TORRENCE TAKES TOP FUEL TITLE AT READING - The mission is simple for Steve Torrence win NHRA’s Top Fuel world championship, especially letting it slip away to Brittany Force.

Torrence, who pilots his family-owned Capco contractors dragster, got off to a great start in his quest for a world title this past weekend.

Torrence won the Dodge Nationals in Reading, Pa., the first race in NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship.

Torrence clocked a 3.819-second elapsed run at 325.45 mph to edge Tony Schumacher’s 4.196-second run at 234.82 mph.

“We are not going to make any predictions, but we are not here to be second best,” Torrence said. “We were runner-up here (at Reading) last year and we were ahead, and the car just shut off. That was fresh on our minds and winning the championship is pretty fresh on our minds. We want to do everything we can to solidify that. I think these Capco boys have really hunkered down and even directed their focus more than last year. I couldn’t have done it without them. They saved my butt (Sunday) and I saved theirs and we paid each other back pretty quick.”

Torrence entered the Countdown first in the points standings and stretched his lead over second-place Clay Millican from 20 points to 50 points. Schumacher also is tied with Millican for second in the points.

This was Torrence’s 22nd career national event win and sixth this season, a class high.

“This was a great way to start the Countdown and I’m looking forward to it,” Torrence said. “We have five more races left and we need to win all of those. I’m naturally intense. As the year has gone I’ve been a little more relaxed and I have been able to enjoy the season. We have had fun racing, but (Sunday) and the rest of these races are not fun. We are here to win and that’s the only job we have.”

Schumacher, an eight-time world champ, was gracious in defeat.

“We got a lot better here this weekend and I’m happy about that. We’ve got a really good U.S. Army car right now,” Schumacher aid. “We still have some changes to make, but we are close. We were absolutely terrible in Indy. To come here and qualify No. 2 and then make good runs down the track all weekend is exactly what had to happen. In the final against Torrence, we were very aggressive in our approach. There’s a bump out there that goes across the track. We struggle with that one area, but a lot of cars did. We won some rounds today and leave here tied for second in the points. It’s time for a battle. We have five races to go. Those will all be monster battles coming up with extremely good cars. It’s time for the fans to show up. The drivers to show up. The teams to show up and the game to be played. I love it.” Tracy Renck

TODD DELIVERS 100TH WIN TO CONNIE KALITTA IN MONUMENTAL VICTORY - It took sophomore Funny Car driver J.R. Todd almost four years to repay Connie Kalitta for the opportunity of a lifetime. He did so with interest.

Todd's moment began with a phone call.

Todd, then a part-time driver, fielding one of two Top Fuel dragsters for Bob Vandergriff, received a call from drag racing legend Connie Kalitta informing him that he had some driver problems and inquiring if he'd be interested in driving the rest of the 2014 Vegas 1 event. The call came on Friday evening, and by Saturday morning Todd was getting off of a plane at Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.

Fast forward to Sunday in Reading, Pa., site of the Dodge NHRA Nationals; Todd delivered a coveted 100th win for the decorated team owner Kalitta.

Todd used a quicker reaction time and a 3.972, 319.90 to stop Tim Wilkerson in the Funny Car final round during the opening round of the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship.

Six wins in six final rounds since making the switch to Funny Car in 2017 qualifies Todd and the DHL Funny Car team for having momentum. Todd's win marked his fourth of the season and moved him into the point lead.

"It’s awesome to be able to keep the momentum going; we’ve still got a long road ahead of us. These guys, they know how to win, a lot of them were there for the 2015 Championship year with Del Worsham, and we just want to keep winning. Keep our foot on their throats is what I’ve been saying. We got some gifts early on today with the cars in front of us going out early, and it was nice to be able to come out here with the win and gain on those guys and Courtney. Now we’ve just got to keep it rolling through St. Louis."
Todd said in not so many words; the success is a natural byproduct of the efforts his Kalitta Motorsports team makes on a regular basis.

"They’re racing smart," Todd explained. "It goes back to the TRD guys and Chad Head out there checking the track for us and giving Todd and Jon O. those grip numbers. That’s key for us. They race what the track will allow us. We definitely didn’t have the best car this weekend, but I felt like we had a really good car. They just go up there and race smart and try not to beat ourselves.

"You’ve got to go down the track to win these things, and that’s what we’re doing. This weekend, man we murdered a bunch of parts. For whatever reason, we just had a bunch of dumb things happen that never really happen. So the guys had some late nights Friday and Saturday, and it was nice to be able to pay them back on Sunday with another win."

Todd was the picture of consistency all day Sunday, winning with passes ranging from 3.982 (Bob Tasca III), 3.996 (Mike Smith), and a 3.975 (Ron Capps) to reach the final round.

"The consistency has come around since I’d say the semifinals in Brainerd," Todd said. "We struggled throughout the summer and made some changes going into the Indy test, and it really paid off going to the U.S. Nationals and coming into here. The car’s really consistent. We made some good runs in qualifying, but it still should have run better than what it had just because of those parts breaking.

