Photos: Courtesy of NHRA
There was plenty of hype and anticipation as the Countdown to the Championship continued after nearly a month’s hiatus at the Toyota NHRA Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this past weekend; and at the end of the day, we saw a new leader in Pro Stock, and a tightening of the Top Fuel and Funny Car standings. But heading into the Auto Club NHRA Finals at the Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, all four NHRA Mello Yello championships remain up for grabs.
With all eyes on the Funny Car field, the surprise winner was Del Worsham driving for Kalitta Racing’s DHL Toyota team. Runner up John Force whittled off 15 points from Matt Hagan’s 36 point lead, bringing it down to 21.
Worsham, a 44 year old resident of Villa Park, Calif., debuted a new 2015 Toyota Funny Car in Vegas and impressed everyone taking out Jeff Arend, Ron Capps and Hagan in the semi-finals, and Force in the finals. It was his 26th Funny Car trophy and 34th of his career. Worshom won the 2011 Top Fue World Championship driving for Al-Anabi Racing.
It was Worsham’s first victory since joining Kalitta Motorsports in 2013, and his first Funny Car win in over five years. The win Sunday came in his third final round appearance of the 2014 NHRA season (Dallas and Englishtown, N.J.).
“I think we’ve been to probably four finals and this is the first time we’ve won with Kalitta Motorsports,” said Worsham. “We’ve almost had lane choice and low elapsed time in all those finals and we didn’t bring out a big enough stick. Today, the big bat was brought out. This was all about the crew chief and the crew and the job they did today.”
Worsham defeated John Force in the final round – 4.064 seconds, 318.39 mph to 4.104 seconds, 321.42 mph. “I want everyone to remember I’m driving Scott’s car. He was a good friend of mine and the DHL car will always be his car. I can’t thank Connie [Kalitta],enough for letting me be a part of his team and having this opportunity to drive for Kalitta Motorsports.”
With his win, Worsham became the first driver to win the fall event in Las Vegas in both nitro-fueled classes.
After getting beat in the semi-finals to Worsham, Funny Car leader, Hagan, who qualified No. 1, with the only 3-second pass of the weekend of 3.983 seconds at an incredible 322.42 mph, won an additional nine qualifying points, while John Force earned five.
“It’s going to come down to Pomona,” Hagan said. “I’m used to that. I’ve been there. When we won it in 2011, it was in the semifinals of the last race. It is what it is. Sometimes you have the lead for a little while, sometimes you don’t.
“It’s nothing that we can’t handle. I still have 100 percent confidence in my guys, in Dickie (Venables). We just have to go out there and race. I’m actually tired of talking about it. I just want to race. It will take care of itself.”
Runner up Force, a tried and true veteran of many championship battles, is still in high spirits after being denied his 142nd Funny Car victory.
“We won a moral victory today, that’s what we did,” grinned Force, flashing his winning smile. “With the loss of Jimmy Prock, great kid and we still love him, but just the fact we can stay in the hunt and with John Medlen (crew chief) all over my Mustang and Mike Neff (crew chief, Hight’s Mustang) taking the reins and running the Auto Club Ford and helping out with my car along with Ron Douglas (crew chief, Courtney’s Mustang) on the Traxxas Ford and also helping out on the Castrol dragster with team leaders Todd Smith and Dean Antonelli – talk about overload. It was a moral victory today because no man is an island and nobody breaks down John Force Racing, nobody. I feel like we won and that Del Worsham put up a good fight against me and I congratulated him at the top end for that. So where do we go from here? Well it’s all uphill and we’re heading to the SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Association) show this week, we got sponsors to talk to and we’ve got Peak coming onboard and I’m really excited.”
The Top Fuel category saw Spencer Massey upstage the points leader Tony Schumacher and No. 1 Las Vegas qualifier, J.R. Todd (3.732), who advanced from fifth to third. Massey made the biggest move from seventh to second in the standings with one to go. No. 1 Schumacher, No. 2, Doug Kalitta, No. 3, Steve Torrence and No. 4 Shawn Langdon were defeated and out of competition early.
