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DI RETURN ROAD: NHRA FallNationals

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We’ve reached the halfway point of the Countdown to the Championship and there’s one overwhelming consensus that I think we can all agree on: Steve Torrence, Robert Hight and Tanner Gray have been really freaking good.

The points leaders in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock, respectively, have nearly taken out all of the playoff drama with spectacular starts and that continued in Dallas.

All three won and the numbers are staggering for the frontrunners in those three classes. Torrence has yet to lose in the playoffs as his redemption tour is reaching hellacious levels, while Hight and Gray both have two victories. In all, they’ve combined for seven of the possible nine wins in the class, putting a definitive stamp on things so far.

It’s not getting hot at the right time, either. Torrence has been remarkable for nearly two full years, as the Texan now has 16 wins in his last 40 races. The only guy who can compare to that right now is Gray, who is on course to become the youngest world champion in NHRA history. Of course, it’s also the swan song for Gray, who is headed to NASCAR after an amazing two-year Pro Stock run that now includes 12 wins in 45 career starts.

And then there’s Hight, the defending world champion who is gaining quite a reputation for reaching another level in the Countdown. We saw the perfect build-up a year ago leading to a standout run in the playoffs, while he and crew chief Jimmy Prock are slaying it again in 2018.

He won in St. Louis despite a violent crash at the finish line, breaking his collarbone in the process. Less than two weeks later Hight was back in action in Dallas, a major story in its own right. He ended the weekend with a second straight win and now holds a 50-point lead on J.R. Todd.

It’s the closest race of the three, as Torrence and Gray seem intent on ending any drama as soon as possible. Gray has an 89-point lead on Vincent Nobile, while Torrence’s lead is 103 points on Clay Millican.

Torrence’s run is reminiscent of Antron Brown’s run in 2015 en route to the championship when he won 14 straight rounds to open the Countdown. Brown won 14 of 15 rounds the following year for another title and Torrence seems determined to match that.

His take-no-prisoners attitude and “I’m not here to make friends” mindset this time of year is honestly cool to see. This matters big-time to Torrence after finishing so close a year ago, and he’s proving it by dominating on the track.

Torrence took out Terry McMillen in the final round with a 3.826 at 321.04 mph, capping off his first Top Fuel win at his home track. A year after crashing at the same race, it was a different story this time for the Texan.

“Last year, we didn’t get it done,” Torrence said. “We ran into the wall. But this year we finally get that cowboy hat (awarded to winners of the Fall Nationals) and the party is going to be big tonight. These Capco boys are bad ass hombres and I’m just lucky to be the guy behind the wheel.”

CAN’T-MISS NEWS

INJURY DOESN’T HAMPER HIGHT: Robert Hight wasn’t about to miss a race even if he had to deal with a broken collarbone. He got cleared to race, built an apparatus to keep the shoulder restraints off his collarbone and drove like there wasn’t a single thing wrong. It was the ultimate performance under pressure, as Hight knocked off Todd in a high-stakes final round with a run of 3.955 at 325.69, a 40-point swing in the final round.

When the playoffs come, Hight and Prock seem to be the perfect pairing and both get aggressive this time of year. It’s the only way Prock races and it suits perfectly for Hight, who is killer on the starting line this time of year and loves the pressure moments.

Todd will be in this race for the rest of the year and it’s going to be a thrilling duel. Hight won the battle in Dallas, but let’s hope it’s not the last time these two standouts face off this season.

“I made a prediction early on going into the Countdown that I needed to win three races and not have any first-round losses,” Hight said. “So far, so good. We are halfway through the Countdown and we have two wins and a semifinal,” Hight continued. “Fifty points is not a big lead over JR Todd. That car is strong and he is a good driver in a car that has been to two finals in the Countdown. We have to keep pushing all the way to Pomona where it is points and a half. Anything can happen. We have to keep pushing.”   

GRAY JUST WINS – AGAIN: Yes, we’re keeping the same headline, as Gray just keeps winning. This time he took out No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin in the final round with his 6.622 at 207.62, and there’s been no denying Gray’s team, led by crew chief Dave Connolly, has been fantastic.

But Gray’s demeanor and ability to stay cool under pressure is a noted difference from his playoff run a year ago. Visibly frustrated at times during last year’s playoffs, Gray isn’t letting anything getting under his skin in 2018. He can’t be frazzled, he’s been dynamite on the starting line and a world championship is now in reach. The pressure gets dialed up again starting in Charlotte, but Gray has given every indication he’s ready for it.

“We’ve been struggling with qualifying it seems like,” Gray said. “Really, for whatever reason, we’ve been able to pull it out on Sunday. Some of it being luck while others it’s just making good runs and beating the other guy in the lane. It’s awesome to have the group of guys that I have around me.”