"We knew that we had a car that was capable of running with the top cars out here. One run it was going to run a low .90, and it didn’t make it to the finish line under power. It got our confidence up for today and like I said, just racing smart more than anything."

Todd also understands the value of getting hot at the right time, an identical approach the 2015 DHL team with Del Worsham driving pulled off to win the championship.

"We’re going to have to win some more races if we want to win this thing," Todd said. "The Funny Car category is so tough, and you’ve got to have some breaks fall your way, and that’s what happened for us today. Yeah, we got to keep the ball rolling. I mean we got points and a half in Pomona, but we’ve still got a long way before we get to Pomona, so we just want to keep earning points. I mean we gained three bonus points in one of the qualifying rounds, and that’s the type of things that we need to do, gain as many points as we can going into the end of the season."

Todd just smiles at the good fortunes which have come his way.

"I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to be around a lot of great people," Todd said. "I say they make me look good. I have the lucky part of just get in there and hit the gas and try and keep the thing straight down the track. Once I got the call from Connie, I knew that I was with a team that was capable of winning races and winning championships, and I feel like this is my best opportunity to go out there and achieve those things." Bobby Bennett

NOBILE ROMPS TO A THIRD 2018 PRO STOCK WIN - There was a time when Vincent Nobile and the Mountainview Tire team was going to park their car and take a break. For the record, Sunday wasn't the time.

Nobile picked up his third Pro Stock win of 2018, beating Drew Skillman in the final round of the Dodge NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa., the first stop of the 2018 NHRA Countdown to the Championship.

Nobile proved it isn't how one starts a race but how they finish which counts the most.

"Honestly Q1 we went out there and made a pretty solid hit," Nobile explained. "We were happy with it; we were number three and Elite was on top. I believe it was Jeggy, Erica and me. So everything was looking up and up, and then we kind of went downhill from there. We made a few mistakes in qualifying. At the end of the day on Friday, we were a little bummed out where we had ended up. And then Saturday had come, and we really didn’t improve like we wanted to.

"Once Saturday was over, we kind of found a few things that we wanted to change for Sunday, not knowing for sure if it would be okay or not but we were pretty confident in it. Obviously, it turned out to be okay. All in all, what a great way to start the countdown with a win."

While Nobile is happy to win the event, he quickly points out the class is at a point where anyone can win on any given day.

"If you really look at it, if you’re an avid Pro Stock fan, every single team out here could win the race," Nobile explained. "It’s just who has their stuff together the best that weekend. As you could see, I don’t even know how many different winners, nine or 10 different Pro Stock winners this year, so the parity is there. It can’t be any better. You’ve just got to do the best you can. You’ve got to cross your T's, dot your I's and that’s the only way you can win a Pro Stock race this year."

In fact, Nobile and his team did some soul-searching early in the season.

"Come Vegas earlier this year, that was going to be my last race for a little while," Nobile said. "I’m not even sure what our schedule was going to be; we were just going to play it by ear. We had won that race and that kind of just solidified my whole season there. It was definitely a clutch win. Moving forward from there, we went on to win Atlanta, and that just showed us we had a good car.

"We kind of fell off after Atlanta, but we were trying some things; obviously the track prep might have messed us up a little bit. But here we are now; now we’ve just got to move forward. I think we have a pretty good race car. And like I said, we’re not going to be the fastest car at each race, nobody is for that matter because the power is just so close. It’s just whoever gets it right. But as long as we can be in the top five in qualifying, for this matter top six in qualifying, I think we can get the job done."

On Sunday, Nobile got the job done and was the picture of consistency with a 6.571 (Matt Hartford), 6.594 (Erica Enders), 6.594 (Greg Anderson) and a 6.586 to beat Skillman on a holeshot.

"The second round and third round were huge; every little point matters," Nobile said. I mean the small points in qualifying matter. The championship could be won by one point literally. Last year it went down to the last round with Bo there. So every little point counts. We need to do our best in qualifying; we really need to get some little points because you don’t want one person grabbing those like Greg did this year. He didn’t win a race for the longest time and was still number one in points because he kept getting nearly 15-20 points in qualifying each weekend.

"That’s a round at a time. That’s going to be critical come the countdown because it’s already here, and like I said, just got to cross your T’s and dot your I’s." Bobby Bennett

ARANA JR. STARTS COUNTDOWN WITH READING WIN - During his career, Pro Stock Motorcycle standout Hector Arana Jr. won NHRA’s Auto Club Road to the Future Award in 2011 and his share of national events.

Now, he’s chasing an elusive world championship.

Arana Jr. took the first step to reaching that goal by winning the Dodge Nationals Sunday in Reading, Pa. The first race in the six-race Countdown to the Championship

Arana clocked a 6.842-second run at 197.74 mph to defeat Matt Smith, who slowed to 7.306 seconds at 145.88 mph.

