Rumor Mill

2017 NHRA SPRINGNATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK

 

 

         

 

SUNDAY

PRITCHETT’S TOP FUEL VICTORY HAS IMPLICATIONS BEYOND HOUSTON - Leah Pritchett earned her third Top Fuel victory in five Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events this season, defeating Steve Torrence in Sunday’s final round of the NHRA SpringNationals at Baytown, Texas.

And with that victory she delivered some more return on investment for Papa John’s Pizza, Pennzoil, and FireAde, the three major investors who took a chance on her this time last year when she was a proven winner suddenly without a team. With the decision-makers for those corporations on site at Royal Purple Raceway this weekend, scrutinizing every pass and every detail of the Don Schumacher-affiliated program and considering whether to extend her one-year deal or at least how to build on it, Pritchett had more than her personal pride at stake.

“I have tunnel vision on the racetrack, and we have very large visions for this sport,” she said, adding that because of the passion her corporate backers have, “the future is very bright.”

As for primary sponsor “Papa John” Schnatter, Pritchett said, “It’s incredible to have someone like him fall in love with our sport and back us.

“DSR has shown that we have the proper ingredients for success, and I’m a small part of that,”

she said. “I’m very privileged and proud and blessed to be standing here today.”

The normally laughing, fun-loving Pritchett – who did allow herself a giggle or two after her victory – carried a more weight-of-the-world tone in her voice. She was stressed by the fact she “knew [Torrence] was right there next to me going down [the track]” and the fact she had no idea which one of them got the win light until she figured out the FOX TV cameras were pointed at her. And even though she said the quirky racing surface, which she called “a little bit lumpy downtrack,” worked in her chassis’ favor, she nevertheless was on the steering wheel, admittedly holding on even tighter than usual.

“There’s a select number of drivers that I really, really get up for. I know Steve very well, great family friend and all that. I knew he was going to be after me. I told myself, ‘You’ve got nothing to lose. Get after it.”

Still, she said, “the meter’s as much pegged as it was winning at Pomona and then winning at Phoenix.”

Pritchett covered the 1,000-foot course in 3.781 seconds at 321.96 mph in the Papa John’s Pizza Dragster and won by .0156 seconds, or about seven feet for her fourth career triumph. Torrence challenged with a 3.787-second elapsed time at a faster 322.11-mph speed (mph) in his Capco Contractors Dragster.

Her victory, which followed Ron Capps’s in the Funny Car class minutes before, pushed Don Schumacher Racing’s total to 302. Their double-nitro-victory performance was DSR’s 69th overall, second straight, and fourth this season. DSR drivers have won all five Top Fuel trophies this year. Besides Pritchett’s three, Tony Schumacher won at Gainesville and Antron Brown at Las Vegas.

Setting her sights on a Four-Wide Nationals victory this coming weekend at zMAX Dragway near Charlotte, Pritchett once again has the points lead. She regained it from Tony Schumacher, who dropped out in Round 2 Sunday.   

“Our goal was to leave as the points leader, and that was not easy – at all,” Pritchett said. “I’ve never been in a position to be counting points so early in the season, but I’m definitely enjoying that.”

In a steller effort from crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Joe Barlam, Pritchett defeated Scott Palmer, denied Doug Kalitta a chance to three-peat at this event, and knocked off reigning class champion Antron Brown to reach her third final round and the one the team called “our bounce-back.” Running consistent 3.7-second E.T.s all day, she improved her race-day record to 15-2.

Earlier in the day, in the first round of Pro Stock eliminations, Erica Enders lost a double-red-lighting decision to husband Richie Stevens. In this Top Fuel final, score one for the wife – Torrence’s clutch specialist is Pritchett’s husband, Gary Pritchett.

Torrence, a native of Kilgore, Texas, who was hoping to record his first 2017 victory here in his home state, was runner-up here for the second straight year. He advanced to the finals past Shawn Reed, Troy Coughlin Jr., and top qualifier Clay Millican.

But after losing to Kalitta in the Houston final last year by .019 of a second, Torrence said, “This is getting old. I know races like that are fun for the fans, but they’re hard on us drivers. To get so close to a win here the last two years, to have my guys give me such a good race car and then to come up that short, all you can do is suck it up and get back to work. If there’s a good thing, it’s that we’ll be back racing again in five days and maybe put this one behind us.

“The DSR cars?  They’ve won everything, and somebody has to stop ‘em. It might as well be us,” he said. “The big thing is we’ve got our hot rod back where it needs to be . . .and the last two days, it was one bad hombre.

“You have to remind yourself that it’s a long season,” Torrence, who moved  up a position in the standings to fifth place, said. “But, as a racer, you want to kick their butts every week. We’re going to Charlotte with a ‘kick their butts’ attitude and see if we can hurt some feelings.”

Pritchett also shared the winners circle with first-time Pro Stock winner Bo Butner and Pro Modified’s Steve Matusek.

Sportsman-class event winners Sunday were Jay Turner (Top Fuel Harley), Joey Severance (Top Alcohol Dragster), Doug Gordon (Top Alcohol Funny Car), Norvell Bowers (Super Stock), Chris Vang (Super Street), Steve Collier (Super Gas), Alan Savage (Super Comp), Kevin Helms (Stock), J.R. Baxter (Top Dragster), and Keith Raftery (Top Sportsman).

“These things become so hard to win these days,” Capps said. “But you take things for granted where I felt like we should’ve won at any of those first three races of the season. NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car division has to be the most competitive thing in the world right now; its cut-throat.”

Hight experienced engine problems and crossed the center line before the finish line while Capps’ engine violently exploded as he reached the finish.

Capps pushed past Todd Simpson, 16-time world champion John Force and teammate Jack Beckman before facing Hight in the finals. Hight defeated Jim Campbell, J.R. Todd and fellow John Force Racing teammate Courtney Force before falling to Capps.

Butner obtained the first Pro Stock win of his career when he raced his Jim Butner’s Auto Chevy Camaro to a 6.550 pass at 212.26 to defeat No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin Jr. Coughlin Jr. raced his JEGS.com / Elite Performance Chevy Camaro to a 6.562 at 212.03 in his first final round appearance since Seattle in 2015. This was Butner’s seventh final round appearance.

“Any win that you stand on that stage, Super Stock, Super Street or whatever it is (the feeling) never gets old. It’s a great feeling and you can’t explain it unless you experience it,” Butner stated. “To make four consecutive win lights is very tough and a lot harder than I expected.”

