It’s nearing crunch time for NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoff series as the series starts the second half of a 20-race season.
The Countdown begins after Labor Day weekend’s Dodge//SRT NHRA U.S. Nationals which closes out the regular season Camping World Drag Racing Series, with only this week’s Menards NHRA Nationals presented by PetArmor at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, KS and next week’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in Brainerd, MN to set the playoff field.
Only 10 drivers or riders are eligible for the Countdown and, right now, only three different racers have qualified: Steve Torrence in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson’s Pro Stock Camaro and Matt Smith’s Pro Stock Motorcycle Buell. Funny Car is too tight to call and no one has, to date, stepped out of the crowd, although Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals winner Ron Capps’ Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat is the most consistent driver in the Flopper class. Even so, he’s got only a five-point lead over Bob Tasca III’s Ford Mustang.
This weekend’s 32nd annual Menards NHRA Nationals in Kansas could determine a pecking order in three of four classes, as Pro Stock Motorcycle has the weekend off, rejoining at Brainerd next week when Pro Stock cars stand down.
Top Fuel has 15 entries this week, which is sad as there are a number of dragsters that could have made the bell. Billy Torrence is coming back after sitting out the Western Swing, as is the winner of the first race of the year, Josh Hart. Hart has dropped out of the top 10 in Top Fuel through his absence during the Western Swing, but even in 11th place he has a chance to make the cut if those in front of him have three off-weekends.
Also rejoining the Top Fuel ranks is former Pro Stock and Pro Mod standout Alex Laughlin, whose PM Camaro is up for grabs so that he can continue his nitro-powered quest to succeed. Laughlin admits he’s more than excited to get his second opportunity at the wheel of a Scott Palmer dragster but wants to make this one a “chill” race weekend. “The goal for this weekend is to make this feel more normal,” Laughlin said. “Now we’ve been to a race and made some good runs. I’ve driven just about everything, but this is just so far beyond anything I’ve ever done.” His primary goal is to make more runs and keep learning. “The second goal is, I want to turn on a win light. I’d love to be able to get that first round win in Top Fuel.” Palmer is also racing this weekend, which should help Laughlin’s effort.
He’ll make the field, since the dance card isn’t full, but Laughlin will have to contend with three-time and reigning Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, his dad Billy, Don Schumacher Racing’s (DSR) Antron Brown, currently second in points (-313), with John Force Racing’s (JFR) Brittany Force (-389). Force seems to have a handle on qualifying but has had trouble getting rounds under her belt. Winternationals winner Leah Pruett of DSR (-435), who is also racing Factory Stock Showdown this week, holds fourth place points.
Kalitta Motorsports’ Shawn Langdon is in fifth place, lagging Steve Torrence by 500 points, while Mike Salinas is a single point behind Langdon in sixth. Justin Ashley, who famously declined to run in the finals while suffering from heat exhaustion, holds down seventh place at -548 points, while Billy Torrence will attempt to move up the dragster food chain from eighth place (-566). Doug Kalitta needs to find some pace from ninth place, as he’s 575 points behind Torrence in his Kalitta Motorsports dragster, and Clay Millican holds the final spot, -626 in Doug Stringer’s dragster.
Unlike Top Fuel, there’s a much smaller points separation in Funny Car between first place and tenth, with Ron Capps in first and Blake Alexander in Jim Head’s Ford Mustang tenth, only 391 behind the 2016 Flopper champ. Here, too, there are 15 Funny Car entries but it’s a strong field looking to find their way to the Countdown, all knowing there’s room to move, points to be had, and all they have to do is keep it clean to make some points noise. The part-timers racing this weekend include Iowa’s Jack Wyatt in a Dodge Charger, Chris King’s Toyota Camry, and Chad Green’s Mustang.
