NHRA Countdown to the Championship Preview: Can Bo Butner win his second Pro Stock championship in three years?
On the dawn of the first race in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, this much is certain: We will have a new NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Pro Stock champion in 2019. With reigning champ Tanner Gray off racing in the K&N Pro East circle track series, the battle for the crown is wide open. Current points leader Bo Butner has won the most races (four), and he won the Pro Stock championship two seasons ago, but winning a second title will be a huge chore given the quality of this year’s playoff field. Here are the biggest questions facing Pro Stock following the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
ARE THE KB DRIVERS THE FAVORITES, AND IF SO, WHICH ONE?
Let’s start with Butner, simply because he’s the No. 1 seed and has the most wins. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Butner’s last win came in Richmond, and he’s entering the playoffs after a pair of tough quarterfinal losses in Brainerd and Indy. His early-season momentum is basically gone. In terms of momentum, Jason Line might have the most right now after his inspiring Brainerd win and the recent numbers put up by his Summit Racing Camaro. Line also hammered the Tree in the first round in Indy with a .009 light that helped secure a win over Jeg Coughlin Jr. That sort of performance inspires confidence. Finally, there is Greg Anderson, who caught fire during the Western Swing and has more experience in tight points races than anyone else in the field. In addition to his four championships, Anderson has been a championship runner-up seven different times, which clearly illustrates his ability to handle pressure situations.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF A FIRST-TIME CHAMPION?
Actually, they’re quite good. Five of the drivers in the top 10 have never won a Pro Stock championship, and that includes Indy winner and No. 2 seed Alex Laughlin, Deric Kramer, Matt Hartford, Chris McGaha, and 10th-ranked Val Smeland. Everyone but Smeland has won a race this year, and Hartford and Laughlin each have a win and three runner-up finishes. Hartford leases engines from Elite Performance, but for the most part, his Total Seal operates independently with crew chief Eddie Guaranaccia running his own show. That sort of freedom might help turn the tide in their favor as the Countdown progresses. Laughlin also deserves a mention because he has been very consistent this year. It’s also never a bad thing to kick off the Countdown less than two weeks after an Indy win.
CAN ERICA ENDERS FIND A WAY TO RETURN TO HER 2014-15 FORM?
In many ways, she already has. Enders hasn’t won a race this year, but that might be the most misleading statistic in the sport right now. Albeit a tad inconsistent, Enders’ Melling/Elite Camaro is one of the best cars in the class, and she remains arguably the best driver, at least when it comes to reaction times. Enders could have won Brainerd and definitely should have won Indy. She lost the Brainerd final to Line by inches and had teammate Laughlin crushed in Indy before a mechanical failure. Sooner or later, the tide will turn in her favor, and even if it doesn’t, there is nothing wrong with “runner-upping” your way to a world championship.
WHO IS A DARK HORSE PICK FOR THE TITLE?
Is it possible for a five-time champion to be a dark horse? Asking for Jeg Coughlin Jr. He has five Mello Yello Pro Stock titles to his credit and 81 national event wins. In the opinion of many, Coughlin is also the most talented driver ever to wheel a Pro Stock car. Coughlin won in Phoenix but hasn’t been to a final since then. He is starting the Countdown from the No. 8 spot, and while it’s certainly possible to win from that spot, there is much work to be done. Coughlin needs to come out strong in Reading and St. Louis, two events he has won before, and he could be a huge problem for the rest of the field.
WHO WILL WIN THE 2019 CHAMPIONSHIP?
Of the four NHRA Professional categories, Pro Stock might just be the hardest to handicap (along with Funny Car) simply because of the number of quality teams that are in the mix. The old adage that any team that qualifies for the Countdown is capable of winning certainly applies here. Forced to choose, Butner rates an extremely slim edge over the rest of the field and here’s why: For one, he has been there before. Butner’s run to the 2017 title was pure magic, but it was also a valuable learning experience. This time, he’ll know what to expect every step of the way. Butner has been the points leader after every race, and even though he’s only got a 20-point lead over second-place Laughlin, it’s not unreasonable to think the title could be decided by a margin that narrow. Finally, Butner is also chasing titles in the SAMTech.edu NHRA Factory Stock Showdown and Super Gas. As long as he doesn’t allow either of them to be a distraction, the additional seat time (in pressure situations) could be extremely beneficial. We’re also going to hedge here and suggest that if Butner doesn’t come through, Enders and (possibly) Hartford are next in line.