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Gray Joins 2017 Champs As Toast Of The NHRA

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 14 2017

Tanner Gray was named the NHRA’s top rookie driver on Monday.

Teen-ager Tanner Gray has completed the first step in extending his family’s drag racing legacy.

A third-generation racer, Gray capped his first full season of Pro Stock competition Monday when he was named Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner as NHRA’s top rookie performer of 2017.

Gray joined newly-crowned professional champions Brittany Force, Robert Hight, Bo Butner and Eddie Krawiec during the 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Awards ceremony at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland in Southern California.

Gray, a 19-year-old native of Artesia, N.M., recorded his first national event victory in his fourth start at the 18th annual Denso Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas on April 2. The victory put Gray into the record book as the youngest national event winner in NHRA history. Gray also notched victories in Topeka, Kan.; Sonoma, Calif.; Brainerd, Minn., and the second event in Concord, N.C. He also raced to four No. 1 qualifying positions en route to a fourth-place point finish.

“It’s feels good to win the award,” said Gray, who replaced father Shane Gray behind the wheel of the Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro SS. “Our season could have always been better, but I’m really proud of what my team has accomplished. For someone who has never drag raced, I was able to come out here and win with the hard work, dedication and effort from my entire team. They definitely made the learning curve easier and not as steep as it could have been. I owe this award to them.”

In addition to his dad, Tanner’s grandfather is retired NHRA driver Johnny Gray, a seven-time winner in Funny Car.

The award, which carries a $20,000 prize, was voted on by a panel of national motorsports media. The other rookie candidates were Troy Coughlin Jr. (Top Fuel), Joey Gladstone (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Jonnie Lindberg (Funny Car), Andy Rawlings (Pro Stock Motorcycle), Shawn Reed (Top Fuel) and Mike Salinas (Top Fuel).

The 24-race season ended Sunday with the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway. The championship-winning drivers were recognized for their season-long achievements and presented with checks and trophies for securing 2017 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championship titles during the six-race Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s playoffs.

Force, driver of the Monster Energy dragster fielded by John Force Racing, became only the second woman Top Fuel racer to win NHRA’s premier category _ and first female since Shirley Muldowney clinched the third of her titles in 1982. Force raced to four wins in 2017, including Sunday’s season-ender. Brittany also posted two runner-up finishes and two pole positions during the year.

The 31-year-old daughter of 16-time Funny Car world champion John Force, Brittany clinched her title by defeating Richie Crampton in Sunday’s quarterfinals. A native of Yorba Linda, Calif., Brittany finished 81 points in front of runner-up Steve Torrence.

“I still haven’t wrapped my head around what happened. It’s a dream,” said Force, who was voted NHRA’s Rookie of the Year in 2013. “I don’t know if I ever thought we’d be here. To lock everything up the way we did is pretty incredible, and I have to thank (tuning consultant) Alan Johnson, (crew chief) Brian Husen and my entire Monster Energy team for that.”

Hight, the president of JFR and John Force’s son-in-law, raced to his first championship since 2009 alongside crew chief Jimmy Prock. Hight and his “Prock Rocket” reset the Funny Car national records for elapsed time at 1,000-feet (3.793-seconds) and speed (339.87 mph) as a tune-up for the Countdown. Hight won two of six events during the playoffs and was the No. 1 qualifier at three consecutive races.

“This is just huge for John Force Racing. For a couple of years, we’ve struggled but it’s such a great group,” said Hight, driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS. “We signed a long-term deal with Auto Club and they deserve better than what we were giving them. Jimmy Prock, Chris Cunningham (co-crew chief) they got us back in the game. It’s been a long time and you want it so bad.”

Hight, a 48-year-old resident of Yorba Linda, Calif., raced to a runner-up finish Sunday against Tommy Johnson Jr. of rival Don Schumacher Racing. Hight finished 98 points in front of point runner-up Ron Capps of DSR, the 2016 world champion.

Butner powered to his first world title during the same season he recorded his first career Pro Stock win during the 30th annual NHRA Springnationals in Baytown, Texas, on April 23. Butner and his Ken Black Racing teammates _ four-time champion Greg Anderson and three-time champ Jason Line _ finished 1-2-3, respectively, in the final point standings.