Bob Tasca III, who had been leading the points until Capps won the Winternationals while the Rhode Island’s Ford Mustang native fell to Capps’ Charger in the second round, has only five points to make up. Sixteen-time Funny Car champ John Force is in third place, only 36 behind regular rival Capps in his Chevrolet Camaro SS while his JFR teammate and company president, the defending, 2019 winner at Topeka, Robert Hight is fourth, just a single point behind his father-in-law.
Reigning titleholder Matt Hagan is looking to make up 45 points in his DSR Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat, while 2017 champ J.R. Todd is 57 points behind Capps in the Kalitta Motorsports Toyota Camry. Alexis DeJoria and her Camry are looking towards the Countdown from seventh place, 102 points behind Capps after her three semifinals or beyond runs in the last four races, while Tim Wilkerson’s Ford Shelby Mustang is in eighth place, 182 behind the points leader. Single race winner Cruz Pedregon’s Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat holds ninth place points (-197) and Alexander in tenth place has only a six-point advantage over 11th place Terry Haddock.
That’s tight! Todd said it best: “You look at the point standings and it could not be any tighter when you think about it. We have had ten races and the top six drivers are only 57 points apart,” the standout Funny Car and Top Fuel racer noted. “One good weekend can put you right to the top. I like our chances in Topeka, as well as Brainerd and, for sure, Indy. These last three regular season races can set us up for a strong run in the Countdown.”
There will be bumping in Pro Stock, with 20 cars on the grounds for their first appearance in Kansas since 2018, when Deric Kramer was the winner, his first in the category. Most of the contenders are driving Chevrolet Camaro, but there are two Dodge Darts and three Ford Mustangs entered this week. Rob Tucker and Alan Prusiensky are wheeling Dodge products, while this race notes the return of the three Cuadra entries, all Ford Mustangs for Fernando Cuadra and sons Fernando Jr. and Cristian. This weekend also marks the latest appearance for broadcaster Bruno Massel Jr. in a Camaro.
The points situation is interesting in Pro Stock, as four-time champion Greg Anderson holds the No. 1 spot and is already in the Countdown with his KB Racing Camaro. He’s got Aaron Stanfield in hot pursuit in his Elite Camaro, 126 points back, while reigning, four-time champ Erica Enders is 187 points behind Anderson in her Elite Camaro. Matt Hartford’s Camaro holds fourth-place points, 269 behind the leader, and Dallas Glenn is fifth in his KB Camaro, 311 points in arrears. Kyle Koretsky holds sixth-place points in another KB Camaro 314 points behind his team leader.
Mason McGaha has seventh-place points (-317) in his Camaro, while Troy Coughlin Jr. is eighth, 347 points back in his Elite Camaro. Deric Kramer (-348) and Chris McGaha (-478) comprise the balance of the top ten, all of them in Chevrolet’s Camaro corner. Do teammates Kenny Delco and Val Smeland have a chance to make up points before the close of the U.S. Nationals over Labor Day weekend? Sure they do, but they’ll have to get cracking to make a dent, as they are (respectively) 521 and 529 points behind the points leader.
For Coughlin Jr., the challenge of moving up the points ladder is one he’s looking forward to. “I love this time of the year,” he said, “because everything starts to get more intense. It brings out the best in people and I love to race when stakes are high. We’ve had a steady first half of the season and I know, without question, we have a car and team capable of big things.” Coughlin Jr hasn’t copped a Wally winner’s trophy so far this season, but he has reached two final rounds and has qualified in the top half of the field in eight of nine races contested in Pro Stock.
In addition to these three Camping World categories, NHRA’s Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, Top Fuel Harley Drag Racing Series and a 19-entry Constant Aviation Factory Stock Showdown class are in action. Whether the action goes according to plan is another question, as Friday evening’s weather forecast calls for developing, isolated thunderstorms. Saturday is expected to be partly cloudy with highs in the mid-80s while Sunday’s forecast predicts morning showers, all of which could create a problem for NHRA’s racers and staff, who will be watching the weather responses carefully as they race in Kansas and think about Brainerd a week away.
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