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Smith Riding Toward Pole At Season-Ender

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 10 2018

Biker Matt Smith was fastest in time trials on Friday in Pomona. (File photo courtesy of the NHRA)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Point-leader Matt Smith’s bid for a third Pro Stock Motorcycle world championship began with a record-setting pass Friday during the opening sessions of time trials for the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

Smith covered the famed quarter-mile in Southern California in a track-record speed at 200.65 mph at 6.774-seconds aboard his Elite Motorsports DENSO Auto Parts EBR to claim the provisional pole. The quickest rider in both sessions and third member of the 200 MPH Club, Smith is one of six competitors mathematically eligible for the2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series title.

Based on two playoff wins through the first five Countdown to the Championship events, Smith began the weekend with a four-point lead over four-time/reigning world champion Eddie Krawiec. LE Tonglet and Hector Arana Jr. sat 61 and 64 points back, respectively. Meanwhile, 2016 world champion Jerry Savoie (101 points back) and five-time world champ Andrew Hines (113 points back) are the remaining contenders.

“All in all, it was a good day for us,” said Smith, who won his Pro Stock Bike titles in 2007 and 2013. “We made two passes and were No. 1 for both runs. I got eight bonus points. We just have to go and win the race now and win the championship; no matter what anybody else tell us. Two-hundred (mph) is an extra plus.” Smith ended Friday with a nine-point lead over Krawiec.

Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) also emerged as preliminary qualifiers at the season finale. 

“It’s very exciting for us, the fans and our class in general, and it’s going to be a battle,” said Smith, who will celebrate his 36th birthday on Sunday. “Hopefully we can do our job and come out on top in the end, but a race like this, I think it speaks well for our class. We’ve run 15 races and somehow only four points separated Eddie and me. It’s going to be fun and hopefully we can put it all together and do our job. We’re focused on trying to win the race and if we do that we win the title.”

Arana Jr., first rider in the 200 MPH Club, is second with his pass of 6.824-seconds at 198.96 mph aboard his Lucas Oil TV EBR. Tonglet, the 2010 world champion, is third via his run of 6.828 at 196.39 aboard his Nitro Fish Suzuki. Krawiec sits fifth after running 6.864 at 197.77 aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod.

Reigning world champion Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), 2017 world champ Bo Butner (Pro Stock) and Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including three hours of live finals coverage starting at 4 p.m. (EST) on Sunday. Television coverage will begin on FS1 with one hour of “NHRA Sunday Live” at 11:30 a.m. and conclude with a 30-minute post-race show at 7 p.m.

Krawiec was the regular-season PSM point-leader and held the lead after the playoff opener at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., but has had to make up ground in recent weeks. With four career wins at Pomona, Krawiec fully is capable of adding to his championship legacy.

“If we win the race, we win the championship, but that’s easier said than done,” said Krawiec, a four-time national event winner this season and 47 times during his career. “We’re in a good position and I feel like I perform better under pressure. I know what’s expected and I need to perform. It’s a unique battle in the class this year. But anytime you go into Pomona with a chance to win a championship, it’s been a good year. We’re right in the mix so there’s no need to change anything.”

Arana Jr. jumped back into the conversation with his win at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 28, while Tonglet bumped Smith from the top spot after his victory at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, near Dallas. That was short-lived after Smith moved back into the point lead for a second time in the playoffs with his victory at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., near Charlotte. Smith was in a similar high-pressure situation when he won his first title in 2007, beating Chip Ellis in the final round at Pomona to claim the title.

“I know for the fans they like it when it comes down to the wire and I do really well under pressure,” said Smith, who has 21 career victories. “There’s a lot of pressure in everything we do, but my biggest thing is I just focus on myself. I don’t worry about the other lane. A lot of people can get tied up in the spotlight, but I don’t worry about that. I’m going to go out there focused on what I need to do.”

On the strength of five consecutive Countdown wins, Steve Torrence claimed his first Top Fuel world title in Vegas and is looking to complete an improbable playoff sweep in Pomona.

With his win in Vegas, Funny Car’s J.R. Todd opened the weekend with a 74-point lead over two-time/reigning world champ Robert Hight of John Force Racing. Todd, of Kalitta Motorsports, is chasing his first career world title.

Second-year Pro Stock star Tanner Gray has scored seven wins in 2018, including two in the playoffs, and opened the weekend with a 140-point/seven rounds of racing lead over Jeg Coughlin Jr.

Southern California native Pritchett raced to the head of the Top Fuel class Friday with her 1,000-foot pass in 3.649-seconds at 329.34 mph in the Mopar Dodge dragster during the second session. Pritchett is seeking her fourth pole of the season and 11th of her career. 

