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Connolly Is Cooking In The Countdown

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 4 2014

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Back-to-back victories have propelled Dave Connolly into the forefront of NHRA’s Pro Stock championship conversation, and the ace tuner-turned-driver suddenly has plenty to say.

“I can’t say enough about the Gray Motorsports team and organization, from Day One that it was assembled,” said Connolly, referring to a Chevy Camaro stable featuring himself and brothers Shane and Jonathan Gray. “It took us a little while to jell but things are cooking. Team chemistry is high and that’s huge, and we’re doing a good job on Sundays, which is really important. Mentally, yeah, I’m in the best state of mind that I have been in a while.

“I think being in the championship chase is bringing out the best in me, and it’s just rejuvenating and exciting. The worst thing a racer can do is go through the motions with the championship on the line. That’s not happening here.”

Connolly’s Countdown to the Championship victories at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis and Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill., closed-out September and moved him from sixth to second in the standings. Connolly stood 26 points behind Jason Line, a two-time world champion, after three rounds of the six-event Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.

Driver of the Charter Communications Camaro, Connolly began qualifications for the 30th annual NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pa., on Friday by covering the quarter-mile in 6.557-seconds at 210.93 mph. Connolly sits eighth on a provisional ladder topped by Erica Enders-Stevens at 6.513-seconds and 211.76 mph. Ironically, Connolly spent all of last season, and most of the 2011-12 campaigns, as crew chief/tuner on Enders-Stevens’ various “Factory Hot Rods.”

Meanwhile, Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car) and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also led their categories at Maple Grove.

Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are defending event winners of an event that will be televised Sunday on ESPN2.

Gray Motorsports’ lineup of The Brothers Gray and Connolly has accounted for all three Countdown wins in Pro Stock this season and a total of five final-round appearances. Connolly earned his 26th career national event victory when he trailered Line in the final at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis last Sunday in search of his first world title.

“Winning last week in St. Louis was a huge win for this team,” said Connolly, a 31-year-old native of Elyria, Ohio, living in Bradenton, Fla. “I was about as excited for that win as I have been in a long time because I knew what was at stake. To keep the championship within reach, we had to stop Jason, so that win was big for us. At the end of the day we’re still playing catch-up but it kept our championship hopes alive. You just have to ride those highs. It’s a very humbling sport and it can turn on you at any time. We’re just living in the moment and enjoying the wins as they come.”

Connolly, whose best point finish has been third in 2004, 2006 and 2007, has won three races this season for a Gray Motorsports organization that has emerged as a major Pro Stock player.  Shane Gray won the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, kicking off a string of four straight victories by the team. Shane Gray is third in points and Jonathan Gray, who posted his first career victory during the rain-delayed opening Countdown event, is fifth.

“That’s impressive to me _ four wins in a row by three different drivers,” said Connolly, who made his Pro Stock debut in 2003. “It tells you the depth of Gray Motorsports. I’m just having a blast racing with them this year. We did sacrifice every once in a while, just trying to learn some things. We’re kind of a young team still, and there’s a bunch of us that have been out here a while but we’re learning to race the racetrack. The whole team is going in the same direction.”

Connolly has two wins in four final-round appearances at Maple Grove, where five-time/reigning world champion Coughlin defeated Dodge teammate Allen Johnson in the final last fall.

Enders-Stevens is aiming for her fifth Pro Stock pole of the season following her Friday performance of 6.513-seconds at 211.76 mph in the Elite Motorsports Camaro. Enders-Stevens, second-quickest during the first session, has been the top qualifier during two-of-three Countdown events.

“All those little bonus points are definitely helpful at this crucial point in the Countdown,” said Enders-Stevens, third in points behind Line and Connolly. “I’m really excited and proud of my team. We had a good baseline run the first session. I’m really proud of my crew chiefs (Rick and Rickie Jones), they did a really great job.”

