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Due to weather, the first round of Mello Yello qualifying will now begin at 3:45 p.m. Eastern

Virginia NHRA Nationals Friday Notebook

08 Jun 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Richmond

Preview | Features | Photos | Results

QUALIFYING ROUND RECAPS

NDB_2390.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q1 (3:04 p.m.): The fastest rider on the planet was also the quickest through one session at the Virginia NHRA Nationals. Hector Arana Jr. ran a 6.825 to score three points and put himself in a great position after the first run of bikes. He was followed by Matt Smith (6.837) and Andrew Hines (6.848). They distanced themselves from the pack by nearly four hundredths of a second, as Steve Johnson sat in fourth with a 6.886. Kelly Clontz held down the bump after the first session with a 7.118, while Jim Underdahl set the quick half of the field with a 6.932.

_AND4739.JPGPRO STOCK Q1 (3:27 p.m.): There have been eight Pro Stock winners this season in nine races and Greg Anderson made a great case to become the ninth in the first qualifying session. His 6.576-second pass put him at the top of the qualifying heap, earned him three bonus points and got his weekend started the right way. He’s followed by Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.59) and Bo Butner (6.597). Buddy Perkinson is driving a K.B. Racing machine and failed to get down the track (as did the other three Pro Stock cars that started the session), while fellow teammate Jason Line struggled in the first session. The good news? There are three sessions to go. 

courtney.jpgFUNNY CAR Q1 (4:25 p.m.): The Courtney Force Express keeps rolling along as the points leader grabbed the early qualifying lead with a 4.058 in her Advanced Auto Parts Camaro. She’s earned at least one bonus point at seven of the nine events so far this season and has been the no. 1 qualifier five times. Teammate Robert Hight, the winner last weekend in Chicago, is hot on her heels with a 4.074 with Ron Capps third with a 4.081. Bob Tasca III is fourth after a 4.115, but severely damaged his new TascaParts.com Mustang body in a finish-line blower explosion. 

brittany.jpgTOP FUEL Q1 (4:50 p.m.): Brittany Force joined sister Courtney, the Funny Car leader, as a provisional No. 1 qualifier, making for an Advance Auto Parts sweep of the nitro ranks. Force, the reigning world champ, ran a 3.849 in her newly-red rail to lead the pack. Antron Brown continues to look more like his old self and racked up the session’s next-best time, a 3.879 while Scott Palmer sits third with a 3.891. Dom Lagana, in just his second race of the season is fifth, just behind Leah Pritchett.

NDB_2402.JPGPRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE Q2 (5:55 p.m.): Plenty of Pro Stock Motorcycle riders made improvements, but few bigger than Eddie Krawiec. He moved up to the No. 4 position with a 6.85, putting him two spots behind his teammate Andrew Hines, who improved to a 6.837 and stayed No. 2 behind Hector Arana Jr. The rider of the Lucas Oil Racing TV bike went .03 second quicker in his second pass, riding to a blistering 6.795 and making even more distance between himself and the rest of the field. That elapsed time is a track record as is his speed from his first run (199.14 mph). 

_AND4729.JPGPRO STOCK Q2 (6:18 p.m.): Bo Butner was the No. 1 qualifier for five minutes. Then Greg Anderson ruined it by besting his teammate with a 6.571-second pass. Still, Butner made a big move in the right direction with a 6.575, improving .022 on his run from the first qualifying session. The defending Pro Stock world champion has yet to get into the winner’s circle this season and a couple of solid runs on Friday put him in a great position. Every car on property with the exception of Tommy Lee’s moved into the 6-second range and Jason Line and Erica Enders are tied for the No. 8 spot with a 6.601. 

hight.jpgFUNNY CAR Q2 (7 p.m.): Just as they did in Q1, Courtney Force and teammate Robert Hight finished 1-2 in the second session with Force making the track’s first three-second pass, q 3.983 to break the 4.00 track record that Hight had established here years ago before the event’s eight-year hiatus. Hight’s 4.039 earned him two bonus points thanks to his speed, 318.39, which was marginally faster than the 318.02-mph pass registered by Ron Capps on his identical 4.039. Tommy Johnson Jr, currently sits outside the field after a timing malfunction on his first pass and being shut off on the line before his second.

