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Countdown Begins With Consistency, Efficiency On Front Burner

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 12 2014

John Force waits to stage on Day 1 of qualifying at zMAX Dragway in North Carolina. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

CONCORD, N.C. – Ask any NHRA competitor vying for a Mello Yello Drag Racing Series title his or her approach to the Countdown to the Championship and the same two words keep appearing in their vocabulary – consistency and efficiency.

The six-race title run for the professional classes begins this weekend at zMAX Dragway with the Pep Boys NHRA Carolina Nationals. It consists of four straight race weekends, a three-week break and then the final two events at Las Vegas and Pomona.

“It’s going to be a long four weeks,” said Erica Enders-Stevens, the top Pro Stock qualifier Friday with low E.T. of 6.591 seconds and top speed at 210.11 mph. “It’s going to be grueling. There will be adrenalin high on the race weekend and then you crash on Sunday night. You’ll have two days to get your act together before you head to the next event. It’s going to be all about staying focused.”

Enders-Stevens, who entered the title run as the second Pro Stock seed in the NHRA’s playoff system, said it was all about consistency and round wins.

“Keeping lane choice on Sunday is typically pretty crucial,” said the New Orleans resident, who has four victories this season. “There are eight guys in the top 10 that could get it done. We have to focus on one round, one day at a time. We can’t get too focused on the big picture. We have to do our job day-in and day-out and make every little point count.”

Antron Brown, the 2012 Top Fuel champion, pointed to efficiency as being critical in the title run.

“Being very efficient with the qualifying points, going for each qualifying round and getting those extra points,” said Brown, who was eighth fastest after two qualifying rounds with a 3.869 E.T. “Everybody has been saving their best parts for the Countdown. So we want to be very efficient.

“You could qualify No. 1, the car messes up and you’ll have a final round appearance in the first round. It’s crazy like that. At the last race No. 1 to No. 10 was separated by two- hundredths of a second, so it’s been pretty brutal out there.”

Friday it was the weather that was brutal with 80-degree temperatures and 70 percent humidity. The early afternoon track temperature was 115 degrees. Normally, there is a night qualifying session for the four professional classes, but this weekend the NHRA moved both to the afternoon for “competition considerations.” Weather forecasts called for scattered thunderstorms Friday night and there was an 80 percent chance of rain on Saturday. Track officials had to take about a 2 ½-hour break Friday to fix the dragway, which had water from Thursday’s heavy rain storm settle between the rubber and the concrete surface. The rubber had to be removed and the track dried.

“We usually turn some quicker numbers out here, but it’s hot,” said Funny Car provisional No. 1 qualifier Matt Hagan, who posted an E.T. of 4.114 seconds. “It’s hard on these race cars. Even though we make our own air and can bolt pulleys on it, you can only do so much with the overdrive. The crew chiefs have to really figure out what we can run out there.”

J.R. Todd, who rebounded from a broken blower belt in the first Top Fuel qualifying round to the provisional No. 1 position in the second, said the track was “tricky” due to the weather conditions.

“These aren’t conditions where you swing for the fence,” said Todd, who had low E.T. of 3.828 seconds. “I think he got all of what was available out there. We need to work on our consistency and how to race smart with what’s available out there. We’re in the No. 10 spot [seed] so we can’t go any further down. It’s up from here.”

Hector Arana Jr., the provisional top qualifier in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a 6.876 E.T. and top speed of 195.48 mph, said he was surprised at his performance due to the heat.

“We’ll have to watch our weather station like hawks (on Saturday) and stay on top of it,” Arana Jr. said in regards to the final two qualifying rounds. “Weather plays a big effect on us because we are naturally aspirated.”

Pro Stock Motorcycle third-round qualifying was scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. Saturday, followed by Pro Stock, Top Fuel and Funny Car.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, September 12 2014
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