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Five things we learned at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals

It’s hard to top the reverberations of 11,000-horsepower echoing through the mountains at Bristol Dragway and it was music to everyone’s ears to have it back at last weekend’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.
18 Oct 2021
Josh Hachat
Feature
Bristol

It’s hard to top the reverberations of 11,000-horsepower echoing through the mountains at Bristol Dragway and it was music to everyone’s ears to have it back at last weekend’s NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.

Thunder Valley lived up to its name as usual, with fans taking in another stellar weekend of racing at Bristol. It was the first time the race was ever held in October and that brought out its own set of splendid surprises and with only two races left before the 2021 season comes to an end, there was plenty on the line in Bristol.

Here’s five things we learned from NHRA’s return to Thunder Valley:

FUNNY CAR COULD BE DECIDED BY A SINGLE POINT - LITERALLY

We knew Funny Car was close this season, but it literally cannot be any closer right now and that may be what we get to enjoy for the next two races as well.

Matt Hagan entered with the points lead, but lost it with a first round loss to the hard-charging J.R. Todd — and then nearly regained it when Ron Capps crossed the center line in the semifinals. Being that it was only his first miscue of the year, Capps was only docked five points, putting him a mere single point ahead of his teammate heading to Las Vegas.

It’s a wonderful nod to the terrific racing and intense competition the class has showcased all season and, on that note, it seems like Funny Car is going to end with a bang.

Todd gave himself a shot to win, too, closing the gap to 83 points with his final round appearance. He wanted the win, but that went to Alexis DeJoria, who became the 10th different winner in Funny Car this season. Todd will need at least one victory to get a second world title, and these next two races will undoubtedly be interesting.

MIKE SALINAS LIKES BRISTOL - LIKE REALLY, REALLY LIKES BRISTOL

There’s liking racing at a track — and everyone has their personal favorites — and then there’s what Mike Salinas is planning on doing.

Moments after winning for the second straight time in Bristol, and advancing to a third straight final at Thunder Valley, Salinas revealed he likes the area so much he’s spending this week looking at lake houses in the area. While some chuckled and thought he was joking, Salinas quickly let everyone know he was serious. The Bristol area will soon become the Salinas’ home away from home, a nod to the beautiful facility, the wonderful racing fans in the area, and, of course, Salinas’ impressive success on the track. That can’t be overlooked, either, especially considering he took out Antron Brown, Brittany Force and Steve Torrence on Sunday. Salinas has made some big changes to his starting-line procedures and that was evident during eliminations as well. What was once a troublesome area has become much improved, making the Scrappers Racing driver an even bigger threat in Top Fuel.

He may soon have a vacation home in the hills of Tennessee to enjoy his spoils as well.

BRISTOL IN THE FALL IS PRETTY DARN GREAT

We already knew Thunder Valley has picturesque settings on lock.

But throw in perfect temperatures, playoff intensity and the chance to obliterate track records and Bristol Dragway may have become even better in the fall.

Yes, the stop at the spectacular facility will be back in its traditional Father’s Day weekend slot next year — and we can’t wait for that — but there was something uniquely exciting about Thunder Valley hosting a race in the Countdown to the Championship for the first time ever.

Once everyone got acclimated to the surreal racing conditions on Saturday and Sunday, we saw teams throw down time and time again, as track records were set nearly across the board, including a massive runs of 3.667 from Torrence and 334.48 mph from Justin Ashley in Top Fuel, and a trio of passes in the 6.70s from Karen Stoffer and Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

ANGELLE SAMPEY MAY BE CRASHING THE PARTY

After Dallas, it looked like the Pro Stock Motorcycle championship battle was going to come down to Matt Smith and Steve Johnson. Smith even referenced it after winning, noting the expected duel that was coming.

It then looked like Smith had a chance to possibly run away with things after he qualified well in Bristol and Johnson had troubles, losing in the first round. He easily dispatched Kelly Clontz and then faced Stoffer in the semifinals when she unexpectedly unleashed a massively 6.785 to go to the finals. Meanwhile, Sampey was dispatching two of her teammates to reach the final and despite an up and down weekend, she left first on Stoffer and turned in a 6.773 to win her second race of the Countdown to the Championship.

It’s been a roller-coaster season for Sampey, but she’s shown up in the big moments and has been really good under pressure, closing to 25 points of Smith heading to Las Vegas.

ANOTHER NOD TO MORE PRO MOD PARITY

The last four NHRA Pro Mod races have seen all four power adders wins and three of the past four races have been by first-time winners. If that doesn’t showcase that parity is alive and well in the class — and on a strong upward swing — then nothing likely will.

Following in the footsteps of Jeffery Barker’s nitrous win in Indy and Lyle Barnett’s turbo victory at Texas Motorplex, J.R. Gray grabbed the Wally for the first time ever in the class in Bristol. He also did from the last qualifying position, doling out a pair of 5.699 runs in his blown Camaro in eliminations to grab the win.

A tip of the cap goes out to Jose Gonzalez, too, as he finished off a dominant year in his ProCharger-powered Camaro with a championship. Clinching the title an entire race before the final event is a big deal and Gonzalez did just that, winning half of the 10 races so far this season, with four of them coming after his crash in Charlotte.