillman has singlehandedly dismantled the Summit Pro Stock team with back-to-back wins over points leader Greg Anderson and Jason Line. Skillman squeezed by Line in one of the best races of the day, 6.614 to 6.625. He will take on Tanner Gray in the semifinals and Gray will have lane choice after his 6.600 win against Matt Hartford. On the other side of the ladder, Erica Enders put a stop to teammate Jeg Coughlin and Bo Butner scored a win over Vincent Nobile after Nobile hurt an engine at half-track.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Erica Enders vs. Bo Butner; Tanner Gray vs. Drew Skillman

angie2.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE ROUND 2 (1:35 p.m.): Angie Smith secured her first semifinal appearance of 2018 with a second-round win against Jimmy Underdahl, who upset Angie’s husband and No. 1 qualifier Matt Smith in the opening round. A second Smith upset wasn’t in the cards, as Angie's 6.972 sets up a matchup with Jerry Savoie, who went 6.916 in his second-round victory against points leader Andrew Hines. Hines' teammate, Eddie Krawiec, enjoyed better fortunes with the quickest winning run of the round, going 6.889 to knock off Angelle Sampey. Krawiec will race LE Tonglet, who went 6.940 but was bailed out by a red light from Hector Arana Jr.

Semifinal pairings (lane choice first): Jerry Savoie vs. Angie Smith; Eddie Krawiec vs. LE Tonglet

tmac2.jpgTOP FUEL SEMIFINALS (3 p.m.): Terry McMillen defeated points leader and defending event champ Steve Torrence, 3.854 to a blower-banging 3.924, to reach his fourth final round of the year, though he’s still looking for his first victory of 2018 and the second of his career. He’ll take on Blake Alexander, who’s racing in his third career final –- and his second of the year -– and looking for his first career win. Alexander will have lane choice based on his 3.79 revenge victory over Leah Pritchett, who beat him in the Atlanta final.

hagan3.jpgFUNNY CAR SEMIFINALS (3:08 p.m.): Matt Hagan will look for his first win since the season-opener in Pomona after running a semifinal-best 3.981 to advance to the final round. Hagan’s fourth final round appearance came after beating J.R. Todd’s 4.031, and he will have lane choice over No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force, who edged out her dad, John Force, with a 4.007 to reach her seventh final round in 2018. It also moved Courtney to 4-1 against her dad, who went 4.053, this season, while Hagan will try to knock off Courtney for the first time in 2018. She is 3-0 against Hagan through the first 11 events, including a final-round win in Atlanta.

gray.jpgPRO STOCK (3:16 p.m.): The hottest rivalry in the class this season will continue for a second time in the final round, as Erica Enders will face off with Tanner Gray, who had a semifinal-best 6.610. Gray has two straight wins against the two-time world champion, including the final round in Richmond, and is making his fourth final round appearance in 2018 after knocking off teammate Drew Skillman. Enders went 6.636 to beat defending event winner Bo Butner to advance to her fifth final round this season. She’s seeking her second win of the year, while Gray is after a class-best third victory in 2018.

savoie.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE SEMIFINALS (3:20 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec and Jerry Savoie, the riders who have won the last two NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series world championships, will race in the final to decide the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle title. Krawiec, on his Screamin' Eagle Harley Street Rod, defeated LE Tonglet, 6.865 to 6.898 to make it to the final for the third time this season and he will be joined by Savoie, the winner of the Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte. Savoie will be in the final for the 22nd time in his career but his crew will have work to do after he wounded an engine in his semifinal win over Angie Smith. Ironically, both riders encountered mechanical problems but Savoie was able to coast to the win, 7.187 to 7.627. Savoie and Krawiec have not raced this season and in 2017, Krawiec enjoyed a 3-1 edge in four meetings against the White Alligator Suzuki rider.