Arana Jr. moved up from fourth to second in the points, three behind leader and reigning world champion Eddie Krawiec.

Arana Jr. is riding an Erik Buell Racing motorcycle and is sponsored by Lucas Oil.

“All the wins in the preseason, that’s great, but what matters are the wins in the Countdown,” Arana Jr. said. “That’s what we are working on. We are working on consistency, which is something we have been working on all year, and I think we definitely have the bike to beat this year. We have a strong championship contender and I can’t thank my team enough. My dad (Hector Arana Sr.) and the team work super hard back at the shop, late hours while I’m up in New York. I can’t thank them enough and Lucas Oil has been with us for a decade and it is great to have them sponsoring us where we don’t have to worry about a thing but just focus on making good power and making fast motorcycles.”

This was Arana Jr.’s 13th national event win and his second of the season as he also won the Mile-High Nationals in Denver in July. His best finish was second in the point standings in 2011.

Arana Jr. also was the first Pro Stock Motorcycle rider to break the 200-mph barrier in a national event, which he did at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla.

“I definitely have had a lot of great accomplishments in my career and I think the only thing that’s lacking now is a championship,” Arana Jr. said. “We are working really hard for that and I definitely think we can do it. Also, Vincent Nobile (Arana Jr.’s brother-in-law) won (in Pro Stock) and he’s second in points also so how great would be that if we could make it a family affair and won championships. It was unfortunate he (his dad) wasn’t able to ride on Sunday as well, but we made the best of it and got the win for the lack of his qualifying.” Tracy Renck


NO. 1 WITH A BULLET - Pro Stock points leader Tanner Gray grabbed his sixth career top qualifier and second in 2018 after his run of 6.542 at 210.47 in his Valvoline/Nova Service Chevrolet Camaro during the final qualifying session Saturday.

Gray, who has five wins this season, will look for his first at Maple Grove and matches up with Val Smeland in the first round of eliminations.  

“We have really been making good runs both days, and that one had a little bit of an edge,” Gray said. “It definitely gives us some confidence, but I’m not going to try to change too much. I feel like I’ve done a good job of hitting the tree here, so, all in all, I’m pretty excited. I’m just trying to keep the same mindset.”


EIGHT TIME'S THE CHARM - Clay Millican claimed his eighth No. 1 qualifier of 2018,18th in his career and second straight at the track after his pass of 3.723-seconds at 330.72 mph in his Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster from Friday stood up.

Millican, who is currently second in points, also had the best run in the final qualifying session and will race Jim Maroney in the first round of eliminations as he looks for his first win at the facility.

“If we make four runs like we’ve made the last two days, I like our chances,” said Millican, who is also seeking his first NHRA Top Fuel world championship. “I’m pretty happy with how the car has run this weekend. During these last six races, every point matters. It’s all points right now, and it’s vitally important we go down the racetrack (Sunday).”


COURTNEY NAILS ANOTHER NO. 1 - Funny Car points leader Courtney Force picked up her 11th No. 1 qualifier of the 2018 season and 28th in her career after her run of 3.907 at 323.27 from Friday in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS. Seeking her first career win at Maple Grove, Force will race Mike Smith to open eliminations.

“It’s exactly how we wanted to start things off,” said Force, who is seeking her first world championship. “Our goal is to try to get those bonus points and stay ahead, and we were able to do that last night. To go into the first race of the Countdown No. 1 feels pretty great for my Advance Auto Parts team. I feel like we’ve really got a great handle on the car and that gives our entire team a lot of confidence going into race day.”


RICKIE'S BOY SHINES - Two-time world champ Matt Smith grabbed his third straight No. 1 qualifying position in Pro Stock Motorcycle thanks to his 6.828 at 198.20 from Friday on his Elite Motorsports Denso Auto Parts EBR. Smith now has four No.1 qualifiers in 2018 and 30 for his career, and the two-time winner at the track will face off with John Hall in the first round of eliminations.

“It’s good to start from the No. 1 spot,” said Smith, who started the playoffs sixth in points. “We got a lot of bonus points so far this weekend, so hopefully we can go some rounds tomorrow and improve our position so we can put ourselves in position to win this championship. That’s what we’re trying to do. We just have to some rounds (Sunday) and see what happens.”


MOMENTUM, IT'S VERY REAL - Those who doubt the existence of momentum should spend time with J.R. Todd.

Todd, the former Top Fuel standout who is now in his second year driving the 10,000-horsepower DHL Toyota Camry Funny Car,  entered the weekend in fifth place on the strength of an NHRA U.S. Nationals win. It’s better than the eighth he started from in his debut Funny Car season a year ago, giving the talented driver confidence a title run is possible.

“Our performance is right there with the top teams, and I feel like as long as I drive like I did in Indy, that’s going to help us,” Todd said. “Our confidence is really high for these next six races. Having the consistency come around is extremely important and we went down the track almost every time in Indy. We’re hoping to keep that momentum going heading into the Countdown.”