Beginning with the 11th annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio, in late June, Butner raced to four final-round appearances in six events to eventually enter the Countdown as No. 1 seed. Butner, driver of the Jim Butner’s Auto “Bandit” Chevrolet Camaro SS, defeated Tanner Gray Sunday at Pomona to clinch the championship by seven points over Anderson. Butner _ who went by the alias ‘Bob Utner’ during the heat of the summer season _ was the 2006 NHRA Lucas Oil Comp world champion.

“The KB team, what does that say about them?” said Butner, a 43-year-old native of Floyds Knobs, Ind. “Honestly, I rent a car and a motor and they put me in a championship. It’s just unbelievable. Thank the Lord for everything; He shined on me.”

Krawiec launched his bid for a fourth championship with a season-opening win for the two-wheel category during the 48th annual Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., on March 19. Krawiec and his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod hit their championship stride beginning in Clermont, Ind., where he earned his second title in the 63rd annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.

The former track manager at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., Krawiec separated himself from three-time champion Angelle Sampey to join an elite list of Pro Stock Bike champions. The late Dave Schultz tops that list with six titles while Andrew Hines, Krawiec’s H-D teammate, has five.

“Man, I attribute this to teamwork,” said Krawiec, a 40-year-old native of Bayonne, N.J. “I’ve got a lot of great guys that stand behind me for my motorcycle, and they make it go up and down that drag strip as fast as it does. (Thanks to) everybody at Harley-Davidson for their support and Vance & Hines and NHRA for giving us a great place to race.”

Krawiec dominated the Countdown with four wins in the first five races after taking the point lead at the playoff-opening 10th annual NHRA Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C. Krawiec closed-out the year with a runner-up finish to H-D teammate Hines at Pomona. Krawiec finished 169 points ahead of Hines in the final standings.

Tom McKernan was honored as recipient of the Don Prudhomme Award. Named for legendary Funny Car and Top Fuel driver Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, the award is presented to an individual who has made a profound impact on the growth and positive image of NHRA drag racing. McKernan is the long-time chief executive officer of The Automobile Club of Southern California, a key supporter of organized drag racing on the West Coast.

Drivers in nine categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series also were recognized as 2017 world champions: Joey Severance (Top Alcohol Dragster), Shane Westerfield (Top Alcohol Funny Car), David Rampy (Competition Eliminator), Justin Lamb (Super Stock and Stock), Austin Williams (Super Comp), John Labbous Jr. (Super Gas), Lynn Ellison (Top Dragster) and Jeffrey Barker (Top Sportsman).

The 2017 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Awards ceremony will be available for fans to view worldwide on the Internet starting Friday, Nov. 17, at NHRA.com and the NHRA channel on YouTube.

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For a record-extending 22nd time, Chevrolet has emerged as drag racing’s leading manufacturer. Chevrolet was awarded the NHRA Manufacturers Cup during Monday’s NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Awards ceremony in Hollywood, Calif. Chevy first earned the award in 1966; no other manufacturer has won it more times.

The Manufacturers Cup is awarded to the OEM whose current-year models earn the most points for qualifying and category victories at NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national and Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series regional and divisional events. Points are awarded to entries in Funny Car, Pro Stock, Super Stock and Stock Eliminator classes. Chevrolet last won the award in 2015.

Points accumulated by Chevrolet Camaro SS and Chevrolet COPO Camaro drivers in the professional and Sportsman classes were more than double the closest manufacturer’s total.

“It’s a tremendous honor for Chevrolet to win the NHRA Manufacturers Cup for the 22nd time,” said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. vice president, Performance Vehicles and Motorsports. “This achievement is the result of the collective dedicated effort of the Chevrolet engineering staff with our Chevrolet Camaro SS teams in the Pro Stock and Funny Car classes, as well as our COPO Camaro teams and drivers in the Sportsman classes. It takes a focused effort to earn this championship, and we thank the drivers, crews and all who made this possible.”

Chevrolet drivers compiled a combined 33 victories in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock during the 24-race season that ended Sunday at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. Pro Stock competitors driving the Chevy Camaro SS won all 24 events in 2017. Over the past two seasons, the Camaro SS has won 46 of 48 national events in the Factory Hot Rod class.

Bo Butner of Ken Black Racing earned his first Pro Stock championship by winning the season-finale at Pomona. Butner and his Jim Butner’s Auto “Bandit” Camaro SS posted five wins in 2017. Overall, nine Chevy drivers _ Butner (five), Tanner Gray (five), Greg Anderson (four), Drew Skillman (three), Jason Line (two), Erica Enders (one), Shane Gray (one), Chris McGaha (one), and Alex Laughlin (one) _ visited the winner’s circle.