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LUCAS OIL SPORTSMAN SERIES RESULTS:

Final round results for all classes:

Top Alcohol Dragster
Megan Meyer def. Troy Coughlin Jr.  
Top Alcohol Funny Car
Ray Drew def. Ulf Leanders
Competition
David Rampy def. Jim Primozic Jr.
Super Stock
John DiBartolomeo def. Bob Marshall
Stock
Todd Hoven def. Dick Kincaid
Super Comp
Dan Fletcher def. Brian Folk
Super Gas
Tom Dimond def. Joey Shipp
Top Dragster presented by Racing RVs.com
John Biagi def. Bobby Ray McMahan
Top Sportsman presented by Racing RVs.com
Dusty Meyer def. Mark McDonald
SAM Tech NHRA Factory Stock Showdown
Joe Welch def. Mark Pawuk

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E3 SPARK PLUGS NHRA PRO MOD DRAG RACING SERIES FINAL (4:29 p.m.): An impressive day in eliminations gave three-time world champion Rickie Smith the points lead and his third win of the season, capping it off with a 5.804 in the final round against Jeremy Ray. It was the 16th career NHRA Pro Mod victory for Smith, while Ray was seeking his first career win in the class. Ray was first off the starting line but had trouble around mid-track, allowing Smith to go right around on what was another smooth pass in his nitrous-powered Chevy Camaro.


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PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE FINAL (4:33 p.m.): Eddie Krawiec ,far lane, won his 46th career win and fourth at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park when he defeated Jerry Savoie in the final. Krawiec rode his Screamin’ Eagle Street Rod to a 6.923 for the win after Savoie stumbled off the starting line and slowed to a coasting 7.071. Krawiec has now won three of the first six events this season to extend his lead in the Mello Yello standings. He now has a 14-3 record in elimination rounds since the season-opener in Gainesville. Krawiec came from the No. 6 spot during abbreviated qualifying, and rode to wins against Cory Reed, Angelle Sampey, and LE Tonglet. Savoie wounded an engine in his semifinal win over Angie Smith but his White Alligator team had a fresh engine installed in time for the final round.


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PRO STOCK FINAL (4:39 p.m.): Tanner Gray, near lane, is leaving Norwalk with the points lead after a second final-round victory against Erica Enders this season, winning on a holeshot against the two-time world champion. Gray posted an impressive .008 reaction time off the starting line, which was more than enough for his 6.615 to hold up against the 6.608 of Enders, who was in her fifth final round of the season. The victory is the third of the season for Gray, the most in the class through the first 12 races, and also gives him an impressive eight wins in just 36 starts for the sophomore standout.


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FUNNY CAR FINAL (4:44 p.m.): Matt Hagan, far lane, won the first race of the year and now he has his second victory at the halfway mark of the year, too, running a 4.094 to hold off No. 1 qualifier and points leader Courtney Force in the final round. The victory is the 28th career win for the two-time world champion, also picking up his first win of the season against Force. She was after her fifth win in her seventh final round in 2018, but got loose near the finish line. Hagan didn’t cross the finish line under full power, but the Don Schumacher Racing standout had enough to claim the win in his fourth final round of the season. 


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TOP FUEL FINAL (4:50 p.m.): Blake Alexander , far lane, scored his first career win in juts his eight race in Top Fuel and just second final-round appearance in the class, outlasting Terry McMillen with a cylinder-dropping 4.01in his Pronto/BVR dragster to McMillen’s tire-smoking 4.15. The former Funny Car racer's road to victory inclucdd wins over three Don Schumacher Racing entries: former Top Fuel champions Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher as well as Leah Pritchett.

E_Krawiec.jpgPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE CHAMPION EDDIE KRAWIEC: “I have to thank Bader family for stepping up investing in their facility. A lot of people don’t realize the investment, but I think [all concrete tracks] are the wave of the future. It’s nice and smooth and refreshing. Thanks to Summit Motorsports Park for doing it. This was a good race for me because I stayed out of the sand. Two years ago, I was a knucklehead drove it into the sand in the semifinals. Then we went back to the pits and thought we fixed brakes and then I went into the sand again in the final. This has been a good weekend for us. It was a bit of a struggle for us early but we got a handle on the new track and found a way to understand what we need to do.

“We had a lot of rain on Friday and Saturday so we had to do damage control. Our goal was to make sure it leaves clean and smooth and get into the show. On Q2 we missed it with both bikes but today [Sunday] I ran 6.86 which was low E.T. of the race in the heat of the day. I’d say we have a good handle on it. We’re just trying to refine the whole package we have. We made some good strides in that direction.”

