It’s been two years since the sounds of nitro-burning engines resonated through the Rocky Mountains surrounding picturesque Bandimere Speedway and to suggest that Denver fans are eager for the return of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series would be a large understatement.
The traditional kick-off to the annual NHRA Wester Swing, the Mile-High Nationals, was not contested in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year’s event will return better than ever with a pair of nighttime qualifying runs on Friday and Saturday for competitors in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock Motorcycle, Pro Mod, and the Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown.
With just six races remaining before the Countdown to the Championship begins, there is a sense of urgency building, especially among those not currently ranked in the Top 10, as well as those pursuing the top spots in each class.
One driver who doesn’t have to do much in the way of counting points is reigning and three-time Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence, who holds a massive lead in the Top Fuel standings. Torrence has been to the final in five of the first seven races, and he’s driven his Capco Contractors dragster to four wins, which have provided a healthy 215-point cushion over second-place Antron Brown.
Torrence, who also happens to be the winner of the most recent Denver event in 2019, is in no danger of coughing up the points lead, but when it comes to chasing history, whether it’s a sweep of the Western Swing, or a second record for event wins or round-wins, it’s important for him to keep rolling.
Brown won in Denver in 2017, and he’s off to a great start this season after struggling in 2019-20. The Matco Tools racer is also on the shortlist of people who have swept all three Western Swing races, so he understands what it takes to perform at a high level over the grueling three-week marathon.
Following Torrence and Brown are Billy Torrence, Brittany Force, Shawn Langdon, Justin Ashley, Doug Kalitta, Leah Pruett, Mike Salinas, and Josh Hart. Interestingly enough, Billy Torrence, Ashley, and Hart are not entered this weekend, which gives the drivers behind them ample opportunity to move up in the standings. That is particularly good news for Clay Millican, who comes to Denver as the 11th-ranked Top Fuel driver after missing the Norwalk event due to a medical condition.
Another who bears watching this weekend is Pruett, who won the 2018 Mile-High Nationals and was a runner-up in 2017. Pruett has struggled at times this season, but lately, there have been signs of a turnaround. There would be no better place for the Dodge-backed driver to land her first win of the season than the Dodge//SRT Mile-High Nationals.
In Funny Car, it takes a bit more effort to decipher the standings with just 137 points separating the top five drivers in the class, who are Bob Tasca III, John Force, J.R. Todd, Robert Hight, and Ron Capps. It wouldn’t be a bit surprise to see any one of those drivers emerge from the Swing as the championship leader should they put together a dominating performance.
Tasca’s Motorcraft Quick Lane Mustang has been the dominant Funny Car for the first half of the season, and he was a runner-up here to Tommy Johnson Jr. two years ago. Tasca is just 53 points ahead of Force, who has eight Denver victories, making it one of his most successful tracks.
Of the Funny Car drivers entered this week, only Force, Hight, Capps, Cruz Pedregon, and Tim Wilkerson have previously won in Denver, which has a well-earned reputation for being one of the most challenging tracks on the NHRA Camping World tour due to the track’s 5,800-foot elevation.
Norwalk winner Pedregon is also enjoying a resurgence thanks to the addition of crew chief John Collins, who guided Johnson to the Denver win two years ago. Pedregon won on “Thunder Mountain” in 1993 and again in 2013 and a third title would not be out of the question.
Finally, it must be noted that after sweeping the 2020 season and recording 14 consecutive wins in Funny Car, DSR drivers Capps and Hagan are still searching for their first wins of 2020. Capps won here in 2009 and was a finalist in 2018, and Hagan drove his Dodge//SRT Charger to a runner-up at this track in 2011.
The Pro Stock Motorcycle class is always interesting to watch in Denver because the thin mountain air presents a unique challenge when applied to small displacement of two- and four-cylinder engines. Historically, there has been no one better at solving the mystery of Denver than the Vance & Hines team, which currently features riders Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec, and Angelle Sampey. That trio has not only combined for 13 world championships but also 11 wins in Denver, including five of the last six.
For all their success in Denver, the Vance & Hines team might not be the favorites this weekend. Reigning world champion Matt Smith remains the points leader in the class, and he’s coming off a dynamic victory at the most recent event in Norwalk. Smith is also a past Denver champ, winning here on back-to-back years in 2007-08.
Norwalk runner-up Steve Johnson has also been particularly impressive on his MacRak Suzuki. Johnson’s bike has been solidly in the 6.7s at sea level, and he picked up a win in Charlotte, his first win in more than seven years. Johnson began racing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class in 1987, five years before the eliminator made its first appearance in Denver.
The only other rider in this year’s field who has previously won in Denver is Karen Stoffer, who made her debut here along with Sampey in 1996.
You can catch the action all weekend on FOX Sports 1 and NHRA.tv.
You can follow NHRA on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get a closer look at the action.
Saturday, July 17, FS1 will televise qualifying coverage from 2 to 3:30 p.m. (ET)
Sunday, June 18, FS1 will televise qualifying coverage from 3 to 4 p.m. (ET)
Sunday, June 18, FS1 will televise final eliminations from 4 to 7 p.m. (ET)