Countdown time: Now it gets serious
Tricky Tipster went two-for-five at Indy when we correctly picked Steve Torrence and Erica Enders to win in Top Fuel and Pro Stock, respectively. Now, it’s time for the start of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs which means there’s little room for error and even the smallest mistake can have dire consequences.
The Camping World NHRA Series tour now heads for the picturesque Maple Grove Raceway for the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil and we’re going to play the hot hand and continue with Torrence and Enders as our favorites. They’re joined by Bob Tasca III, and Matt Smith in Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
FUNNY CAR | PRO STOCK |PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
Easiest pick on the board. There is no reason to go with anyone else and barring something really unforeseen, the Capco team will hold the top spot here for the remainder of the season. They have a chance to make some serious history over the last seven races.
Monster Energy/Flavor Pak
Most people expected the Monster Energy team to qualify No. 1 at Indy and they did just that for the sixth-straight time and eighth time overall this season. They came close, but a second win is still elusive. This team can win and should win but somehow they’ve got to find a way past Torrence.
Indy was tough and not a great way to head into the Countdown so the Matco Tools team went testing early in the week and appeared to address some of their issues. He’s had good success in Reading with four finals in the last eight seasons and back-to-back victories here in 2015-16.
Compared to a couple of other recent events, Indy wasn’t too bad since the Mopar team qualified solidly with a 3.75 and scored a round win on Sunday. Kicking off the Countdown in the No. 4 spot means they could actually emerge from Reading as the point leaders. That might be a lot to ask but they’ll certainly want to keep the leaders in sight.
One thing he is not is a blocker. It’s far more accurate to say this is a legit championship contender and he’d obviously be ranked much higher than No. 8 if he’d just attended more races in the early season. Coming off a solid semifinal finish against a tough Indy field.
This is probably one of the last cars that anyone expected to see miss the field at Indy but with one qualifying session, there was zero room for error. Given another shot, it’s totally reasonable to expect to see a top-half qualifying effort here and at least a couple of win lights on Sunday.
Been an up and down season for the 2020 Rookie of the Year although his driving, particularly on the starting line, is still worth mentioning. He’s likely to grab a couple of hundredths against anyone he races. It's just a matter of whether or not that’s enough to ensure a victory.
The 2013 Reading winner enters the Countdown as the No. 5 seed but he’s won just four rounds since Epping so there is cause for concern. Eventually, the breaks are going to have to start to favor Team Kalitta and this would be the best possible place for that to start.
Bob Tasca III
Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford
A bit of a hunch here but he is the 2009 Reading champ and this car has been very quick in qualifying lately. The Funny Car points battle is exceptionally tight and is almost certain to come down to the last race of the season and there’s no reason to think this car won’t be in the fight until the end.
Blue Def Chevy
So, this will be the event where the 16-time champion finally participates in his 2,000th round of NHRA Funny Car racing since he’s currently sitting on 1,999. No one else is close. Naturally, the Force team wants more including their third win of the season. He’s got seven wins here and an amazing 15 final rounds so this track has been good to him.
Came oh-so-close to his first U.S. Nationals victory last week but Tim Wilkerson had other ideas. Regardless, the NAPA car looked really good at Indy and we like their chances of a deep run into the Countdown. Obviously, a win or even a final round here would go a long way towards making that happen.
Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang
He didn’t just win Indy, he made a great run in the final round in a lane that no one else wanted. That victory wasn’t just popular with the fans, it may have also set the tone for a long-overdue run to a championship. That’s a lot to ask but this is also a car that no one wants to race right now.
Auto Club Chevy
Leaving Sonoma, he was No. 3 in the standings and has since dropped to No. 6 because that’s just how competitive things are right now at the top of the Funny Car standings. That means there is work to be done in order to secure another championship. He last won in Reading in 2011.
He’s got two wins in four finals here dating back to his first win in 1992. More recently, the Snap-on car has been running well and he’s coming off a strong semifinal finish at Indy. As the No. 8 seed, he’s going to need to make up some points in a hurry or risk falling out of contention.
Everyone is still talking about the world-class pedal job he did at Indy and the quick thinking that allowed him to stage with a broken clutch in round two. Then again, we’ve always known that he’s a naturally gifted Funny Car driver. The DHL car has been a touch inconsistent lately but that’s no reason to count them out.
Tommy Johnson Jr.