T_Gray.JPGPRO STOCK CHAMPION TANNER GRAY: “We step up against each other anytime we race. For whatever reason I seem to get up on the wheel a little bit more against her and I think it shows. It’s cool to beat someone on a holeshot that is known for leaving the starting like but I also know that at the end of the day she just missed it. Not too big of a deal. Think I’m most proud of is the race car that we have right now and the amount of work my guys have put into it. That’s the reason I’m here.

“It’s cool that you’re leading the points but you know at the end of the day it’s still early and you don’t want to peak too soon if that makes sense. We’ve just got to keep the momentum rolling. My goal is to be top three going into the Countdown. If we can stay up there and do what we need to do. It shouldn’t be a challenge for us. Having one hit on a track that just got resurfaced and not really knowing what it’s going to throw at you is pretty big. I can’t complain. I’m sitting here in the winner’s circle at the end of the day so all is good.”

M_Hagan.JPGFUNNY CAR CHAMPION MATT HAGAN: “I’m super proud of my guys. These cats have been working hard. We just had a good, solid car all weekend. We qualified well and went down the racetrack pretty much every lap. You’re not due anything out here because you have to earn it, but you almost feel like you were due a win. It’s been a while since we’ve turned on four win lights, but it’s a nitro Funny Car and you never know what you’re going to get.

“Courtney, I can’t say enough about her. She’s a great driver and a great individual. They’ve got a good combo and we’ve got a lot of respect for them, but I think it’s going to be a good battle. I feel like with (crew chief) Dickie (Venables) we can throw down with these guys now, so we just have to keep doing what we’re doing. Our approach is more or less go down the racetrack and don’t beat ourselves. You have to take a step back sometimes, I think, and just re-think how you’re doing things.” 

B_Alexander.jpgTOP FUEL CHAMPION BLAKE ALEXANDER: "It felt really good, obviously, and then I got a little emotional because I’ve tried to do this my whole life and come close, lost sponsors and thought I was never going to drive the car again and basically just have gone through everything to climb back to the top, so it felt good.

"I have a great team owner, Bob Vandergriff, who took a chance on me and it felt good to reward him. (Today) we never got ahead of ourselves, never thought about the next steps. I think when I was in the final in Atlanta, I was picturing winning more than I was ready to take hold of the opportunity and be the person who won the race. I think we have a really great crew that’s opportunistic and I really appreciate everything they do because without them none of this is possible."

Sunday recap: Alexander scores first; Hagan, Gray, and Krawiec also get wins in Norwalk

FEATURES


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Two years ago at this time, Steve Torrence was in the hospital after suffering a heart attack, the residual effects of radiation treatments years earlier when he was battling Hodgkins lymphoma. He was stricken after a workout just days before the event and had to skip this race to recover. He finished third that year and then, after leading throughout most of the Countdown, finished second last season.

Torrence enters this year’s final eliminations as the points leader, a position he has held since winning in Phoenix, the second event of the season, way back in February and, since last summer the team has never slipped lower than second place in the standings. Since the start of the 2017 season, Torrence and his Capco Contractors team have scored 12 wins and compiled an enviable 75-19 win-loss record. What makes that possible, according to Torrence, is his team’s resiliency under the leadership of veteran Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana Jr. that gets them through their occasional missteps.

“When we’ve stumbled, we’ve recovered well and I’m really proud of that,” Torrence said.  “After our only first-round losses this year (Gainesville and Chicago), we came back at the next race (Las Vegas and Richmond, respectively) and won. These guys are battle-tested and, as the driver, that gives me a lot of confidence going up there regardless of the conditions or who’s in the other lane.”

Torrence won this event last year – another example of bouncing back after his 2016 episode – but he knows that even that doesn’t assure anything.

“It’s too easy to go from hero to zero out here,” he said. “Drag racing is a ‘What have you done for me lately?’ kind of sport so while it’s pretty neat to go somewhere as the defending champion, it’s not something you can dwell on.”

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bforce.jpgBrittany Force would love nothing more than to mount the victory stage this weekend, but the reigning Top Fuel champ also has her eyes on another stage off the track after being nominated earlier this week for an ESPY award in the Best Driver category. Joining Force on the 2018 ESPY Best Driver ballot are NASCAR driver Martin Truex Jr., IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden, who is a teammate of sorts of Force’s with Big Machine Records, and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.

