Enough of the small talk. The next time the NHRA Mello Yello series pros take to the track at the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals in Reading, the playoffs will be in full swing which means the importance of each and every round cannot be understated.
Next week, we’ll have a good idea who’s for real. With six races to decide a champion, there is no room for error, and with that in mind, Tricky Tipster, NHRA’s legendary in-house wizard of odds, has labeled Steve Torrence, John Force, Erica Enders, and Andrew Hines as the favorites.
Tempting to drop the reigning champ a spot or two because after all he’s winless in the last three events, but the Capco team has built up too much equity this year to fall that quickly. This is a team that went 24-0 in last year’s Countdown and while they almost certainly won’t do that again, they should be favored to once again go the distance.
Follwing his long-awaited first Indy win, Doug Kalitta’s resume is nearly complete. He now lacks only a Mello Yello championship and after his performance the last two weeks, with a semi in Brainerd and an Indy win, he’s a favorite to get there. He won the 2002 Reading race by beating Kenny Bernstein and it’s entirely likely he’ll win again this year. The Mac Tools car is peaking at the right time.
He said that if he made the Countdown he’d run hard for the championship and give no quarter to anyone, including his son, Steve and there is absolutely no reason to think otherwise. A father-son 1-2 finish in Top Fuel is a very distinct possibility, and it’s not out of the question that dad takes the lead.
Tipster foolishly left him out of our Indy prediction and of course he qualified well, went to the semi’s, and busted his good buddy Steve Torrence along the way. It’s a bit odd to think that the Matco team, with their three championships, has yet to win a race this year but that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable. In fact, you can expect to see their best effort during the Countdown.
Advance Auto Parts/Carquest
Another race, another low qualifier award for the Advance Auto Parts team. Those green hats are flashy, but they don’t necessarily pay the bills. Race day consistency is the word of the day around here and it’s been a difficult commodity in this camp at times this year.
Following an impressive Brainerd win, this is/was the car to beat going into Indy and then tire smoke in round one. Admittedly, this is a steep drop for a recent event winner, but it is what it is. Win a few rounds in Pennsylvania and Tipster will adjust accordingly for the next race in St. Louis.
Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist
We already know that this kid cuts great lights but the Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist car also had the second-quickest run of the day at Indy with their 3.712 in round one. That’s an extremely potent combination and it represents a huge problem for the rest of the class going forward. We can almost guarantee this kid wins another race in the Countdown.
“Born under a bad sign; If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all,” so goes the old late ‘60s Albert King blues classic. That also describes Clay Millican’s luck lately. Just how often are these guys going to make a monster run and lose out to low E.T. of the round in the other lane. Sooner or later, their luck has to change, right?
Been a while since the 16-time champ made it to the top of Tipster’s vaunted rankings but this isn’t just some trip down memory lane. The Peak team has won two of the last three races, but more importantly, they’ve been a semifinal or better in 11 of 18 regular season races. That’s enough consistency to win a championship.
Auto Club Chevy
These guys pretty much cruised through the regular season and were never seriously challenged for the top spot. Now, the heavy lifting begins. It’s going to take a bunch of final rounds and probably 2-3 wins to claim the Funny Car title so we’re going to need to see the same team that won three of the first five events earlier this season.
Infinite Hero Dodge
After four runner-up finishes and five semifinals this year, it’s safe to say the Infinite Hero crew is long overdue for a victory so why not get it here? That’s pretty much the same take we had going into Indy, and after another runner-up, something has to give, and soon.
The 2014 Reading champ is heading back to Maple Grove for another one of his sponsor’s signature events and he’s doing so with a good bit of momentum after a runner-up and three semifinals in his last four appearances. This is definitely one of those “we’ve got a good feeling about this weekend” picks.
He does well almost everywhere including Reading, where his record includes a win (2016) and three runner-up finishes. Losing in the first round in Indy was a devastating blow, so a few round wins here will be the best medicine possible. As noted earlier, there is a long way to go before we crown a champion and it’s hard to imagine the NAPA team won’t be in the fight till the bitter end.
Welcome back, world champ. Okay, so he never really left but it’s been a tough summer for the DHL crew. They made a nice comeback in Indy after a bunch of early losses. The last time we raced in Reading, they left with the Wally and it’s not at all a stretch to think that might happen again this year. A win or a final would be huge for the points battle.
Tommy Johnson Jr.
The two most recent races notwithstanding, this remains an extremely competitive team that is more than capable of putting together a championship run during the Countdown. As far as Maple Grove Raceway is concerned, he’s got a pair of wins here in 1999 and 2016 and a runner-up in 2014. It’s a good place to begin a run to a long-overdue first title.
Global Electronic Technologies Toyota
Really hard to put a price on this team right now. From driving to tuning to consistency, and almost every other aspect of the sport, they are clearly better now than they were at the start of the season. That being said, the Global team has one win, one runner-up, and one semifinal this season. In order to put some heat on the leaders, they’re going to need more than that during the Countdown. It’s a big challenge, but not an impossible one.