Once again, he’ll be pinch-hitting for reigning world champ Matt Hagan, who continues his recovery from Covid. Johnson is about as good as it gets when it comes to substitute drivers and it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see him in the final round here on Sunday.
Did she have the best car at Indy? Nope. Was she the best driver on Sunday? Almost certainly. The lesson here is that the best car doesn’t always win, especially in Pro Stock. And that’s not to suggest that the Melling Camaro is slow. To the contrary, it’s actually qualified third or better at the last five races.
The single qualifying session at Indy wasn’t much help to the points leader who stumbled a bit and wound up No. 7. No worries, he still managed a semifinal finish and came into the Countdown as the leader although his once-massive lead has been trimmed to next to nothing. Now, the real work begins.
Lucas Oil/Nitro Fish Camaro
Quite honestly, he was the favorite going into the Indy final and he didn’t do a bad job at all. It’s just that Enders was slightly better. Welcome to Pro Stock. Tipster still believes he’s going to win a race before the end of the season and this one happens to be a home game.
RAD Torque Systems Camaro
Isn’t it still amazing to think that this is someone who came into 2021 with zero experience driving a Pro Stock car and he’s now got two wins, three finals, and is the fifth-ranked driver in the Countdown to the Championship. We’re also not discounting the possibility that we have a rookie champion this season.
Total Seal Camaro
If not for a red-light in round two, Indy might have been a different story for the Total Seal team. They’ve entered the Countdown as the No. 6 seed and of course, we already know that anyone who is in it can win it. Also noteworthy is that this car hasn’t taken a round one loss since Charlotte and has just two this season.
Janac Bros. Camaro
No Top Dragster or Factory Stock this weekend so he can focus singularly on Pro Stock, where he could use a couple of win lights after losing in the first round at back-to-back events, both of them at the hands of Matt Hartford. A better qualifying performance would go a long way towards getting back on track.
Troy Coughlin Jr.
Progress here has been a bit slow but there is progress nonetheless. He’s managed to pick up two spots in the Camping World standings over the past two races and he’s qualified No. 1 and No. 2 in his last two starts. He also won back-to-back Top Alcohol Dragster titles at this race in 2018-19 so it’s safe to say he likes Maple Grove Raceway.
Harlow Sammons Camaro
With Jason Line, Bo Butner or Vincent Nobile not entered this weekend he’s the most recent Reading champion in the field and that came back in 2015. He’s managed to win a round at the last three races but will obviously need a bit more in order to move up in the standings from his current No. 10 seed.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
It was a bit tempting to move him out of the top spot this week after a really rough outing at Indy but that’s hard to do after a regular season that has produced four wins and a strong 23-5 record on race day. This is still (arguably) the best bike in the class and we’re going to stay the course until someone proves otherwise.
Vance & Hines Buell
Coming off the high of a third U.S. Nationals win and he’s not headed to Reading where he’s won five times since 2009. The Indy win was also huge since he moved from No. 8 to No. 4 in the points and can now put some serious heat on the leaders.
Another rider who struggled at Indy but probably should not have. After all, he was the No. 2 qualifier. As the second-ranked rider in the Countdown, this is the best chance he’s ever had to win a world title. There’s going to be a lot of pressure from this point forward but after 30-plus years in the class, you’d expect him to handle it well.
Vance & Hines Buell
Well now, he’s really got his work cut out for him if he’s to win a seventh championship. At the start of the season, no one expected a Vance & Hines bike to be No. 10 in the points but he’s by no means out of it. It just means there is little margin for error so anything less than a semifinal finish this week would be tough to swallow.
Vance & Hines/Mission Foods Suzuki
No matter what else she does in her career, there will always be a soft spot for Maple Grove Raceway, where she won her first event in 1996. She has six wins here in her career to go along with four runner-up finishes. That’s pretty impressive.
Much like his teammate, Matt Smith, Indy was a forgettable race but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a solid bike and rider combo that has often shown the ability to get the job done. He’s been a bit off lately but everyone comes into the Countdown with a fresh attitude so we’re going to expect better going forward.
Reed Motorsports Suzuki
Almost missed the Countdown but turned in a strong performance to reach the semifinals at Indy and move to No. 7. We keep waiting for his breakthrough performance and it's going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.
Big St. Charles Suzuki
Admittedly, the last two races have been tough for the Big St. Charles team but they’re returning to a track where they’ve won before and this is the same bike that was nearly unstoppable a few weeks ago when they won in Sonoma. This would be an excellent time for a rebound performance.