“I’m very excited about it and really it just tops of everything our team did last year,” she said. “Wrapping it all up in Pomona and bringing home that championship put us into that spot. Being on the list of other great drivers, being recognized next to so many other big names, not just in NHRA Drag Racing but in all of motorsports – my dad, Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, tons of them – is something I’m very proud of. It would be amazing to be the first female and NHRA driver to win this award, but I’m proud just to be nominated. It really goes to show what the Monster Energy team accomplished last year.”

It is the eighth time a John Force Racing driver has been nominated for the award and a first-time nomination for Brittany. Her father, John Force, has been nominated for the ESPY Best Driver Award six times and sister Ashley Force Hood was a nominee in 2008. 

The ESPY Awards, acronym for Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly, were created by ESPN in 1993. Sports fans can vote for Force and their other sports heroes in variety of categories via an online poll at: ESPN.com/ESPYS. Voting is underway and concludes at 9 p.m. (ET) on July 17. Fans can vote once per day. 

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tmac.jpgAfter reaching the final round at three of four straight races -- Houston, Charlotte, and Topeka (all runner-ups) -– Terry McMillen and the Amalie Motor Oil crew have come crashing back down to earth, winning just one round in the last three events as crew chief Rob Wendland battles a frustrating clutch issue. Their most recent outing, last weekend in Bristol, was proof positive. They qualified just No. 15 and lost in round one and again have qualified No. 15 here.

“You hit the gas the motor just goes right through the clutch; we’re hardly seeing any wear at all,” said McMillen. “Where normally we would be wearing a 100-thousandths we’re wearing 25 because the discs are slipping and the floaters aren’t cutting like they should. In Bristol, we took the weight off and slowed the flows and it wore 145 until it got out there and dumped the fingers. We slow the flows down and it doesn’t want to go, we speed it up it doesn’t want to go, so we tested and checked all of our controllers.

“Then, when the clutch grabs, it goes right into tire smoke. The motor is making the same power, so nothing has changed from that end, but we’ve even tried taking power away to see if that makes a difference. We think that the facing material on the flywheel might have changed because there’s no other explanation we can come up, so we’re trying to find ways around that, but it’s very frustrating right now.”

Eliminations update: After making wholesale changes overnight, McMillen and Wendland raced their way to the final round and scored a runner-up finish.

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cforce1.jpgCourtney Force, already the winningest female in NHRA Funny Car history, set yet another record for women with her eighth No. 1 qualifying effort of the season, breaking the tie she held with three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Angelle Sampey, who logged seven No. 1s in the 2002 season.

“I really can’t take credit,” said Force, who has been the low qualifier at six of the last seven events. “It’s my team. It’s [crew chiefs] Brian Corradi and Dan Hood and every single one of my guys working on this Advance Auto Parts car,” Force said. “My crew chiefs have it figured out pretty well. I’m really excited to be driving this Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car. To be honest, I was hoping we would get a few more runs to get a little more comfortable on this new racetrack. When (the track is) new and you’re not really sure what you’re working with to be able to put up a number like we did on your first run and go to the top is a testament to the job my team did. I’m excited about it and ready to run it all day [Sunday]."

This is the 25th No. 1 of her career and her first in Norwalk. She now has qualified No. 1 at 15 of the current event tracks. In her previous seven No. 1s this season, she has at least reached the semifinals.

Event E.T Result
Phoenix 3.826 Won event
Las Vegas 3.927 Semifinals
Charlotte 3.873 Semifinals
Atlanta 3.932 Won event
Topeka 3.911 Won event
Richmond 3.983 Won event
Bristol 3.993 Semifinals
Norwalk 3.935 ??????

 

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This weekend’s race in Norwalk is a home track race for Kalitta Motorsports, but J.R. Todd’s own familiarity at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park dates back to his childhood.

Todd grew up racing Jr. Dragsters at the first-rate track, leaving the Kalitta Funny Car standout full of good memories at the facility. He would like to make one more this weekend and pick up his first professional win in Norwalk, which would give Todd three wins in an already impressive 2018 season for the second-year Funny Car driver.

“It’s cool to come back to places like this where you raced as a kid,” Todd said. “From the time I was a kid to now, and getting to know the Bader family, they take care of everybody. They put on a first-class show and it’s always a packed house here. It would be huge to get a win, man. It’s a home race for Kalitta Motorsports and it would be a big celebration come Sunday, that’s for sure.”

