A lot has changed since NHRA last visited palatial zMax Dragway nearly six months ago. Approaching the halfway point in the Countdown to the Championship, it’s approaching now or never time for many racers who desire to wear the title of NHRA Mello Yello champion. Those who figure to have the best shot include reigning champ Steve Torrence, Robert Hight, Erica Enders, Jerry Savoie, and Steve Jackson
Should it be a cause for concern that a guy who could hardly lose a round at mid-season has not won a race since Denver? Tipster certainly does not think so. There have been many challenges, but it's still hard to argue that this isn’t the best car in the Top Fuel class. It might also be worth noting that he’s won four of the last five races held at zMax Dragway. No matter the format, he loves racing here.
The one zMax race that Torrence hasn’t won went to this guy, who earned a win here in 2017. He comes into the event as the points leader so this will be a crucial test for the Mac Tools team. They qualified in the bottom half of the field in St. Louis which does not happen often. A few bonus points in qualifying and (at least) a semifinal finish would be huge for this championship aspirations.
Currently ninth in the standings, he’s not really in the points battle but he might just have a say in who wins the title before this is all said and done. Also, it's worth noting that he’s been to 12 races this year and has appeared in five final rounds with three wins and he’s got a very strong 24-9 record in elimination rounds. In short, he’s not someone you’d want to face in eliminations.
Talk about a much needed “get healthy” weekend. He qualified No. 1 and reached the semifinals in St. Louis which puts the Scrappers car right back in the hunt for the Top Fuel championship. This car has also been in the 3.6s at four of the last five races and given the weather forecast for Charlotte this weekend, it's a safe assumption that streak will continue.
After a tough loss in Reading, she bounced back quickly with a welcomed semifinal showing in St. Louis. Currently No. 5 in the standings, it’s time to do some scoreboard watching. It’s a lofty goal, but outlasting Torrence, Kalitta, Salinas, and Brittany Force should be this weekend’s main priority. To do that, she’d almost certainly have to win the race.
Advance Auto Parts/Carquest
The Advance team needs to make up 48-points to take over the top spot following their tough-luck loss in St. Louis. That’s not an insurmountable number, especially with four races left but they cannot afford another early loss. There’s a good chance that this team will earn a few qualifying points which is huge at this point in the season but what they could use is a victory.
The euphoria of his Reading win was short-lived when he arrived in St. Louis and had to face teammate Doug Kalitta in round one. Despite the early loss, the damage could have been worse. As it stands, the DHL team is tied for sixth place and they are 71-points out of the lead. With four races left, that’s not a bad spot but they cannot afford to fall farther behind. A semifinal finish or better would provide a huge boost to their title aspirations.
Montana Brands/Rocky Mountain Twist
Technically, he’s still in the running for the Mello Yello championship but let’s be honest, it would take an epic run to move from eighth to first win four races remaining. Regardless, this has recently become a consistent 3.6-second car when conditions are right and there is no reason to doubt that a second (or even a third) victory could be right around the corner. He’s certainly not going to get left on very often.
Auto Club Chevy
The Funny Car class is so scrambled right now that it’s almost impossible to pick a clear-cut favorite. As often noted, there are a dozen cars that could win any given event. When that happens, Tipster tends to look towards those who have delivered results in the past and this season, no one has delivered like the Auto Club team. Hard to imagine they don’t bag one or two more wins before the end of the season.
Global Electronic Technologies Toyota
From eighth to second is an ambitious bump for the Global team but after a clutch performance in St. Louis, and their win here earlier this year at the Four-Wide race, one could easily argue that they’ve earned it. More than half of their 22 round wins this season have come since Epping so it's more than fair to say these guys are better now than when the season began in February.
After nearly 800 races in a Funny Car, you’d have to think there is nothing that John Force hasn’t seen or done. He’s also the last guy you’d expect to get rattled by a close, down-to-the-wire points battle. Oh, and if you want to know just how much more competitive he is this year, consider that he’s already got 36 round wins. Last year, he had 25 for the entire season. Yes, he’s a leading contender for the title.
He didn’t win this race last year, but a runner-up finish to Ron Capps was an essential component to his championship drive. Since Indy, he’s had two semifinals and a runner-up and that has been more than enough to keep him in the running for a second championship. Fifth place is not a great spot to be in, but he’s only 53-points back which could easily be made up in one or two races. Don’t be surprised to see the DHL team on top of the leader board by the time we get to Las Vegas.
