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NHRA Countdown to the Championship Preview: Can Steve Torrence repeat as Top Fuel champion?

We answer the biggest questions surrounding the Top Fuel category entering the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, which kicks off Friday at the Mopar NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil.
07 Sep 2019
Jacob Sundstrom, NHRA National Dragster Associate Editor
Feature
Steve Torrence

The NHRA Countdown to the Championship turns 12 in 2019, and Steve Torrence enters the playoffs as the No. 1 seed for the third straight season. The Texan does not need to repeat his history-making 24-round winning streak to win his second title, but he must fend off a charge from a handful of tough competitors to bring another big trophy home to Kilgore.

Here are the big questions facing Top Fuel dragster following the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals:

WHAT IS STEVE TORRENCE’S BIGGEST OBSTACLE ON THE  ROAD TO A REPEAT?

In a word: Himself. That was his biggest obstacle when he failed to win in 2017, too. Torrence put together the best 24-race season in 2018 and 2017 but only (definitively) enjoyed the best playoff run in 2018. The team has never been better than right now, and the experience of two great playoff runs means the team is loaded for bear heading to the Mopar NHRA Nationals Presented By Pennzoil. 

Here is how the 2019 team compares to the 2018 and 2017 editions (regular season only): 

Year    E.T.    Success Rate    R.T.    MPH    Power Ranking
2019    3.795    84.3%    .071    323.91    79.59
2018    3.795    75.6%    .071    325.65    70.15
2017    3.778    84.0%    .061    325.04    70.04

The team has remained remarkably consistent throughout the track prep changes of the past two seasons while other teams have struggled [it’s worth noting other teams have struggled for a variety of reasons, of course]. That’s why Torrence’s Power Ranking has increased despite his elapsed time decreasing and his reaction-time average decreasing — he has improved compared to the field, and that gives him a leg up on the competition. 

WHO CAN ACTUALLY STOP THE CAPCO CONTRACTORS TEAM?

Mike Salinas and Alan Johnson. Salinas is approaching 300 runs in his Top Fuel dragster over the past three seasons, meaning he’s not exactly green anymore. He gives up a little more than a hundredth of a second to Torrence in reaction-time average, but that’s hardly going to keep him out of the running for a championship. 

Brittany Force gave up two-hundredths in reaction-time average to Torrence in 2017, and she was only .004-second behind Tony Schumacher that season in reaction-time average; quicker is better, but don’t get carried away. Salinas drives the quickest Top Fuel dragster by a hundredth of a second thanks to staggering 60-foot times. He can win, even though he’ll come from further down the table to do it. 

CAN DOUG KALITTA FINALLY WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP?

Absolutely. I’ve been beating on this drum since I started here, and I’m not ready to quit. Kalitta is in the most competitive car he has stepped in on this side of The Run. He’s fifth in NHRA Power Ranking and third amongst full-time drivers. He needs to get a little lucky, which, I know has not been the Mac Tools driver’s calling card. He’s arguably the most talented driver in Top Fuel history [see you in my Twitter mentions], and he has a piece worthy of those talents. 

If I have a concern, it’s the average elapsed time, which sits at 3.805 seconds. That’s a hundredth slower than Torrence and two-hundredths slower than Salinas. If I’m encouraged by anything, it’s the average speed: 322.47 mph. That’s just one mph slower than Salinas, showing that the Kalitta Motorsports dragster may have some unrealized power when we move into the cool weather races (conditions where both Kalitta and Richie Crampton have wins this season). He’s not a favorite, but he’s so damn talented that he can’t be counted out. 

WHO NEEDS TO IMPROVE THE MOST TO GET INTO THE TITLE FIGHT?

The Advance Auto Parts dragster piloted by Brittany Force. That may sound wild because they entered the U.S. Nationals in second place with a win under their belt, but consider this: Force drove the sixth quickest dragster over the last six races and only made it down the track 65.7% of the time. Her John Force Racing teammate, Austin Prock, is trending up with a 59.9 NHRA Power Ranking while Force has been mired in the middle of the pack most of the season.

That isn’t bad if the goal is to be a middle-of-the-pack team, but we all know it isn’t. Both Prock and Force want to win championships, as do their crew chiefs (Prock’s crew chief has done so, and Force has done so). Both cars must be quicker to challenge the likes of Torrence and Salinas, and they very well may once we get to the cooler conditions provided by Reading and St. Louis. But, neither car has proven it has the consistency to be a contender over six races despite each bringing a Wally back to Brownsburg, Ind. 

There’s still time, but not much. 

WHO WILL WIN THE 2019 CHAMPIONSHIP? 

Steve Torrence may not be the best driver, but he drives the best car and has been incredibly consistent over the past three seasons. He only has two red-lights over that span and both came in 2018, which doesn’t quite fit the narrative many crafted around the Texan [his best seasons have come outside his Also Really Good 2018 campaign]. Torrence enters the 2019 NHRA Countdown with a terrific car, the best crew in the category, and a tremendous amount of confidence. He may not win every race, but what reason is there to pick against him?