NHRA heads to Brainerd as Countdown to the Championship nears

NHRA’s Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle racers have only two more attempts to prepare for the series’ Countdown to the Championship, a six-race playoff comprising the final contests of a 24-race season.

NHRA heads to Brainerd as Countdown to the Championship nears
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Only the top 10 drivers and riders compete in the Countdown; playoff qualifying ends after the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis during Labor Day weekend.

The penultimate opportunity to make the Countdown comes this weekend at Brained, Minn., home of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. Known as much for its party atmosphere in the “Zoo” as for its awe-inspiring speeds down the drag strip, Brained offers opportunities for those on the outside looking in to gain some of the spots still available in each category, providing the weather cooperates. And it looks pretty good, with a single rain forecast for Monday but moderate temps on the docket in between. This forecast could mean excellent runs on Friday evening in cooler, overcast weather.

With only this race at Brainerd and the U.S. Nationals the first Monday in September delineating the Countdown competitors, it’s three-time and reigning champion Antron Brown atop the Top Fuel standings in his Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) dragster. While he’s got four victories to second-placed Steve Torrence’s six wins, Brown’s consistency throughout the first 16 races - together with his bookending the Western Swing just completed at Seattle a week and a half ago - has kept the former New Jersey sprinter atop the standings.

Only 13 points separate Brown and Torrence, but Brown’s teammates Leah Pritchett (3 wins) and Tony Schumacher (1) are waiting in the wings should either of these drivers falter. The top seven dragster drivers have already qualified for the Countdown, including fifth-place Brittany Force (1 win), always consistent Doug Kalitta and Clay Millican, who earned his first NHRA victory at home in Bristol, Tenn. earlier this summer. Kalitta, who customarily has a hot hand the first part of each season and fizzles when the Countdown begins, could be a threat to challenge at the right time this year. Will he give himself a great 53rd birthday gift on Sunday and claim his first 2017 victory?

The remaining drivers hoping to make the top 10 in the dragster class are Terry McMillen, who has caused some surprises this year with tuning by Rob Wendland. McMillen has been to a couple of finals and has been exceptionally consistent; veteran Scott Palmer, whose consistency has him in ninth place and Troy Coughlin Jr., the rookie driver who originally intended to do a short season at Kalitta Motorsports before team owner Connie Kalitta decided to move JR Todd from Top Fuel to Funny Car for the 2017. Knocking on the door: Shawn Langdon, who joined Kalitta’s team midway through the season. There are 16 entries in Top Fuel this weekend; all race on Sunday.

In Funny Car, Ron Capps’ Dodge Charger R/T has the regular season pretty well sewn up but, with extra points on the line in Indy, he could fall prey to one of his Don Schumacher Racing teammates or to John Force Racing’s Robert Hight in his Chevrolet Camaro SS, who went on a tear during the Western Swing, neatly bookending the three-race enduro. Capps’ six wins are most for the class; teammate Matt Hagan has three victories on the year and lies second; Hight’s pair of Western Swing victories place him third; DSR’s 2012 champion Jack Beckman (2) lies fourth; Tommy Johnson Jr. (1), also with DSR has fifth place points while Courtney Force has qualified her Camaro for the Countdown despite not yet winning a race.

A man who has won at Brained 11 times, John Force is looking for an even dozen in northern Minnesota this weekend, as well as hoping to bring himself into the Countdown to the Championship ranks for the 11th time. He’s got a single win on the season but is always hungry for more as he works toward 150 wins to go with his current array of 16 championships. Tim Wilkerson’s roller-coaster season in his Shelby Mustang has him eighth, Todd’s single victory at Sonoma with his Toyota Camry earns him ninth-place points while two-time champ Cruz Pedregon’s Toyota holds down 10th place.

