Who will triumph as NHRA heads to Sonoma?

NHRA took the first step in its three-races-in-three-weekends Western Swing at Denver last weekend, putting forth a great display of competition, along with adventures in wheel-standing, engine explosions and bodywork destruction.

Who will triumph as NHRA heads to Sonoma?

The 14th race in a 24-race season of Mello Yello professional competition (the seventh for Pro Stock Motorcycle), Denver had most everything a drag racing fan could want. Its sole issue came on Friday afternoon, when persistent rain showers threw a wrench into the schedule, allowing only Top Fuel and Funny Car two passes down the Mile-High Bandimere Speedway dragstrip. Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle had three qualifying sessions on the mountain.

With winners crowned on Sunday afternoon, Antron Brown’s third win of the year (Top Fuel), Robert Hight in Funny Car (his first 2017 victory), Drew Skillman and Eddie Krawiec took home the Wally trophies and the glory. Both Skillman in Pro Stock and Krawiec’s Pro Stock Motorcycle victories were the second of the season for each of them.

"The great thing is, Denver is a one-off race,” said Don Schumacher Racing’s Matt Hagan, who blew the body off his 80th anniversary Mopar Dodge Charger R/T in a Round 1 victory. “We won't see those conditions until next year. So we switched everything back over to what we normally have on the car and we'll go to Sonoma and have all the confidence in the world that we'll be just fine this weekend."

Optimism heading into Sonoma

That’s the hope for many in the NHRA paddock, because Denver is such an anomaly on this tour. Returning to near-sea level at Sonoma, Calif. and the 30th annual Toyota NHRA Nationals at Sonoma Raceway, there’s a lot of optimism in the ranks. For the two nitro-powered classes, there’s also the knowledge that, if they want to qualify for the two Traxxas Nitro Shootout race-within-a-race competitions at Indianapolis during Labor Day weekend, the final event of the 18-race “regular” season, time is of the essence.

There’s only one earned spot available in both Top Fuel and Funny Car’s eight-car fields, with a fan vote/lottery drawing determining the eighth entrant. Leah Pritchett, Tony Schumacher, Antron Brown - all from Don Schumacher Racing - have earned their ways into the Top Fuel Shootout, as have points leader Steve Torrance, Brittany Force and Clay Millican. Doug Kalitta is still looking for a spot in this competition; can he make it at Sonoma, Seattle or Brainerd?

In the Funny Car Traxxas competition, Hagan, John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps, Jack Beckman and last weekend’s winner Robert Hight have earned entries. That leaves Courtney Force out in the cold, who formerly had sponsorship from Traxxas and would dearly love to earn her place, as would JR Todd and Tim Wilkerson, instead of forcing fans to vote them in through their vote counts, which tend to be popularity contests.

So with a sigh of relief the troops headed through the Rocky Mountains from Colorado to California, glad to have survived the singularity that is Denver. Last year’s winners at the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals race were Todd, who was racing the Top Fuel Kalitta Motorsports SealMaster entry currently raced by Troy Coughlin Jr., John Force, Greg Anderson and LE Tonglet.

The latter racer currently leads his Pro Stock Motorcycle category, with four wins to Krawiec’s two victories in second place. This weekend marks the motorcycle category’s race within a race, as the Pro Bike Battle, this year sponsored by Mickey Thompson Tires, for the top eight motorcycle racers. The competition takes place during qualifying at Sonoma.

With his victory in Denver, Harley-Davidson rider Krawiec is the No. 1 seed and meets Chip Ellis in the first round. Reigning Pro Bike Battle victor, five-time class champ and Krawiec teammate Andrew Hines meets Matt Smith, the two-time champ while other first-round match-ups see Tonglet facing off against three-time champ Angelle Sampey and reigning world titleholder Jerry Savoie racing against consistent Hector Arana Jr. With $7,500 on the line to the winner, it’s bound to be an exciting battle.

While both Top Fuel and Funny Car have full, 16-car entries for the Toyota Sonoma Nationals, Pro Stock has 15 (up one from Denver) and Pro Stock Motorcycle has a hefty 21 motorcycles on the grounds. As everyone prepares for qualifying, which takes place in late afternoon and after sunset, they’ll all have to be ready for climate changes. It’s expected to be quite warm during the day throughout this weekend, with temps dipping in the evening hours, which is fairly normal for this circuit.There’s no rain on the docket but early morning fog could call for schedule adjustments.

Who will prevail?

Who will win here in Sonoma? That’s one of the great things about drag racing - nobody gets “the call” in this competition. It’s up to the tuners and drivers/riders to get their tuneups right and to get their vehicles down either the quarter-mile or 1,000-foot dragstrip faster than the other competitor. Winning is never a “given” in this series, but if I were a betting Anne, I would put my nickels on Brown, Capps’ Dodge Charger R/T, Bo Butner’s Chevy Camaro in Pro Stock and Tonglet on his Suzuki motorcycle. No refunds if I’m wrong…


Hight, Brown, Skillman and Krawiec rule in Denver
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