schumacher.jpgTOP FUEL Q2 (7:25 p.m.): Tony Schumacher marched the Army car to the No. 1 spot in Top Fuel, running a 3.777 (just six-thousandths off of his own track record) to steal the No. 1 spot from first-session leader Brittany Force. Three other drivers, including Force herself, bettered her opening pass of 3.849 but her 3.808 fell well shy of Schumacher’s pole pass. Terry McMillen rebounded from a poor opening pass with a 3.816 to grab the No. 3 spot with Doug Kalitta sliding into the No. 4 spot with a 3.827. Just 14 cars made passes on the opening day, putting a premium of the top two spots for possible first-round byes on Sunday.

H_Arana_Jr.jpgPRO STOCK LOW QUALIFIER HECTOR ARANA JR: "The bike is really consistent right now and it’s responding to changes. We made a change for the second run and it looks like we’re headed in the right direction. I have to look at the last run we made, but I think we can make improve on that run even more depending on what the weather does. This Lucas Oil EBR is bad to the bone and I gotta say, this track is one of the best I’ve been on, it’s smooth as glass. 

"It takes all the worry all the worry out of the back of your head, knowing how smooth the track it is. You don’t have to worry about that and you can just enjoy the ride. I sure hope so (that he can ride 200 mph again this weekend). It’s great to go into a new area where we have new fans and everyone seems very excited to have us back in town. "

G_Anderson.JPGPRO STOCK LOW QUALIFIER GREG ANDERSON: "This track is as smooth as glass, I was talking to myself in the race car saying how smooth this surface is. My hat is off to the guys because this is what we love in Pro Stock racing is a smooth surface to race on. I knew it was going to be neat coming back here, but this support has been awesome. You know they say Virginia is for lovers but it really seems this Virginia is for race car lovers."

On how competitive the class is: "You’ve got 13 or 14 cars of the 16 qualified cars that if you were a betting man you’d feel comfortable betting on. Only one of ‘em can win of course, and I just haven’t been able to put the whole deal together yet. I haven’t been making big mistakes either, it’s just been that I’ve been taking my lumps. It’s nothing to be depressed about, but it’s just part of the racing class." 

C_Force.JPGFUNNY CAR LOW QUALIFIER COURTNEY FORCE: “With a brand-new track, we didn’t really know what to expect, but everyone said they’d done such a good job that I was excited to run on it. It was a sigh of relief to get down there and run 4.05 on our first pass and I knew that [Brian] Corradi and [Danny] Hood would push it harder to get our No. 1 spot back after seeing some cars in front of us make some phenomenal runs. 

“It was great so see a track like this, just added to our circuit this year, and see the stands completely full of people. It feels really for us drivers to see. When you pull up to that water box and see all those people out there it feels really good, and we’re excited that we gave them a good show to kick off the weekend.”

T_Schumacher.JPGTOP FUEL LOW QUALIFER TONY SCHUMACHER: “With only 15 cars entered here, being No. 1 means a lot. By the time we got to run we were like fifth or sixth Mike [Neff] and Phil [Shuler] said it was either going to smoke the tires or go to No. 1 because there’s no reason to be third or fourth and fifth. let’s see what this thing will do and they did a terrific job.

"The last six to eight races have been hard for us because of the change in track prep. We’ve spent 20 years trying to make cars faster, developing six-disc clutches and parts to go fast so it’s hard for a team like our that has decades of data of going one way. It’s a time-consuming thing. We’ve got a great team, and it’s not just Mike and Phil; we’ve had Mike Green and Dan Olson and Alan Johnson -- so many great crew chiefs and teams -– it’s just been a pleasure ride. We’ve had adversity and had to dig out of some holes and set a lot of records, but it would sure be good to get another win. It’s been more than a year.”

Friday recap: Courtney Force takes Friday pole at Virginia NHRA Nationals; Schumacher, Anderson, Arana take class leads

FEATURES

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How long has it been since the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series has been in Virginia? Consider that four of the current track records –- most of which should fall this weekend -- are held by racers no longer competing.

