It’s hard to put into words all that’s happened since last March when we were all anticipating the initial running of the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals. We made it through a trying 2020 season and optimism is the keyword as we return to Gainesville for the start of the Camping World NHRA Drag Racing season. Among the things that did not change last season was the success of several NHRA pros including world champions Steve Torrence, Matt Hagan, Erica Enders, Matt Smith, and Steve Jackson. They will each begin the season as the top picks as Tricky Tipster, NHRA’s in-house oddsmaker, begins
Four-straight championships are an extremely rare feat in any sport, especially NHRA drag racing but the Capco team has a chance to do just that. Last season, Torrence skipped the first race of what ultimately amounted to a shortened season yet still won the title with air to spare. This is the best team in Top Fuel and will remain atop our leaderboard until someone says otherwise. Oh, and he also won here last September.
Last year, the Mac Tools team went to four finals in 11 races and cashed for two wins including the season-opener in Pomona. They are certainly capable of all that and more as the new season begins. Currently sitting on 49 career wins, there would be no better place than Gainesville for one of Top Fuel’s all-time greats to hit the half-century mark.
She was good last season and figures to be even better this time around. Interestingly enough, the Dodge dragster was one of the only pro cars that did not register a round one loss during last year’s 11-race abbreviated season. That sort of consistency is almost unheard of in this day and age but it’s a great way to contend for a championship. Expect big things from the Dodge team this season.
There were a lot of drivers happy to see the 2020 season come to a close, but the three-time world champion wasn’t one of them especially after he snapped his long winless drought with a victory at the season-ending Dodge NHRA Finals in Las Vegas. Now that the slump is over and the Matco team appears to have found their footing, they can pursue a fourth world title. Watch for them to keep the pressure on Torrence all season long.
While son, Steve gets the lion’s share of the attention and rightfully so, let’s not look past the fact that the second Capco entry is also pretty darned competitive. Last year, Billy entered ten events and went to three finals with a win at the first Indy race in the summer. They finished 20-9 in elimination rounds. They’re also celebrating the return of valued crewmember Dom Lagana, which provides all the inspiration they’ll ever need.
We’d be tempted to give her a bump in the initial Tipster standings especially after she sizzled in testing with a 3.67 and a 3.69 in Gainesville, but there’s no telling what effects a year-long layoff might have on both driver and crew. That being said, the Monster team should have no trouble contending for race wins and a second Camping World championship this season.
His rookie season was indeed impressive with a win, a Top 10 finish, and the NHRA Rookie of the Year award but from this point forward, the road is only going to get tougher. Then again, a lot has happened with this team during the off-season including the addition of veteran Mike Green as crew chief. Perhaps there is a slight adjustment period, but it shouldn’t take too long.
When you win the U.S. Nationals, it's hard to say you had a disappointing season no matter what else happened, but that’s where we are with the DHL team. They won 10 rounds in 11 events and four of them came at Indy. They are better than this and they know it.
He had the best Funny Car in the 2020 season and was rewarded with another Camping World NHRA championship and much like Top Fuel champ Torrence, the top spot is his until someone wrestles it away from him. Good luck with that. There isn’t likely to be any drop off in the level of competition in Funny Car, but that shouldn’t matter to a guy who normally brings his A-game.
It’s going to take a while to get used to seeing someone other than Rahn Tobler pulling the NAPA car into the stage beams but the team is in good hands with new tuners Dean Antonelli and John Medlen. Yes, there might be a few hiccups while everyone gets settled, but there is zero long-term cause for concern. Let’s also take a moment to talk about his Gainesville win last year, which came with a fair amount of drama and style points for his top-end slide job.
Auto Club Chevy
Welcome back champ. It’s been a while since we’ve seen the three-time Funny Car champion (or any of his JFR teammates) but they don’t appear to have skipped a beat, especially after their performance during the recent test session in South Florida. Anyone who doesn’t think a Jimmy Prock-led team won’t pick up right where they left off is delusional. In other words, DSR won’t sweep the 2021 season.
Blue Def Chevy
John Force was MIA for almost a year but the 17-time champ was hardly idle. He spent the downtime eating healthy and working out and he looks fit and trim as he resumes his amazing career. Can he still win races? We don’t think there’s any reason to think he can’t and won’t. A little early season rust? Perhaps, but he’ll get results at some point this season.