In addition, teen-ager Gray was named the 2017 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award winner as the series’ top rookie.

Robert Hight of John Force Racing secured his second Funny Car championship and delivered Chevrolet’s first Funny Car title in a decade. Hight, driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Camaro SS, won four races and recorded a class-high eight poles.

 Hight and team-owner John Force, driver of the PEAK Coolant & Motor Oil Camaro SS, combined to contribute five victories to the Chevrolet total as the team surpassed 250 Funny Car wins. Force, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car world champion, won the first of his record 148 races on June 28, 1987.

Chevrolet COPO Camaro drivers Jeff Strickland, Jeff Lopez and Justin Lamb posted national Stock Eliminator victories. Lamb, of Hendersonville, Nev., secured the Stock championship in his 2017 COPO Camaro.

While not contributing to Manufacturers Cup points, Brittany Force of JFR claimed her first Top Fuel championship with four victories in her Monster Energy Chevrolet-backed dragster.

Additionally, David Barton of Robesonia, Pa., and Peter Gasko Jr. of Monroe Township, N.J., each won two races in the School of Automotive Technology (SAM Tech) Factory Stock Showdown in their COPO Camaros. Barton earned the title in the five-race series.

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Shawn Langdon closed-out the Top Fuel portion of his NHRA career _ at least for the immediate future _ with a final-round loss to newly crowned Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force. Langdon, the 2013 Top Fuel champion, turned in Sunday’s top reaction time with an 0.32-second Christmas Tree light compared to Force’s 0.065. But Langdon’s car smoked its rear tires early to end his season.

“I’m disappointed only for the fact that I really wanted that win for these Global Electronic Toyota guys,” said Langdon, who will make the transition to Funny Car next season with Kalitta Motorsports. “All in all, it’s a great way to end the season. We got to the final round. We just didn’t have it in the final. We lost to a good car. We lost to the champ.”

Langdon, a 35-year-old native of Mira Loma, Calif., finished the season seventh in points. “It was nice to end, for now, my dragster career, on a good note,” said Langdon, who won a career-best seven races in 2013. “I love Pomona and I love coming out here. At Pomona, I give everything I’ve got and I think my reaction times showed it. I’m heading to Funny Car and it’ll be a new chapter in my career. It’ll be a new challenge, a new learning curve. I’m excited about it and I’m ready for the challenge.”

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Alexis DeJoria’s six-year Funny Car career ended Sunday afternoon during the Auto Club NHRA Finals with a quarterfinal round loss against eventual event winner Tommy Johnson Jr. The final 1,000-foot lap of DeJoria’s 12-year NHRA tenure went into the record book at 3.944-seconds at 327.90 mph.

“I could sit here and say it was a tough day and hard to go out with a loss,” said DeJoria, driver of the Tequila Patrón Toyota Camry Funny Car fielded by Kalitta Motorsports. “But honestly, we ran helluva good throughout qualifying, ran well on race day, it just wasn’t our day to win that trophy.” DeJoria, a five-time Funny Car winner, defeated Jim Campbell before lining up opposite Johnson of Don Schumacher Racing.

The 2014 Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals Funny Car event champion, DeJoria announced her retirement last month in order to spend more time with husband Jesse James and their family in Austin, Texas. DeJoria, a 40-year-old native of Venice, Calif., has handed over the reins of her Nicky Boninfante-Tommy DeLago-led operation to Kalitta teammate Shawn Langdon beginning with the 2018 NHRA season.

“This is a top-notch team,” said DeJoria, who qualified fifth for the 141st event of her professional career. “Shawn’s going to be stepping into a really good car, and my guys are going to get a great driver. I’m glad the operation will continue with Global Electronic Technology on the side.”

DeJoria _ the only driver to claim a win in NHRA’s Funny Car, Top Alcohol Funny Car and Super Comp categories _thanked her sponsors and “the Kalitta family” for their support. “I say ‘family’ because that’s what they truly are,” DeJoria said of the organization founded and headed by drag racing icon Conrad “Connie” Kalitta. “Everybody connected to this family here has just been incredible and I’m going to miss them so much. My team, my crew chiefs, all those guys, they always give me a great car on race day.’