In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher holds the e.t. record, set in 2008, at 3.771. Melanie Troxel, who is no longer competing, holds the speed mark at 327.59, set in 2007.

There’s never been a three-second Funny Car run at Virginia Motorsports park, but Robert Hight got close in 2008 with a 4.005. The “Wild Thing,” Gary Scelzi, also no longer active, had the class’ fastest pass here at 319.22.

Former world champ Mike Edwards, also no longer driving, has the Pro Stock track mark at 6.509, set the last time we raced here in 2009, while Greg Anderson’s 212.36 from that same year is the best speed.

It’s a no-brainer that the Pro Stock Motorcycle track records will both fall as Matt – not Andrew – Hines holds both at 7.282 and 188.32, both set when the bikes last ran here in 1998.

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This year’s homecoming for Antron Brown is taking place in Richmond, Virginia. The New Jersey-based racer usually has his annual get together with friends and family at the NHRA Summernationals, which is replaced by the Virginia NHRA Nationals on the schedule this season. So, the Browns are headed to Virginia Motorsports Park to see Antron. 

“The main thing is, it will be a great family homecoming,” said Brown. “Since we aren’t going to Englishtown, all of my family is coming down to Virginia – my grandma is really excited. My mom’s coming out, my dad and uncles want to be there, so it’s just going to be a lot of fun.” 

This is the first time Brown has raced at Virginia Motorsports Park since switching to Top Fuel, but the veteran racer has made plenty of passes on a Pro Stock Motorcycle. 

“I’m looking forward to getting back to Richmond,” said Brown. “I remember racing at Richmond when I first started my career off in Pro Stock Motorcycle, so it’s going to be pretty awesome to get back there.”  

The Matco Tools / U.S. Army team has struggled to start the season. Brown enters the Virginia NHRA Nationals with five-straight first-round losses on his resume and in eighth place in the Top Fuel standings. That’s not what the Don Schumacher Racing driver is accustomed to. He hasn’t made a 3-second pass during eliminations since the Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Las Vegas, six races ago. 

Still, he enters the second race of a four-race swing excited about the prospect of putting on a great show for fans both new and old. 

“Tommy Franklin (new owner at Virginia Motorsports Park) is definitely a patriot to our sport,” said Brown. “He has a passion for drag racing. What he’s doing and has already done for that racetrack is incredible and they’re going to put on a great show. He has all of my support. We’re really looking forward to getting there and having a great time.”

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mercier.jpgA/Fuel Dragster veteran Dan Mercier is making the leap to Top Fuel this weekend as a quasi team car to Terry McMillen. It’s not Mercier’s Top Fuel debut – he competed in the Paton racing car at the 2015 Epping event – but it’s his first race in drag racing’s top class as an owner.

Using one of McMillen’s former McKinney chassis and an engine prepared by McMillen crew chief Rob Wendland and tended this weekend by former world champ crew Lance Larsen (on a brief hiatus from Richard Townsend’s Funny Car), Mercier is excited about his return to the class after three years

“I take a long time to make decisions to make sure I make the right one,” said Mercier, who owns a concrete and asphalt testing lab in the Montreal area. “I wanted to make sure that I had the right teammate, and when I talked to terry last year in Las Vegas I knew he was the one. For me it’s really important to have a car that’s like my teammate. Plus the economy in Montreal has been very good the last two years where it wasn’t for the years before that.”

“I like A/Fuel but this car; it has a good leave, a .900 60-foot time [Top Fuel cars go mid- to low-.80s) but where the difference is when the clutch locks up in this car. The A/Fuel car might hit 3.5 Gs at the most then falls off; the Top Fuel car does that at the start and just keeps going

The crew his weekend is a mix of his A/Fuel team and some veterans from the Grand Prix Hydroplane boat he owned – quite successfully –  from 1993 until he started driving in drag racing in 2003, and, because of that, the team has no expectations of running all four sessions. Members of his crew have made visits to the sport’s nitro hub in Brownsburg, Ind., for some hands-on tutorials, but real-world racing can be different.

If all goes well, Mercier will also compete again in Epping and at either the second Charlotte event or Reading. Depending on sponsorship, he’ll step up to five to eight events the following year and possible more beyond that after he retires in a few years.