TONGLET TAKES COMMAND: For the third straight race, there’s a different points leader in Pro Stock Motorcycle at the end of it. The Countdown started with Eddie Krawiec as the points leader, while Matt Smith jumped ahead after his St. Louis win. But he lost in the first round at Dallas and LE Tonglet gladly took advantage, winning the race with his second straight final round of the season.

The topsy-turvy time at the top indicates how competitive the class is and there’s plenty of time for it to change some more.

Tonglet would prefer it not to and he’s been running well enough to hang on the last three races and claim his second championship. He won Indy, was runner-up in St. Louis and then knocked off the likes of Krawiec and then teammate Jerry Savoie in the finals to win in Dallas. Tonglet is as even-keel as it gets, which means he may be the perfect candidate to keep the points lead. Smith and Krawiec will certainly keep pushing, which will make for an unreal finish.

“We’re leading the points and we’re not looking back now,” Tonglet said. “Jerry made a big move and we’re going to have two bikes competing for this championship down to the wire.”

RAY’S ROOKIE SEASON NOW INCLUDES A WIN: We were getting a first-time winner either way, but Jeremy Ray capped off his NHRA Pro Mod rookie season with his first victory, going 5.785 at 248.07 to win on a holeshot against Justin Bond, who was making his NHRA Pro Mod debut.

Bond was driving Shane Molinari’s car and was strong all weekend, adding another standout competitor in the loaded field. Ray, meanwhile, knocked off a who’s-who list to reach the final, ending Stevie “Fast” Jackson’s two-race win streak, Steven Whiteley and No. 1 qualifier Sidnei Frigo.

The final round was just the latest testament to where this class is at the moment. Two talented newcomers in the class, both adding even more depth in the class, furthering the thought that Pro Mod is the class to be right now. Ray was the second first-time winner in the class in 2018 and eighth in the past two years. Again, more indications of incredible depth and incredible talent in this class, and Ray is definitely a part of that conversation.

“We just had to keep everything together,” Ray stated. “You have to be perfect every time you go up to the line. Everything worked well here though. The tuning was good, I was driving good and was able to just keep ahead on everything.”

FURTHER VIEWING

LEAH THE CHAMPION: What an unbelievable run from Leah Pritchett to claim the 2018 SAM Tech NHRA Factory Stock Showdown Series championship, one that included an incredible three straight wins to end the season.

The last of those came in Dallas as Pritchett was once again impressive behind the wheel of her Mopar Dodge Challenger Drag Pak, which followed victories at Indy and St. Louis.

That put Pritchett in position to win a championship with another successful weekend, and the Top Fuel star had that, capped off by a semifinal win where she clinched the title with a victory over Stephen Bell.

It drew a big reaction from team owner Don Schumacher and then Pritchett went and finished the job with her pass of 8.106 at 169.02 to beat No. 1 qualifier Kevin Skinner in the final round.

“This championship ranks at the top of the list,” said Pritchett. “I might be holding this Wally right now, but 100% this is Dodge and Mopar and the technology they pour into this class. I just get to drive the car. For Kevin Helms, Terry Snyder, all of Don Schumacher Racing, powered by Pennzoil of course, this is absolutely incredible. We came in with a chance to win the championship, but our mentality was one round, one burnout, one line at a time and that’s what it took, so thank you to everyone that made this happen. I know I probably speak for the whole class, but a huge thank you to SAM Tech for sponsoring the Factory Stock Showdown Series. It’s really become one of the most exciting, grassroots classes out here.”

DRAG ILLUSTRATED LIVE
Make sure you check out the latest episode of DI Live with Wes Buck, who is joined by the great Carl Stevens Jr., the 2018 World Series of Pro Mod winner!

NOMEX EFFECT WITH SPECIAL GUEST
The awesome “Nomex Effect” Facebook show with J.R. Todd and Shawn Langdon is a must-watch every week. Last week, they had special guest Tommy Johnson Jr. This week, Antron Brown joins them and it’s another great episode.

WHITELEY GOES IN THE SAND: This was an unfortunate turn of events for Top Alcohol Funny Car standout Annie Whiteley, but the extra-long sandtrap at Texas Motorplex was a godsend. She was out of the car almost immediately and that was great news.

ON SOCIAL

CONGRATS DALLAS WINNERS!

GAME RESPECTS GAME

DI 137
The latest issue of the great racing magazine is available online featuring 2018 World Series of Pro Mod champion Carl Stevens Jr. on the cover.

SIGNING RUBBER
Tire autograph, anyone?

FINAL WORD

There’s so many cool storylines right now – Torrence winning for the first time in Dallas, Hight overcoming injury and Gray being unflappable, and that’s just the start. How about this Pro Mod finish over the final two events? Like many, I can’t wait to see how that plays out. For now, we’re headed to Charlotte in October, which could make for a pretty wild weekend.

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