After starting the year strong, picking up back-to-back wins early in the season, Todd and his team, led by crew chief Jon Oberhofer and co-crew chief Todd Smith, didn’t pick up another win until Indy. As frustrating as that was, Todd was impressed with how his team handled it, continuing to push forward. The payoff was a semifinal appearance in Brainerd and then qualifying No. 1 in Indy en route to the victory, giving Todd supreme confidence in his team for the playoffs.

“A month or so ago, we weren’t doubting ourselves, but we were not as confident as we are now, said Todd, who has 14 career victories, five of which have come in Funny Car. “I feel like this is my best opportunity yet to win a championship. This DHL team, they won (the title) with Del (Worsham) in 2015, and they know what it takes. The ups and downs of the season showed the character of this team, and they just keep digging and never give up. I keep telling everybody I don’t think we’ve peaked yet. Hopefully we’re on the rise. These guys know how to win.”

Todd ended the day as No. 8 with a 3.947, 322.50 and will race Bob Tasca III in Sunday's first round.

WHO DREW THIS UP? - If this were football, it would mean the fullback and half-back are trying to tackle one another. In racing, two teammates with different roles will meet each other in the first round of Sunday's eliminations.

Teammates Scott Palmer and Dom Lagana made their best qualifying passes in the final session, and for their efforts, they gained a ladder that pits them against one another in the opening round of eliminations. They finished seventh and tenth respectively.

"Track conditions were really good this afternoon, and we were both able to run our best ETs, so we're pleased with the performance of both team cars," Palmer said. "It's not what you want when you end up on opposite sides of the ladder and have to race each other right out of the gate, but we'll look at the positive side of it and say we're happy that for sure one of us will be advancing to the second round."
The CatSpot dragster has been remarkably consistent with Palmer posting runs of 3.817, 3.822, 3.820 and 3.779 down the historic drag strip in Pennsylvania's Dutch Country.
"We've had a great car almost every race this year, and it's one of the main reasons this season has been different than in the past," said Palmer, who recorded a runner-up finish earlier this season in Phoenix. "No one takes this team lightly anymore. They know we will get down the track with competitive times every pass. We proved that again in qualifying.
"This is the best time of the year for us to show Tommy Thompson (owner of CatSpot and Magic Dry) how much we appreciate his support. We have big dreams about winning in the playoffs and bringing a lot of attention to his products. Why not us tomorrow?"
With the exception of Friday's first pass, Lagana's Magic Dry rail also has been a steady ride for the part-time team. He's made runs of 4.062, 3.798, 3.801 and 3.792.
"The alliance we have with the CAPCO guys is the reason we're sitting in this position," Lagana said. "They're a great group, and they're all about making all three cars go as fast as possible. I know when I'm working on Steve (Torrence's) car we are always thinking about what Scott's doing and I know the guys are thinking about me this weekend.
"Just look at how Steve, Scott and me ran this weekend so far. We're all strong, and I'll be surprised if one or more of us isn't in the mix for the trophy tomorrow. I open against Scott, so we know we've got a tough draw, but we'll run as best we can with these new Magic Dry Absorbent colors on the car and see what happens."

MIXED BAG OF RESULTS - Defending Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force will start race day from the No. 11 position off the efforts of her 3.802-second pass at 326.63 mph from the third qualifying session. Force closed out the day with another bout of bad luck — a timing system malfunction occurred during her Q2 run on Friday — when a blower belt pulley came off her Advance Auto Parts dragster.

“We struggled with luck this weekend. Q2 yesterday, the tree didn’t activate, and it definitely affected our run. Then today a blower pulley came off our car. It was on a killer run, too,” explained Force who won this event last year. “So, we’ll have to take the two good runs that we had and make them work for tomorrow. Sunday is a whole new day. This Advance Auto Parts Monster Energy team, we’re going to get back in the winner’s circle. We won here last year. We’re getting ready to move eighth all the way back up to one like we did last year. We’ve got a lot of work to do before tomorrow, but I know this team will figure it out.”

Force will race Antron Brown in the first round of eliminations Sunday. The pair have met at the two previous events at Maple Grove; Brown beat Force in the 2016 final and Force beat Brown in the semifinals en route to her 2017 win.

JEGGIE STARTS SECOND - Five-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. qualified second in his JEGS.com/Elite Chevrolet Camaro thanks to his run of 6.546 at 210.11 on Saturday. The four-time winner at the track meets John Gaydosh Jr. in the opening round of eliminations.

Coughlin entered the weekend ranked fourth in points, and chasing a seventh NHRA title.  