Butner defeated Allen Johnson and Greg Anderson before facing Coughlin Jr. in the finals. Coughlin Jr. lined up against Chris McGaha and Tanner Gray en route to his finals appearance.

The 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season continues at the Eighth annual NHRA Four-Wide Nationals April 28-30 at zMax Dragway. Susan Wade

CAPPS CHANNELS RAYMOND BEADLE-ESQUE PERFORMANCE WITH FIERY SPRINGNATIONALS WIN - Of all of the wins in Ron Capps’ historic career, his victory Sunday afternoon at Royal Purple Raceway in Houston will probably always stand out as his most memorable.

Matched up with Robert Hight in the finals of the 30th annual NHRA SpringNationals, the two longtime racers put on a show as Hight crossed the centerline and took out both finish line timing blocks while simultaneously in the other lane Capps’ NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car detonated in a huge fireball.

Temporarily unable to see the scoreboards, Capps emerged from his damaged car looking for any sign of whether he had just won or lost, eventually receiving confirmation from, of all people, a passing sportsman racer, confirming Capps’ 51st career NHRA Funny Car victory and his first of the 2017 season.

“We knew we were up against a tough car. We were a little off going into that round, I knew (Rahn) Tobler tuned it up a little bit. It got out there and started spinning the tires and you’ve got to make a decision,” Capps said. “You don’t have time to put your hand on your chin and ask ‘should I, or shouldn’t I.’ So I stayed in the throttle. I knew Robert was going to be next to us and it exploded. It exploded big and I couldn’t see the win light because of the fire so I wasn’t sure who won.

“The safety safari was right on me, but nobody knew who won. It was a sportsman guy loading his car up off the track that finally gave me the thumbs up. Once he gave me that thumbs up, it was celebration time.”

Capps crossed the finish line with a 4.004-second elapsed time at 284.33 mph as the car began to lose power following the explosion. Hight did not record a time.

While the win was certainly memorable, it was what came afterward that will truly make the moment one to last a lifetime. Following news of the win, Capps recreated a moment reminiscent of a 1980s Gaternationals accident by Raymond Beadle that saw Beadle’s car take a tumble, followed by a joyous celebration after the legendary driver emerged from the wreckage.

“He was one of my heroes. He was the epitome of the Funny Car class,” Capps said. “That was one of my favorite Funny Car moments. He flipped it over and got up there and got a standing ovation and I remember watching that as a kid.

“I did not do that to be him. I was just so excited when I found out I won. These things have become so hard to win nowadays and you take things for granted. I felt like we should have won three of those first races of the season. The NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car division has got to be one of the most competitive in the world right now as far as motorsports. It is cutthroat and that is why it is so big to get a win.”

But was it his wildest win?

“I think it is. But the win light came on, and that is all that matters,” Capps said.

Capps added wins over Todd Simpson, Jonnie Lindberg and Jack Beckman to reach his 102nd career final, with all three of his opponents running into trouble during their runs. Meanwhile, Capps produced passes of 3.897, 3.951 and 3.926 as he finished the weekend with eight runs under power in the Texas heat.

“I still think that (final round) went down under power. I think we were the only car that went down all eight runs this weekend under power which is a huge complement to Rahn Tobler,” Capps said.

With the win, Capps jumps from fourth to second in the championship battle, just two points behind leader Matt Hagan. But more importantly, this was Capps’ first win since earning his first career championship at the conclusion of last season, as he continues to celebrate that achievement with his legion of fans.

“That championship is great, and my favorite part of winning that championship is the fact that we are going to these race tracks and these fans are so rabid and so elated we won that championship. Every race we go to is like winning the championship all over again,” Capps said. “Everywhere we go you get people grabbing your arm saying they have been pulling for us for 20 years to win a championship. That makes this all a little more special.” Larry Crum   

BUTNER EARNS FIRST CAREER PRO STOCK WIN AT NHRA SPRINGNATIONALS - They say the first win is always the hardest.

And perhaps no one knows that truth more than Bo Butner.

Butner, an accomplished sportsman racer who switched to Pro Stock racing in 2015, finally broke through for that win after seven previous runner-up finishes to collect his first NHRA Pro Stock Wally at the 30th annual NHRA SpringNationals at Royal Purple Raceway.

Butner, who came into this weekend’s race 0-for-7 in final rounds in 45 previous starts, defeated another driver eager to get back into victory lane in veteran racer Jeg Coughlin.

In an intriguing matchup highlighting what has been an unpredictable season - with four different winners in four races - Butner and Coughlin left with identical .061 reaction times as Butner slowly pulled away from his opponent, recording a margin of victory of just under four feet. Butner crossed the stripe with a 6.550-second lap at 212.26 mph in the Butner Auto Sales Chevrolet Camaro while Coughlin, in his first final since Seattle in 2015, recorded a 6.562 at 212.03 mph in the runner-up effort

“We got it off our back,” a relieved Butner said. “That was the eighth time it was dangled in front of me. I knew I always had a chance to win and today it happened. Who knows, maybe they will start rolling like a snowball now.”

Butner, who qualified second, added wins over Allen Johnson and Greg Anderson to reach his eighth career final. Butner easily dispatched Johnson in round one before receiving a bye in the second round. In the semifinal, Anderson turned on the red light to advance Butner to the final. Coughlin was also gifted a trip to the final when semifinal opponent Tanner Gray lit the red bulb.

“I was fortunate to have a lot of win lights in my sportsman days. In (Pro Stock), we get a few, but to make four consecutive win lights is tough. It is a lot harder than I ever expected,” Butner said. “We had a very good chance to win Vegas and that was me not concentrating in the final. I feel more down on my crew and the people that help me. It is a tough deal, everybody that shows up here can drive.

“But any win where you can stand on that stage, whether it is Stock, Super Street, or this, it never gets old. It is a great feeling and you can’t explain it unless you live it.”

While Butner’s win culminated an exciting day of racing in Houston, Sunday’s race was not without a bit a drama in the Pro Stock ranks.

The crews for NHRA Pro Stock drivers Tanner Gray and Alex Laughlin got into a shoving match with a few punches thrown. Following their round one matchup, the two young drivers exchanged words, eventually leading to the altercation. Ahead of this weekend’s race, Laughlin had switched from running Gray Motorsports’ motors to Elite Motorsports’ power units.

Following his win on Sunday, Butner weighed in on the incident.

“It is awesome and we need more of it,” Butner said. “If I have to start punching Jason (Line) or something, we will do that. It was funny, after the first round, I got out of the car and they say, ‘are you going to fight too?’ I said, ‘I don’t think so, but you never know.’