Oddly enough, Todd’s lone final round appearance in Norwalk came in 2016 in Top Fuel against now-Kalitta Motorsports teammate Shawn Langdon

Of course, both are now in Funny Car as well, with Todd making the switch in 2017 and Langdon moving to the class this year. 

It’s been a work in progress for Langdon, who currently sits 11th in points, and Todd understands what he’s going through, having gone through many of the same experiences just a season ago. But having a good friend as a teammate has already paid dividends.

“For him, he has to just be patient,” Todd said. “As a driver, you expect the best out of yourself. It comes with time. I feel like that team has already made our team better this year. The cars are set up more similar so we can tune them somewhat the same, and Shawn and I can work on things. We’re constantly trying to come up with better ways of doing things and I think that’s making us both better drivers.”

Todd, currently fourth in points, would like to see that pay off with a victory on Sunday, but he’s pleased with the consistency his team has displayed in recent weeks. That includes semifinal appearances at three of the last four events, meaning his team has run well in a variety of race conditions. Todd continues to make his own strides behind the wheel as well.

“You’ve just got to go back and make adjustments,” Todd said. “That’s where Todd (Smith) and Jon (Oberhofer) make those decisions. I’m definitely more and more comfortable inside the car. I feel like last year I was making a lot of mistakes inside the car, so I’ve tried to limit that this year and tried to focus on working on my reaction times and getting it from A to B.”

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Tim Wilkerson insists he doesn’t feel any extra pressure at the moment, despite currently sitting outside the top 10 in a loaded Funny Car class.

But the veteran is more than ready for a few things to go his way. Wilkerson’s first fortunate break of the weekend in Norwalk already happened, as two drivers ahead of him in points – Jonnie Lindberg and Cruz Pedregon – both failed to qualify. Now Wilkerson, who qualified seventh with a 4.032, hopes to pounce on the opportunity on Sunday.

“We’re going to win our fair share of rounds,” Wilkerson said. “The only guy that could have beat me at Topeka was the guy I raced. The only guy that could beat me at Bristol was the guy I raced. That will turn. That won’t be the norm.”

Wilkerson hopes that turn in fortune and momentum starts on Sunday in what has been a frustrating year to this point. He has run well at times, but Wilkerson hasn’t been nearly as consistent as he would like. Coupled with some unfortunate breaks – including a handful of parts problems in Bristol – and Wilkerson is 13th in points. 

But the good news is he is less than 100 points from eighth, as a talented contingent of drivers are packed tightly over six spots. An 11th straight Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship will eventually be on the line for Wilkerson, but he isn’t going to change the way he races even as the pressure mounts.

“I run the car the same every weekend,” Wilkerson said. “We try to make the best run we can under each track condition, and unfortunately sometimes I make the wrong decisions. But I try not to get nervous about it. We’ve flirted with not getting in the top 10 a years back and still made it in, but there’s a lot of good cars now so it’s going to be tougher. It’s going to come down to Indy, I bet you.”

With Pedregon and Lindberg missing the field, Wilkerson aims to have a big weekend in Norwalk. His qualifying run of 4.032 was a strong pass at a track where he won in 2010. There’s added attention being a Summit Racing driver racing in Norwalk, but Wilkerson doesn’t mind that. Instead, he has always seemed to thrive at a track known for its fan-friendly atmosphere. 

“We’ve been coming here forever,” Wilkerson said. “We run the Night Under Fire here and that’s a real special event. It’s such a show here. (Bill) Bader is such a good showman. Barnum & Bailey has nothing on Bill Bader. We’re always excited to come here and have a good time, and it’s right in the heart of Summit area with their 50th anniversary. We need some redemption for our performance this year, but (a win) would be big.”

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Racing at Summit Racing Equipment Motorsports Park, much has been made about one of the Summit Racing driver duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line breaking through for their first win this season.

But Drew Skillman, another winless driver in 2018, would be more than happy to spoil that celebration. Eight different drivers have won through the first 11 Pro Stock races, but that list doesn’t include standouts Anderson, Line and Skillman. The race is on to become the ninth through 12 races and Skillman sees a path to getting there on Sunday.