"This is such a great time of the season," Jeg Jr. said. "I really embrace the playoffs. It's a very exciting time with lots of dramatic moments. It's awesome to have our JEGS.com Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro up to speed and contending for race wins every weekend. It should be a great Countdown to the Championship.
"The regular season was interesting. The first third of the schedule we were just struggling to find our way. The team made some pretty dramatic changes at that point and everything turned around for us. We won our first race in a few years time at the JEGS.com Nationals in Chicago and managed to add a couple other wins in the weeks following that race. We have really shown the championship caliber of this Elite group."
Coughlin is a perfect 5-0 in final rounds at Maple Grove with four Pro Stock wins and one Super Gas victory, and is just 40 points out of first place.

STRUGGLING WITH THE TUNE-UP - Greg Anderson, who has reached the Maple Grove Raceway final round in each of the most recent three seasons, enters race day in the No. 7 position. He will square off with KB Racing teammate Deric Kramer as he aims to return to the points lead at the first race in the Countdown to the Championship. Anderson has two previous wins in Reading.
"We're working on it, but I don't feel like we've got the tune-up for this racetrack just yet," said Anderson, who so far this weekend has recorded a best time of 6.562-second at 209.69 mph. "I'm surprised that we don't, but the cars are getting happier. Bo's has been happiest so far, and it shows that it wants to run, but we've had to work very hard to produce a number out there. That will make it tough going into tomorrow, but we're looking back at our notes from a few races ago. We're going to make our cars happier tomorrow; it's as simple as that. There are a lot of guys making really nice runs, and we're hoping to be part of that group tomorrow when it matters the most."

KRAWIEC QUALIFIES NO. 2 - Points leader Eddie Krawiec, who is the defending world champion and also the defending event winner, jumped up to second on Saturday on his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson after his pass of 6.828 at 197.08. Krawiec, who has back-to-back wins at Maple Grove, will race Jim Underdahl in the opening round of eliminations.

NEEDING A BIT OF DEJA VU - Last season, the NHRA Nationals in Reading proved to be a pivotal race for Bo Butner. He won the event with a final-round defeat of KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson, and at season's end, the difference in points gave Butner the nod for the championship over Anderson. This year, although Butner enters the Countdown to the Championship in the No. 9 spot, he knows anything is possible. He is the defending event champion, but the driver of the Jim Butner Auto Chevrolet Camaro doesn't necessarily believe he has a target on his back.
"This is about like we raced last year. We're trying to find last year's mojo and bring it into the Countdown," said Butner, who is qualified in the No. 5 position with a best time of 6.574-second at 209.36 mph. He will race Kenny Delco in round one. "I feel very good about our car. The whole field is so close, and tomorrow, all we have to do is drive. Hopefully, if we all do our job, we'll have KB Racing Chevys in the semis and the finals.
"It's not great to be on the same side of the ladder as your teammates, but you're going to have to race everybody at some time if you want to get to the final. The goal is just to win rounds, and we've got a car that's making good runs and would make a good bracket car. I won this race last year, but I'm kind of hoping that everyone has overlooked us. I'm hoping that for the whole Countdown deal, and I'm excited for tomorrow."

BEST FOR LAST - “Fast” Jack Beckman opened qualifying on Friday with the quickest pass of the round and ended it on Saturday with the second quickest of the session, earning a total of five bonus points. The DSR driver posted his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat in the No. 4 spot and will square off with Cruz Pedregon to open Sunday.

“We did exactly what we had to do. In Q3, we towed up, fired up the car, and it spit an O-ring out in the fuel line; we had a leak and had to shut it off," Beckman explained. "I cannot remember ever not making a qualifying run except for in New Hampshire in 2016 when we blew the car up so bad it made every highlight reel. We just don’t skip qualifying sessions. And then you get not only one run behind, but you can’t try stuff, so it really kind of painted us into the corner. The guys did a phenomenal job getting our Infinite Hero Dodge back on track. Not only did we move way up to fourth, we were second quickest of the session, we got two more bonus points, and we’ve got a car that can win the race tomorrow.”


WILKERSON FINISHES STRONG - Tim Wilkerson finished second in qualifying, thanks to his 3.912 at 324.20 from Friday in his Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang. Wilkerson will meet Terry Haddock in the first round of eliminations.

Wilkerson entered the weekend, the first in NHRA's 2018 Countdown to the Championship playoffs, in the No. 10 position.

In the first round of qualifying at Maple Grove Raceway's Dodge NHRA Nationals, Wilkerson blasted to a killer 3.968-second pass at 318.69 mph under grey skies, and he came back for an even better pass in the second session. A brilliant 3.912, 324.20 kept him steady and holding through two more sessions as the No. 2 seed.
 "I thought I'd have more bonus points by the time I got through qualifying, to tell you the truth. It kind of aggravates me, but I have a pretty good car still, and we'll see how tomorrow goes," said the 2003 Maple Grove Raceway winner.
In Saturday qualifying at the historic Reading racetrack, Wilkerson – as per the norm – was testing for Sunday in the early qualifying round. In the later session, something went wrong, and he was finished before he started, veering to the left as he launched from the starting line.
"The first run was a test, but that second run we had a malfunction," said Wilkerson. "We figured out what's wrong; we just have to figure out why it did it. It was a malfunction in the command module that runs the fuel system. It didn't like that one bit, but I think we'll get it figured out now. I was a little greedy that first run today, but it was running good 'til it wasn't. I think tomorrow will be a lot of fun. The guys are excited, I'm excited, and we've got a good car for this first Countdown race."

