The Countdown to the Championship delivered as advertised last week in Reading with wins by favorites Robert Hight, Erica Enders, and Joey Gladstone as well as a surprise Top Fuel victory by Austin Prock. Now, drivers who did not win, or at least did not make the late rounds, will be under increased pressure to perform as the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series tour heads South for this week’s Betway NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway. (By the way, Tipster very much approves of the event name. It's right up his alley.)
Hight and Enders will certainly be the favorites again this week, and it's up to the rest of the Funny Car and Pro Stock drivers to slow them down before the Countdown gets out of hand. In Top Fuel, Tipster is going to go with Brittany Force again, but Prock will get a well-deserved boost following his first win of the season.
The favorite: This will be the first time since Norwalk that the Monster team has not been the incoming points leader, so there is a bit of pressure now that may not have been there before. To be sure, the Reading event was not what they expected for the first race of the Countdown, but it would be hard to argue that this isn’t still the quickest car in the Top Fuel field, and that is important when it comes to accumulating qualifying bonus points. In short, there is no reason to panic or to think the 2017 champ won’t be squarely in the mix when the tour heads West to Las Vegas and Pomona next month. After all, she’s just nine points out of first place, and that can be made up during qualifying. This is the favorite, albeit by a very slim margin.
The contenders: Perhaps it's best to start with Justin Ashley, who is now the championship leader following his runner-up finish in Reading. With the lead comes added pressure, but so far, he’s shown the ability to handle whatever comes his way. Ashley is more likely a co-favorite along with Force, but he’s not alone in that regard. Let’s also throw Antron Brown, Mike Salinas, and, of course, reigning and four-time champion Steve Torrence.
While we’re at it, let's take a closer look at Reading winner Austin Prock. It’s often been said the last six race are far more important than the first 16, and that certainly appears to be the case for the Montana Brands team. Prock is now just 74 points out of first place, so yes, he is a contender for the Top Fuel title, although he’s going to need another Reading-like performance to stay there.
The dark horse: Austin Prock isn’t alone when it comes to drivers who had tough regular seasons but still have hope in the Countdown. Kalitta Motorsports teammates Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon are both more than 100 points back, but their situation isn’t as hopeless as it might seem. Should either one of them win in Charlotte, they could make a big move in the standings, and then it’s a whole new ball game.
Dodge Power Brokers
The favorite: Last week, we said this was a tough call because there were so many good teams in the mix. That’s still true, but it’s not really a tough call because Robert Hight continued his domination over the Funny Car field. Hight has extended his lead over the rest of the field to 81 points, and that should be a great concern to anyone else who desires the NHRA Camping World Funny Car title. Hight is in the driver's seat right now, and there is more bad news for the rest of the field. Hight has six wins in Charlotte, including four in the fall event.
The contenders: Let’s take the next four drivers in the standings who are Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, John Force, and Bob Tasca III. It’s easy to see any one of the four winning in Charlotte, but they’re all going to have to figure out a way to get past Hight. All four are also 106 points or less out of first place, so the championship is still well within reach, but that also requires slowing the Auto Club team. Force won the four-wide event at zMax Dragway earlier this year, and he’s got four overall wins at "the Bellagio of dragstrips." Of course, this is also a special place for Hagan, who ran the sport’s first three-second Funny Car run here.
Let’s also throw Tim Wilkerson and J.R. Todd into the mix. Wilkerson went to the final round in Reading and looked good doing it, while Todd just seems to be long overdue for a breakthrough event.
The dark horse: We could go a lot of different directions here, but we like Cruz Pedregon and Alexis DeJoria because they both seem like they are overdue for some good luck. Pedregon is particularly puzzling because he had such an awesome season last year but hasn’t been able to recapture that magic yet.
Auto Club Chevy
Dodge Power Brokers Dodge
Bob Tasca III
The favorite: Coming off a frustrating loss in Indy, Erica Enders made a quick rebound with a dominating victory in Reading. Any time the incoming leader wins the first race of the Countdown, that spells trouble for anyone else in the field. Enders has opened up an 81-point lead over Greg Anderson and has 88 points over third-ranked Kyle Koretsky. If Enders were to win again in Charlotte, she would head to St. Louis with an enormous lead in the standings, which is obviously something her opponents are hoping to avoid.
The contenders: Everyone else in the field is realistically a contender, but the leading candidates for a win are Anderson, Kyle Koretsky, Troy Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield, and Dallas Glenn. Anderson is obviously a favorite because he’s coming off his landmark 100th win in Indy, and he’s got a car that can run with any other vehicle in the field. Glenn also merits some consideration because he’s a former Charlotte winner, and his reaction times are among the best in the class.
The darkhorse: Let’s go with Bo Butner because he’s running as well as he has at any point this season, and because he’s won back-to-back races in Super Gas with his Corvette roadster. The Super Gas wins won’t do much to help in Pro Stock, although any win in any class is good for one’s confidence. Butner has been quiet for most of the season in Pro Stock, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if that changed this weekend.
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Lucas Oil/NitroFish Camaro
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Fernando Cuadra Jr.
Corral Boots Mustang
Corral Boots Mustang