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Courtney Force has fond memories of Virginia Motor Speedway, just… not of driving a race car. 

“Richmond is where I celebrated my 7th birthday,” said the driver of the Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro. “I was in the winners’ circle with my dad, so I have a lot of great memories from the track even though we haven’t raced there in a while.”

Force has made plenty of great racing memories this season already. She’s a three-time winner on the NHRA Drag Racing tour and the points leader entering the Virginia NHRA Nationals. A fourth win would match her career high for wins in a season (2014) and since Force enters the dragstrip with the quickest car in the sport, well, she’s a good driver to bet on.  

“I’m looking forward to racing on a new track,” she said. “We were able to win the first time we raced at Epping (2013 NHRA New England Nationals) so hopefully our Advance Auto Parts team can do that again at Richmond.”

Her Advance Auto Parts Funny Car averages passes of 3.957 seconds, just a thousandth quicker than teammate Robert Hight and .004 second quicker than Matt Hagan. The class average is 3.985 entering the Virginia NHRA Nationals, where temperatures are expected to be on the high side to start the weekend. 

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Mark Herzhauser (pictured, right, with driver Phil Burkart Jr.) will be living every crewman’s dream – and perhaps that of many fans -- when the first Funny Car qualifying session kicks off and he watches his car – the car he owns instead of the many he has worked on – take the Tree for his first official run as a team owner.

Herzhauser worked on nitro cars for about 15 years as a volunteer crewman for the teams like the Lagana brothers, Jack Wyatt, and Jeff Diehl, always partnered with Jay Lewis when he decided he’d like to own one of the nitro beasts. He and his wife Jennifer scrimped and saved and took out a few bank loans and bought a chassis and basic engine assembly from Tim Wilkerson and got an ex-Don Prudhomme/Skoal Monte Carlo body to cover it. Lewis, naturally, is part of the team this weekend.

“Jay was actually Matt Hagan’s crew chief when Matt had his own car – I worked on the crew there -- and Matt had bought a car from Tim, so that’s how that relationship developed. I couldn’t afford a complete car, so it’s taken us a while to get together all of the parts we needed. I’ve built a lot of good friendships over the years that allowed me to put together a good crew.

Journeyman nitro pilot  Burkart –- lately one of the go-to drivers for new car owners –- will wheel the car this weekend, his 10th different job as a hired driver in the nitro ranks with a resumé that includes rides for John Force Racing (after Force’s 2007 crash), Del Worsham, Robert Schwab, Paul Richards, Paul Smith, and others.

Herzhauser’s car is allowing bannering is support of Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints football player who developed Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) carrying both the TeamGleason.com web address and #NoWhiteFlags hashtag.

“Since his diagnosis, Steve has really made a commitment to helping others with ALS, and we’ve had some friends die from ALS, so it’s a really important cause for us,” said Herzhauser. “There have been a lot of times where this was so hard that I wanted to throw my hands up and quit and then I see Steve, in a wheelchair, and how hard his life is and there’s no way I can complain.”

Burkart is driving this weekend, but Herzhauser hopes to eventually drive his own car.

“I’d love to drive the car in the future, but that’s not what drives me,” he said. “I just love nitro drag racing.”

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wilk.jpgSometimes it seems that if Tim Wilkerson didn’t have bad luck he wouldn’t have any luck at all. The veteran Funny Car racer, who was shut off on the line in the first qualifying session here, came into the event after losing his most recent run -– in the second round in Chicago –- to a freak occurrence.

As he was backing up from his burnout, the open escape hatch was caught by a gust of wind that ripped it complete off the hinges. With no recourse, Wilkerson made the run without it and smoked the tires downtrack.

"That's a serious downforce issue," said Wilkerson. " The air runs over the top of that roof and ends up in the deck, usually. With the hatch missing, that wind goes right in the car. You don't get the downforce you normally get, and that made the difference.

“The year is getting by on me, and we need to get our stuff together -– and we will."

Wilkerson hopes that his previous success in Richmond, where he reached the final in 2009, will help turn the course.