Former Indy winner Alexis DeJoria is hoping to ruin the points party with strong finishes this weekend and at the U.S. Nationals, in order to get her Toyota Camry into the game. She’s joined by former Funny Car (and Top Fuel) champ Del Worsham in his family’s Camry, by the Jim Dunn Racing Dodge Charger of Jim Campbell and by Jim Head’s Swedish protege and reigning two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champion Jonnie Lindberg. There are 17 entries this weekend.

Only two slots for the Countdown remain in Pro Stock which, once again has a meager 15-car entry for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals. This class is struggling to fill fields in the second year of new technical rules that govern induction and limit RPMs in the class. It’s hard to say what can cure this problem but for sure it’s an issue someone needs to consider. Still, with 16 races completed, there have been seven different winners in the factory hot rod class, with Summit Racing’s Bo Butner atop the standings, thanks to his first three career victories, after apprenticing for a couple of seasons.

Butner leads teammate Greg Anderson (2 wins), rookie Tanner Gray (3), teammate Jason Line (1), Drew Skillman (3), Erica Enders-Stevens (1), her teammate Jeg Coughlin, a five-time class champ still looking for his first 2017 Wally trophy and Vincent Nobile. All eight of these drivers - each of whom campaigns a Chevrolet Camaro - have qualified for the Countdown, while this weekend’s absentee, Chris McGaha (1 win in a Camaro) and Dodge Dart driver Allen Johnson complete the top 10 in this class. McGaha is ramping up for the U.S. Nationals and needed to sit out this race in aid of that prep, he said.

Only a single rider in Pro Stock Motorcycle has qualified for the playoffs so far this year and that is 2010 champion LE Tonglet, the Louisiana fire fighter who joined 2016 champions WAR Racing riding a Suzuki alongside reigning titleholder Jerry Savoie. It’s been a match made in the marshlands for this pair that live less than an hour apart from one another. Tonglet, always an engaged racer, has flourished with the WAR Suzuki tuned by Timothy Kulungian and crew-chiefed by Tonglet’s father Gary earning five Wally trophies thus far in the season. The only other winners this year are Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle rider Eddie Krawiec (2) and Savoie, with a single win. That gives WAR Racing six victories in eight races, a heady count.

Lying third, and racing without benefit of his 2009 champ father Hector’s feedback as he recovers from shoulder surgery, Hector Arana Jr has, despite failing to claim a victory so far this year, been readily consistent throughout the season on his Buell; Savoie holds fourth-place points while two-time champ Matt Smith’s Victory motorcycle is fifth. Scotty Pollacheck has had a breakout year on his Suzuki in 2017 and is sixth, while five-time champion Andrew Hines is still coming to grip with the new H-D motorcycle his Vance & Hines team introduced earlier in the year and is seventh.

Newcomer Joey Gladstone has shown he’s got the chops to succeed and Karen Stoffer is, again, riding her husband Gary’s self-tuned Suzuki exceptionally well. Angie Smith, Matt’s wife rides a Buell instead of the Victory motorcycle preferred by Matt, yet has been sufficiently consistent to hold the final position in the category’s top-10 listing. More than 400 points separate Tonglet from Angie Smith in the standings. There are 18 motorcycles on the ground in Brainerd, including Jim Underdahl, who returns to riding and teams with Pollacheck this weekend.

With a limited number of NHRA Wally trophies and Mello Yello medals available each year, earning a win is never easy. Momentum is a big part of NHRA drag racing and, when you speak that “m” word, look to Brown and Torrence in Top Fuel, Capps and Hight for Funny Car, Butner and Gray’s Pro Stock cars to be the cream of the crop. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, can anyone top Tonglet? While he knows the Harley-Davidson team will eventually catch up to his Suzuki (which has engines built by Vance & Hines), he’s hoping it’s not going to happen quickly.

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Pritchett, Hight, Gray and Arana Jr. maintain No. 1 qualifying positions Saturday at Brainerd

Pritchett, Hight, Gray and Arana Jr. maintain No. 1 qualifying positions Saturday at Brainerd
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