“Everybody butts heads. You’ve got two young guys there and they are pretty fortunate in life. But let’s just get out there and race. Let’s do more of that.”

While the competition continues to heat up in the Pro Stock class, KB Racing, which powers Butner’s Camaro, remains one of the elite teams in the class, and Butner is most appreciative of the partnership between he and teammate Jason Line that has helped guide him to this point in his career.

“I happen to attract strange people and he and I hit it off pretty quick,” Butner said. “He’s not that much older than me, but he is like an older brother and he tries to talk to me. He gives me 100 percent every time. This win is as big as if he would have won and he would tell you the same.” Larry Crum

SATURDAY - NO. 1 QUALIFIERS STAY SAME, McMILLEN WANTS TO LEAVE THIS YEAR WITH THE SAME DRAGSTER HE BROUGHT, TOMMY JOHNSON FEELING LUCKY VIBE, ENDERS HAS HOT FIRST-ROUND DATE

 

 

TOP FUEL


MILLICAN STAYS NO. 1 - Clay Millican and his Parts Plus/Great Clips/UNOH Dragster team remained No. 1 in the qualifying order Saturday. No one could top his track-record 3.722-second elapsed time (325.69 mph) Saturday, so Millican will lead the field for the first time in five races this year.

 

He still is chasing that elusive first NHRA triumph, after winning 51 races and six consecutive championships in IHRA competition. But he has the dubious distinction of having the most final-round appearances ever without a victory (eight). (Pro Stock’s Bo Butner is second with six.)

“I love racing in Texas. My first NHRA National round final was actually here, and that was in 2004,” Millican said. “I just would have never thought 13 years later after my first NHRA Final Round I wouldn’t have a Wally. But we’re still out here swinging.

“The vibe for the weekend has been really good for this team,” he said. “We’ve qualified No. 1 and went to a final round before, and that’s what we plan to do tomorrow.”

However, he said, “It won’t be easy; these races are getting harder and harder. But we got a good car, and the crew has been working their tail off. I want to go out there and stomp on that loud pedal four times and turn on the win light four times tomorrow.”

Millican will face No.16 qualifier Steve Chrisman in the first round.

NO REPEAT, McMILLEN VOWS – No. 14 qualifier Terry McMillen said he’s determined not to repeat his 2016 performance at this event, when he rode out a massive engine explosion. “This year, Houston will not have a negative impact on the rest of the season. We will leave with the car we showed up with! It's time for Houston redemption,” he said. He’ll go against 2015 and 2016 race winner Doug Kalitta in the opening round Sunday.


CHAMPION STILL LEARNING – Shawn Langdon will square off in Round 1 Sunday against Bob Vandergriff, another racer who’s returning to the cockpit at this event. But it doesn’t matter to No. 10 qualifier Langdon who he’s lined up against, he said.

“For us, we are just making laps down the track and getting that seat time,” the newest Kalitta Motorsports driver said. “We are not worried about who we are running. We just need to get laps and information. It is the first race out [for the Global Electronic Technology Dragster team], and we are going through the learning process. We are excited for tomorrow, definitely hopeful to go rounds and hopefully win the race.”

HOMETOWN HERO – With a big cheering section screaming for him Sunday, Troy Buff, of nearby Spring, Texas, will race Sunday out of the No. 9 qualifying position for the third time in four appearances this season. He’ll meet No. 8 starter Tony Schumacher, the current points leader. Buff ran a weekend-best of 3.810 seconds at 289.01 mph in the BME/Okuma Dragster. Schumacher posted a 3.783-second elapsed time with a top speed of 321.50 mph.

Said Schumacher, “We have a team of incredibly smart people with some incredible parts and pieces and even we're a little off.” His U.S. Army Dragster didn't make it off the starting line under full power at the outset of the weekend.

"We've had an incredible race car all year long, so it isn't like we've forgotten how to do this. We've just got to figure out what's going on and, once we do, we'll go out and make it happen tomorrow,” Schumacher said. “We'll just go out there and hope our guys stared at their computers long enough to make it right."

If not, Buff could notch his first round-win since the 2016 spring Las Vegas race a little more than a year ago, when he beat Richie Crampton, Brittany Force, and JR Todd to advance to the final.

LAGANA WORKING OUTSIDE THE CAR AGAIN – Dom Lagana, who works with both Steve Torrence’s and Scott Palmer’s teams, is back into the NHRA swing after competing Easter Sunday at Australia’s Willowbank Raceway. Lagana’s Rapisarda Autosport International teammate won the Santo’s Super Thunder final round against Darren Morgan. Veteran crew chief Lee Beard tuned Lagana’s dragster.
 

FUNNY CAR
 

COURTNEY FORCE KEEPS TOP SPOT – Advance Auto Parts Camaro driver Courtney Force retained her No. 1 qualifying position Saturday, relying on her track-record Friday peformance of 3.851 seconds, which tied her third-quickest time of her career.

Despite decidedly different conditions Saturday, she recorded a 3.897-second elapsed time at 323.89 mph in her final qualifying attempt. Conditions for Sunday’s elimination rounds are expected to be cooler than Saturday’s qualifying passes.

“We made a killer run like we did in Q2, when the conditions were prime, but I was more concerned with what we would do today based on what we expect for tomorrow,” Force said. “I feel good that we’re able to get down in the heat – we’re just not sure what it’s going to do tomorrow. I heard it might cool off, that there may be a cold front coming. But overall, it’s great. I feel like we’ve got a consistent race car.”

Force scored her second consecutive No. 1 qualifying spot and 12th of her career.

She reached the finals of the February season-opener at Pomona, Calif., but hasn’t won a round since then, although she had started no worse than fourth.

Said Force, “We’ve been No. 1 qualifier, we’ve qualified well, but we’ve just stumbled over our two feet trying to get through the first round. I think it’s just our own fault of pushing the car too hard instead of giving it a solid race-day setup. Coming from the No. 1 qualifying spot, we should play it a little more safe in the first round.

“I feel like we’ve been just so excited about how our car is running that we’re expecting a lot more out of it. We’ve got a great race car – you’ve seen it go down the track – but we need to be a little more consistent, and seeing what we’ve done makes me feel a lot better going into tomorrow,” she said.

She’ll start eliminations Sunday against another Southern California racer, Jeff Diehl. It will be her 250th in Funny Car competition. She and Diehl have squared off against each other only twice, both times last year, and they split the decisions. Diehl didn’t make a full pass during qualifying this weekend and will race from the No. 16 position with a showing of 11.833, 68.24 mph.