"I've had a good car in Richmond a couple of times,” he said. “We were the class of the field in 2009, Del [Worsham] just did a better job than us in the final – we hurt a piston going down through there, and they made a nice run. But I'm looking forward to this weekend. I know they've been working hard to get the place ready for us, and we really appreciate that. We've had a lot of little things that have plagued us with the racecar this year, but hopefully we're through with that and can have a good race. We're just going to do the best we can and see how it goes.

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Now that the monkey is finally off his back, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and the JEGS/Elite team can get back to the business of racing instead of having to deal with the “When are you going to win again?” question that’s been hanging over their heads for more than four years. His victory last weekend at the JEGS-sponsored Route 66 NHRA Nationals was his first in Pro Stock since the 2014 Englishtown event, a span of 74 races. It pushed his career total of Pro Stock wins to 59 and his overall national event win tally to 77. 

Coughlin dominated race day in Chicago, posting low e.t. of all four rounds Sunday in his familiar yellow and black Camaro.

"Chicago was certainly a huge, huge win for us," said Jeg Jr., who also is racing in Super Comp this weekend "It felt like the culmination of this wave of momentum we've been building for a couple months now with much improved qualifying positions and better runs on race day.
 
"We finally turned that final corner and got that long-awaited win. I can tell you, no matter how many times you've won, it's always nice to get another one and having gone the longest spell of my driving career without a win in Pro Stock, it certainly felt great to bust that streak."

"There's absolutely no reason to stop now," said Jeg Jr., who won the 2000 race here in Pro Stock. "When you run through race day like we did in Chicago with the best car in every round, you become a believer in the fact you should be able to do that time and again.”

Coughlin will be joined this weekend by brother Troy, who is making a return to Pro Mod, his niece Paige Coughlin, who is racing in Super Comp, and his nephew Troy Coughlin Jr., who is racing in Super Comp and Super Gas.

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Tanner Gray was 10 years old the last time NHRA raced at Richmond Motorsports Park, and he was just 9 years old when crew chief Dave Connolly took home the Pro Stock Wally from the 2008 NHRA Virginia Nationals. That’s not going to keep the second-year driver from taking a crack at bringing home the 2018 equivalent back home to North Carolina. 

“Davey has always run well here, I don’t think he’s ever lost here actually,” said Gray. “It’s kind of hot right now, but they say the track is really nice.” 

That is the word around the pits. The all-concrete surface is said to be one of the best around the sport. It disappears into a lush landscape surrounded by trees and is flanked by grandstands on one side and a small hill on the other. That gives Virginia Motorsports Park a unique look among other NHRA tracks. 

“It reminds me of a big dirt race being back in the woods here,” said Gray, who spends time racing on dirt and midget karts. “It just seems like a local race more than something big, you know?”

The winner of the 2017 Auto Club Road to the Future Award is looking for his second Wally of the season. He took home the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals Wally.

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It took about half the 2017 season for Drew Skillman to find his stride, and the Indiana native is still looking for a similar breaking point in the 10th race of the 2018 campaign. The team thinks they’ve found at least a partial solution entering the Virginia NHRA Nationals, which marks Skillman’s first racing appearance at Virginia Motorsports Park.

“We struggled over the past two races, but we think we’ve found some stuff that’s gone wrong, possibly some electrical issues,” said Skillman. “I’m really comfortable in the car. My driving hasn’t been great but I’m hoping to improve on that this weekend.”

He made a 6.603-second pass in the first qualifying session, good enough to be qualified fifth alongside his teammate Tanner Gray. That both cars are on a string bodes well for tuners Tomi Lane and Dave Connolly, who can take that data into the second session with an eye on moving up the ladder. 

Skillman is only .009 second off Greg Anderson for the lead in elapsed time average; they average 6.589 and 6.58, respectively. Those nine thousandths of a second can be the difference between a win and a loss on Sunday, of course, but if the Gray Motorsports-powered team has found something, perhaps Skillman’s first win of the year is just around the corner. 

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In the minds of some, Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Ryan Oehler may be one of the favorites to win the Auto Club Road to the Future award awarded annually to the best first-year racer. “Flyin’ Ryan” sits 11th in points, higher than any of his fellow Road to the Future candidates at this time, after scoring his second round-win of the season last weekend in Chicago.

