Steve Torrence won his third-straight Top Fuel race at the Virginia NHRA Nationals. The defending Top Fuel world champion did not lock up the top seed in the Countdown to the Championship, but boy howdy do I like his odds.
There are eight races to go until the seeds lock and he holds a 160-point lead on Brittany Force. He leads the class in NHRA Power Ranking with a 74.51 mark, just like he did in 2018 and 2017 (his best year by the stat, go figure). It’s not impossible someone will make up more than eight rounds on Torrence in the next eight races … but it is unlikely.
There’s another column to write about Torrence’s relative vulnerability in 2019, but the Countdown to the Championship will be fascinating because of the gains made by the cars driven by Doug Kalitta and Mike Salinas. That’s without mentioning the 16-race maturation of teams like Force and Clay Millican, who have growing pains of their own to go through.
But we’re not here to talk about the top of the table. Austin Prock made it a whopping seven races before getting a new crew chief. Nobody officially used the word fired, but there’s a reason you’ve literally never heard of crew chiefs being traded like they trade players in Major League Baseball. It’s highly unusual that two people wind up out of gigs and then walk into new gigs, but drag racing is a highly unusual line of work. Don’t get the idea that a team owner can tell a crew chief to pack his bags and start wrenching on a rival team’s machine tomorrow. It doesn’t work that way.
The end result, of course, is the same. Prock now drives a Mike Green tuned car with Ronnie Thompson as the assistant crew chief. Thompson has been at John Force Racing, primarily on the Funny Car side, for a while now. He’s not new to the scene. Green, on the other hand, has been with Don Schumacher Racing for the better part of forever (hyperbole my own). He was most recently with Bob Tasca III, a short experiment in Funny Car racing that is now over.
Every team wants to win a championship. The dragster is on a full-time schedule and, as a result, Prock is the favorite to win the Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future award. That’s just how these things tend to go. Winning a couple of races would help his cause but getting out of the first round has been a real problem for the Montana Brand / Rocky Mountain Twist Top Fuel Dragster since he burst onto the scene at the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals.
Granted, it’s worth remembering his most memorable win came due to fabulous driving because the dragster didn’t get down the track under power (embedded below). That’s been the story for the car all season. Prock has made it down the track under power only 50 percent of the time and when it has, it’s been slow (relatively speaking, of course). The rookie is the leader in reaction time average (.059-second) but that’s not enough to bring a car averaging a 3.811-second lap to the winner’s circle. That ranks 12th among qualified cars (those making at least 12 runs this season) – it’s tough to qualify well with that kind of performance.
All those numbers may have prompted the move. Or, perhaps it was something else entirely. It’s hard to say and frankly, it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is what happens next, so I consulted a driver who has been in this position before, albeit in slightly different circumstances. Jack Beckman was partnered with Rahn Tobler in 2012 when Don Schumacher decided to make a crew chief swap. Tobler moved to the NAPA Auto Parts team, which was struggling at the time, and moved Todd Smith to Beckman’s team. That was not done out of concern for Beckman’s team, necessarily, but Smith was (and frankly still is) a hugely underrated crew chief – and the move paid off for both teams, eventually.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing as a silver bullet in this kind of situation,” said Beckman. “It’s not like any crew chief is going to walk in and be like, ‘oh my god you guys, you’re running it like this?’ Everyone is just too good now for it to work like that.”
And it’s fair to note that the team might not be looking for a quick fix to what is the first year in what promises to be a long career. Green paired with Tony Schumacher in the post-Alan Johnson years and managed to win a great many races. Prock doesn’t need to be Schumacher good to find great success in the Top Fuel category, but Beckman did speak to trying to find a sense of calm in what can be a hectic situation.
“I wasn’t consulted on (the decision to swap crew chiefs), so I think when that sort of thing happens you just kind of try to look at it with the best mentality possible,” said Beckman. “We ended up not qualifying in our second race together which snapped what was at the time the longest active qualifying streak in Funny Car. I think that’s something you could get frustrated about, right? But what good would that possibly do? So, I think that’s the perspective you need to have.”
Merely 26 points separate Richie Crampton in eighth from Billy Torrence in 12th. Torrence isn’t trying to make the Countdown, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. He’s already won a race this year and he drives what is arguably the second-best car on the property any time he decides to show up. That’s concerning for Crampton, Scott Palmer, Prock and Terry McMillen; all of whom expect to make the Countdown and at least one of whom will not.
Jordan Vandergriff also poses a problem, not because he will make the Countdown (he has already run four of his 12 scheduled races) but because he steals points from full-time drivers every time he shows up. All of this factors into the math with just eight races to go. Projecting who has the best shot of making the Countdown is part of the reason NHRA Power Rankings exist, but with the race this tight luck is going to be a major factor.
John Force Racing didn’t want to wait around for that to matter. Now, we’ll wait to see if the team’s aggression pays off.