A BEE-PLUS PERFORMANCE - Leah Pritchett will start from the No. 3 spot at the Dodge NHRA Nationals, with the goal of making it two-for-two in the win column for her Mopar Dodge 1320 Top Fuel dragster.

Pritchett last carried the special Mopar Dodge 1320 graphics on her dragster when she debuted her “Angry Bee” at the Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals in Denver in late July. The Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) driver collected the No. 1 qualifier spot and the race win at that event in the “Angry Bee” 1320 graphics, which celebrate the new street-to-strip Dodge Challenger R/T Scat Pack 1320 drag car, geared for Sportsman racers.

“I feel like the Countdown is Christmas and whoever can feel like it’s Christmas the longest is going to be the champion. We get excited about going fast, and we pushed super hard in Q4. Our plan was to merge Q1 and Q2, and it stuck for a little while until we had some issues at the top end. Those are the things that challenge us, and we look forward to. Starting Sunday off in the third position is incredible. That’s what we want. It gives us lane choice and the ability to concentrate on one round at a time. A lot of people want to put added pressure on these Countdown races. I think that consistency is going to be the biggest component and we’ve shown that we have that throughout qualifying this weekend.”


SARGE ALMOST IN CHARGE - Eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher jumped all the way to second in his final qualifying pass in his U.S. Army dragster, going 3.754 at 328.66. He’ll race Dan Mercier to start eliminations.

“We have a great U.S. Army car and just closed qualifying with a great run. We’ve been gun-shy, and finally, it was time. In that last run, we had the opportunity we needed. The conditions were good. We already knew how to make an average run, but we needed to make a fast one. We made a lot of changes, and the car was extremely fast. I give a lot of credit to (crew chief) Mike (Neff) and (assistant crew chief) Phil (Shuler) and all the U.S. Army guys. They never gave up and continued to work. I’m so happy to be here in Reading. This is a great place to start the Countdown. We want to win this race tomorrow. To win a championship, you have to win races, and we have a great opportunity tomorrow.”


THE LEADER OF THE POINTS - Points leader Steve Torrence qualified fourth with a 3.762 at 330.88 in his Capco Contractors dragster, setting up a first-round matchup with Bill Litton.


SAME STORY, DIFFERENT DAY - The bad news for the Funny Car competition is that Courtney Force's approach has not changed.

Force, the current Funny Car points leader, expressed her intentions towards nailing down an 11th No. 1 qualifier of the 2018 season after her run of 3.907-seconds at 323.27 mph in her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro SS.

“We went for it on that second run and I was excited,” said Force, who is seeking her first world championship. “I knew we were going to go for it and it was awesome. It’s amazing to pick up some of those bonus points. It would be huge to go into race day in the No. 1 spot. We’ve got two more runs (Saturday) and hopefully a long day on race day. But our focus coming into this race is obviously to try and keep that points lead.”

Force proved it isn't how one starts the day but how they finish which counts. She opened the day with an early shutoff during the first qualifying session, coasting to 7.752 seconds at 84.20 mph.

“On the first run we shook pretty hard and had to get off the throttle," Force explained. "We changed some things around and we thought we would be ready for the second qualifying session.

“I think every team knows in Q2 that, no matter what track you are at, you shoot for the moon. That is usually the best time to run but tomorrow we are running at the same times so who knows what can happen. That just means we will have to keep improving on the 3.90 we put on the board,” continued Force.

UPWARD SWING - The NHRA's Countdown has been shuffled with Reading opening up the six-race playoff stretch.

Funny Car No. 1 seed Courtney Force hopes her fate at the historic facility has shuffled as well.

“This is a track I’ve struggled at but came close to turning things around last year with our finals appearance," Force explained. "I know there’s a lot of potential here with the great conditions and record-setting times that are usually here. However, being that we are coming to this track earlier than usual in the Countdown could definitely change the conditions we are used to,” said Force. “I feel that [crew chief Brian] Corradi has had better experience on this track in the past and could definitely bring some of that insight to our car this weekend. We are hoping he is the missing piece that can get this car turned around on such a great track."

Force entered the weekend with the Mello Yello Funny Car points lead, a lead that she’s had since winning the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta in May.

Force’s points lead in the Countdown was so fierce, she merely had to make one qualifying pass during the U.S. Nationals to lock-in the No. 1 spot. With four wins, two runner-up finishes and 10 No. 1 qualifiers, Force was unstoppable behind the wheel of her Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car.