Much like Top Fuel teammate Shawn Langdon, the 2020 season was not at all what the DHL team expected so you’ve got to figure a new season will bring a welcome sigh of relief and a renewed sense of optimism. He’s won at nine different stops on the NHRA tour but never in Gainesville. This would be a great time to rectify that.
Bob Tasca III
Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford
It’s hard to pull too many positives out of his abbreviated 2020 season other than four semifinal finishes but that’s a small consolation for a team that expects and should contend for the title each season. The Ford flagship had a lot of momentum going during the 2019 season and now they’ve got to find that groove again. Smart money says it comes sooner rather than later.
Nobody in nitro racing made more changes this season than Cruz Pedregon, who has nearly every member of Tommy Johnson’s team on his side this season including tuner John Collins. Everyone is anxious to see the results, including Tricky Tipster. After some initial struggles during the South Florida test, he quickly bounced back with a solid 3.94 during the Tuesday test in Gainesville.
Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford
His 21 national event wins includes the 2010 edition of the Gatornationals, where he defeated Bob Tasca III in the final round. More than a decade later, no one should be surprised if there were a rematch. Also worth noting that he qualified No. 2 and then got to the final round in Gainesville last September before losing a heartbreaker to Ron Capps.
Champ last year. Favorite this year at least for starters. The Elite car ran strong during last weekend’s Doorslammer event in Orlando which should provide plenty of testing data to ensure a smooth transition to the new season. None of her 29 career national event wins have come in Gainesville which seems odd since she tends to win almost everywhere.
Janac Bros. Camaro
The reigning Factory Stock champ and Division 4 Top Dragster champ ended 2020 as one of the hottest drivers in the sport including his maiden Pro Stock win in Houston. There’s no reason to think he can’t carry that momentum into the new season and contend for the championship in a third class. Quickly becoming a world-class driver, he is going to hurt some feelings this season.
KB Racing Camaro
The four-time champ is looking to get back in the win column after a couple of lean years. He’s got a great car under him, especially after running 6.49 last week in Orlando. Gainesville has also been very good to him with four wins between 2004 and 2016. There is room for another trophy here.
Total Seal Camaro
Just a hunch here but the Total Seal team usually has their act together, even after a long off season so we’re going to assume he arrives in Gainesville with a solid shot at the title. Last year, he qualified No. 3 at this event which is also a cause for rising optimism.
Troy Coughlin Jr.
His Pro Stock debut in 2020 was everything you’d expect it to be and then some with some solid performance including a runner-up against his uncle, Jeg at Indy. There were a few speedbumps, which is to be expected, but he’s got a long and prosperous career ahead of him and its hard to imagine he won’t win a race or two this season.
Fernando Cuadra Jr.
Corral Boots Mustang
He won the big Pro Stock shindig last weekend in Orlando and it wasn’t exactly a fluke with several solid runs in the low 6.5s and some steady driving. With the absence of Jason Line, Bo Butner, and Jeg Coughlin, there will be room for some new winners in Pro Stock this season and the Cuadra family might just step up to fill that role.
Nitro Fish Camaro
For someone who’d never driven a Pro Stock car before last season, he did amazingly well and even made it to a final round in his rookie season. There is a whole new generation of good young Pro Stock drivers coming up and he’s one of them. Pencil him in for at least one win this season and don’t be surprised if it happens at the season opener.
Rad Torque Systems Camaro
Apparently, the longtime KB Racing crewmember can also drive a Pro Stock car. His lights were exceptional at the Orlando event and he looked like anything other than a rookie. Tipster had a tough choice to make here, and it’s awfully hard to leave Alex Laughlin, Kenny Delco, Deric Kramer, and both McGaha’s off the list, but that’s where we are in one of NHRA’s toughest eliminators.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
There are lots of question marks in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class this season, but the one constant is the performance of the reigning world champ, who really never got outrun at any point last season. He’s getting a bit of a break with no Andrew Hines or Eddie Krawiec to worry about this weekend. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to repeat his September Gainesville win, but it certainly won’t be harder.