“We definitely need a win this season,” said Skillman, who is fifth in points. “We’re doing okay in points, but we need a win to stay in the top five going into the (Countdown to the Championship). We normally turn it on this time of year and we normally do well here, and we’ve got a good car. We’ve got a good gameplan for here, so it’s just time to execute.”

Skillman’s tendency has been to come on as the season has progressed and he appears to building up to something this year. He has back-to-back semifinal appearances, finally finding what appears to be a winning path to success.

He’s seen teammate Tanner Gray win twice, too, but Skillman, who won four races a year ago, is confident he is back on the right path after a pair of first-round losses over a five-race stretch this spring.

Winning isn’t the sole focus, but Skillman does know it would continue to boost morale and put the team in a good position as it builds to make a run for his first world championship.

“We just have to work on fundamentals and go rounds,” Skillman said. “That’s our biggest thing. I’m not obsessed with having to win every single race; I’m obsessed with doing well at each race. If you get to the third round every time, you’re going to be pretty good in points. 

“Our goal is to just be more consistent. That’s where we’ve fallen apart the past couple years. We would win a bunch of races, but consistently we weren’t always there. We weren’t always knocking on that door. That’s just learning your car.”

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In the course of the first four races to open 2018, Deric Kramer already had as many round wins as he had over the first 65 races of his career.

His first career Pro Stock win soon followed in Topeka, but adjusting expectations is something Kramer is still getting used to this season. He has a new Chevrolet Camaro and an engine-leasing partnership with KB Racing, and no longer is a first-round victory an upset for the Sterling, Colo., native. It’s a different feeling but definitely a good one for Kramer, who is currently ninth in points.

“There were a lot of times where I would plug high gear and the car next to me would drive away,” Kramer said. “That’s not the case anymore. I’ve just got to make sure I do my job in the car.

“It was really hard the last few years. If I wasn’t perfect on shifts or wasn’t the first off the tree, I had no shot. Now the car is able to back me up and I can definitely help out once in a while as well.”

Kramer has raced well this season, though even he admits the team’s performance is nowhere near its potential. That’s good news for the future, but getting accustomed to those expectations hasn’t been easy. There have been high moments, like the runner-up finish in Charlotte and, of course, the victory in Topeka. But making consistent runs is the next step in the team’s development after four first-round losses. Getting adjusted to a different mindset is a work in progress, but Kramer, who qualified No. 12 in Norwalk with a 6.647, believes his team is headed in the right direction.

“I think it’s something in the back of minds, knowing we have the ability to win rounds, and it’s up to us not to screw up,” Kramer said. “We’re on our way. I think it’s just getting used to it and making every run count, and realizing every time we go up to the line we have a chance to win that race.”
 

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le.jpgNito Fish rider LE Tonglet qualified No. 7 for the Norwalk field but he admits that if the Pro Stock Motorcycle class had gotten all four qualifying runs, he’d likely be ranked much higher in the order. Tonglet will face Mark Paquette in the first round and his path to the final includes potential matches against fellow world champs Eddie Krawiec, Angelle Sampey, and No. 2 qualifier Hector Arana Jr.

“We needed all four runs really bad,” said Tonglet. “In Q1 I made a bad run and then on the second run I did a bad job of riding. I made too many mistakes. It wasn’t a horrible run, but I missed a couple of shifts, so it should have been better. I think we should have qualified in the top four at least.”

Following an uncharacteristic round one loss in Gainesville, Tonglet has been one of the best riders in the class with nine round wins. He’s coming off a runner-up finish in Chicago and a win two weeks ago in Richmond. As a result, he’s climbed from 15th to third in the Mello Yell points standings.

“We’ve got a fast bike and it’s only going to get faster,” said Tonglet. “I’m actually happy with what we’ve done the first half of the season. I’ve been in a few close races including a couple that didn’t go my way but I can’t complain. If we had to start the Countdown right now, I’d feel pretty good about our chances. Last year, we made it to the Countdown and we had nothing but problems. I could have won the championship, but we struggled at the last six races. The big thing is that we worked through it and we fixed some of our issues and we’re better because of it.”