CLAY BOLTS TO NO. 1 - NHRA’s six-race Countdown to the Championship made winning a world title realistic for Top Fuel driver Clay Millican.

Following the 18-race regular season, Millican trailed points leader Steve Torrence by 188 points.

When the points reshuffled, second-place Millican was only 20 points in back of Torrence when they arrived in Reading, Pa., for the Dodge Nationals.

Millican was able to slice that deficit by six points as he had the fastest two runs of the day Friday – the second one at 3.723 seconds at 330.72 mph gave him the provisional No. 1 spot at Maple Grove Raceway.

“It is pretty awesome,” Millican said. “Our group of guys are pretty incredible. We normally have a target, other words Gubby (his crew chief David Grubnic) comes to me and tells me he is trying run X. (Friday), he said I can’t tell you what to expect out of the car until we are about to start it because our goal 100 percent is to get three bonus points. Because of being No. 2 in points, that meant we were at the back of the line for the first qualifying session and he judged on the other cars. The only car we had to worry about the first session was Steve Torrence and so we went 3.74. Second session we did the same things.”

The veteran Millican acknowledged that swinging for the fences right before the run is a mental challenge for his crew.

“It is a little hard on the guys because there’s a big variance in trying to run 3.80 versus running a 3.74 like we did in the first session,” Millican said. “We knew the second session was going to be even quicker and Grubby was last-minute again, he actually asked the Salinas guys to give him a second. I was already strapped in and he was in there twisting knobs. At that point, I can’t tell if he is speeding it up or slowing it down, but he turned the right knobs and it went 3.72 at 330 mph. Mission accomplished. We gained our six points (Friday) and it all counts right now. There was such a huge gap Steve Torrence had and now it is 20 points. So, six points we made a big jump. All those little points add up and at the end of the year it could be the difference of being the champion or not being the champion. That’s it our goal to be the champion.”

Millican, a six-time IHRA world champion, has won two races this season and been the No. 1 qualifiers seven times. – Tracy Renck

GET 'EM GIRL - Two-time Pro Stock world champion Erica Enders currently holds the top spot after driving to a 6.550 at 209.88 in her Melling/Elite Performance Chevrolet Camaro. It would mark the second No. 1 qualifier in the past three races and 20th overall for Enders, who is seeking her first career victory at the track.

“We had the Elite Performance cars at the top of the pack, and the really cool part for me was hearing the confidence back in the voice of our crew chief, Rick Jones,” said Enders, who starts the Countdown to the Championship in third place. “That gives me confidence and helps me drive better, and it was awesome. Our goal is obviously to run strong through these Countdown races and hopefully secure a third championship.”

Enders’ teammate Jeg Coughlin Jr., who has four wins at Maple Grove, is currently second after his run of 6.552 at 208.81 in his JEGS.com/Elite Chevrolet Camaro, while Drew Skillman is a spot back with a pass of 6.560 at 210.24. Points leader Tanner Gray is fourth after going 6.563 at 209.69 in his Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro.


SMITH LEADS THE BIKES - Matt Smith continues his run of good fortune with his new EBR bodywork.

Smith, a two-time world champ, finished atop the qualifying order in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a 6.828 at 198.20 on his Elite Motorsports Denso Auto Parts EBR. Should it hold, it would mark the third straight No. 1 qualifier and fourth overall in 2018 for Smith, who last won at Maple Grove Raceway in 2013 and currently sits sixth in the playoffs.

“We’ve got a good hot rod and we’ve had a good hot rod the last two races, so we just have to perform better on Sunday,” said Smith, who has 29 career No. 1 qualifiers. “We can go 200 (mph) if we can get the weather right. We want to become part of the elite team and I want to be the No. 3 guy to get it done.”


EVERY BIT COUNTS - Greg Anderson entered the Countdown ranked No. 2, and while moving forward without the bonus points attributed to the top seed could be considered a disadvantage, the multi-time Pro Stock champion believes the battle will go down to the wire.


"Not having the extra points for starting No. 1 stinks, but the simple truth, and I think everyone in the world knows it, is that it's going to go down to the last race – just like it has the last few years," Anderson explained. "Anybody can beat anybody, and that's going to happen in the Countdown. There are too many good cars, so like we talked about before, you better be able to get up from that bloody nose, get back in the ring, and get back in the fight at the next race. Nobody is going to run off with a series of wins, and it's going to be a logjam by the time we get to Pomona. You better be in that logjam if you want a chance to win the championship."

Starting off in Reading will be a change Anderson is willing to accept.
"It's odd to start the Countdown in Reading this year, but I kind of like it. That means that we'll get to race in Charlotte when it's cooler, and I'm licking my chops for that. I love that part of it, and maybe it was time to mix it up a little bit."

DON'T DO IT - There's zero likelihood two-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight will be texting or driving distracted while he covers the Maple Grove Raceway 1000-foot course. And, this is the message the Auto Club of Southern California-sponsored driver is promoting this weekend.

