By Lee Elder
POMONA, Calif. (November 10, 2018) – Tanner Gray clinched the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock championship Saturday during qualifying for the season finale, the NHRA Auto Club Finals from Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
Matt Smith (in Pro Stock Motorcycle), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock), Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel) and Ron Capps (Funny Car) were the top qualifiers for Sunday’s eliminations.
Gray, who will leave drag racing to try his hand at stock car racing in 2019, admitted that he was nervous before the event started Friday.
“I was telling the guys that I don’t think I’ve been this nervous for qualifying since the first race here in the previous year,” Gray said. He was a rookie the previous year. “It’s been a heck of a year. We started out pretty slow and I wasn’t sure we were going to be in this position.”
Gray won seven times in 2018, lost in the final round two more times and qualified first once. He also won the US Nationals. Still, halfway through the season, he did not feel like a contender for the championship.
“It was like a light switch flipped and everything started coming together,” Gray said. “Man, we just had a strong run there for a little bit. We came into the Countdown and just executed on race day really well. We had some lucky rounds, too.”
The NHRA announced Saturday that the Pro Stock category will race just 18 times in 2019. Neither Gray or 2017 champ Bo Butner will be among the Pro Stock contenders next year. Butner announced a few weeks earlier that he will return to NHRA sportsman racing next year.
Gray said, “It’s a bitter-sweet moment because we won the world but, at the same time, this is going to be my last race and it will be my last time working with (his teammates).”
The championship of Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle will be decided on the final race day of the season. The Top Fuel and Pro Stock titles have been decided.
Pro Stock Motorcycle: Matt Smith improved his category-leading time from Friday to 6.754 seconds and 201.10 mph. Smith earned three points for leading the session. Eddie Krawiec was next and Jerry Savoie was third. Smith began the weekend with the Countdown lead and led all three sessions so far, gaining nine points to reach 2,488. Krawiec had 2,478, Tonglet 2,419, Hector Arana Jr. 2,417 and Jerry Savoie 2,379.
Pro Stock: Erica Enders posted the best run of the session but could not pass Coughlin for the overall top spot. Enders collected the three points at 6.530 seconds/210.90 mph. Tanner Gray, who bane the weekend with a huge lead in the Countdown chase, was second for the session and Greg Anderson was third. Overall, Jeg Coughlin still led the charts at 6.527, Enders was second and Anderson third.
Top Fuel: Steve Torrence has already been crowned the 2018 Top Fuel champ but he made the best pass of Q3, 3.701 seconds and 325.75 mph. Billy Torrence was second and Blake Alexander was third. Leah Pritchett continues to lead the category with one round of qualifying still to go.
Funny Car: Tommy Johnson Jr. held on to the top spot with one session still to go, the 3.881-second pass he recorded Friday. In Q3 Johnson had the best lap, 3.899 seconds/326.40. Ron Capps earned two points and Tim Wilkerson got a point. Unofficially, J.R. Todd leads Hight 2,553-2,481 with one qualifying session and four rounds of eliminations still to go.
Pro Stock Motorcycle: Kelly Clontz, Katie Sullivan, Anthony Vanetti, Maurice Allen and Melissa Surber did not make the 16-bike eliminations field. Matt Smith hung on to the overall top spot and is the number one qualifier at 6.754 seconds and 201.10. The points for Q4 went to Hector Arana Jr. (at 6.781/197.57), Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines. Unofficially, Smith leads the Countdown with only Sunday’s eliminations remaining with 2,488 points. Krawiec is next with 2,480, Tonglet had 2,419, Hector Arana Jr. 2,420 and Jerry Savoie 2,379.
Pro Stock: The drivers who did not make the 16-car eliminations field were Joey Grose, Steve Graham, Tom Huggins and Val Smeland. Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbed the number one qualifier award with a 6.510-second, 211.49 mph pass and got the three points that went with posting the best pass of the Q4 session. Jason Line was second in Q4 and Drew Skillman was third. Coughlin and Line start first and second and Erica Enders’ used her Q3 pass to get the third spot on the eliminations ladder.
Top Fuel: The lone driver not in the field after three sessions, Cameron Ferre, bumped in with a nice run at 3.929 seconds and 287.41 mph. Audrey Worm was in the next pair to go down the track and she did not bump her way back in the field. Leah Pritchett topped her own elapsed time and secured the top spot on the Top Fuel eliminations ladder at 3.631 seconds and a zippy 332.84 mph. for the session, 2018 champ Steve Torrence was second and Brittany Force was third.
Funny Car: Former champion Matt Hagan was among the drivers not in the field of 16 when the session started but he took care of that drama, starting the bumping process. Jeff Diehl and Jonnie Lindberg were already out by the time Hagan bumped in. Terry Haddock was the final non-qualifier. Ron Capps had the best lap of the session and the weekend at 3.848 seconds and 331.53 mph. Jack Beckman was second in the session and Tommy Johnson Jr. was third for the session. Beckman and Johnson will start Sunday’s eliminations from the second and third positions.
NOTES: The NHRA released plans to cut the Pro Stock category to 18 races in 2019. The full release is available on RPMHD.com.