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Momentum on her side, reigning champ Leah Pritchett returns for shot at Indy double

Top Fuel and Factory Stock double-threat Leah Pritchett is riding a big wave into the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals following her recent victory in Brainerd.
28 Aug 2019
Kevin McKenna, NHRA National Dragster Senior Editor

A few win lights can cure just about anything and lately, no one knows that better than Leah Pritchett. Last year’s No .4 finisher in Top Fuel and the reigning champion in the SAM Tech.edu Factory Stock class, Pritchett had been shut out of the winner’s circle in both categories for the first two-thirds of the season. Her year-long drought in Top Fuel ended at last weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, where Pritchett topped Mike Salinas in the final to claim her 14th national event win across all categories. Any win is a good win, but Pritchett had every right to feel good about her most recent win since she qualified No. 4 and made four runs on race day between 3.72 and 3.76. That combination of performance and consistency is hard to come by, and in Pritchett’s mind, it sets her team up nicely for a run at an Indy win, and title run during the upcoming Countdown to the Championship.

“This is a perfect time to be able to gain momentum for our season,” said Pritchett following her Brainerd victory. “I feel like looking at [Brainerd], we made four incredible runs on Sunday and that’s something that the crew chiefs have worked really hard on. They’ve worked to be able to do it consistently, and it’s coming into play at a perfect time. I guess looking at it from the outside, it might seem like, “Hey where have they been?’ and now it’s,’Oh, they’re here.’ If you look at the Western Swing and our qualifying position and the rounds that we lost, they were close races. When we talk about gaining momentum internally, we looked at it as far as the car, the set-up, and team morale. We’ve been able to put all those pieces of the puzzle together. I guess we could see what was happening, even if nobody else could.”

After reaching the final round in Phoenix last February, Pritchett was ranked No. 2 in the Mello Yello standings and there was no reason to think she couldn’t mount a challenge to reigning champ Steve Torrence for the top seed in the class. A string of round one losses at mid-season was bad enough, and then she was also forced to sit out the Epping round due to a lack of funding for that event. As a result, Pritchett enters Indy as the class’ seventh-ranked driver, 747-points behind Torrence, but she’s convinced that numbers are misleading, and that gap between her and the points leaders is much narrower.

“We’ve made some chassis improvements to our car, but it’s also our mindset,” said Pritchett. “This sport is the fastest and most extreme thing there is. That’s what the fans like the most and you have to race the same way, and I feel like I haven’t been able to race with that extreme mindset out of fear of sponsors, or what the future holds. Once you break down that barrier, you get that confidence back. I’ve also been working at my own craft. In the four qualifying runs [in Brainerd] I tried four entirely different things as far as the way I stage, the way I look at the bulbs, and my routine. Some things worked and some of them didn’t but that’s what good drivers do. You always try to find your strengths and look for weakness in your opponents. If you have a chance to bite, sometimes you have to be the lioness.

“That same [mentality] goes for Todd [Okuhara, crew chief] and the tuning,” Pritchett said. “Instead of racing safe you need to race intensely and that’s what we started doing. We were finally able to get that back and I’m excited because when you hear the crew chiefs start talking about being able to pick up here and there and the car is reacting the way they want it to behave. Right now, she’s behaving beautifully, and we couldn’t be more happy about it.”

There is never a bad time to win a race, but for Pritchett, the timing was perfect since the next stop on the tour is the sport’s marquee event, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Historically, Indy has not been kind to Pritchett, at least in Top Fuel. After back-to-back DNQ’s in 2013-14, she’s suffered a round one loss in three of the last four years with the lone bright spot a semifinal finish in 2017.

On a more positive note, Pritchett is a defending Indy winner thanks to her dominant victory in last year’s SAM Tech.edu Factory Stock Showdown. Driving her Dodge Challenger Drag Pak, Pritchett won Indy, and the final two races of the season in St. Louis and Dallas to claim the series championship. Along the way, she also logged NHRA’s first seven-second run in the class, which features heads-up competition in modern supercharged muscle cars from Dodge, Chevrolet, and Ford. Pritchett and her fellow Dodge racer had the upper hand last year, winning five of seven events, but they were dealt a tough hand when off-season rules adjustments left them well behind the Cobra Jet Mustangs and COPO Camaros in terms of performance.

So far this season, Pritchett has qualified for every Factory Stock race, which is no easy feat with upwards of 25 cars competing for just 16 spots at some races, but race day success has been virtually non-existent. While her recent win in Brainerd has provided a lift in her hopes for more success in Top Fuel, further parity adjustments, and her status as the defending event winner, have also given hope for a better showing in “El Bandito” the pet name for her wheelstanding 175-mph Dodge. Although Top Fuel and Factory Stock could not be more different from a mechanical standpoint, it’s hard not to argue from the driver’s seat, success in one class can provide the confidence necessary to succeed in other.

“There is a certain aura about coming to someplace where you’ve been successful,” Pritchett said. “I would say that besides winning the Mopar Mile-Hight Naitonals last year in Top Fuel, my [2018 Indy FSS win] ranks up there. Winning in Indy is so surreal. It was a feeling I’ve never felt before. This year, it’s a totally different animal. We’re not even close to the championship. We’ve come to terms with the parity adjustments in the class. We appreciate NHRA making adjustments. We don’t know where we stack up. We’re just give it everything we have.”