Shane Gray was quickest in the first session of Pro Stock and currently sits second with a 6.521-second pas at 211.43 mph in the Gray Manufacturing Camaro. Gray, who won the regular-season ending event at Indianapolis and finished runnerup to teammate Connolly at The Plex, is fourth in points.

Jonathan Gray, who claimed his first career Pro Stock win at the rescheduled Carolina Nationals in Ennis, posted a 6.541-second pass at 210.97 mph to put him in the provisional No. 3 spot in his Gray Motorsports Camaro. Coughlin is fourth following a 6.542-second run at 2110.20 mph in the JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Dart.  Vincent Nobile, winner at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., is fifth in the Mountain View Tire Camaro with a 6.554-second run at 211.36 mph.

In Top Fuel, Kalitta posted a 3.747-second 1,000-foot pass at 326.95 mph in his Mac Tools dragster to pace the field. The winningest Top Fuel driver to never have won a championship, Kalitta is looking for his seventh top qualifying position of the season and second at Maple Grove.

“This is definitely the time to get going if we are going to make something happen,” said Kalitta, 50, who is fifth in points. “The conditions are really good here. I’m really proud of my guys getting low qualifier after Day One. It was a good run. It left (the starting line) and rattled and didn’t seem like it was going to make it, then it kind of just hooked-up and went. That was a big relief; so far, so good. ”

Brittany Force was second after a 3.765-second pass at 322.81mph in her Castrol EDGE dragster, achieved during the same pairing as Kalitta. Point- leader and seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher steered his U.S. Army dragster to a 3.766-second pass at 324.67 mph, good for third.

Langdon, the reigning Top Fuel world champ, was fourth with a 3.773-second pass at 325.77 mph in the Al-Anabi Racing dragster while Spencer Massey’s Odyssey Batteries dragster was fifth with a 3.774-second run at 323.19 mph.

In Funny Car, Pedregon claimed the top spot with his 1,000-foot run in 3.991-seconds at 319.52 mph in his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry _ the only Funny Car to run in the three-second range all day. Pedregon, a two-time world champion and a two-time winner at Maple Grove, is two sessions away from securing his third No. 1 qualifier of the season and third career pole in Mohnton, near Reading.

“We were hoping for a low-4.0,” said Pedregon, who sits 10th in points. “The three-second was a bonus. I was a little surprised (that it held). There are some great cars. These cars are very touchy and finicky and I did feel like there would be two or three three-second runs up there. But we blew the motor up, so we definitely got everything out of it.”

Recent Carolina Nats winner Matt Hagan, third in points, qualified second in his Rocky Boots Dodge Charger following a 4.008-second pass at 321.50 mph. Reigning world champ/point-leader John Force is third with a 4.046-second run at 318.24 mph in the Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang. Del Worsham drove the DHL Toyota Camry to the No. 4 spot via a 4.046-second pass at 316.15 mph. Robert Hight, the 2009 world champion, sits fifth in the Auto Club Ford with a 4.053-second run at 318.17 mph.

Courtney Force, winner of the two most recent Countdown events and second in Funny Car points to her father, ran 4.108-seconds at 305.29 mph in her Traxxas Ford that was good for 12th.

Savoie, who claimed his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win at Gateway last Sunday, sits in the top spot after a quarter-mile run in 6.860-seconds at 194.66 mph aboard his Savoie’s Alligator Farm Suzuki.

“We went out first session and we really should have run quicker,” Savoie said. “The bike wouldn’t go in high gear. I had to hit the button three times and it finally went in. Second pass, conditions were a lot worse than they were the first pass. To go 0.86-seconds means we actually went in the right direction.”

Point-leader and three-time world champion Andrew Hines is second aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod, running 6.870-seconds at 194.02 mph. Harley-Davidson teammate Eddie Krawiec, also a three-time world champion, sits third with a 6.877-second pass at 190.40 mph. Hector Arana Jr.’s Lucas Oil Buell was fourth following a 6.888-second run at 195.76 mph and Chaz Kennedy was fifth with a 6.899-second pass at 190.78 mph aboard the Star Racing Buell.