A year ago, he came here after a pair of Countdown killing round one losses and destroyed the field. The NAPA team could use a repeat of 2019 to stay in the hunt for another championship. Honestly, there aren’t any real issues here that a little good luck wouldn’t cure.
Infinite Hero Dodge
At times it seems like the points lead in Funny Car is like a hot potato; no one wants to hold on to it for very long. The Infinite Hero team slipped from first to third following their round one loss in St. Louis. The good news is that they hadn’t been ranked in the top three since the Las Vegas race this spring so they are still better off than they were before the Countdown started. At this point, pretty much everyone in the top ten is begging for a semifinal or a final round to stay in the running and that certainly applies to this crew.
Bob Tasca III
Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford
Guess who’s back and just in time. Just when it was beginning to look like the Motorcraft team had started to fall out of the Championship picture, a timely semifinal may have saved their season. They’ve also qualified No. 2 and No. 3 at the last two events, which is a big bonus in terms of qualifying points and Sunday lane choice.
Tommy Johnson Jr.
Three-straight round one losses (all of them to Kalitta cars) have pretty much ended the Championship hopes for the Make-A-Wish team. That being said, they aren’t mathematically out of the running and with four races remaining they can certainly do some damage. In that case, it would be fair to classify this as a “must-win” event.
That big sigh of relief you heard last week came from the Elite camp after their two-time champ finally won a Pro Stock race for the first time in a year. Now the big question, and this is a big one, can she keep the momentum going and win a third championship. The 2019 season has been a year of hot streaks for the leading contenders in Pro Stock but the Elite Camaro seems to have a slight edge over the rest of the field in almost every department.
Summit Racing Equipment Camaro
This much is almost certain; The Summit Camaro (in fact both of them) will qualify solidly in the Charlotte field. They always do. After that, it’s going to be interesting to see what race day brings. On his best days, Line is as good as anyone in the class. There are also occasional lapses that could be costly at this time of the season. The one ace in the holes is zMax Dragway which has historically been very good to the Summit crew.
Butner Auto Camaro
After coughing up the points lead in Reading, a semifinal showing in St. Louis was a very welcomed result, and he almost made it to the final. This car/driver combination is every bit as dangerous now as it was at the start of the season. A final round here would do wonders for their hopes of a second title.
Total Seal Camaro
News flash for Pro Stock teams: This guy isn’t going anywhere when it comes to the championship. He’s been fairly solid all season and even though he didn’t win in St. Louis, he certainly threw a scare into the Elite flagship with a .003 light in the final round against Enders. If he continues to drive like that and his car holds up, amazing things are possible.
Jeg Coughlin Jr.
After qualifying No. 2, he was all set-up for a long day on Sunday but a rare holeshot loss cut it short. That rarely happens to the five-time champ and it’s not likely to be repeated anytime soon. He’s about due to dole out some of that punishment to the rest of the field. Now that Enders is on the score sheet, the yellow (now pink) JEGS car is what we’d call: overdue.
Summit Racing Equipment Camaro
He’s got three wins here at zMax Dragway but the last one came in 2012. Since then, he’s been to four final rounds and been a runner-up each time. At this point, we’re not so sure he wouldn’t settle for a runner-up finish but if he wants to get back in the points battle, it is almost certainly going to require a victory. Consider this, in 466 Pro Stock races, he’s been to the semifinals or better 233 times. That’s a .500 average which is Hall of Fame worthy.
He seems to have cooled quite a bit since his big win at The Big Go but it’s not too late for a rally that gets him back in championship contention. One area of concern; he’s qualified ninth in two of the last four races. That is not a recipe for success when you know that a possible round two match against the low qualifier awaits. A better qualifying effort will go a long way towards an extended stay on Sunday.
Harlow Sammons Camaro
Speaking of qualifying, he’s struggled to make the top half of the field ever since Denver but sometimes, he finds a way to win rounds regardless. That happened in St. Louis where the No. 12 spot returned a semifinal finish on Sunday. The championship is pretty much out of reach, but his ability to crush someone else’s Countdown dreams makes this worth watching.
White Alligator Suzuki
After Reading, we wanted to see if the performance of the Suzuki bikes was a fluke. It wasn’t. It appears that the four-cylinder bikes are going to be around a bit longer and this is often the best of the best. His round one loss in St. Louis was costly, but it’s nothing that could not be cured by a final-round showing here.
