Each year, Tricky Tipster, NHRA’s resident odds-maker, looks forward to the two Mello Yello series races at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as a chance to showcase his gift for prognostication. With two races left in the season, the favorites for the NHRA Toyota Nationals include runaway Top Fuel leader Steve Torrence, Vegas Four-Wide champion J.R. Todd, Jeg Coughlin Jr., Matt Smith, and Pro Mod’s Jeremy Ray.
At this point, the only question remaining for the Capco Contractors team is whether or not it can run the table. So far, nothing has been able to stop it and, with a 179-point lead, it will take nothing short of a modern miracle for Torrence not to be crowned the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel champion.
His storied career includes eight victories in Las Vegas, and with two races left in his longtime partnership with the U.S. Army, he’d love nothing more than to add a ninth title here. The Army car has performed well during the Countdown with a win and two-semifinals, but his 0-3 against Torrence has sealed his fate as far as the Championship is concerned.
Parts Plus/Great Clips
The clock struck midnight for the Stringer Performance team with a quarterfinal loss in Charlotte, but the prospect of winning a race or two before the end of the season is very real. Incredibly, the sport’s most competitive single-car team has not qualified worse than No. 5 since Richmond and has led the pack nine times in 22 races.
She didn’t win in Charlotte, but after qualifying No. 1 and reaching the final round, it was arguably her best performance of the season. The Monster team seems to have found a bit of the same late-season mojo that carried them to the 2017 title. It could bode well for the last two races of the season and 2019.
The second Capco entry is every bit as dangerous as the first team car and its entirely possible that by Sunday night in Las Vegas, dad could be celebrating his second-career Top Fuel win while son, Steve, could be crowned the new Top Fuel champion. That would provoke an epic celebration even by over-the-top Las Vegas standards.
It may have gone largely unnoticed, but the Mac Tools team looked really good in Charlotte. Their car was both quick and consistent in spite of a close quarterfinal loss. Much like Brittany Force, it seems the Kalitta dragster has turned the corner after a difficult summer.
Amalie Motor Oil
Returning to the site of his historic and emotional first victory last season. Since then, the Amalie team has done nothing but improve with five final rounds this season and another milestone win at Indy. Their coming off a tough round one loss in Charlotte, but a return to Vegas might be just what they need to right the ship.
There are a lot of great Top Fuel cars headed to Vegas which made Tipster’s job incredibly tough. Call it a hunch, but in this case, he decided to go with the Scrappers car ahead of DSR teammates Antron Brown, Leah Pritchett, and part-time terror Blake Alexander. After his solid semifinal finish in Charlotte, there’s not reason to think he can’t be NHRA’s next first-time pro winner.
The final round loss in Charlotte stings a little but the reality is that things are pretty good for the DHL team right now. They’re just 11-points out of first place and they’re returning to Las Vegas, the same place where they won the Four-Wide event earlier this season. Their 12-3 record during the Countdown speaks volumes about their competitiveness and consistency.
The NAPA team’s win in Charlotte qualifies as one of the best performances of the season for any pro racer and that’s in a class that is as tough as it’s ever been. Now, the real question is if they can carry that momentum across the country to Las Vegas. Capps is a five-time Las Vegas winner, but hasn’t been to a final there since 2012. Oh, and at 109-points back, he’d likely need some help but isn’t totally out of the race for the championship.
Auto Club Chevy
This is a great team that should be favored to repeat their 2017 Funny Car championship even after their unfortunate St. Louis incident. The only concern, and it is minor, is that they’re qualifying results have been a bit off lately. No. 11 in Reading and seventh in Charlotte sets up some tough draws on race day. Then again, he also has five wins in Las Vegas.
Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang
While the championship is out of reach, a solid 9-4 record during the first four events of the Countdown shows just how good the Levi, Ray, & Shoup car has been. The only thing missing this season is a long overdue race win. He also won the spring race here in 2008 for what that’s worth.
Tommy Johnson Jr.