“It definitely feels good to do well at a track that we won at last year,” said Force, fifth in the Funny Car standings. “To be the No. 1 qualifier, it feels great for this Advance Auto Parts team. Luckily, it’s been a little more consistent than it’s been in past races, so that makes me feel more comfortable going into the race.”  

CONDITIONS RIGHT? – Are the signs in Tommy Johnson Jr.’s favor this weekend? Johnson is the most recent Funny Car winner with his victory in the Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger at Las Vegas two weeks ago, and he’s expecting similar weather conditions Sunday.

"It kind of replicates what we did in Las Vegas," Johnson said after he qualified seventh for the second straight visit to Royal Purple Raceway. "We struggled the first day, then came out on Saturday and improved and got some nice runs before we won the Wally on Sunday."

The racetrack was stick Friday, but cooler temperatures Saturday helped Johnson register his best effort at 3.934 seconds, 320.05 mph.

"We would have liked to have done a little bit better,” Johnson said, “but I think going into tomorrow, the conditions are going to be a little better and the track is going to come around. Then we can go back to our normal tune-up, which should set us up pretty good for a good race day. So far, everything has kind of gone the same as Vegas, and I hope tomorrow does, as well."

He beat class newcomer Jonnie Lindberg in the Las Vegas final. This weekend, Johnson will start against Lindberg, whose Jim Head Racing team didn’t enter the first two events this season but guided him to the finals at both Gainesville, Fla., and Las Vegas. Lindberg put the Toyota Camry in 10th place.

Johnson recalled that this event was a pivotal one for him last season, when he finished second in the standings to Ron Capps. Right now, Johnson is second in the standings, 44 points behind leader Matt Hagan, another of his Don Schumacher Racing associates, like Capps.

"Last year we turned the corner a little bit at Houston. We hadn't done much before we got to the semifinals there. I've been to a final there before (2002) ­but never won it. I'd like to see us continue with we did in Vegas," said Johnson, who competed in his 400th career event in February at Phoenix.
 

PRO STOCK

HOT DATE FOR POWER COUPLE – In normal circumstances, they wouldn’t have been paired in eliminations, the Nos. 4 and 11 qualifiers. But because the Pro Stock field was three cars short, the NHRA gave top qualifier Jeg Coughlin a bye but removed the other two unoccupied spots from the ladder. So that means No. 4 starter Erica Enders has to compete against her husband Sunday in the first round of eliminations.

John Smith and Rhonda Hartman Smith found themselves in opposite lanes more than once in Top Fuel in recent years, so Enders knows it’s part of the sport. Besides, they already have raced against one another several times.

"Richie hasn't raced in almost a year, so it's great to see him come out and make some good runs. But once we line up tomorrow, I'll treat him like any other competitor and do everything I can to rip his throat out,” she said. “We're here to win, and it's been more than 16 months since that's happened. So we'll do whatever we have to do."

And to do it at this racetrack would mean the world to her.

"So happy to be back in Texas," Enders, a Houston native, said. "It's no secret I love this state and being at the track where I started racing as an eight-year-old kid is perfect for me. We won Pro Stock in back-to-back years in 2014-2015, and those were the same years we won it all. So Royal Purple Raceway is obviously good luck for me."

She drove Richard Freeman's Lupe Tortilla-sponsored Elite Motorsports Camaro to a best showing of 6.573 seconds at 210.14 mph.

Stevens clocked a 6.615-second elapsed time at 208.52 mph to qualify 11th.

"We're getting all our ducks in a row here at Elite Performance," Enders said. "My teammate Jeg (Coughlin Jr.) is on the pole, and Vincent (Nobile) and Alex (Laughlin) are both looking strong.  [Tanner Gray and former Gray Motosports associate Laughlin are first-round opponents. Nobile and Jason Line will race each other.] We're looking to dominate the class like we did during our championship runs, and we're definitely getting closer to that goal every weekend.”

With her No. 4 position, Enders has qualified in the top half of the field three times in the first five races this year. She was third in Gainesville, Fla., and sixth in Pomona, Calif. And she has plenty of special support as she goes for her first 2017 victory.

"We won with Lupe Tortilla on the car two years ago and sharing the winner's circle with [restaurant owners] Stan and Sheila Holt was a memory I will always cherish," Enders said. "There are a million ways to say thank-you, but nothing beats winning the race. That's the ultimate thank-you. Having them back on the doors this year is super-special to me, because they have supported me since I started drag racing as a kid. Plus, they've been feeding us every day. So we're feeling great, and everyone is happy."

And well fed.

FIRST 2017 MEETING – Greg Anderson, the No. 3 starter, and Alan Prusiensky, No. 12, will race each other for the first time this year. Last season, Anderson defeated Prusiensky in the opening round of eliminations three times in a six-race stretch.


WANTS DROUGHT TO END – Allen Johnson hasn’t won an elimination round this year, and he has won only one since the U.S. Nationals last Labor Day weekend. (He’s 1-11 in the past 11 races, with his most recent round-win coming against Kenny Delco last October at Dallas.)

As No. 13 qualifier (last in the field among entered drivers), he’s hoping to get past No. 2 Bo Butner in Sunday’s opening round. But he knows it will take at least one of two conditions.

“I’m going to need to be perfect tomorrow and he’s going to need to screw up,” Johnson said. “I’m very hungry for some round wins. We’ll never give up, and eventually our luck will turn around. I’m hoping it turns around this weekend.”

The owner-driver of the Marathon Petroleum/J&J Racing Dodge Dart said, “We’re consistently fighting to get faster. I figure we can try new things, change some stuff and try to get faster or we don’t change a thing and stay slow. We’re trying a lot of things, but it’s hard to keep up with it and make good runs. We’re looking for the magic spot for this [car].”

GO STRAIGHT, YOUNG MAN – Chris McGaha knows where he wants his Harlow Sammons/Neuralog Camaro to go, but the car isn’t obeying. In Friday’s opening day of qualifying, he tried to point the car down the center of the left lane, but it veered straight for the left retaining wall, forcing him to abort his evening run.

“It drove right to the wall, and it’s been doing that all season so far,” he said. So the plan, McGaha said, was “to start over with this new Chevrolet Camaro this morning and square the car back up.”