Final two qualifying sessions are scheduled to take place Saturday at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. (EDT). Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday. ESPN2 will air 90 minutes of qualifying coverage Sunday at 3:30 a.m. (EDT) and re-air the program at 4:30 p.m. Sunday. The network will follow with three hours of final eliminations programming starting at 8 p.m. (EDT) Sunday.

Friday’s qualifying results after the first two of four rounds of time trials for the 30th annual NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway, 22nd of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. Qualifying will continue Saturday for Sunday’s final eliminations.

Top Fuel _ 1. Doug Kalitta, 3.747-seconds, 326.95 mph; 2. Brittany Force, 3.765, 322.81; 3. Tony Schumacher, 3.766, 324.75; 4. Shawn Langdon, 3.773, 325.77; 5. Spencer Massey, 3.774, 323.19; 6. Larry Dixon, 3.788, 325.30; 7. Antron Brown, 3.792, 316.01; 8. Steve Torrence, 3.802, 324.83; 9. Richie Crampton, 3.814, 317.49; 10. J.R. Todd, 3.819, 316.82; 11. Leah Pritchett, 3.821, 316.52; 12. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.834, 316.82.

Not Qualified _ 13. Terry McMillen, 3.864, 318.39; 14. Dom Lagana, 3.867, 315.86; 15. Clay Millican, 3.904, 275.28; 16. Bob Vandergriff Jr., 4.365, 179.64.

Funny Car _ 1. Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 3.991, 319.52; 2. Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 4.008, 321.50; 3. John Force, Ford Mustang, 4.046, 318.24; 4. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.046, 316.15; 5. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.053, 318.17; 6. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.065, 316.01; 7. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.069, 313.58; 8. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.070, 313.22; 9. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.087, 307.02; 10. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.090, 314.46; 11. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.093, 310.55; 12. Courtney Force, Mustang, 4.108, 305.29.

Not Qualified _ 13. Jeff Diehl, 4.120, 302.14; 14. Chad Head, 4.136, 308.78; 15. Tony Pedregon, 4.239, 281.66; 16. John Bojec, 4.383, 270.92; 17. Bob Tasca III, 4.473, 246.21; 18. Mike Smith, 4.667, 197.31.

Pro Stock _ 1. Erica Enders-Stevens, Chevy Camaro, 6.513, 211.76; 2. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.521, 211.59; 3. Jonathan Gray, Camaro, 6.541, 211.06; 4. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Dodge Dart, 6.542, 211.30; 5. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.554, 211.36; 6. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.554, 211.06; 7. V. Gaines, Dodge Avenger, 6.557, 211.00; 8. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.557, 210.93; 9. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.558, 210.93; 10. Richie Stevens, Camaro, 6.562, 211.56; 11. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.589, 210.64; 12. Larry Morgan, Ford Mustang, 6.610, 209.49.

Not Qualified _13. John Gaydosh Jr., 6.618, 209.79; 14. Kenny Delco, 6.635, 208.55; 15. Frank Gugliotta, 6.719, 202.64; 16. Travis Mazza, 6.731, 202.39; 17. Val Smeland, 6.855, 201.79; 18. Allen Johnson, 7.313, 136.23.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.860, 194.66; 2. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.870, 194.02; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.877, 193.16; 4. Hector Arana Jr., Buell, 6.888, 195.76; 5. Chaz Kennedy, Buell, 6.899, 190.78; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, Buell, 6.912, 191.62; 7. Hector Arana, Buell, 6.930, 193.90; 8. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.938, 192.47; 9. John Hall, Buell, 6.953, 190.32; 10. Adam Arana, Buell, 6.968, 190.81; 11. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.970, 191.05; 12. Shawn Gann, Buell, 6.972, 191.38.

Not Qualified _ 13. Matt Smith, 6.982, 191.16; 14. Angelle Sampey-Drago, 6.994, 190.06; 15. Joe DeSantis, 7.168, 182.80; 16. Brian Pretzel, 7.309, 182.21.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, October 4 2014
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