Massey qualified with a time of 3.744 seconds, and marched through eliminations defeating Terry McMillan, Shawn Langdon, Leah Pritchett and Todd to score his third victory in 2014 and 239th for Don Schumacher Racing, the winningest team in the NHRA series. Massey ran a time of 3.756 seconds, 330.88 mph in beating Todd.
“It’s huge going into the last race of the season off of a win,” Massey said. “We always do well here in Vegas but this makes it so much better because we’ve been in a slump. To walk away with a Wally in Vegas, it’s huge. We moved from seventh in the points to second, that’s just awesome.”
The slump Massey is referring to is the stretch of 10 races from the Englishtown, N.J., event in June to the September event in Indianapolis where the team has failed to advance past the second round of eliminations.
Now, 109 points behind DSR teammate Tony Schumacher in the Countdown to the Championship standings, Massey is optimistic but knows what’s real.
“It’ll be tough to catch Tony,” he said. “Mathematically it’s possible but let me tell you that U.S. Army car is going to be tough in Pomona. We’re going after the win there. I want to win four races this season because we’ve done that the past few years and we don’t want to fall short of that goal.
“I at least want that No. 2 on the side of my dragster. This is amazing. The guys have just done an outstanding job and they’ve stuck with it even when we were in a slump. I can’t thank Don (Schumacher) enough for the opportunity and letting me carry the colors of his Red Fuel brand on the side of my car.”
Elite Motorsports driver Erica Enders-Stevens delivered under pressure Sunday, knocking out points leader Jason Line in the semifinals and then beating five-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. to win the NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The victory was her fifth of the season and 11th of her career, vaulting her into the Pro Stock points lead with one race remaining. She was 35 points behind going in and leaves Vegas 17 ahead of Line and 84 over third place runner, Dave Connolly.
“This is what it’s all about,” Enders-Stevens said, who is trying to become the first female Pro Stock world champion in NHRA history. “I’ve been driving for 22 years, 10 of which I’ve been trying to make this Pro Stock deal work. Everything is just starting to come together. I know God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle. All of those ups and downs in my Pro Stock career make this just that much sweeter.
“It can’t get much better. It’s just really incredible. I can’t be any more proud of my team. We had a meeting coming in here on Thursday. (Team owner) Richard (Freeman) just reminded us to go out there, have fun, and stop putting pressure on ourselves. There’s no pressure from him or anyone else.
“I was a nervous wreck in Reading and I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be. That’s what I wanted to change coming in here. I just wanted to go out there and do what I know how to do. I’m confident in my guys and they’ve given me a great race car. Every time I fire up the car, it’s up to me.”
After winning in the first and second rounds, Enders-Stevens lined up against Line in the semis with championship implications in the air, and ripped off a .009-second reaction time, getting the crucial round-win when Line turned on the red-light.
Then, facing Coughlin in the final round, she was even better, cutting a .007 light against one of the best drivers in the history of NHRA. She sped to the win with a pass of 6.587 seconds at 206.36 mph to beat Coughlin’s 6.596 at 209.14 mph.
“Those were two of the most important rounds of my career,” Enders-Stevens said. “I stepped up the plate and it feels good. (Crew chiefs) Rick and Rickie Jones were talking in my helmet and telling me, ‘Give it to God, do your best, if you want it, you’ve got to take it, don’t let up, and go after it.’
“That’s exactly what they did with the tune-up on the race car and that’s what I did behind the wheel today.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Andrew Hines, who entered Las Vegas with a 25-point advantage over Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec, raced to the win with a 6.965 at 191.02, defeating reigning world champ Matt Smith. Hines, who claimed his class-leading sixth victory of the season and 38th of his career, holds a 92-point advantage over Krawiec in his bid for a fourth world championship.
“I don’t want to play defense,” Hines said of his preparation for the Auto Club NHRA Finals. “I’m going to go on the offense. I don’t want to give up any bonus points during qualifying. I want to keep it over 80 points so we can roll into Sunday with the championship basically mathematically locked up.”
In two weeks, it all comes down to the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship finale on Nov. 13-16 with the running of the 50th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.