Throughout the Countdown Hight will be campaigning a new look Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro that features an important message about distracted driving. It was planned for the car to be revealed as part of the pre-Countdown media tour in New York City but the ensuing hurricane and the media’s need to keep the public informed about its severity changed those plans. However, Hight and his teammate Courtney Force, had a chance to talk about the dangers of distracted driving on FOX News as well as meet with John Wall Street and have a meeting with the executive producer of Rachel Ray.

“Unfortunately, too many people try to multi-task when driving and many think they are skilled enough to do it safely. I’m a highly skilled driver, and I can tell you that the reality is – multi-tasking doesn’t work – not at 300 miles per hour and not at 20 miles per hour,” explained Hight. “My daughter Autumn drives a Jr. Dragster and will be driving a full-size car soon. I understand how important it is for young drivers to develop safe habits early on behind the wheel and that is something we talk about a lot.”

CHANGE WILL DO YOU GOOD - By his own admission, Jason Line has not had a good season.

Line has yet to win a race this season and has seven first-round losses during the regular season.

"I'm looking forward to starting the Countdown in Reading because that's been a pretty good place for me in the past," Line said. "Change is always good, and I need a fresh start. It's time to hit the reset button and make something happen to finish this year strong. We're not exactly where we want to be right now, and I'm going to have to do a really great job driving, but I'm absolutely thinking about the championship. We're going to have to find a little bit of consistency and a little bit of speed, but it can absolutely happen."

EDDIE KNOWS MAPLE GROVE - If there's anyone who knows how to work Maple Grove Raceway into his favor, it's Eddie Krawiec. The four-time world champ has an incredible track record at the Reading, Pennsylvania facility, winning four times since 2012.

Known for his quick starts on both the starting line and the point standings, Krawiec is ready for more of the same at Maple Grove, which is located just outside of Philadelphia.

“I don’t want to upset all my Northeast fans,” Krawiec said. “It just works for me. I don’t know how to explain it. Hopefully, the date change keeps things working for me, but the success has just happened. I don’t know how to explain it, but hopefully we can keep that right mojo going.

"I’m comfortable at every track I’m going to in the Countdown. I know we have a good set-up and good data for each of these tracks, so I like my position and I like where I am.”

Krawiec has nine wins in his past 17 events dating back to his Indy win a year ago, carrying his dominant stretch from the Countdown to the Championship in 2017 into this season. The 47-time event winner has four wins and five finals appearances in 2018, which means the challenge now is finding a way to keep improving with a host of talented riders nipping at his heels.

“We’ve got good motorcycles, and we’ve been performing well the second half of the season, and I don’t see it changing from that perspective,” Krawiec said. “We always try to run and be better, for us we have to keep the motorcycle consistent on race day. It’s not good to come out, go fast and then taper off. You want to go fast every run and then continually go fast each run at each track. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the key to the Countdown.”

Krawiec has been in this position before and will again rely on his battle-tested experience to perform at a high level in the playoffs.

“You could be the fastest guy, but you may not be the best racer, and if you’re not, it’s going to come back to get you,” Krawiec said. “I’ve learned that over the years. With the Countdown, you can’t think too far ahead. The way I look at it, you have to go rounds at every race. If you don’t and somebody falters, you’re not there to capitalize, and you lose an opportunity. You have to try to capitalize on every opportunity, make your own luck and try to be good all the time.”

WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN - Steve Torrence has seen this movie before.

Torrence, the 2018 regular season champion for Top Fuel, labored long and hard to gain a 197-point lead over the nearest competitor before having his once-imposing lead reduced to a paltry 20 points after the NHRA’s “adjustment” of the driver standings.

Just how dominant has Torrence been? He's won  13 of the last 42 Mello Yello tour events, twice as many as any other driver in the class. He's won ten more rounds of competition than the No. 2 team.

Torrence, 35, doesn't regret his regular season approach of peaking early and often as he seeks to score his first professional championship.

“We only know one way to race,” Torrence said.  “We’re not going to change for the Countdown.  

“Last year, Brittany (reigning champion Brittany Force) had a great run, but I still think we could have held her off if we hadn’t crashed our car at Dallas,” lamented the man who seemed to have things well in hand until that crash forced him into a backup car for the final two events.  “But things happen.  It’s just racing.  You play the hand you’re dealt and we’re okay with that.

“When you get that close, though, so close you can taste it, it just makes you that much hungrier,” he admitted.  “It just makes you want it that much more.  We’ve been waiting all year to get another shot and I think these Capco boys are up for it.”

Torrence has complete confidence in his team.

“Richard Hogan and Bobby (Lagana Jr.) have a good handle on the tune-up,” Torrence said of the mechanical minds who have kept him atop the driver standings since the second race of the current campaign and after 27 of the last 32 events overall. “So, if I just do my job, we’re gonna have a good chance to win every week.”

Torrence ended Friday's qualifying No. 6, after posting a best 3.785, 327.74.



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