He didn’t win the championship last year but he came darn close and with a return to Matt Smith Racing and the backing of Denso, he’ll almost certainly be in a similar position this season. Now that his first win is safely tucked away, there’s not any reason to think he won’t add a few more in the near future.
Reed Racing Suzuki
Gladstone and teammate Cory Reed will debut their new Vance & Hines built Suzuki entries that use the new four-valve engines. Although brand new, the combination was very fast in pre-season testing. Gladstone has long been acknowledged as one of the class’ best riders and he may finally have a horse underneath him that shows his full potential.
The last time she went down the track at an NHRA event, she turned on the win light in the final in Las Vegas to claim her second career win. This is also a very quick bike that ran well in pre-season testing so it’s entirely possible that her Las Vegas victory was far from her last.
White Alligator Suzuki
The 2016 NHRA champion is also scheduled to have four-valve power this weekend which should improve his odds dramatically. He’s got 13 career wins, but none of them have come in Gainesville. This might be the weekend that all changes.
Mission Foods Suzuki
This might be the most interesting pick on the board. She’s back on a Suzuki where she won three championships and it’s not just any Suzuki. This is the Vance & Hines flagship equipped with the latest four-valve technology. In testing earlier this week, she made some of the quickest runs of her career so there is a lot of promise here. The only drawback may be the adjustment period necessary to return to a four-cylinder bike after all these years.
Hector Arana Jr.
Lucas Oil EBR
The 2013 Gatornationals winner didn’t win a race last season but to be fair, he had limited opportunities to do so. Father, Hector Sr., isn’t fully retired but he’s been spending more time as a tuner so that should be beneficial. Given the weather forecast, there is also a good chance that the charter member of the Denso 200 mph Club posts a couple more speeds above the double century mark.
Flyin’ Ryan EBR
He won the season opener last year. Can he do it again? The answer is maybe. Oehler came of age last season with a win in Gainesville, a runner-up in Houston, and a strong No. 7 finish. The problem here is consistency. Admittedly, it’s still a work in progress but we don’t yet know which Ryan Oehler is going to show up.
We’re going to give him the top spot to start the season because he’s the reigning champ and well, because he’s “Stevie Fast” Jackson and he almost always seems to find a way to get the job done. The ProCharger cars appear to have a slight upper hand but there’s little doubt that every other combination on the books can still be competitive.
The former NHRA Pro Mod champ and Top Fuel racer won the Orlando Doorslammer event last week and looked really solid in doing so. In the interest of fair reporting, we’d like to see a little more consistency on the starting line but his car is quick enough to make up for almost any deficiency.
Smith Racing Camaro
Tricky Rickie says he’s going to build a ProCharger car but for now he’s in his old reliable nitrous Camaro and one might remember the last time he ran that car at Gainesville Raceway six months ago, he left with the trophy. Rickie’s talents are well documented and truth be told, it doesn’t matter what his combination is. Give him a shopping cart and he’ll find a way to win with it.
Ran great at the end of last season including a victory in Houston. Once again, there is no reason to think he won’t be able to quickly pick up right where he left off. The entire Bahrain1 team seems to have the upper hand at this point. They certainly have a solid handle on the (relatively) new ProCharger combination.
J&A Service Corvette
Last year was an epic season with a win in Dallas and three more semifinal finishes that led to a second place finish in the point standings. Now racing under the J&A Services banner, we can expect more of the same this season.
Elite HP Mustang
It’s fair to say he might have a better chance of winning in this car than his usual Elite-powered ride in Pro Stock. Then again, it wouldn’t be a total surprise if he somehow won both classes. He’s on a bit of a hot streak after reaching the final of the Orlando Doorslammer event last weekend.
Former Top Sportsman champion easily ranks among the best drivers in the Pro Mod class. He just needs a touch more experience to find his groove. He should also have a very competitive car this season.
Gray Contracting Camaro
He’s making his NHRA debut this weekend and he’s got a very limited amount of experience with quarter-mile Pro Mod racing but he’s also got a reputation as a world-class driver so we’re thinking that his learning curve will be very quick. It helps that he’s also driving a championship-winning car from two seasons ago.