This car was fantastic in Dallas and might have been even better in Charlotte and then disaster struck in round one when they smoked the tires against Dave Richards. They’re not going to get a do-over on Charlotte, but a shot at Vegas, where he won the spring race in 2017, represents the next-best thing.
Advance Auto Parts Chevy
As much as the Advance team dominated the regular season, it’s almost impossible to think they’d have just one round win in the first four races of the Countdown but that’s where they are. With four wins in six finals this has been a great season, but a win here or Pomona (or both) would help make the off season go by a lot quicker.
Right now, the Peak Camaro may not be the quickest car in the Funny Car class, but it’s developed a bit of consistency that clearly wasn’t there in the early part of the season. The strategy of staging a few inches deep on the starting line has paid dividends since his lights have been among the best in the class lately.
Mopar Express Lane Dodge
For a guy who is generally regarded as one of the best starting line drivers in the class, a holeshot loss is especially frustrating. The defending event champ will undoubtably have a chip on his shoulder when he arrives in Las Vegas. So far, the Countdown has been unbearable for the two-time champ but he’s got a couple of shots to turn it around.
Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Facing a 130-point deficit, any hopes of a miracle comeback pretty much hinge on running the table at the last two races and even then, he’s going to need a little luck. It’s a longshot, but stranger things have happened in this sport. He’s got arguably the best car in the class right now so it’s entirely possible that he can grab a few bonus points and score a much-needed win here.
Gray Manufacturing Technologies Camaro
He doesn’t seem to be affected much by pressure and with a 130-point lead, he’s got a little wiggle room for a mistake which makes this an ideal spot to just relax and win a few rounds and maintain a big lead heading into Pomona. Who are we kidding? He wants to win both races and clinch the title ASAP. Don’t expect his demeanor to change between now and the banquet.
Skillman Auto Camaro
When he stole the No. 1 qualifying spot on Saturday afternoon in Charlotte it seemed like he was a shoe-in to get his first win of the season but Jason Line had other ideas. We’ve not had ten different winners in the first 22 races of the season and it’s hard to imagine that we won’t push that number to 11 before we’re done. He was also a runner-up here in 2016.
There was a time when she was just about unbeatable in Las Vegas with four-straight wins over two seasons. That was during the good old days of carburetors and hood scoops but that’s mostly irrelevant. She can still cut a light with the best of them and that’s likely what it will take to walk out of here with a Wally.
Summit Racing Equipment Camaro
After back-to-back strong outings including a season-saving win in Charlotte, it’s safe to say that the blue Summit car has turned the corner. At least he doesn’t have the pressure of extending his 14-year (now 15) win streak. Historically, the Vegas track has been good for the entire Summit team so there is no reason to expect a let-down after the zMax victory.
Mountain View Camaro
With a solid 9-3 record including a win in Reading the Countdown has been pretty good for the Mountain View crew. They struggled a bit during qualifying in Charlotte but that’s not much of a concern. The winner of the spring Four-Wide race has a good shot to sweep both titles in Sin City.
Summit Racing Camaro
There was a time when this guy was money in Las Vegas with eight wins in ten final rounds. He also won this race a year ago, which is always a good confidence-builder. He needs two round wins for 800 on his career and it’s a good bet that he’ll get both of them here. He might even go the distance on race day.
Butner Auto Camaro
His reign as the Pro Stock champion is just about over and he’d like nothing better than to get a late-season win as a send-off. The Butner team gets a lot of attention for their annual Halloween antics which makes it easy to forget that he’s been to four final rounds here since he started running Pro Stock in 2015. This is also the place where he doubled-up in Comp and Stock a few years back.
Smith Racing EBR
Lately the Pro Stock Motorcycle points lead has been tossed around like a hot potato but after his inspiring win at zMax Dragway, Smith seems to want to hang on to it for a while. Given that there are still at least four, possibly five legit contenders for the title, it’s likely that he’ll need another final round finish to hang on to it. He was in back-to-back finals here in 2013-14 so the adjustment from sea level shouldn’t present a problem.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
He was absolutely ambushed by Angelle Sampey in the second round in Charlotte. That can’t happen again if he wants to remain in contention for a record-tying fifth championship. The Vance & Hines bikes were better in Charlotte than they were a week earlier in Dallas. Will be interesting to see if that trend continues out West.
