The NHRA Countdown starts in Charlotte

NHRA set the field for its six-race Countdown to the Championship, during the U.S. Nationals near Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend. Anne Proffit looks ahead to this weekend’s action at zMax Dragway in Charlotte, NC.

The NHRA Countdown starts in Charlotte
John Force, Ron Capps
Robert Hight
Vincent Nobile
Leah Pritchett
Cruz Pedregon
Eddie Krawiec, Drew Skillman, J.R. Todd, Steve Torrence
LE Tonglet
Antron Brown
Courtney Force
Steve Torrence
Jack Beckman
Eddie Krawiec
Clay Millican
Pro Stock winner Tanner Gray
Tanner Gray
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When all the dust was cleared and excess oil mopped up, the top 10 points holders in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle heaved a sigh of relief and put their strengths towards the six races that will decide those four Mello Yello championships this year.

The sanctioning body offered 1.5 points at the U.S. Nationals, which changed the order in all four categories a bit, with a few drivers and riders trading places in the standings. At Indy, Top Fuel contender Steve Torrence (Capco Contractors dragster) ran the “W” table, earning the $100,000 prize in the category’s Traxxas Nitro Shootout on Saturday and taking his seventh Wally trophy of the year.

Torrence will have to fend off three-time and reigning champ Antron Brown who, along with Don Schumacher Racing teammate Leah Pritchett, has four wins so far. The duo are second and third in the rankings while fellow DSR racer and eight-time champ Tony Schumacher can be expected to excel.

Also noteworthy are Kalitta Motorsports racers Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon, the latter called into action by the resignation of Troy Coughlin Jr. Brittany Force of John Force Racing and Clay Millican from Stringer Performance have each scored a win this year, and journeymen and potential spoilers Terry McMillen and Scott Palmer will also run.

Torrence is pretty calm about his ongoing success, stating his main objective this season has been to “get the car to where we want it and don’t change it.”

He continued: “We’ve found a recipe for success and the car has done what we’ve told it to. I’m confident in the car, my team and myself; I’m not concerned about anybody but us.”

Like all the top seeds in this contest, Torrence has a 10-point lead on Brown heading into this weekend, where he also holds the distinction of winning the Four-Wide Nationals at this track in April.

Although he was runner-up to two-time winner J.R. Todd’s Kalitta Motorsports’ Toyota Camry at the U.S. Nationals, reigning Funny Car champion Ron Capps earned the top seed in his DSR Dodge Charger R/T by virtue of six victories in the regular season’s 18 races. Capps is being chased by dual race winner Robert Hight’s JFR Chevrolet Camaro SS, his DSR teammates Matt Hagan (3 wins), Jack Beckman (2 plus Traxxas in Indy) and Tommy Johnson Jr (1), all driving Dodge Chargers.

In sixth lies Courtney Force, who has been exceptional qualifying her JFR Camaro all season but hasn’t been able to capture a victory, father John Force who’s seventh with a single win, Todd (2), Tim Wilkerson (Shelby Ford) and Cruz Pedregon (Camry). Ron Capps was the winner at this track in the spring race, but that came using the four-wide format, where this weekend the field reverts to two lanes of competition.

Capps said: “Before every Countdown race last year we said we had to leave with the same or bigger points lead we had when we arrived,” Capps said. “Our lead going into the Countdown is a little smaller this time and I know how 10 points can be. I’ve lost championships by two points(2012) and eight points (2000).”

In Pro Stock the ranks of Chevrolet Camaro racers is prevalent and only one Dodge Dart crashed the Countdown party (Allen Johnson’s, who retires at the close of the year), but there will be a total of 18 PS entries for this race.

Bo Butner’s Summit Racing Camaro has had a headlock on the class for most of the regular season, thanks to his consistency and trio of victories, but he’s still got to contend with Gray Motorsports’ rookie Tanner Gray on four wins, teammate Greg Anderson on two and Drew Skillman, in fourth place holding four Wally trophies.

There’s a pile of heavy-hitters behind this quartet, including reigning titleholder Jason Line (1), two-time champ Erica Enders (1) with Elite Motorsports, her teammate Jeg Coughlin and technology partner Vincent Nobile. The balance of the top 10 are Johnson and single race-winner Chris McGaha.

Aussie Shane Tucker returns for this 10th annual North Carolina Nationals, along with Alex Laughlin, Alan Prusiensky, Kenny Delco and Val Smeland. Larry Morgan, who returned to the class at Indy but didn’t make the field, is committed to a Camaro program through the end of the season and in 2018.

Last year at this race, Butner was in third place chasing teammates Line and Anderson. It was Line who won in Charlotte, then went on to win the championship. Although he hasn’t been to a final round since winning Pomona to start his 2017 campaign, Line has three race wins at this track, which is a home track for the team.

This year’s NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle regular season looked like a runaway for WAR Racing’s Suzuki rider LE Tonglet, the 2010 PSM champion as a rookie. He gathered five Wally trophies and teammate Jerry Savoie, the reigning titleholder secured two of his own. Then the new Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson Street Rod started to come alive in Eddie Krawiec’s hands and his Indy win Krawiec won Indy and slashed into Tonglet’s points lead.

Non-race winner but mega-consistent Hector Arana’s Buell lies third, ahead of Savoie, Matt Smith (Victory), five-time champ Andrew Hines (H-D), Scotty Pollacheck, Joey Gladstone, Karen Stoffer (all on Suzuki motorcycles) and Angie Smith (Buell).

The weather forecasts, always important in any NHRA weekend, look good at this time, hurricanes notwithstanding. Temps in the mid-80s at Charlotte are expected to remain consistent during the daytime hours with lows in the mid-60s overnight and clear skies expected. That should allow the tuners a bit more latitude in choosing settings for Sunday’s eliminations, as they won’t have to deal with massive changes throughout the race meeting.

Brittany Force completes first Funny Car test
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C. Force, Kalitta, Gray and Hines secure No. 1 qualifiers at Carolina Nationals

C. Force, Kalitta, Gray and Hines secure No. 1 qualifiers at Carolina Nationals