That’s logical. And the car seemed to be buying the changes. McGaha clocked a 6.605-second, 210.14-mph pass Saturday in the third overall session, not quite as quick as the 6.602 (at 209.85) from Friday’s first session. Still, he was seventh in the order. Then the car misbehaved again. Luckily, he was able to control it and post his best time of the weekend so far.

“We were drifting left, and now after squaring up the car today, it wants to move right,” McGaha said with a “What are you going to do?” laugh. “If we could meet up in the middle, we’d be fast. I don’t know if we’d kill it, but we’d definitely be in the hunt. We’re in the hunt right now, truthfully, but we’d be even more in the hunt if it would go straight.”

In that final qualifying session, McGaha recorded a 6.598, 209.95 that put him in the top half of the field at No. 8. But this just hasn’t been his lucky weekend, exactly. Typically, as the No. 8 seed on race day, he would have lane choice for the first round. But no. With the field three short of capacity, McGaha is paired against No. 7 Drew Skillman. So Skillman has lane choice.

This will be a rematch of their first-round battle in February, in Race No. 2 of the season, at Phoenix. Skillman won that one by about four feet, despite McGaha’s nearly perfect .003-second reaction time. Surely McGaha remembers that race.

But McGaha was thinking more about Sunday’s lane-choice nuisance.

“We’ve run basically the same thing in both lanes this weekend,” he said. “Let them mess it up and put us in the other lane. I’m confident going into tomorrow, because we saved our best pass for last. And when you end qualifying with a good pass, subconsciously it makes you feel really good for race day.”

FRIDAY - NASA PRESENTS AWARD TO KALITTA, PRITCHETT LOGS WHIRLWIND OF ACTIVITIES, JOHN FORCE HAS PROBLEMS ON BOTH RUNS FRIDAY, THREE PRO STOCKERS PULL DOUBLE DUTY, EVENT FEATURES HOMECOMINGS AND RETURNS
 

TOP FUEL

NASA HONOR LAUNCHES KALITTA’S WEEKEND – Mac Tools Dragster driver Doug Kalitta’s trip to Houston this week has been out of this world, sort of. He toured NASA’s Johnson Space Center Thursday and received a special award from the agency, one that includes an International Space Station (ISS) mission patch that was flown on the final Space Shuttle flight, STS-135, in 2011.

Kalitta owns and operates Kalitta Charters and has had a longstanding collaborative effort with NASA on safely ensuring transportation of team members and critical spaceflight hardware to the Houston-area after work in the International Space Station.

“It is an honor to receive such an award from NASA due to my work with them in space station experiment deliveries. NASA does very interesting experiments in space, and it is a honor to be a small part in making that successful," Kalitta said.

ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said, “One of NASA’s primary goals of the International Space Station is to conduct world-class research. A key component of conducting this research is the rapid return of samples from space. Kalitta plays a key role in rapidly transporting the science samples, as well as other critical hardware, from the landing site to the Johnson Space Center. The partnership between Kalitta and NASA is helping scientists around the world conduct important research and is helping NASA operate the International Space Station.”

Kalitta is a bit of a celebrity, too, at Royal Purple Raceway in nearby Baytown. He has won the Top Fuel trophy at this event for the past two years, and if he can pull off a third in a row and fourth overall, he would pass Kenny Bernstein and Larry Dixon as the most successful dragster driver here. A third consecutive victory here would match the longest active Top Fuel winning streak at any NHRA track. Kalitta’s 2015 final-round triumph against Tony Schumacher moved him past Don Garlits on the class’ all-time victories list. He’s fifth on the current list with 42 victories.

“It would be real cool to win three straight races at the same track. It’s awfully hard to do these days, but my Mac Tools Toyota team is really doing a hell of a job, week in and week out,” he said. ’We’ll see if we can pull it off again.”

He was third after two Friday qualifying sessions with a day’s best of 3.731 second and 327.03-mph speed.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS – Eternally patient Shawn Langdon has returned to the driver’s seat this week for Kalitta Motorsports in the Global Electronic Technology / Toyota Dragster and raced to the tentative No.4 position in the Top Fuel order Friday. He posted a 3.825-second elapsed time at 314.53 mph. The 2013 champion sat out the first four races after his sponsorship at Don Schumacher Racing fell through in December. That was reminiscent of his 2015 season, when he began the year freshly disappointed about his Al-Anabi sponsorship vanishing in the offseason but qualified for the Countdown and wound up at Don Schumacher Racing during the playoffs. After a 2016 season that produced three victories, he found himself sidelined for financial reasons. Now he’s in the Kalitta camp, with Connie Kalitta as his crew chief.

“I’m four races behind as a driver, but I’ve been out doing bracket racing just to keep sharp on the tree. We just need a couple runs under our belt, but by Sunday, I think we will show them what we’ve got,” Langdon said. “Going to the first two races as a spectator, it was very hard to watch. I’m just very thankful for the opportunity that Kalitta has given me. I’ve missed four races, but the way I look at it is we have seven rounds to make up on the 10th-place driver.”

Langdon, who has won at least one race in each of the past five seasons, said, “I think this team is very capable. We have some great partnerships with Global Electronic Technologies and Toyota, who I’ve had a relationship with since I entered Top Fuel in 2009.  It’s going to be a good fit, and I think we’re going to see some mosh pits this year.”

The 14-time winner was referring to the raucous starting-line celebration that’s a Kalitta Motorsports trademark.

Helping fill out the field to 16 is veteran owner-driver Bob Vandergriff, who has Valvoline backing as he makes his first driving appearance since November 2014. He disbanded his previous two-car team in April last year, after his friend and primary sponsor Josh Comstock passed away. He hadn’t lost any driving skill, grabbing the No. 5 spot in the line-up after the first session Friday (3.862 seconds, 315.42 mph). He’s racing to support the Chad Tough Foundation, which Jason and Tammi Carr founded in honor of their late son to fight pediatric brain cancer. Jason Carr is the son of former University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, and their son Chad was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Giloma, an inoperable brain tumor. The Carr family, given no treatment options, has said it wants to ensure that families in their situation will have some hope regarding treatment.  

Vandergriff was sixth and Langdon eighth provisionally, after two rounds of time trials.

NHRA IDLE BUT PRITCHETT WASN’T – Leah Pritchett took part in what she called “extremely spectacular activities” during the NHRA’s recent idle weeks. But especially because she’s eager to regain her points lead she lost to Tony Schumacher at Las Vegas, she said she’s thrilled to be back today in her Papa John’s Pizza Dragster, which she said “we know is always capable of winning and is in championship contention." She backed that up by taking the qualifying lead in the first session at 3.747 seconds, 326.87 mph.