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angie.jpgAngie Smith’s primary goal for the 2018 season is a return to the Countdown to the Championship and following her quarterfinal finish in Richmond, she’s on target to do just that. Smith was ranked as low as No. 15 after a round one loss in Atlanta, but has steadily climbed with a handful of clutch round wins on her Denso Spark Plugs Buell. After qualifying No. 9, Smith will race Steve Johnson for the third time this season. They have split their two previous meetings.

“My bike bogged in Q2 and I think that’s why we’re not in the top half of the field,” said Smith. “We made a decent run in Q1 when it ran 6.93 but I do think my bike has 6.80s in it. We had a 1.09 sixty-foot time and that’s off by a couple of hundredths. We just needed to get our clutch right and I think that will come around.”

Smith has admittedly struggled with her reaction times on occasion and that’s an area where she and husband/crew chief Matt, have worked to improve.

“We changed the way my clutch lever works and that has helped fix my lights,” Smith said. “I hate to say that I’ve cured the problems but they’ve been a lot better and I feel a lot more comfortable whenever I go up there on Sunday. This class is really tough right now and you can’t give anything way, especially on the starting line. If you can’t cut a light it doesn’t really matter how much horsepower you have. We work too hard to make this bike fast for me to not do my part and try to have the best lights I can. That’s the least I can do.”

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aranajr.jpgFor Hector Arana Jr., the one thing that has been a constant this year is his ability to set top speed of the meet. Arana Jr. started the year with the sport’s first official 200-mph Pro Stock Motorcycle run and his Lucas Oil EBR has consistently been atop the speed charts at every event since. Arana’s improved performance has also yielded results on race day with three-straight semifinal finishes. Ranked tenth after an opening round loss in Gainesville, Arana entered the Norwalk race in the No. 5 spot and after qualifying No. 2, he’s got nothing but confidence heading into eliminations. Arana was just six-thousandths behind low qualifier Matt Smith, but with rain shortening qualifying to just two runs, he was cautious to not get overly aggressive.

“We always want to be at the top of the board, but we really couldn't chance anything,” said Arana Jr. “We had to wait a few extra hours going into Q1 so we knew that might be the only run we were going to get. It just didn’t make any sense to try and chance it. Last year [in Norwalk] we had top speed of the event and got to the semi, which is something we’ve been doing a lot lately. It’s nice to bank solid points, but we’re ready to go four rounds on Sunday.”

Arana’s last win in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class came at the 2015 St. Louis event, when he defeated his father, Hector Sr. in a memorable father-son final round. Since then, he’s got six runner-up finishes including four last season.

PHOTOS

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If you win in Dallas, you get a custom-sized cowboy hat. For the 16 winners in Norwalk -- home of the famous $1-a-pound ice cream offer -- there are these coveted ice cream scoops. Handcrafted each from 14 pounds of material by Todd Shaw, the stainless steel and brass keepsakes take six to seven hours each to make and finish out at a hefty five pounds.

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The SealMaster Track Walk allowed fans to traverse the actual racing surface that minutes later would harness more than 20,000 horsepower in round one of Top Fuel.

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The four low qualifiers, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. (with daughter Carly), Courtney Force, Matt Smith, and Clay Millican assembled for a class photo.

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In a special drawing for the NHRA Summit Racing Series National Championship, four NHRA divisions were selected to send an extra racer to compete for the national championship at the season ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Summit’s Jim Greenleaf and Don Lower, along with Summit Pro Stock drivers Greg Anderson and Jason Line and NHRA Division 3 Director Jeff Conley took part in the drawing. [story]

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Sportsman racing was conducted prior to the start of Mello Yello eliminations, and Top Sportsman drivers Bill Riddle (pictured) and Larry Demers were involved in an on-track incident during the third round of eliminations. Riddle entered the shutdown area where his car contacted the left wall and then proceeded to contact Demers’ car in the left lane. Neither driver was injured.

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Top Fuel's Mike Salinas got a first-round win over Luigi Novelli, despite breaking the blower belt and slowing to just 268 mph.

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Matt Hagan breathed a sign of relief after beating DSR teammate Tommy Johnson Jr., on a first-round holeshot, 3.994 to 3.990.

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Charlie Westcott Jr. qualified his Ford Mustang for the Pro Stock field, but was beaten by low qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr. in round one.

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Event champions, from left, Tanner Gray, Eddie Krawiec, Blake Alexander, and Matt Hagan.


LADDERS

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