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Photos: Courtesy NHRA

The Countdown to the Championship is officially on,  following this weekend’s racing at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, IN. The 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals is the NHRA’s most prestigious race during the 24 race season. A win here can make a driver’s career. In years past, the list of champions contains some of the most renowned names in the sport of drag racing, like Garlits, Prudhomme, Muldowney, and Glidden.  And for the first time in 14 years, all of the professional categories saw wins by racers seizing thier first U.S. Nationals titles.

FUNNY CAR

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Alexis DeJoria reigned over 16-time Funny Champion, John Force, crossing the finish line first in the finals of the U.S. Nationals in a great side-by-side contest.  It was DeJoria’s third victory of the 2014 season, and she won the race in 4.038 seconds, 310.34 mph to Force’s equal time of 4.039 seconds, 319.67 mph with a .035-thousandths of a second margin of victory .

“It’s a huge honor to represent such an incredible group of guys and a legend like Connie Kalitta, and I thank him every day for asking me to join their team,” said DeJoria, in between hugging and congratulating her crew.

DeJoria had the support of her family: her father and team’s biggest cheerleader, John Paul DeJoria, three daughters, and crew member husband and noted TV personality, Jesse James, cheering her on at the starting line.  “I couldn’t be happier right now. We won the U.S. Nationals and my whole family was here for the win.  In fact, this was the first time that my dad was at a race where we won, so it’s really special.  I was just happy to make it to another semifinal; that was our fourth in a row.  To make it past the semifinals, that was huge, but to win this race just builds our confidence even more and in me especially.”

Along her way to the final round DeJoria defeated Cruz Pedregon, Blake Alexander, and Courtney Force.

Now having won Indy, DeJoria can claim the title of ‘only woman to have won three Funny Car events in a single season,’ and becomes the fourth female to win the U.S. Nationals in the professional ranks during the course of the past sixty years.

“There are a lot of firsts, and it’s really amazing to be the first woman to win three events in a year, but mostly I’m just so happy to have won this for Connie.  Tommy (DeLago), Glen (Huszar]) and my whole team have worked so incredibly hard and it was great to get the job done today at such a huge race.”

John Force drove his Castrol Mustang to his eighth final round appearance at the U.S. Nationals and sixth in a row this season for his runner-up finish.

“Their crew chiefs ran side-by-side with our crew chiefs and we had two good hot rods,” said Force.  “She was a click faster. That shouldn’t have been enough but it was.  I’ve watched her lights for months and she was on her game today.  She had that .037 light and God bless her, she’s set to dance tonight and drink with papa and her husband so we congratulate her. She’s a great kid.  We need women in our sport so I’m really proud of her.”

DeJoria will be the fourth seed while Force, Robert Hight and Ron Capps take the top three positions in Funny Car when the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs begins at the NHRA Carolina Nationals in two weeks.

TOP FUEL

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When Australian Richie Crampton, as a crewman for Morgan Lucas Racing, got the nod to test his abilities behind the wheel of the Brandon Bernstein Top Fuel dragster just a year ago, who would have imagined the rookie candidate would be crowned U.S. Nationals champion on Monday?

“Just like so many things that have happened to me this year, I can hardly believe what’s going on,” Crampton said.  “I’m the luckiest guy in the world, bar none.  Just to be driving a Top Fuel car is the dream come true for me.  Then we were the 100th different Top Fuel winner in Englishtown (N.J.), and now we’ve won the 60th annual U.S. Nationals.  That’s two pretty historical moments we got to be a part of.

“After Englishtown I sat down and looked at the 99 other drivers that have won Top Fuel races in the NHRA, and it was so humbling to think I was a part of that group.  I’m going to find time to look at all the Indy winners and I’m sure I’ll have the same feeling.  This is crazy stuff for a kid from Adelaide.  I’m a long way from home.”

Rookie candidate Crampton defeated Billy Torrence in the opening round, setting up a second-round date with reigning world champion Shawn Langdon.  With the pressure on, Crampton peeled off a daring 3.769 at 324.59 mph, his quickest pass of the race to that point, to get past Langdon’s powerful dragster.

The semifinals pitted him against Tony Schumacher, who dismissed Crampton earlier in the weekend in the final round of the $100,000 Traxxas Shootout on Saturday.  This time Crampton got the better of the seven-time world champion, winning by .001-of a second after his winning pass of 3.784 seconds at 322.81 mph to Schumacher’s 3.788 at 325.69 mph.

“That might have been the biggest single round-win of my career,” Crampton admitted. “All we heard leading up to that race was that Schumacher was trying to win his 10th Indy trophy.  Well, the guys in this pit weren’t going to give in to anything.”

