Last year, Matt Smith won his third NHRA Mello Yello Pro Stock Motorcycle championship following a winner-take-all final round match against Eddie Krawiec. This time around, Smith’s road to a possible fourth championship is much more difficult. While he is still in the running for the title, Smith came in to the Auto Club Finals 117 points behind leader Andrew Hines which means he not only needs to win in Pomona, but also hope for Hines to exit early. Smith is certainly capable of winning the race and in fact, he’s easily the pre-race favorite after his Denso EBR turned in a dominating performance two weeks ago in Las Vegas, he admits the prospect of Hines going out in the first round is fairly dim.
“It’s pretty much out of my hands at this point,” said Smith. “I mean all I can do is try to qualify No. 1, get all the bonus points I can and then win the race. If that’s enough to win the championship, then so bit it. If it’s not, then I’ll have to settle for second place. I wish it was closer but I can’t do much about it now.”
Smith acknowledged that considered having his wife and teammate, Angie, and fellow team members Scotty Pollacheck and Michael Ray intentionally qualify in the bottom half of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field in an effort to catch Hines in the first round, but he ultimately decided against it. Pro Stock driver Greg Anderson is employing a similar strategy in an effort to stop leader Erica Enders and help his teammates, Jason Line and Bo Butner.
“We talked about it, but nobody really wanted to do it,” said Smith. “I mean it’s hard to make it work anyway. First, you’ve got to time it just right so you get the match-up you want and then you’ve got to actually beat the other guy. That’s tough to do.”
Smith is understanding the obvious when it comes to Hines. The five-time world champion has competed in 277 events as a professional and he’s failed to advance out of the first round just 55 times, which is less than 20-percent of the time. In all honesty, the odds of a Hines loss are probably less than that. Hines is one of NHRA’s most consistent pro racers and in the last five seasons he’s failed to win the first round just seven times. This season, his only round one loss came in Chicago when his Harley FXDR spun the tires to hand Andie Rawlings the first round win of her career.
“I shouldn’t be in this position,” Smith said. “We’ve had a great bike all year but we just had some issues in the Countdown that killed us. We finally got it fixed but it might be too little, too late. I should have won that race, but we didn’t get out of the first round.”
Smith is specifically referring to the recent Charlotte event where his bike encountered a mechanical issue and would not shift. Smith qualified No. 13, and lost in the first round to Hines’ teammate, Eddie Krawiec. He later discovered the issue to be a broken frame rail on his EBR chassis.
“This is the oldest chassis I own and it just broke a frame rail,” said Smith. “I’m not sure why, but we didn’t find it until after the Charlotte race. The bike was twisting and getting bound up and that’s why it wouldn’t shift. After we fixed that, it’s been really good ever since. I’m also using my best engine, the same one that we used to win the championship here last year. This bike is hateful right now; it’s as good as any bike out here.”
Smith showed his mettle on the opening day of the Auto Club NHRA Finals with two of the quickest runs of the day. He currently leads the field with a 6.813 best and with warmer weather forecast for Saturday, he believes he’s already got his seventh green hat [low qualifier award] of the season in the bag.
“You know me, I’m going to do whatever I can to win the race. If there’s a way to get an advantage, I’m going to find it. The points are out of my hands at this point all I can do is win the race and that’s what we’re going to focus on. If Andrew somehow slips up and gets beat early, we need to be there to take advantage of it.”