Well, it’s here. After a year away due to the pandemic, we’ve officially reached crunch time and the return of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. It’s where champions are made, legacies are built and historic runs are made, and it all gets started at Maple Grove Raceway this weekend for the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil.
For the stars in the nitro classes, it’s the first of seven playoff races, one more than has been the norm every other year in the Countdown to the Championship. It’s a chance to extend greatness or make things even more wild and intense — which appears to be the likely story in Funny Car — and it all gets started in Reading.
It’s a fan-favorite track, a facility with plenty of history and with the weather looking stellar — and that’s saying something for often rainy Reading in the fall — everyone could be in for a treat this weekend. Add in it’s the first race at the historic track since 2019 and everyone will be chomping at the bit to put on a show and start the playoffs on the perfect note.
Remarkably, not one winning driver from the 2019 race in the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series is in the Countdown this year, and only Jerry Savoie in Pro Stock Motorcycle is racing this year. That really puts things up for grabs, though no matter where he goes these days, Steve Torrence is the prohibitive favorite in Top Fuel.
After a minor blip in his run of dominance this year — at least for him — Torrence bounced back from a first-round loss in Pomona and a semifinal defeat in Topeka with back-to-back wins in Brainerd and Indy. Nobody is hotter in the sport than Torrence, who is after his fourth straight world title, but with the points reset he’s only 20 ahead of Brittany Force, who is a No. 1 qualifying machine and has come on strong lately on raceday.
Getting ahead of Torrence in Reading might be pivotal for a championship push, which is exactly what the likes of Force, Antron Brown, who is the only active driver in Top Fuel with more than one win at Maple Grove Raceway, Leah Pruett, Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican, Mike Salinas, Justin Ashley, Doug Kalitta and Billy Torrence hope to do this weekend.
Tim Wilkerson became the eighth different driver to win in Funny Car with his heartwarming Indy triumph, but this is a class log jammed with talent. In fact, the points reset that comes with the Countdown to the Championship actually gave John Force, who is currently second in points, a bigger cushion than what he previously had over Bob Tasca III. The same went for Tasca and his advantage over J.R. Todd, which sums up Funny Car’s incredible year of tight racing.
Ron Capps starts the playoffs at the top, something he’s done twice, and he’s ended at the top once (2016). The points lead has changed hands in each of the last five races in the class, which means Capps, who set the track records at Maple Grove Raceway in 2019 will have his work cut out for him to keep it after this weekend. Tommy Johnson Jr., a two-time winner at the race, is also filling in for Matt Hagan, who is still recovering from COVID-19, for the second straight race and he’ll look to make a better showing after only get one crack at qualifying at Indy thanks to rain.
In Pro Stock, Greg Anderson is trying to regain the early-season form that led to his huge points lead. It’s dwindled to 20 points over Erica Enders to open the Countdown to the Championship and the storyline is clear as Anderson and Enders are set to duke it out with both trying to claim a fifth world championship. Enders is feeling good after her second straight Indy win, while Anderson is trying to get his first victory since May 2.
There’s the traditional six races in the Countdown to the Championship for both Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, putting a little more urgency on this weekend and there’s a number of young guns prepping for their first time in the playoffs. That’s a list that includes rookie Dallas Glenn, who has two wins this year, Kyle Koretsky, who has back-to-back final round appearances at the last two races, Aaron Stanfield, a three-time winner this year, Mason McGaha and Troy Coughlin Jr. Can any of them shrug off the pressure and start quickly in the playoffs?
Matt Smith is determined to show Indy was a brief hiccup in Pro Stock Motorcycle and he’s always performed well at Maple Grove Raceway. He suffered his only first-round loss of the regular season at the U.S. Nationals and Smith will look to make amends on a weekend that could very well yield record times in the class.
Eddie Krawiec, who has been a speed monster all season, would like to get in on that action, especially coming off his Indy victory. That means things are rounding into form and we could see the latest chapter in the ongoing rivalry between Matt Smith Racing, a group that also features Scotty Pollacheck and Angie Smith, and Vance & Hines, which includes Angelle Sampey and Andrew Hines.
The Top Fuel Harley Series will also be in action this weekend.
You can follow NHRA on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get a closer look at the action.
NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature one round at 4:45 p.m. ET on Friday, Sept. 10, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 11 at 12:15 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations start Sunday, Sept. 12 at 11 a.m.
Qualifying: Sunday, Sept. 12, 12-2 p.m. Eastern, FS1
Eliminations: Sunday, Sept. 12, 2-5:30 p.m., Eastern, FOX