Considering it’s happened the past six years, it’s a streak worth noting. It’s also one that has Leah Pritchett’s attention heading into this weekend’s 35th annual Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway. Since 2013, the winner of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship race at Reading has gone on to win the world title.
It’s a string that started with Shawn Langdon, continued with Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown (twice), Brittany Force and Steve Torrence, who won the race last year en route to his first world title.
Although the Reading event has only been the Countdown opener the last two seasons, Pritchett still knows that a win would propel her Mopar Dodge dragster to a good start as the playoffs begin during the 2019 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. Racing at her sponsor’s race already makes it important for Pritchett, but she knows what a win could mean.
“I believe that it is no accident that the winners of Reading have been that year’s champion,” Pritchett said. “It shows that coming hot out of the gate is pivotal for the championship momentum. We intend to execute precision performance strategy every step of the way. Excellence starts at the shop, and this team has worked diligently to dissolve any mishaps that may trip up our performance, from the simplest of procedures to new technology.”
Torrence (Top Fuel), J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including final eliminations on Sunday, Sept. 15 at 2 p.m. (ET). The first of six playoff races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship is also the 19th of 24 races in 2019, and Pritchett is confident her team can get hot at the right time.
It’s been an up-and-down campaign for the Top Fuel star, but the team won in Brainerd to grab their first win of the season. Pritchett followed with an untimely first-round loss in Indy, but she believes her team is ready to compete for a world title. Langdon, Force and Torrence were all first-time champions during this streak, and Pritchett has a chance to become the fourth straight should she win in Reading. Starting the playoffs in seventh, she knows a good start is necessary.
“The mindset for us is to be solid in our execution,” Pritchett said. “As a driver, I have tested different approaches to driving and feel we have a dangerous combination for the Countdown. It looks like great conditions in Reading for us to continue to put Mopar power down. There is no better time than now for us to apply power and consistency. We have all worked hard to solidify a spot in the Countdown and there is no room error in our hunt for the championship.”
Torrence had a dominant regular season on the heels of his perfect run in the playoffs last year. He’ll open as a the points leader, but Pritchett will also have to deal with the likes of Force, Brown, Indy winner Doug Kalitta, Clay Millican, Richie Crampton, Mike Salinas, Austin Prock and Billy Torrence. But Pritchett is determined to leave her mark on this title chase and that starts with what she hopes is a memorable performance this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway.
“By points design there is no better time to peak than right now,” Pritchett said. “The strength is in sustainability, and right now it is not just about coming on strong, but staying strong. I believe with all of my heart, because I see it and feel it everyday, that we have the internal strength, intelligence, work ethic, power, partners, and attitude to be Top Fuel world champions. And it excites me everyday knowing that we are one step closer, one day closer, to being in that position to execute and prove to ourselves that we have what it takes.”
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 2:00 and 5:00 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 13, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 14, at 12:45 and 3:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15.
Television coverage includes Friday Nitro Live from 7-8:30 pm ET on FS1 on Friday, Sept. 13, as well as live coverage on Sunday, Sept. 15 from 2-5 p.m. ET on FS1.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call 610-856-9200. Tickets also are available online at www.maplegroveraceway.com. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate.