It may not be official, but NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship begins this weekend at historic Gainesville Raceway, home of the 51st Amalie Motor Oil Gatornatiionals. In normal years, the Gators would have started the Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Mod category seasons, but the race, nominally known as the true start of each NHRA season on the East Coast, is now the first race after the U.S. Nationals.
That event customarily ends a regular season and begins a six-race playoff; this year the Gatornationals begin a sprint to the finish line which this year takes place on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Just about the only customary things about this year are the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend and the Dodge NHRA Finals presented by Pennzoil taking place on the weekend of Halloween, October 30-November 1.
It’s no leisurely ride from the Gators on Sin City. After holding four straight races on the Lucas Oil Raceway dragstrip outside Indianapolis in Brownsburg, home to the vast majority of nitro teams, this race marks a near-900-mile trip for many of those combatants, a trek none have partaken since returning from the suspended Gatornationals in March.
From Gainesville, the troops head to World Wide Technology Raceway outside St. Louis next weekend, skip a week before going to Texas for two straight weekends – first Dallas, then Baytown – and don’t even get a single weekend’s respite prior to Las Vegas.
For that reason, this final sprint truly resembles the Countdown and means that everybody still in the game to capture a title needs to heed the mantra of “going rounds.” There are two-day contests on the agenda until the finale, which makes qualifying at the sharp end of each 16-vehicle grid that much more important.
Coming into this weekend, Kalitta Motorsports’ Doug Kalitta holds a 50-point Top Fuel advantage to U.S. Nationals runner-up Leah Pruett of Don Schumacher Racing, while two-time, reigning champ Steve Torrence lags by 60 points. With the top eight in points, Terry McMillen holding that final spot, separated by less than 200 points and Clay Millican hovering in ninth just 213 points in arrears, the atmosphere in dragster country is tense, tense, tense.
Kalitta has led the standings through all six races held to date, but his teammate Shawn Langdon, the U.S. Nationals class winner, could be the first to take back-to-back victories at another one of NHRA’s major events – the Gators are certainly that – and keep this Florida crown in the hands of Connie Kalitta’s bespoke squad. Former teammate Richie Crampton won the last two Gatornatioals, so Crampton would love to keep that Kalitta streak going.
It would be wrong to dismiss rising star Justin Ashley, who won the delayed Indy2 race over current 10th-place holder TJ Zizzo, who isn’t scheduled to be at this race. Ashley is currently in fourth place, 122 behind Kalitta. This is the venue where, last year Clay Millican and tuner Mike Kloeber found their sweet spot together; it’s still possible for the Doug Stringer-owned team to gain places in the standings.
Funny Car is, right now a Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) stranglehold, with three of the team’s four Dodge Charter SRT Hellcat racecars occupying the top trinity. Kalitta Motorsports’ Toyota Camry flopper with J.R. Todd setting pace in Indy took him past Ron Capps and the fourth DSR entry, but with the top seven racers separated by less than 160 points, the standings could change massively this weekend.
Jack Beckman, winner at Indy holds first place but has a minuscule 35-point lead on Matt Hagan and 57 on Tommy Johnson Jr. Todd is 130 behind Beckman, with Capps lagging him by only 11 points. Tim Wilkerson holds seventh place, while the next-best racer in Funny Car is Alexis DeJoria, who’s 276 points behind Beckman. Like Top Fuel, there are only 15 entries on board for the Gators, but do keep an eye on Todd, ready to revenge his two consecutive runner-up appearances at Indy with a strong run in Florida.
Three time and reigning Pro Stock champion Erica Enders holds a tiny seven-point advantage over Elite Motorsports teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr., now in his final full-time season racing this class, while fellow retiree-to-be Jason Line is in third racing for Summit Racing, 11 points back heading into the Gators. The fourth-placed Matt Hartford is a massive 162 points behind Enders with Greg Anderson a single point behind him. This should get even more interesting in the Florida swampland.
Pro Stock boasts a 22-car entry, with the vast majority being the uber-competitive Chevrolet Camaro. Alan Prusiensky brings the sole Dodge Dart while Troy Coughlin Jr., a brand new dad, together with Cristian and Fernando Cuadra are all driving Ford Mustang race cars this weekend. There are “spoilers” in the field, starting with rookie Mason McGaha, who not only beat his dad at the U.S. Nationals but dialed his way to the U.S. Nationals finals against Enders. McGaha, Troy Coughlin Jr., Aaron Stanfield and Kyle Koretsky are the youngest guns to watch in this truly competitive class.
Pro Stock Motorcycle didn’t get its start until the first Return to Racing contest in mid-July at Indy and immediately crowned a new race champion in Ryan Oehler, who’s been knocking at that door for a couple of seasons. Obviously, winning gave the Illinois racer first in the standings, but he’s fallen all the way to sixth since the last two races were held. Another first-timer aced the U.S. Nationals, as Matt Smith Racing’s Scotty Pollacheck earned his first career Wally in Indy. He now has a tenuous lead of 25 points over Vance & Hines’ Andrew Hines, the holder of six career PSM championships on his Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle racer.
Hines’ teammate Eddie Krawiec is 26 points behind Pollacheck and Matt Smith is 27 back. In fact, this class is so tight you’d have to look way into the bottom half of the field to find a racer more than 150 points behind Pollacheck and that would be John Hall, riding a Suzuki, one of six on the 18-bike entry list. Strangely, 2019 runner-up Jerry Savoie is not in the top 10 thus far in the season – he’s 12th, a point behind Hall – which makes this race a big one for the alligator farmer from Cut Off, Louisiana. In fact there are only two Suzuki riders in the top 10 at this time, veteran Steve Johnson in 10th and returnee Chris Bostick holding eighth-place points. Johnson is just 114 points behind the leader.
The weather forecast shows temps in the high 80s with only Friday threatening afternoon thunderstorms, but humidity should be in the high 70s, giving tuners for this race another tool to use in making power. Friday is dedicated to pro set-up and Lucas Oil Sportsman qualifying, while Saturday’s qualifying sessions are at midday and nearing sunset. Final Eliminations are set to begin at the crack of noon with live coverage from FS1 beginning at 2:30PM ET and running until 5:30PM, just to be sure.