We listed her No. 1 for Indy and called it a roll of the dice. It wasn’t. She got to the final on merit and quite frankly, had Alex Laughlin’s clock cleaned before her car let her down. That should not happen twice. After two-straight final rounds, she just needs the right horse to ride and there is a third championship well within reach.
Nothing provides a confidence booster like an Indy win, even if it took a bit of luck to get there. He’s been quick and consistent all year and that’s the sort of thing that helps win championships. Is it hard to imagine a guy with three career wins going the distance to win a championship? Not in today’s Pro Stock where just about anyone in the field can win. He’s got a very legit shot.
Summit Racing Equipment Camaro
A win Brainerd was followed by a semifinal in Indy. Honestly, it could easily have been two-straight finals but his .027 light wasn’t enough to hang with Enders’ .010. His driving has been solid lately, but it needs to be even better in the Countdown. By horsepower or clutch foot, he needs to find a hundredth.
Butner Auto Camaro
The guy who won four of the first five races this season, or the one who’s winless since Richmond? Will the real Bo Butner please stand up. It was certainly encouraging to see him qualify on the pole at Indy, but race day consistency was a bit lacking. He won here two years ago during his championship season, which is a good omen. There was a lot happening at Indy, a return to reading might allow the Butner Auto group to get back to basics.
Summit Racing Equipment Camaro
Pro Stock has been contested in Reading for 34 years yet only 15 drivers have won the former Keystone Nationals. This guy is one of them with back-to-back wins in 2005-06 and five more final rounds to go along with it. The Summit flagship was just about unstoppable during the Western Swing. Can they find that groove again?
American Ethanol Camaro
This will be the 100th Pro Stock race of his career and he’s got three wins in three final rounds, which isn’t half bad since he’s only had really competitive power for the last two years or so. Along the lines of what have you done for me lately, he’s been to the semifinals in four of the last five races, which is once again, the sort of consistent performance one wants to see during the Countdown.
Jeg Coughlin Jr.
Speaking of Reading wins, he’s got four of them in Pro Stock which is a great sign heading into the first stage of the playoffs. The JEG’s Camaro has been a solid top-half qualifier for most of this season. We’re a bit baffled to understand how or why there haven’t been more final rounds. Then again, better to win the last six races than the first six. There is still plenty of time to make a run at a sixth Pro Stock title.
Total Seal Camaro
His round one loss to Val Smeland in Indy was one of the most bizarre Pro Stock races of the season, but it’s not an indicator of the performance potential of the Total Seal team. Despite the fact that we have them ranked at the back of the pack, this is a team that can win races and can win the championship. Neither one of those would be an upset.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
The Indy final was a tough loss, especially since he never got a chance to take the fight to Jerry Savoie’s Suzuki, but the fact remains that he’s 32-3 on the season which makes this hands-down the best bike in the class. The Harley-Davidson team always seems to find an extra gear in the playoffs and this year should be no exception.
Once again, he should probably be the top pick but to be perfectly honest, Indy wasn’t his best race. The air in Reading is far different than the air in Indy so it’s reasonable to assume that the V-twin bikes are going to come back to life. A runner-up finish here last year kicked off a championship drive and a repeat of that, or even a win, is extremely likely.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
Raised in the Northeast, he’s won this race in five of the last ten years so if there was ever a time to bust out of a year-long winless drought, this is it. Really, it’s shocking to think the four-time world champ has gone winless this deep into the season. In a word, he’s overdue.
Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil EBR
Remember last year when he won this race and threw a big scare into the rest of the field. He was and remains a serious championship threat, even though he hasn’t been to a final round since the Charlotte four-wide. Much like the Harley team, the Lucas Oil bikes tend to do some of their best work during the Countdown races.
White Alligator Suzuki
Winning Indy is one thing; having the best bike at Indy and riding a mistake-free race is quite another. Actually, he didn’t have the best bike until Monday but then he was just about untouchable. The big question is can the White Alligator team carry that momentum on to Reading, where a Suzuki hasn’t’ won in more than a decade?
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
A red-light notwithstanding, there was real progress made last weekend in Indy when the three-time champion qualified on the pole for the first time since joining the Harley team. One has to thing there is also a “breakthrough Sunday” on the horizon with a final round finish coming up. She’s more than capable of winning a race; it’s just a matter of putting all the elements together.
Pity that her Denso bike had “troubles down track” against teammate Scotty Pollacheck at Indy because she was set to do some damage after picking up bonus points during qualifying. Qualified No. 3, No. 5, and No. 6 at the last three races and has just one round to show for it. This bike can also do some damage during the Countdown but needs to find a way to start winning the round one battles.
Big St. Charles Suzuki
Teammate Jerry Savoie wasn’t the only rider with a quick Suzuki in Indy. She was also quicker than most of the V-twin bikes .It will be interesting to see if that momentum carries to Reading, but she’s won here before. AS the No. 6 seed in the Countdown, she absolutely can put some pressure on the lead bikes with just a bit of luck.