By Lee Elder
READING, Pa. (Sept. 15, 2018) – Drag Racing’s playoffs have started.
The first race in the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship is this weekend’s Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway and the pressure has ramped up on the professional teams in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
Matt Smith collected his 30th top qualifier award in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Tanner Gray snagged the number one spot on the final pass of qualifying in Pro Stock. Clay Millican grabbed 11 of 12 possible qualifying points and qualified best in Top Fuel and Courtney Force was best in Funny Car.
Smith’s pole-winning elapsed time was 6.828 seconds at 198.20 mph. Eddie Krawiec was second and Hector Arana Jr. was third.
Pro Stock Motorcycle was the only professional category with more entrants than spots in eliminations so the Pro Stock, Top Fuel and Funny Car teams had the luxury of concerning themselves primarily with preparing for Sunday.
That didn’t cut the tension.
Despite pacing the tightly competitive Pro Stock field, Gray looked to ways to improve. Gray said, “I’ve got to do a little better than I did right there on the tree.” Gray’s reaction time on his Q4 run was .027 of a second. In the other lane, Jeg Coughlin recorded a time of .022.
Gray’s best elapsed time was 6.542 seconds and his speed 210.47 mph.
Millican’s car was consistent through the four rounds of qualifying. He said, “That was a great set of runs. I’ll take four of those tomorrow.”
Millican’s pole pass was clocked at 3.723 seconds at 330.72 mph. His was the only pass to reach 330 mph in the four qualifying passes. Tony Schumacher was second, Leah Pritchett was third.
Doug Kalitta, who qualified eighth, said just being in the top half of the starting field was an advantage. Kalitta said, “Just qualifying up toward the front (in important). The closer you are to the front the better.”
Every problem is emphasized in the Countdown. Brittany Force, whose Top Fuel car was on the starting line when a Christmas Tree failure stopped the session briefly and went to the back of the line before finally making that run Friday, had a pulley break during her Q4 run Saturday. “I felt it in the car,” she said. “I didn’t know what went wrong.”
Funny Car star Courtney Force said after winning her 11th top qualifier award of the season, “It’s a great place to be in, that number one, but we’ve got work to do. I’m hoping for a long day tomorrow.”
Defending Funny Car champion Robert Hight said, “We are struggling. We’ve had some issues with the number two cylinder.”
NOTES: Jack Beckman’s Funny Car did not make its Q3 run due to a fuel leak discovered on the starting line. Beckman said later the failure was due to a five-dollar part. … The only professional category to bump racers out Saturday was Pro Stock Motorcycle. The riders not making the show included Karen Stuffer, Kelly Clots and Hector Arana. … Rumors surfaced during the weekend that Pro Stock veteran John Gaydosh might not race again this season. Gaydosh did not qualify for the Countdown. … Close call in the first round of eliminations of Top Alcohol Funny Car. A bracket of exhaust headers came off a car in the left lane at about halftrack. The broken part slid over in front of the car in the other lane, which then struck the bracketed pipes and slid the thing back across the left lane. Fortunately, the exhaust piece never got airborne.