By Lee Elder
COMMERCE, Ga. (May 4, 2018) – If it is true that great competition is the best sales tool a racing series can have, then NHRA Pro Stock fans should have the turnstiles singing here this weekend.
The NHRA teams complete a three weeks/three races string this weekend with the NHRA Southern Nationals presented by Mello Yello at Atlanta Dragway.
The recent resurgence of the Elite Motorsports Pro Stock team has made the category the toughest of all the NHRA’s professional categories in which to predict a winner. There have been no repeat winners in six races this season.
“We’ve all stepped up,” said five-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin of his teammates at Elite. “Vincent (Nobile) won in Vegas, Matt Hartford beat Erica (Enders) in Houston, then Erica beat Vincent and two others at Charlotte.”
Anderson finished the first two rounds of qualifying as the quickest of the Pro Stock cars with a 6.593 second, 210.11 mph pass during the second round. Nobile was second and Tanner Gray, whose team is not aligned with either the KB or Elite teams, was third. The competitive balance was on display Friday.
“In Q1 the track was not quite what we hoped for but it was prepared quite a bit better for tonight,” Anderson said. “It was a ton better than the first round.”
Clay Millican’s 3.758-second Top Fuel run gave him the provisional pole in that category. His speed, 331.12 mph set a track record. Leah Pritchett was second and Brittany Force was third.
“This car has been a quick car, but it hasn’t been known as a speedy car,” Millican said.
Millican related that a fan asked between rounds whether the Top Fuel cars would reach 330 mph in the second session. The answer turned out to be yes.
Robert Hight led Funny Car at 3.952 seconds and 327.59 mph. Cruz Pedregon was second and Tommy Johnson Jr. was third.
“I kinda didn’t know what to expect,” Hight said about his second-round pass. “Jimmy Prock made so many changes, he said he didn’t know what to expect.”
Matt Smith qualified at the front of Pro Stock Motorcycle during Friday’s session one, notable after a dramatic split between Smith and partner Joe Riccardi at Charlotte last week. Smith’s opening pass was timed at 6.882 seconds and 196.13 mph. It was the second time in as many races the first-round leader in PSM had recently gone through a major change in his racing situation.
“My plan for (Saturday) is to make one pass,” Smith said. “The morning session should be the best and I will be in the first pair out so we should have the best air.”
The week before Steve Johnson led qualifying after the first round of qualifying. Johnson and White Alligator Racing went separate directions after the first PSM race of the season. And for the second consecutive week, the PSM round one leader did not make a pass in the second round of qualifications.
The Pro Stock category has been dominated in recent seasons by the KB racing duo of Greg Anderson and Jason Line. A third KB car, driven by Bo Butner, won the 2017 championship and this year Deric Kramer’s team has a technical alliance with the KB bunch.
Butner opened the 2018 campaign with a victory at Pomona but the KB bunch has not won since then and the Elite performance has improved. Coughlin and Enders both experimented with cars built by Jerry Haas at Charlotte and both drivers saw improved performance.
“We’ve known, through the performances of other teams that use Elite motors, that we’ve had the horsepower, it was just a matter of getting the most out of the racecars,” Coughlin said.
Coughlin is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career. He has gone 72 races without winning. His last victory came in 2014. But Coughlin has 58 career Pro Stock wins, five Pro Stock championships and he has won races in seven NHRA classes. He has not forgotten how to win, either races or titles.
Butner came to the Southern Nationals with 417 points and the lead in the standings. Nobile is next with 406 and Enders is third with 406. Chris McGaha is fourth with 403 and Anderson is fifth with 377.
“We’re one good race day Sunday away from the points lead,” Anderson said.
NOTES: Atlanta Dragway is the only facility on the Mello Yello 2018 schedule where Tony Schumacher has not won a Top Fuel event. He has reached the final round here five times. Schumacher is the winningest Top Fuel racer in history but his last win came in 2017 at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida. … Friday was John Force’s 69th birthday. … All professional categories had a full field of entrants this week. Top Fuel had 17 cars, Funny Car had 16, Pro Stock had 16 and Pro Stock Motorcycle had 20.