You’re in the middle of a tense championship battle and racing at your home track so what do you? Why not enter your first race in Super Comp. Hey, the whole pro/sportsman thing works for Langdon and Butner, so why not give it a try. Having never raced in a Sportsman class, it’s also worth pointing out that his best odds for a win still lie with his Denso EBR motorcycle.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
How anyone could think this sport is predictable is a mystery that Tipster has been unable to solve. For the first nine races of the season, this bike was unstoppable. Today, not so much but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for a big comeback. At any given time, the Vance & Hines bikes can dominate so it would be unwise to count them out.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
Twelve races in and zero wins. That’s hard to figure out but it is what it is and they Vance & Hines team has just got to roll with it until they figure a few things out. Not fair to say that he’s out of the running for a fourth championship but fair to say that the clock is ticking.
Big St. Charles Suzuki
Coming off a huge victory in St. Louis there is a lot of momentum for the Suzuki bikes right now and there is a legit belief that after 20-plus years in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, she could win the Mello Yello championship. Another final round here would be a huge deal and there's no reason to think it can’t happen.
Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil EBR
He won this race way back in 2013 and desperately needs to win again this time to keep pace in the championship battle. To be fair, this bike should be able to win anywhere, but it’s been a tough summer for the Lucas Oil crew. Given the weather forecast, we might just see another 200-mph run, though.
Johnson Racing Suzuki
Okay, so we’ve answered that question. His performance in Reading was not a fluke. He came right back in St. Louis and enjoyed another great qualifying effort and stuck around for a while on Sunday afternoon. Lately, this bike has been quick enough to win a race and with no points to worry about, he should have less pressure than many of the Countdown contenders, in theory anyway.
Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson
Red-lights in four of the last seven races have crippled what could have been an amazing comeback season for the three-time world champ. As frustrating as it is, there is still time to put together a nice run to end the season. She’s got one of the quickest bikes in the field so why not let it do most of the work?
Bahrain 1 Camaro
Technically, he doesn’t have the championship wrapped up yet but it’s almost a given. Of course, he’s not the kind of guy who wants to back into a title. He wants to clinch it with a final-round win and given his performance this year, there isn’t any reason to think that’s not possible?
Bahrain 1 Camaro
Does anyone still want to argue the merits of the nitrous combination in Pro Mod? He didn’t just win in St. Louis, he did it with a dominant performance. A recent parity adjustment made Tipster thing twice about giving him top billing, but does anyone think “Tricky Ricky” won’t show up at his home race in Charlotte without a competitive car? Not likely. Not likely at all.
Al-Anabi Performance Camaro
Backed up his impressive Indy win with another solid semifinal showing in St. Louis. Looking back at the entire 2019 season, he’s made a remarkable comeback from a brush with the retaining wall at the season-opener in Gainesville and there’s every chance he’ll pick up career win No. 12 before the season ends.
We already know that he’s got the power to run with anyone in the class but at the most recent event in St. Louis, his reaction times were even more impressive. He left on Jackson by two-hundredths in the semifinals and missed the win by just a thousandth of a second in one of the closest races of the year in the E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod class.
AAP/Janis Superchargers Camaro
The good news is that he was in the 5.7s in St. Louis during qualifying. The bad news is that a 5.79 was only good for the No. 10 spot and he faced an uphill battle that ended with a quarterfinal loss to Jackson on Sunday. The reigning Pro Mod champ has better than a tenth place car and we should see that this weekend. He can’t defend his 2019 championship, but he can certainly win one of the final events of the season.
Bahrain 1 Camaro
The Norwalk winner has been solid in the season half of the season and he’s all but locked up a spot in the top ten. In St. Louis, he had one of the quickest cars in qualifying and then fell off the pace on race day. That doesn’t happen often. As a side note, he was a runner-up at this event in 2014, in Top Fuel.
Another race, another solid outing for the AAP team. He ran a 5.74 to qualify No. 4 in St. Louis and nearly got around Mike Castellana in a close second round battle. If you’re trying to lock down the next first-time winner in the E3 Pro Mod series, this guy should easily be ranked among the favorites and it’s likely to happen sooner rather than later.
The Q80 team sat out the most recent race in St. Louis but that doesn’t figure to affect their competitiveness. This is still one of the quickest cars in Pro Mod and they are returning to zMax Dragway, where they won the four-wide race at the start of the 2019 season. Even as a no-show in St. Louis and a DNQ at Indy, they’re sitting in the top five in the points standings which should give one an idea of how strong this team is.