By Lee Elder
READING, Pa. (Sept. 16, 2018) – Funny Car racer Jr. Todd summed the day up after the first round of eliminations when he said, “There’s blood in the water today.”
Then he won the race.
The opening round of the NHRA Countdown to the Championship, the Dodge Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, scattered contenders and shuffled the standings. One professional category in the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series saw its leadership change and the other three saw changes throughout the top 10. When the sanctioning body implemented the Countdown playoff system, which reset the standings enough to give teams a chance to come from behind in the standings to win the championship, this type of day was exactly what was envisioned.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do, just one of many,” Todd said. “We’ve got to keep our foot on their throats for the next five (races), for sure.”
The victory was Todd’s second in as many races. It was the 100th victory for Kalitta Motorsports, the first coming in 1967, two decades before Todd was born.
“That’s awesome to be able to pull that off and to have him here,” Todd said. He added, “To be able to get (it for him) him the 100th at Maple Grove, historic track, what a day.”
The other professional winners were Steve Torrence (in Top Fuel), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
The event was slowed occasionally as track personnel tended to spots on the racing surface where water in the ground rose through the asphalt and created damp spots, known as ‘weepers’ in racing parlance. The event was not otherwise disturbed by weather conditions.
The drama began with the first round of Top Fuel.
TOP FUEL: Mike Salinas, ninth in points when the event started, beat Terry McMillen, who was seventh. Antron Brown, sixth, beat eighth place Brittany Force. All non-Countdown cars in Top Fuel were eliminated.
FUNNY CAR: Points leader Courtney Force lost to 25th place, non-Countdowner Mike Smith when her car lost traction. Cruz Pedregon, 11th in points and out of the Countdown field, beat sixth place Jack Beckman. Robert Hight, third place, beat Shawn Langdon, eighth. Ninth place John Force took out second place Matt Hagan, who eventually dropped to fifth in the standings.
PRO STOCK: Tenth place Chris McGaha went red and lost to eighth place Jason Line. Second place Greg Anderson beat sixth place Deric Kramer.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Sixth-place Jerry Savoie lost to eighth-place Steve Johnson. Seventh place Scotty Pollacheck beat 13th place Joey Gladstone. Tenth-place Angelle Sampey lost to ninth-place Angie Smith.
Things really ramped up in the second round. Every Top Fuel pairing matched drivers in the Countdown. The round opened with the track temperature at 116 degrees.
TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, who started the day third in points, beat Scott Palmer, who was tenth. Antron Brown, who started sixth in points, defeated Leah Pritchett, fourth, and Brown collected his 700th professional round win. Second place Clay Millican beat fifth place Doug Kalitta. Points leader Steve Torrence edged Mike Salinas, who started the day tenth in the standings. Every driver alive in Top Fuel after the second round began the day sixth or better in points.
FUNNY CAR: Tenth place Tim Wilkerson beat ninth place John Force and moved ahead two spots in the standings. Ron Capps started the day fourth in the Countdown and advanced, beating non-Countdowner Cruz Pedregon. Third-place Robert Hight beat seventh place Tommy Johnson and went ahead of point leaders Courtney Force and Matt Hagan in the standings. J.R. Todd, fifth place as the day began, beat Mike Smith, a non-Countdown driver.
PRO STOCK: Every remaining driver was in the Countdown and the racing was cut-throat. Vincent Nobile, who started the day fifth, beat third place Erica Enders. Drew Skillman, seventh, beat defending world champ Bo Butner, who was ninth in the Countdown. Greg Anderson, second in the Countdown, knocked off Jeg Coughlin, who was fourth.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Hector Arana Jr., who started the day fourth, beat Joey Gladstone, who did not qualify for the Countdown. Eddie Krawiec, the Countdown leader, defeated Angie Smith, who was ninth as the day began. LE Tonglet, third, beat Andrew Hines, second. Matt Smith, fifth, beat Steve Johnson, eighth. Four of the top five Countdown drivers are in the semi-finals. Tonglet and Arana Jr. both passed previously second-place Andrew Hines in the Countdown.
TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher beat Antron Brown. In a terrific early-Countdown pairing, number one, Steve Torrence, faced number two Clay Millican and Torrence held serve.
FUNNY CAR: J.R. Todd beat Ron Capps. Tenth place Tim Wilkerson knocked out third place Robert Hight as Hight left too early and went red. The top four cars in Funny Car points are gone and Todd knew he would lead the Countdown when the event ended.
PRO STOCK: Vincent Nobile edged Greg Anderson and Drew Skillman beat points leader Tanner Gray. Gray had already gathered enough points to hold on to his spot atop the points.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Points leader Eddie Krawiec lost to Hector Arana Jr. Matt Smith, seeded fifth, beat third-seeded LE Tonglet. Tonglet moved passed Andrew Hines into second place.
TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence solidified his hold on the points leads by beating Tony Schumacher. Torrence began the event in front and stayed there.
“I don’t know what the rest of these cats are out here for, but I’m here to get that big gold man (the championship trophy). That’s the only thing that we have in our sights,” Torrence said. “We’re trying to stay beaded in on it.”
FUNNY CAR: J.R. Todd vaulted himself into the lead of the standings by beating Tim Wilkerson. It was the 100th victory for Kalitta Motorsports.
“We tore up a lot of (stuff) this weekend in qualifying and it was on fire again in the finals, but as long as we turn on the win lights and come out of here with the gold man (the Wally trophy), we’re doing something right.” Todd said.
PRO STOCK: Vincent Nobile collected his third win of the season, knocking off Drew Skillman and moving himself to second in the standings.
“I had a great car today and I turned on four win lights,” Nobile said. He added, “I went back-to-back! Going back to 2016, we won this race (he did not race at Maple Grove in 2017), so we won again. My whole family is here, it’s great.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Hector Arana Jr. beat Matt Smith, the fifth time Arana has defeated Smith in a final round and moved up to second in the Countdown. He is Vincent Nobile’s brother-in-law and it is the first time the pair has won at the same event.
“We struggled a little bit in qualifying. We had some engine issues. We put in the second motor and she was able to stay strong and go four rounds today.” Arana said of his record in the finals against Smith, “It’s because I love to beat him.”
Top Fuel: 1. Steve Torrence 2,219, 2. Clay Millican 2,169, 3. Schumacher 2,169, 4. Pritchett 2,118 5. Brown 2,116 6. Kalitta 2,103 7. Salinas 2,067 8. McMillen 2062 9. Palmer 2,053 10. B. Force 2,052.
Funny Car: 1. Todd 2,166 2. Hight 2,143 3. C. Force 2,141 4. Capps 2,137 5. Hagan 2,112 6. Wilkerson 2,101 7. Johnson 2,090 8. Beckman 2,080 9. J. Force 2,064 10. Langdon 2,054.
Pro Stock: 1. Gray 2,183 2. Nobile 2,165 3. Anderson 2,153 4. Enders 2,131 5. Skillman 2,128 6. Coughlin 2,127 7. Line 2,073 8. Kramer 2,072 9. Butner 2,064 10. McHaha 2,032
Pro Stock Motorcycle: 1. Krawiec 2,184 2. Arana Jr. 2,181 3. M. Smith 2,147 4. Tonglet 2,144 5. Hines 2,137 6. Savoie 2,082 7. Johnson 2,073 8. Pollacheck 2,062 9. A. Smith 2,062 10. Sampey 2,033.