Nitro Fish Suzuki
The guy who rarely has a bad race had one in Charlotte but even the best stumble now and then. The good news is that he is still second in the points battle and 41-markers isn’t too much to make up with two races remaining. In his championship season in 2010, he won this race. A repeat of that would go along way towards helping the Nitro Fish crew win a second one.
White Alligator Suzuki
Somehow, someway he needs to make up 100-points on Smith in the next two races in order to win another Mello Yello championship. That’s a tall order, but it’s not impossible. The first and most important step would be a win here in Las Vegas and he did that two years ago. Just theorizing here but if he wins the race and Smith goes out before the semi’s, that cuts the deficit to 60 points, which is just two rounds under Pomona’s points format.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
Probably too little, too late in order to make a run at the title, but his Harley Street Rod was vastly improved in Charlotte. The short version is that he’s got two shots to win a race this year, which would tie him with Pro Stock’s Jason Line for at least one win in the last 15 seasons. That’s a very attainable goal at this point.
Liberty Racing Buell
Who had the second-best bike on race day in Charlotte? That’s right, she did. And, she made waves in the points battle with wins over championship contenders Tonglet and Krawiec. She could very easily continue to play the role of spoiler for the next two events.
Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson
Debuted a brand-new bike at the last race and it was the quickest two-wheel vehicle on the property. Only an ugly red-light prevented him from going the distance in the final round. For the record, he won here back-to-back in 2004-05.
Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil EBR
A win in Reading to start the Countdown and then three-straight round one losses. Sometimes this sport can be incredibly cruel. On the positive side, he’s been a solid qualifier at almost every race this year and at times, he can be dominant. Las Vegas is a city that was built on luck and right now, the Lucas Oil team could use a little bit of it.
J4 Racing Corvette
Following his breakout win in Dallas, he came right back in Charlotte and qualified No. 2 with a career-best 5.68 and made it to the semifinals. In a class where consistency is a relative term, that’s not bad at all. He also made a pair of 5.6-second runs on race day which helps cement his status as the favorite.
Jan-Cen Racing Camaro
As the incoming points leader, he doesn’t need to win in Las Vegas. He just needs outlast rival Rickie Smith. Of course, outlasting Smith might mean having to beat him in the final round. However it shakes out, this has been a great season for the Jan-Cen team although holding on to win the championship would make it much, much better.
Bahrain 1 Camaro
In his 40-plus years behind the wheel of a race car, there isn’t much this guy hasn’t seen or done so it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t have a game plan to take the championship from Janis. He’s 24-points back which means he’s going to have to win two more rounds than Janis or outqualify him by at least five spots and win one round more.
Maximum Effort Corvette
Ran the table in Charlotte by qualifying No. 1 and winning his first Pro Mod event. Lightning rarely strikes twice in Pro Mod but this team seems to have a few things figured out so they should be counted on to light a few win lights on Sunday.
The frustration is evident in the AAP camp since they’ve had arguably the best car for most of this season and haven’t yet won a race. They’ve got one more shot to get it done and they figure to make the most of it. So far, we’ve had eight different Pro Mod winners in 11 races. What’s one more?
Another guy who found the 5.6s in Charlotte, he also reached the final round including an upset win over three-time champion Rickie Smith. The thin air of Las Vegas tends to favor turbocharged cars and this is one of the best of the best.
The defending event champ has cooled a bit since his back-to-back wins a couple of months ago. Technically, he is still mathematically alive for the championship but it would take some extraordinary circumstances for that to happen. At this point, he’d settle for a season-ending win.
YNot Racing Camaro
He not only seems to qualify for every race, but he lands in the top half of the field more often than not. In a class where 12-14 cars are sent home after qualifying at every race, that is more impressive than it seems. A little race-day luck is really all they’re lacking.