Pritchett will begin the final day of qualifying Saturday from the No. 5 position, as Clay Millican, Antron Brown, Doug Kalitta, and Brittany Force improved in their second chances and passed her. Pritchett finished the day a mere two-thousandths of a second behind Force, who had the fastest Top Fuel speed of the day (327.27 mph).

Having multiple weekends off in a row is not my favorite time," Pritchett said.

Still, she had a full schedule in the past two weeks. One week after the Las Vegas race, she was at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, bracket racing in her Dodge Hellcat, then spending the evening at Girls Nite In, a program in nearby Brownsburg, Ind., that’s devoted to mentoring and empowering teen girls who face life-altering issues and negative cultural influences. The next day she traveled up to Chicago for a Pennzoil business conference and that night attended the home opener for the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. Pritchett then traveled to New York City for Tuesday's unveiling of the 2018 Dodge Challenge SRT Demon at the New York International Auto Show. A day later she was back in her Hellcat at Lucas Oil Raceway for more bracket racing. Finally Thursday, she was reunited with her Don Schumacher Racing crew at the Brownsburg shop.

She and husband Gary Pritchett spent Easter weekend in Virginia with his family. There she served as a crew member for him at Eastside Raceway at Waynesboro, Va., as he drove in a match race – in one of his godmother Bunny Burkett's Alcohol Funny Cars.

"Gary is the most supportive person I've ever had in my life," Leah Pritchett said of her husband, who is the clutch specialist for Steve Torrence's Top Fuel dragster. "He gets to see me go fast almost every weekend, and Easter his time to shine at the racetrack that's been a lifetime event for him and his family."

Leah Pritchett opened the season in record-setting style, winning the first two Mello Yello Drag Racing Series events from the No. 1 starting position. No Top Fuel driver ever had done that.

TOP GEAR COOL, BUT TOP FUEL TOP PRIORITY – Two-time and current Top Fuel champion Antron Brown is getting in the groove as co-host of BBC America’s new show, Top Gear America, joining actor and racing enthusiast William Fichtner and auto journalist Tom “Wookie” Ford. He completed some filming while the NHRA took some time off before these three races in consecutive weekends (here, at Charlotte and at Atlanta).

“'Top Gear' is a lot of fun,” Brown, the most recent Top Fuel winner, said. “The coolest part about it is that it will reach 200 million people worldwide. We are going to spread some NHRA Mello Yello love across the globe. We will keep growing the sport. It's pretty huge."

He also made an appearance at the New York International Auto Show for longtime partner Toyota.

But Brown at Las Vegas became the first Top Fuel driver to win at least one race in 10 straight seasons by tending to his first job: driving the Matco Tools/Toyota/U.S. Army. So now he’s back in the groove with his Don Schumacher Racing team, and they were right near the top of the lineup Friday with a 3.784-second pass at 318.47 mph. Brown lowered his E.T. to 3.723 seconds in Q2, but he remained in second place overnight, one-thousandth of a second off Clay Millican’s pace in the Parts Plus / Great Clips / UNOH Dragster for Stringer Performance.     

"That's a testament to the team we've got here," Brown said. "It's not just our Matco Toyota team, but it's everyone back in the Don Schumacher Racing shop. There are a lot of people that make this thing work with their blood, sweat and tears. And that's what makes something like this possible."

FUNNY CAR

VENABLES BACK IN TOWN – Dickie Venables’ first paying job had him washing dishes at an Italian restaurant when he was about 16 years old and attending Waltrip High School, not terribly far from what’s now called Royal Purple Raceway. Little did he know that he would become a three-time championship crew chief (twice with Tony Pedregon and once with current driver Matt Hagan at Don Schumacher Racing).

“I never thought I’d be doing this,” said Venables, who also has logged time with Shirley Muldowney, Cory McClenathan, Gary Ormsby, John Force Racing, Al-Anabi Racing, Don Garlits, and Don Prudhomme, Pat Austin, Connie Kalitta, and Whit Bazemore.

“I mean, I grew up around this with my dad – from a baby. I always went to the races with my dad,” Venables said, reminding that he and fellow DSR crew chief and championship-wining crew chief Rahn Tobler (who tunes Ron Capps’ NAPA Dodge) got their starts in the sport out of Venables’ father’s auto-repair shop here in Houston.

“You know the story of Tobler – he went to his first race with my dad. He was sacking groceries at Smith’s Groceries – it was a little corner grocery store – down the street from my dad’s shop and saw the car one day.”

“The car” happened to be the Stephens & Venables front-engine dragster that’s part of Top Fuel lore.

Venables said Tobler later “worked at a gas station down the same street.  He got his way in there [in Dick Venables’ auto-repair shop], went to his first race with my dad [the 1971 World Finals at Amarillo, Texas]. My dad was just a hobby racer, couldn’t afford to pay him. I was still going to school.  

“He got his first job with Marvin Graham. During the summer between my junior and senior years [of high school], Tobler asked, ‘Hey – you want to go racing?’ Well, heck yeah! I jumped at the opportunity,” Dickie Venables said. “After the summer was over, I had to go back and finish school. I went back and finished my senior year. He called me up: You want to go racing? I was 18, just finished high school, so heck yeah. And I jumped in the truck and we headed to California. That was almost 40 years ago.”

He marveled at the twists his life has taken.

“Yeah, I wanted to do it then,” he said of working in drag racing on a steady basis. “But I never knew it could turn into a profession. I had no idea. I didn’t know what I wanted. I just knew I liked the racing.” He said he was involved with the race car “any spare minute I got. My mom was always [encouraging] homework. But any spare minute I had, I would get her to take me down to the shop. And a lot of times, I would just work on the cars of customers at my dad’s shop. I worked for him, doing mechanic work on normal cars. I was pretty sure I was going to do something mechanic-related, but I didn’t know 35 years later I’d be doing this. You don’t know what you want. Just being able to do something you enjoy and making a living at it, that’s what it amounts to. But I was 18 and it’s like, ‘Oh yea! I’m in! Here’s my suitcase. You’re going to pay me a couple hundred bucks a week? Hey, dude – cool!’”

Capps loves the story about his crew chief and Hagan’s crew chief and how their lives are intertwined.

“Dickie's dad has been in our pit with Dickie and Tobler, and I just like to stand back to look at the history they share," Capps, a three-time Houston winner, said. (Capps won the 2015 event here with Tobler’s guidance.)