DeJoria, who began her drag racing career driving a 1963 Chevrolet Corvette in NHRA’s Super Gas category, has been the prime mover behind a program supporting breast cancer screening for women attending NHRA events.

“I’m going to miss racing against all of these guys and girls,” DeJoria said. ”When we’re on that line, it’s one thing, we’re out for blood. But behind the scenes, we’re family. Lastly, thank you to all of our incredible fans for coming out and supporting us through thick and thin for all of these years.”

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Antron Brown’s third reign as Top Fuel world champion ended Sunday in the Auto Club Finals, but not before he played a pivotal role in determining his successor.

Brown’s second-round victory over Steve Torrence opened the door for Brittany Force to secure her first NHRA Top Fuel championship. Brown covered the 1,000-foot distance in 3.691-seconds at 328.30 mph to trailer “best buddy” Torrence after his pass in 3.695-seconds at 328.46 mph. Force prevailed in the final with a pass in 3.674-seconds at 326.63 mph to Brown’s 3.677-second run at 329.34 mph. Starting line reaction times in the final were separated by just one-thousandth of a second.

Brown, a 41-year-old native of Chesterfield, N.J., completed his 10th season in NHRA’s Top Fuel division with four victories in 10 final-round appearances, two poles and 53 round-wins. Brown competed in Pro Stock Motorcycle from 1998-2007.

“It was a good season, but we’re used to great,” said Brown, whose Matco Tools/U.S. Army dragster is tuned by Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald. “We’re very hungry. We’re going to attack this offseason. My Matco boys, with Brian and Mark, are going to work hard to try and get that championship back for Matco and the U.S. Army and Toyota and everyone that supports us next season.

“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years in Top Fuel. Wow! It’s been a great ride with three championships and almost 50 wins, but we want to make history and keep winning races. It’s time to get to work.

“I’ve got a lot of things that I need to work on. But the positive thing is, it feels good to have our car back. Our car is definitely where it should be. It ran great (Sunday) and we improved every round. We’re back where we need to be. I’m just looking forward to next year and to start off on a high note. I wish next year was tomorrow, but we’re going to go as hard as we can go this offseason. All I can say is, we’re going to put the work in and we aren’t going to be anything nice next year.”

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Lucas Oil Products has signed a multi-year agreement to become title sponsor of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event held in Pomona, Calif. each February. The 58th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals will be held Feb. 8-11, 2018 and kick off the season.

“We are pleased to add another exciting national event to our lineup of title sponsorships in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series,” said Forrest Lucas, president/CEO of Lucas Oil Products. “Lucas Oil started in Southern California, so this title sponsorship is a natural fit.”

In addition to the Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals, Lucas Oil also sponsors the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn., and Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis in Clermont, Ind. 

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Final point standings (top-10) following the 53rd annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway: 

Top Fuel _1. Brittany Force, 2,690; 2. Steve Torrence, 2,609; 3. Doug Kalitta, 2,553; 4. Antron Brown, 2,508; 5. Leah Pritchett, 2,452; 6. Clay Millican, 2,419; 7. Shawn Langdon, 2,406; 8. Tony Schumacher, 2,395; 9. Terry McMillen, 2,310; 10. Scott Palmer, 2,218.

Funny Car _1. Robert Hight, 2,686; 2. Ron Capps, 2,588; 3. Courtney Force, 2,543; 4. Jack Beckman, 2,519; 5. Matt Hagan, 2,470; 6. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,452; 7. John Force, 2,388; 8. Tim Wilkerson, 2,296; 9. J.R. Todd, 2,282; 10. Cruz Pedregon, 2,178.

Pro Stock _1. Bo Butner, 2,731; 2. Greg Anderson, 2,724; 3. Jason Line, 2,644; 4. Tanner Gray, 2,558; 5. Drew Skillman, 2,476; 6. Erica Enders, 2,367; 7. Jeg Coughlin Jr., 2,318; 8. Allen Johnson, 2,284; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,257; 10. Vincent Nobile, 2,052.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Eddie Krawiec, 2,783; 2. Andrew Hines, 2,614; 3. LE Tonglet, 2,591; 4. Scotty Pollacheck, 2,492; 5. Jerry Savoie, 2,472; 6. Matt Smith, 2,454; 7. Hector Arana Jr., 2,453; 8. Karen Stoffer, 2,301; 9. Joey Gladstone, 2,280; 10. Angie Smith, 2,258.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 14 2017
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