With Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force claiming the last two NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series victories, fans have witnessed the very rare occurrence of having back-to-back first-time winners in the 10,000 horsepower Top Fuel category.
Clay Millican would be more than happy to extend that statistic to three in a row, and on the strength of an impressive start to his 2016 season, his first NHRA Top Fuel victory doesn’t seem far off.
It could be next week when the NHRA powers back to Las Vegas, April 1-3, for the 17th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. With DENSO Spark Plugs being one of Millican’s sponsors on his Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster, a victory in Las Vegas would be extra meaningful.
“I don’t really look at the other first-timers, but what I see on this team is a group that keeps getting better and better each and every race,” said Millican, who is currently second in the Top Fuel points standings. “Our group of guys are becoming real impressive and they’re really maturing. It’s a young group but everyone is so tight and that excites me. I can see it in their faces of how bad they want it.”
Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car) and Erica Enders (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including three hours of live finals coverage starting at 5 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. It is the fourth of 24 events during the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season and Millican’s fast start could pay major dividends down the road.
Millican saw potential all along in his young team a year ago and things started to come together late last season. After finishing 11th in the regular season and just missing the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, Millican bounced back and advanced to back-to-back semifinals late in the year. The team managed to bring that momentum into the new season and with crew chief David Grubnic leading the way, Millican has been remarkably consistent.
He has semifinal appearances in back-to-back races and has done in it in a way that has opened some eyes. Millican has qualified in the top half of the field at the first three races and being consistently quick makes him a threat at any time this year. He enters the Las Vegas race second in points.
“It’s a good feeling to know we can run with anybody no matter who is in the other lane,” Millican said. “There’s no reason that can’t continue. It makes me focus more and has me excited. This is really just carry-over from the end of last year and we just continue to finesse what we’re doing. We’re really starting to see the results we want.”
Millican’s qualifying numbers have been impressive, putting up a 3.727 in Pomona and following it up with a 3.722 at 326.71 at Gainesville to take the second spot. He’s put together big runs during eliminations as well and Millican doesn’t see that stopping anytime soon.
“(Grubnic) is putting us in a good position and we’re starting to go rounds a lot,” Millican said. “That’s such an
important thing. They continue to grow, mature and get better and they want to do well. They know we’ve got a car that can win. Everyone on this team knows that.”
That enthusiasm from his team has carried over to the already excitable Millican as well. There’s more time in the gym, more time on the practice tree and more work being put in by everyone to make sure this run turns into a season-long theme.
There’s a host of Top Fuel stars trying to make sure that doesn’t happen, starting with defending world champion Antron Brown. Millican will also face off against eight-time world champ Tony Schumacher, who has eight career victories at the facility, Doug Kalitta, Winternationals winner Steve Torrence, J.R. Todd, Shawn Langdon, Richie Crampton, Phoenix winner Pritchett and points leader Force.
But Millican sees something special with this group and considering Millican’s vast experience in the sport, that means something big could be coming soon.
“I love what I do and I’ve done it for a long time,” Millican said. “I feel like we’re going to be in a hunt for this championship. Our goal is to get in the top 10 and hopefully go on a run. The guys really want to get that first win. But my goal is to get in the top 10 and then get some wins. I know the rest of the team really wants to get that first one. Ultimately, though, your goal is to get in the top 10 and then win six races.”