"I grew up in my dad's garage [in San Luis Obispo, Calif.], working on race cars, so it means a lot to me when I hear stories from Tobler and Dickie about their early days," he said.

Maybe that inspired Capps Friday, for he took top qualifying honors right away at 3.931 seconds, 320.89 mph. That left intact Tim Wilkerson’s year-old elapsed-time track-record of 3.899 seconds – at least until Courtney Force came along and vaulted to the top overnight with a 3.851-second, 330.23-mph pass that set both ends of the track record.

OOPS – John Force wound up last among 14 drivers making passes in Q1 after he drifted toward the center line and clipped both finish-line timing cones. In the second session, he improved to No. 3, but it came at a price. His engine blew up after crossing the finish line in 3.890 seconds at 325.53 mph.


OH, SAY, DID YOU SEE? – Cruz Pedregon might have had a little flashback this week if he saw the news or watched one of Jimmy Fallon’s monologues on “The Tonight Show.” Back on June 26, 2104, the two-time Funny Car champion was in Kenosha, Wis., at the headquarters of marketing partner Snap-on Tools. He was there for the unveiling of the company’s unique American flag that’s fashioned completely from 2,300 tools painted red, white, and blue.

The flag is a tribute to veterans, many of whom Snap-on supports with tens of thousands of dollars for the Honor Flight program that carries soldiers to visit monuments dedicated to their service. The flag rests on a base that’s a Snap-on 84” Epic Roll Cab. The flag’s blue background consists of about 1,700 Snap-on ¼-inch drive sockets. The white stars are made from open-end, 8mm crowfoot wrenches -- five per star for 50 stars. The red stripes are 260 wrenches, Flank Drive Plus Combination Wrenches, in a mix of metric and standard sizes.

Snap-on Tools announced at that 2014 ceremony that it would donate $10,000 to Honor Flight Network for each sub-four-second Funny Car run that next weekend at the NHRA’s Route 66 Nationals at Joliet, Ill. He hosted Honor Flight Network and Snap-on representatives, as well as several veterans, in his pit that Saturday at Joliet.

Fast-forwarding nearly three years, President Donald Trump chose Snap-on’s headquarters as the site for announcing his “Buy American and Hire American” executive order. Standing in front of that flag, which Snap-on designed and built in the U.S., Trump said, "We are going to defend our workers, protect our jobs and finally put America first."

Fallon’s late-night program showed the flag in the background of a photo of President Trump from during that visit to Kenosha.

Pedregon will open Saturday qualifying from the fourth-place slot His Friday best was a 3.897-second elapsed time at 324.98 mph.

WORSHAM BRACING FOR THREE STRAIGHT – Del Worsham isn’t overlooking this race, by any means, considering he has won it twice in the Funny Car category (2001, 2008) and once in Top Fuel (2011) and has a loyal fan following here. And he said he’s continuing to make his Toyota Camry consistent as he tries to shake off three straight first-round losses.

But he said that “for the last two weeks we’ve been working hard at basically just preparing ourselves for these three races in a row. We’re racing in Houston, Charlotte, and Atlanta, and it’s a lot of racing.” He said he might have his 2018 Camry ready for next week’s Four-Wide Nationals.

He lost traction in Friday’s first qualifying session and was 10th on the list, but he still owns the track speed record, a 328.06 mph from 2016. Alexis De Joria was fastest in the class in the first session with a 320.97-mph clocking.

GIVE US JUST 30 MORE RUNS – Jack Beckman said he wouldn’t be surprised if his Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge ends up in the winners circle this Sunday. Just the same, he said he expects “a long process” if the team is to win the championship.

Beckman and the newly blended trio of Don Schumacher Racing crew chiefs Dean Antonelli, John Medlen, and Neal Strausbaugh spent the Monday after the recent Las Vegas race testing there to get a better understanding of their hot rod.

Beckman predicted, "It's going to take us 30 more runs to truly get a good understanding on the clutch package and the tune-up changes that our car needs relevant to what we ran last year. Now, keep in mind, last year we won two races and were in contention for the championship and we still weren't as good as we were in 2015, when we won seven races. Sometimes it's just that little one-tenth of one percent that makes all the difference. I think that's what keeps fuel racing interesting from the driver and crew standpoint: it's that pursuit of perfect. You're never going to be perfect in a fuel car, but our goal is to be close to that." However close Beckman and team are to perfection, he said, "I wouldn't bet against our Infinite Hero Foundation team."

Beckman was fifth by the close of Friday qualifying, with a 3.931-second, 327.11-mph showing on the 1,000-foot course.  

PRO STOCK

LAUGHLIN: DOUBLE DEJA-VU – Gas Monkey Garage Camaro driver Alex Laughlin is back in the Pro Stock class for the first time since the 2016 finale at Pomona, Calif.  And fans can see him continue to pursue the Top Alcohol Dragster national championship class in Anthony Dicero’s Morgan Lucas Racing-built entry.

Alex Laughlin’s Pro Stock colleagues Jeg Coughlin and Erica Enders are competing in the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series ranks this weekend, too, and reigning class champion Jason Line has done so in the past. Ditto for Top Fuel’s Shawn Langdon. Dozens of sportsman racers do that at every event. It’s a rush, vying for more than one Wally statue at the same race.

For Laughlin – who doubled up last fall in the Pro Stock and Top Alcohol Dragster classes when he made his A/Fuel debut at Dallas, then again at Las Vegas – it just means he’s busy.

“It’s pretty interesting, because it’s a lot of work,” he said before staking himself early Friday to a No. 10 spot in Top Alcohol Dragster and 12th in Pro Stock. “We don’t get to park the cars together, side by side, in the pits. So it’s back and forth from one pit area to the next: warm one car up and talk to the fans at one place, then warm the other up. It’s back and forth all day. It’s busy.”

He ended the day with an improved provisional ninth-place effort in Pro Stock.

Shifting mental gears keeps him on his toes.

“That’s the hardest part, for sure. Luckily, both cars are so different. At this point now, especially because I have a lot of laps in both of them, I don’t even think about it. When I’m in one car, there’s only one way to do it.  And when I’m in the other car, there’s only one way to do it in that one, too. At this point it’s easy to keep [them] separated,” Laughlin said.  “I think the less you think about it, the better off you are, for sure.”

Although he’s eyeing a national title in the Top Alcohol dragster, Laughlin said he does love the Pro Stock class: “I love driving the Pro Stock car. There’s so much to it. But I definitely like the speed of the A/Fuel car. It’s so much faster. Honestly, I like all kinds of racing. I grew up in road racing. I’ve got as much of a road racing background as I do in drag racing. If it goes fast, I want to be in it.”  

