Reigning NHRA Mello Yello champion Steve Torrence long ago locked up the top seed in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs but at the tail end of the pack, there is plenty of drama remaining in the race to fill the final spots in the 10-car field. Heading into this week’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, several drivers, including Terry McMillen, Scott Palmer, and Billy Torrence, are locked in a battle for the final spot.
Theoretically, Steve Torrence is the only Top Fuel driver who is guaranteed a spot in the playoffs. Even second-ranked Antron Brown could be knocked from the field thought the odds of that happening are extraordinarily slim. So realistically, the top nine drivers -- Steve Torrence, Brown, Clay Millican, Brittany Force, Doug Kalitta, Mike Salinas, Leah Pritchett, Richie Crampton, and Austin Prock -- are all likely to qualify for the playoffs. That leaves Billy Torrence, McMillen and Palmer fighting for the final spot. Heading into Brainerd, the final playoff spot belongs to McMillen, but his lead over 11th-place Palmer is a scant nine points, while Torrence is currently 12th, 66 points back. Despite the deficit, it would be hard to argue that Torrence doesn’t have the upper hand.
“I think that it [a playoff berth] is very do-able,” said Torrence. “I think we’ve got the second-best car on the property behind Steve's car. We need to win some rounds at the next two races, but I think we’ve got a decent shot at it. We won this [Brainerd] race last year so this track has been good to us and we've got plenty of data from this track. Last year, I feel like I basically gave Indy away but the bottom line is that these are two tracks that have been good to us.”
If not for his part-time schedule, the Capco boss would already be deep into the field after his two wins in Phoenix and Sonoma, but since he's attended just eight of the 16 events held so far, he’s outside the top 10. Torrence has lost in the first round just once this year and has an average points total of 76 per-event this season which presents a huge problem for McMillen and Palmer who come in at 42 and 41, respectively. Torrence knew going into the season that he wouldn’t be competing in all of the events due to a heavy workload at the Capco, the family construction business in Texas, so he didn't anticipate counting points. Regardless, he's geared up for a fight to the finish.
“This was not part of the plan; I never though I’d be even close to making the Countdown,” he says, shaking his head in disbelief. “I wanted to just run 14 or 15 races and be competitive whenever we ran the car. Then, we won two races and went to another final so here we are. I didn’t even realize this was possible until a couple of weeks ago. It sort of snuck up on us. Now, we're in this position so why not make the most of it? I might not ever have another chance to race for a championship and I feel like our whole team deserves this, and the same goes for all the Capco folks at home who support what we're doing.”
Torrence remains firm on one thing; if he does make the Countdown, he’s not going to be a blocker for Steve’s team. He’s in it to win it.
“I want to make that clear,” said Torrence. “If we’re fortunate enough to make the Countdown we will run for the championship. That includes any time we line up against Steve’s team. I think we’ve raced six times before and the margin [of victory] for all of them is about three-hundredths. We’ve always raced straight-up and that won’t change. Steve’s team is a full-time team and they’re the best out here right now so I don’t expect them to stumble but we’ll certainly make them work for it.”
As far as Billy is concerned, a perfect ending to the season would be for Steve to successfully defend his 2018 championship, with the No. 2 going on the wing of the second Capco car at the end of the season. He’d love nothing more than to stand next to his son on stage later this year at the Mello Yello awards ceremony in Hollywood.
“That would be the best thing we could ever hope for,” Torrence said. “I think if that happened, we should probably quit because I don’t think it would ever get any better than that. We’ve got a long way to go before we can start thinking about that, though.”