Two races remain in NHRA’s regular season before the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs begin for Mello Yello’s Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle competitors. Some are already locked in; others are trying to solidify their positions before the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway Labor Day weekend.
This weekend the tour alights in Brainerd, Minnesota, home of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals and site of some out-of-bounds partying abutting the two-lane dragstrip. It’s also a racetrack where good air can bring monster times and speeds in all classes; last year, No. 1 Top Fuel qualifier Leah Pritchett broke the Brainerd International Raceway track record at 3.640 seconds before claiming victory over teammate Antron Brown.
At this moment, five Top Fuel combatants have secured their spots in the Countdown to the Championship. Obviously five-race winner Steve Torrence is one, followed by Tony Schumacher, whose single victory and stellar consistency gave him the second spot. Third is Clay Millican (two wins), Pritchett (two wins) and Doug Kalitta, who won the first race of the season and has, as ever, secured round wins and qualifying points.
Antron Brown, who has won at this track in both Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle, lies sixth with a single Wally winner’s trophy, but is still on the outside looking into the Countdown, together with Terry McMillen, reigning titleholder Brittany Force (one win), Richie Crampton (one win) and Scott Palmer. Most likely, Brown will join the Countdown ranks at Brainerd, as should Force, who is having a tough year after her big accident in the season opener at Pomona.
In Funny Car, only four drivers have guaranteed themselves spots in the Countdown. Courtney Force’s four wins with her Chevrolet Camaro SS have her firmly atop the standings, followed by 2016 champion and double 2018 race winer Ron Capps in a Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) Dodge Charger R/T. Capps, it should be noted, is the most recent flopper winner in Seattle and has made his way to the final round in every Western Swing race (Denver, Sonoma, Seattle).
Force’s brother-in-law and teammate, the reigning Funny Car titleholder Robert Hight, is third thanks to his two wins this year, and is locked into the Countdown. The only other racer currently qualified is triple race winner Matt Hagan, whose DSR Dodge Charger R/T entry is the newest Charger model available for racing. He debuted the machine at Denver (a Mopar/Dodge-sponsored race) and is working through the new-car quibbles.
Still waiting in the wings are single race winner Jack Beckman of DSR, Kalitta Motorsports’ JR Todd, who has two victories on his resume this year in a Toyota Camry, Tommy Johnson Jr. (DSR), single race winner John Force, Kalitta’s Shawn Langdon, who moved from Top Fuel to Funny Car this year and Bob Tasca III, who returned to full-time racing with the category’s sole Ford Mustang in 2018 and who has shown little, if any, rust.
Five Pro Stock racers have qualified for the Countdown so far and the balance of the Top 10 are very tightly joined. Greg Anderson, the points leader, has a single victory, yet his Summit Racing Equipment/KB Racing team have managed to get him wnough No. 1 qualifiers and round wins to eke a 42-point advantage over third generation racer Tanner Gray, already the winner of four 2018 races. Two-time champ Erica Enders (one win) is third, two-race-winner Vincent Nobile lies fourth and Jeg Coughlin Jr is having a renaissance year with three wins in fifth place.
Nipping at this quintet’s heels are Chris McGaha (two wins), first-time-winner Deric Kramer, Drew Skillman, Jason Line and reigning titleholder Bo Butner, with a solitary victory to his credit for the season. All of the top Pro Stock racers have Chevrolet Camaro race cars, but the manner in which each races is always different. Depending on what group is sourcing equipment (some are affiliated with KB, others with Elite Motorsports and others race their own combinations), the possibilities for changes within this group’s lineup are quite good!
There are 16 races on the Pro Stock Motorcycle schedule each year and the Sonoma round was the midway point in the two-wheeled category’s 2018 calendar. Despite not winning a race thus far, Andrew Hines holds the points lead over teammate and three-race-winner Eddie Krawiec, 687-651 points, riding their Vance & Hines’ Harley-Davidson Screamin’ Eagle motorcycles. Double-race winner and 2010 champ LE Tonglet is third, the fastest man in the category, Hector Arana Jr., is fourth (one win) and 2016 champ Jerry Savoie is fifth.
Tonglet and Savoie are the top Suzuki riders; Arana Jr, first and most often through the 200mph barrier, rides an EBR Buell. Matt Smith, who won the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle in Sonoma, has a single win on his Victory motorcycle but still hasn’t coined a Countdown slot yet in sixth, followed by the consistent Suzuki rider Scott Pollacheck, Angie Smith (Buell), Hector Arana (Buell) and Angelle Sampey (Buell). Other Suzuki riders like Joey Gladstone, Steve Johnson and Jimmy Underdahl are in the wings, waiting for their opportunity to pounce on the leaders.
There could be repeat winners in three of four Mello Yello categories this weekend. Leah Pritchett returns to try for back-to-back wins, as do Tanner Gray and Jerry Savoie. With the competition pull-back of Alexis DeJoria, Funny Car will have a different winner in 2018; the ultimate class winner is 16-time champion John Force, who has amassed 11 Wally trophies at this track. Tony Schumacher has three victories in Brainerd, making him a threat to earn yet another win at this mid-country circuit.
While weather is always an issue in the midwest, particularly in late summer, the current forecast calls for a bright, warm (and modestly muggy) Friday and Saturday, while scattered thunderstorms are on the forecast for Sunday. Still, race fans will have other festivities to enjoy, including a visit by Motor Trend’s hit series “Roadkill”, which will be on location to film an upcoming episode featuring on-track exhibition races with DSR’s Hagan and Pritchett. There’s the possibility of a guest appearance by the famed “Draguar” during the “Roadkill” appearances.