This is the first of seven scheduled Pro Stock appearances for Laughlin, and he said the Richard Rawlings-owned team is hoping to add more. Plans call for “17 or 18” races in the A/Fuel dragster that also carries Gas Monkey Garage sponsorship.  

Top Fuel rookie Troy Coughlin Jr. said he wants someday to be the first in NHRA history to earn Wallys in a dragster, Funny Car, and Pro Stock car.  His uncle, Jeg Coughlin, is the NHRA’s lone driver to win national-event titles in seven different categories (Pro Stock, Comp Eliminator, Super Stock, Stock, Super Comp, Super Gas and Top Dragster). But no one ever has hit the pro class trifecta.

“Alex Laughlin, he could be one who could do that,” Troy Coughlin Jr. said. “He’ a neat kid. He’s really cool.”

Such a feat isn’t on Laughlin’s front burner, the Pro Stocker from Bluff Dale, Texas, said.  

“It’s not something that I’ve ever thought about, but it’s definitely interesting. I’ve even considered getting a license in [Pro Stock] Motorcycle, because I would like ultimately to be licensed and able to race in all four of the categories. I weigh 190 pounds, so I’m at a little bit of a weight disadvantage. I think we could still make it work, though,” Laughlin said.

“I’ve ridden a lot of bikes before. I’ve never driven a drag bike, but I definitely understand [motorcycles]. I’ve ridden bikes on the road and dirt bikes, all different types of motorcycles, just never a Pro Stock-type motorcycle.”

He doesn’t have a Top Fuel license yet. “We’ve kind of talked about maybe doing it at some point this year. At this point, we’re kind of taking it one day or one week at a time,” he said.

Laughlin never has expressed interest in driving a Funny Car. “Honestly, I’ve never had a desire to have 10,000 horsepower in my face or in between my legs,” he said. “If I was going for something like that, to be the first to do something, I would definitely give it a run.”

As far as his Top Alcohol exploits, Laughlin said, “It’s been going well. We’ve tested quite a bit. Testing has been going well. Rolling into Houston, I think we have a very competitive car.”

HOME AT LAST – Erica Enders was in eighth place early on in her Friday homecoming to Royal Purple Raceway, only four-thousandths of a second behind No. 6 Drew Skillman. She closed the day two positions higher, in sixth place, with two Saturday sessions remaining before the field is set for Sunday eliminations.

She also will be competing in Super Gas in Buddy Wood and Cody Ortowski's ORTEQ Energy Technologies Camaro roadster. "Another chance to win," she  said. Enders has won in the Super Comp class here, as well.

"I love this race above all the others,” Enders said. “It's home, not only for me but for my guys, as well, because we're close enough to the shop [at Wynnewood, Okla.] that all of our family members and friends are able to come to the race. We are all thinking about eating at Lupe Tortilla every day. [Lupe Tortilla owners] Stan and Sheila Holt have been my best friends forever. I love them so much, and to have their support again for this race is extra special. We've won with ‘Lupe Tortilla’ on the doors, before so we know they are good luck! We're looking for nothing less than another win."

Enders earned the Pro Stock trophy here in 2014 and 2015, her championship seasons.

This weekend, she’s racing the same Elite Motorsports Camaro she drove to the 2014 Houston victory and the series championship, so that has given her a measure of comfort as she seeks her first victory of the year.

"We're definitely getting better," she said. "I know none of us has been home very much, because we've been constantly testing since even before the season started. We're used to winning races and winning championships, so anything less than that is not up to the standards we set for ourselves. We've got big horsepower. We keep working at matching that power to the car. All this time we're investing will pay off very soon. I can feel it. We're ready to light up the scoreboard."

She’s seventh in the standings after four races.

Enders’ husband, Richie Stevens, was last among the 13 entrants in the short field after Friday’s first session.  

COUGHLIN WANTS MORE FOND HOUSTON MEMORIES – Jeg Coughlin is driving both the JEGS.com Elite Motorsports Camaro in Pro Stock and the JEGS.com Corvette Roadster in Super Gas.

He earned his first Pro Stock victory here at Baytown in 1997, defeating Mark Osborne in the final – in just his second start in the class. That, he said, “remains a wonderful memory for me.” He has four Pro Stock triumphs altogether (including in 1998, 2000, and 2010). In sportsman competition, Coughlin won the Super Stock trophy here in 1994.

"I've always enjoyed racing in Houston," Coughlin said. "Early in my professional career, we had two races a year at that track, one in April and one in October, and that fall race turned the track into Disneyland. It wasn't unusual with cooler conditions and being down there at sea level for world records to be set with regularity. Remember, we don't have a big supercharger hanging off the engine. We need Mother Nature to give us perfect conditions, and we'd usually get those at the second race.”

Then, because we had two races a year there, a bunch of us would go there in the offseason and test like crazy. The Angel family (track owners) even created an event, the Pro Stock Super Bowl, for us. It was always a good time."

He and his team have done extensive testing.

“We've built a really solid foundation of data and performance with this new Rick Jones racecar since the start of the year and we're all very optimistic about this weekend," Coughlin said. "The work has been put in between events. We may have broken the record of early-season test passes because this crew is so focused on contending for every race win and the championship as well.

"This Elite Motorsports group isn't far removed from winning back-to-back championships with my teammate Erica Enders (in 2014 and 2015) so the desire to get back to that level is very strong. I think we're very close, not only with my car but with all the cars under the Elite umbrella. It's exciting to be a part of it all."

He was a part of the strong racing Friday, starting the opening day of qualifying in third place (6.602, 210.47), then moved into the provisional lead with a 6.557, 210.70.

In the initial session, Coughlin and West Texas native Chris McGaha clocked identical elapsed times, but McGaha’s 209.85-mph speed in his Harlow Sammons Camaro couldn’t top Coughlin’s and he had to settle for the provisional fourth place.   

Coughlin said of his Super Gas chances, "It's been a lot of fun racing the roadster this year. We haven't had any luck, but that could change at any time. It's certainly capable of winning races, no doubt."

TRACK RECORDS REMAIN SAME – So far Mike Edwards’ 2013 Pro Stock track speed record of 212.66 mph remains untouched. Jason Line, who claims the 2015 track elapsed-time record (6.519 seconds), was fastest in the first session Friday at 211.20 mph, with tentative No. 1 qualifier Bo Butner close behind at 211.03.

 

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