“We tested the last two weekends before Chicago,” said Oehler, whose tuner is his dad, Brad. “But unfortunately, a major engine failure while running at Lucas Oil Raceway’s Night of Thunder in Indy the Saturday before the Joliet race put Oehler’s team on the back foot. We had planned to run that engine at Joliet but we we're unable to make the needed repairs in the time left. Then while beginning to rebuild our primary engine on Tuesday night, we realized it also needed major repairs.”
 
The team thrashed deep into Thursday night before they were even able to  the trailer. Fortunately for them, they only live about 85 miles from the track. They qualified ninth and beat red-lighting Hector Arana Sr. in round one and now sit a mere seven points out of the top 10.

“We are primarily a self-funded team, but it’s amazing how many people are behind us,” he said. “Every little bit helps and so many companies, friends, and fans have come forward and helped push us to further our program. It’s very humbling to receive so many positive words of encouragement.  
 
Oehler, whose family runs a Bloomington, Ill.-based heating and cooling company, cited the Birch family, High Performance, George and Jackie Bryce at Star Power, and Alexander Tutt as keys to their success.
 
“Our goal is to make the Countdown and compete for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award,” he said. “ So as we go through our motor, develop more speed, fix as many air conditioners as possible, and move on to Virginia, we know in our hearts that there is no rest for the wicked!"

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Hector Arana Jr. will try to add himself to two short lists while racing at the Virginia NHRA Nationals this weekend. First, he will attempt to become the fourth Pro Stock Motorcycle racer to take home a victory from Virginia Motorsports Park. Second, he’ll try to go 200 mph at yet another NHRA track. He’s still the only Pro Stock Motorcycle racer to do so. 

"Every race is fun but to go to a track for the first time is extra special," said Arana "The Pro Stock Motorcycle class hasn't raced here in two decades and it will be the first time many in attendance this weekend will see us race in person. Hopefully we'll be able to run 200 mph again with the Lucas Oil Racing TV EBR and put on a good show for the fans."

His father, Hector Arana Sr., runnered up to Matt Hines in 1997, so Hector Arana Jr. hopes to become the second Arana to reach a final round at Virginia Motorsports Park. He has not won since the 2015 season and last reached a final at the fall Las Vegas event. That’s something the Lucas Oil racer hopes to put behind him in Virginia. 

Arana has a quick enough bike to do it. His average elapsed time (6.869) is the third-quickest in the class, behind only Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Perhaps that means another Hines-Arana bout is on tap for this weekend. 

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The most recent winner in the Pro Stock Motorcycle category, two-time world champion Matt Smith, started the season racing for Joe Riccardi and is now back racing for himself and his wife, Angie Smith. That’s worked out just fine for Smith, who made a handful of incredible runs en route to his first Wally in two seasons. 

“I pulled this bike out in Charlotte and we were the third or fourth qualifier and went to the finals,” said Smith. “I was the third or fourth qualifier in Atlanta and just red lit, that was a mistake on my part. So, we qualified fourth in Chicago and went all the way to the winner’s circle. We have a good bike and a fast bike, both me and Angie, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem, repeating what we did.”

That’s great news for Smith, who competes in an absolutely loaded category. He made the second-quickest run in the first session, a 6.837 that put him .012 second behind front runner Hector Arana Jr. and .011 ahead of Andrew Hines. If that keeps up, it bodes well for his Sunday success. Smith explained his step forward on Sunday in Chicago thusly: 

“I saw that what I did on Saturday was not the right tune up call to do and I just applied the opposite on Sunday and it worked,” said Smith. “The biggest thing that helped us on Sunday was the big tailwind. Obviously, that helped everybody, but that helped us more than most because of the way we run our bikes. Other people might figure out what we’re doing when there’s a tailwind, but if not, that’ll just help us anytime we’re in that situation.” 

The rider cut his teeth last season tuning his own bike, Angie’s bike and a handful of other bikes in the class. His workload was exhausting, something that hasn’t exactly changed this season as he and Angie continue to be jacks of all trades while keeping their team afloat. 

“Angie and I are the only ones in the shop,” said Smith. We drive the truck and trailer everywhere, I tune my own stuff. We’ve got two guys that help at the track, but besides that it’s just us doing everything because we don’t have the budget and stuff to do all this. She has Denso on board, which is great, but we’re still looking for a sponsor to help get us to the finish of the year.”