With everything on the line for the U.S. Nationals win against last year’s runner up, Steve Torrence, Crampton focused and posted both his best reaction time of the race (.062-second) and his quickest and fastest pass of the weekend, beating his rival with a pass of 3.766 seconds at 327.98 mph to a 3.799 at 327.82 mph.

“The GEICO dragster was like a bracket car all weekend; it was up to me not to screw it up,” Crampton said.  “It’s pretty special to put your name on the list of U.S. Nationals winners.  Big thanks to Forrest and Charlotte Lucas, GEICO, Lucas Oil, and of course Morgan (Lucas) for letting me drive this car.  Indy is hallowed ground for drag racers and now we’ve left our mark.  It feels wonderful.”

Top Fuel’s Doug Kalitta, Antron Brown and Shawn Langdon are in the top three positions when the Countdown starts in Charlotte.

PRO STOCK

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Shane Gray and the Gray Motorsports team accomplished something truly remarkable on Labor Day, and they did so by dominating in each of the three Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaros that advanced to the semifinals, and in the two that moved on to square off for the most prestigious title in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

On the way to the final round, Gray first knocked out Shane Tucker and a very tough Allen Johnson to race his brother, Jonathan, in the semi-finals.  Jonthan Gray had just secured his Countdown to the Championship position by beating Greg Anderson in the first round, replacing him at tenth in the standings.

The finals turned out to be an all-Gray Racing affair with teammate, Dave Connolly, meeting Gray.  When the light turned green Connolly had tire shake giving Gray a clear path to win his first U.S. Nationals trophy and fourth of his career, making this his biggest win, yet with his pass of 6.641 seconds, 208.42 mph

“The first thing I want to say is that it was a bummer we didn’t get to run side-by-side,” said Gray.  ”You know you always want it close.  It would have been nice for Dave’s car to make a lap and one of us to win by a thou (.001-second), but his car shook, and it didn’t go too far.  When I rolled it off in high gear and looked at the scoreboard and looked through the passenger window and Dave wasn’t there, I looked back at the scoreboard to make sure his side wasn’t blinking.  I said to myself, Shane, you might just win it if you can make it from here to there.  And that was it.  We won.

“This is big.  You know, my first year coming to the U.S. Nationals was in 2008 in a B/A Comp car.  I came back in 2009, and then I came back again in 2010 in Pro Stock and last year was the first time I won a (Pro Stock) round at the U.S. Nationals.  This is the first year that I’ve come out here and thought that I had a chance to do something.  We were very blessed and very fortunate.  The guys made some really great calls on the car today.  I could’ve driven better but you know, we won the race and now we will concentrate on Charlotte here in a few weeks.”

Gray is locked into the Countdown to the Championship that begins in two weeks in Charlotte at zMAX Dragway, and he will be racing for his first Championship trophy.  Teammates Connolly and the younger Gray are also locked in, and it’s anybody’s game.  The three have reached a collective seven final rounds this season and brought home two trophies for Gray Motorsports, each in all-Gray Motorsports final rounds.

Jason Line will lead the Pro Stock field into the Countdown followed by Erica Enders-Stevens and Allen Johnson.

“I think our engine program is as strong as anyone else’s right now, and I’m not going to sit here and say its better by any means, but I will say that it’s as good as the top tier teams out there,” said Gray.  ”Our program is as good as theirs, and we’ve got a great crew chief, a great group back at the engine shop, and a real good team.  Hopefully, we’ll have some more Gray Motorsports team finals during the Countdown.  That would be nice.”

PRO STOCK MOTOCYCLE

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Eddie Krawiec took home his first Indy win and third victory of the season with a 6.941 at 192.63 on the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, beating Jerry Savoie who ran a time of 6.987 seconds at 192.58 mph in the final.  The win was the 25th career victory for Krawiec, a three-time Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ.

“I’ve been fortunate to win three championships and 25 races now and I’ve finally got an Indy win,” said Krawiec, who finished second in regular season points behind teammate Andrew Hines.  “I was joking that I could just step off the bike now, announce my retirement, and not run the Countdown.  I think I’ll stick around, though.”

Andrew Hines, Krawiec, and Hector Arana, Jr. will end up in the top three places for the PSM Countdown to the Championship.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will head to North Carolina for the seventh annual NHRA Carolina Nationals, Sept. 12- 14, at zMAX Dragway.  The race will be the opening event of the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, a six-race championship playoff.

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Alexis DeJoria’s team is understandably excited.