Still, he remains optimistic about his own chances to get the big prize at the end of the year. 

“If you look at the history, every time we’ve won a race fifth or later, we’ve won the championship. So, I think we’re in a really good position to be a contender.”

PHOTOS

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Former Top Fuel world champ Antron Brown was a study in concentration before his opening qualifying pass in the Matco Tools dragster.

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Former Alcohol Dragster pilot Dan Mercier debuted a new Top Fueler at this event. Mercier, who previously competed in 2015 in Epping, has partnered with Terry McMillen and crew chief Rob Wendland.

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Crew chief Rob Flynn stands at the ready to launch Richie Crampton down the track.

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After skipping the Chicago event to attend his daughter's graduation, Mike Salinas was back in action with a new bright orange paint scheme on his Scrappers Top Fueler.

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Phil Burkart Jr. is wheeling the new Monte Carlo of Mark Herzhauser, a former nitro crewman who finally got his own car. The car banners support for ALS patient and supporter Steve Gleason, a former NFL player, and his #NoWhiteFlags movement in support of those also afflicted with the disease.

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Nicky Boninfante, left, and Kurt Elliott, tuners for the Shawn Langdon-driven Global Eletronics Toyota, check out the new VMP surface, which many crew chiefs are calling the smoothest and flattest they've seen.

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NHRA President Glen Cromwell hosted a Q&A with NHRA members at the NHRA hospitality tent between qualifying sessions.

PREVIEW

It’s been nearly 10 years since the last time the National Hot Rod Association brought a national event to Virginia Motorsports Park. That’s too long for our liking, so we’re looking to make up for lost time with the Virginia NHRA Nationals, the 10th stop on the 2018 Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series tour and the second of a four-race swing that concludes in Norwalk, Ohio in two weeks. Let’s go racing.

C_Millican.JPGClay Millican hadn’t won a single Top Fuel race in NHRA competition this time a year ago. Now, he’s a three-time winner and has won back-to-back races for the first time in his career as we get ready to burn nitro at Virginia Motorsports Park. A lot can happen in a year, as it turns out. What hasn’t changed is the great team effort between Millican, crew chief David Grubnic and the rest of the Great Clips / Parts Plus Top Fuel team. The squad enters the weekend just behind Steve Torrence in the Top Fuel standings, that’s impressive, but this team is a contender for now.

C_Force.JPGThat’s certainly true for Courtney Force, who fell to eventual event winner (and teammate) Robert Hight a week ago but remains the driver to beat entering this weekend. The Advance Auto Parts Chevy Camaro remains the best in the class, thanks to the tuning capabilities of Brian Corradi and Danny Hood, and Force is driving the wheels off the damn thing. That’s a team that can’t be trifled with, no matter the weather conditions, racing surface or track prep. That doesn’t mean the competition won’t try, though. Heck, what fun would it be if they didn’t?

J_Coughlin.JPGNine races, eight winners. That’s what Pro Stock racing is all about. Okay, that and a whole lot of other things, too. But come on. There’s parity, competitive balance, you name it, and then there’s the 2018 Pro Stock season. Jeg Coughlin Jr. became just the latest winner in a season where Greg Anderson, Drew Skillman and Jason Line remain winless; and no, we don’t expect that to last until the Auto Club NHRA Finals. Trying to pick this week’s winner is darn near impossible but throwing a few bucks on Erica Enders wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Her hot rod is on fire and you know how great her driving is. This season is going to be awesome.

A_Hines.jpgMatt Smith is the most recent winner on tour and it looks like LE Tonglet has his mojo back, but Andrew Hines just might have the most impressive bike this season. Yes, even though it hasn’t gone 200 mph yet. It’s the quickest (on average), the most consistent and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the Harley-Davidson Street Rod parked in the winner’s circle on Sunday afternoon. This is a diabolically competitive class, but it’s never a bad idea to bet on the Harley boys. Still, it looks like Smith has something figured out, and Arana is taking strides to get his bike quick as well as fast. The two-wheel category is getting tighter all the time.