“When you have this horsepower weather and this time of day you can just feel the energy,” said Pritchett, of Don Schumacher Racing. “The reason why there’s a smile on our faces is that we were able to execute what we wanted to do. Tomorrow we’re not going to have these same conditions so that’s why we’re excited we were able to capitalize on it tonight.” 

Clay Millican sits second after his pass of 3.702-seconds at 327.19 mph in his Great Clips/Parts Plus dragster.  Three-time world champion Antron Brown of DSR is third after his run of 3.704 at 329.50. Torrence provisionally is qualified fourth as he seeks to make history in his Capco Contractors/Torrence Racing dragster. 

In Funny Car, two-time/defending event champion Johnson’s second 1,000-foot run of 3.881-seconds at 328.54 mph sent his Make-A-Wish Dodge Charger R/T into the provisional top spot. Johnson, also of DSR, is seeking his fourth consecutive No. 1 qualifying position this season.

“It’s incredible they have had such a handle on the car,” Johnson said of his tuning duo of John Collins and Rip Reynolds. “I wish we could get that handle on Sunday but we’re pretty close. I’m disappointed we didn’t get it done quick enough in the Countdown but at the same time I’m excited because it is such a good car now. If we can carry that onto next year I would love it.”

DSR teammate “Fast” Jack Beckman, the 2012 world champ, is second after his pass of 3.901-seconds at 323.35 mph in his Infinite Hero Foundation Charger. Hight qualified third in his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS while Todd is in the No. 11 spot in his DHL Toyota Camry.

“This is what you dream about,” Hight said. “At the beginning of the year you want to be in this position at the end of the season with a chance to win the championship. This team, we’re in the hunt. We just have to make it happen.”

Hight did so during the second session via a 3.936-second pass at 325.69 mph that earned two bonus points for being third-quickest. “I’m proud of Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham and the whole Auto Club team,” High said of his co-crew chiefs. “The big thing is that run puts us solidly in the show and (Saturday) we can swing for the fences. It’s gonna be fun. We need to get as many points as we can tomorrow.”

If Todd captures the championship, he will become the first African-American driver to win a Funny Car title and just the second to win a major U.S. auto racing championship, joining fellow Toyota driver Brown. Todd also would be the second DHL Camry driver to win a Funny Car title in the last four years, joining Del Worsham, who won for Kalitta Motorsports in 2015.

Todd has two victories and advanced to four final rounds during the first five Countdown events. He also has compiled a 16-3 round win/loss record during the playoffs.

In Pro Stock, point runnerup Coughlin covered the traditional quarter-mile in 6.527-seconds at 211.39 mph in his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro SS to grab the provisional pole.

“We made two really nice runs today,” Coughlin said. “After Q1 we were on the pole and seeing some of our competitors bettering that mark ahead of us during the last three pair of Pro Stock. I was concerned with the right lane because a lot of cars were getting loose out there and thought it was going to be tough to improve. When I let the clutch out the car just went singing down the track and it felt great.” 

Teammate Erica Enders, a two-time world champion, is in the second spot after her pass of 6.530 at 211.39 in the Melling/Elite Performance Camaro. Championship leader Gray, who is exiting NHRA for a NASCAR career at season’s end, currently is fourth in his Gray Manufacturing Technologies Camaro. 

Friday’s provisional qualifying results after the first two of four rounds of time trials for the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif., the last of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and Round 6 of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Qualifying will continue Saturday for Sunday’s eliminations:

Top Fuel _ 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.649-seconds, 329.34 mph; 2. Clay Millican, 3.702, 327.19; 3.Antron Brown, 3.704, 329.50; 4. Steve Torrence, 3.704, 327.35; 5. Blake Alexander, 3.711, 330.88; 6. Billy Torrence, 3.711, 328.86; 7. Doug Kalitta, 3.740, 319.29; 8. Richie Crampton, 3.756, 319.52; 9. Scott Palmer, 3.767, 328.38; 10. Brittany Force, 3.772, 324.28; 11. Tony Schumacher, 3.792, 326.24; 12. Terry McMillen, 3.794, 325.61; 13. Shawn Reed, 3.858, 312.35; 14. Mike Salinas, 4.211, 208.20; 15. Cameron Ferre, 4.946, 144.75; 16. Audrey Worm, 7.731, 92.70.

Funny Car _1. Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.881, 328.54; 2. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.901, 323.35; 3. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.936, 325.69; 4. Tim Wilkerson, Ford Mustang, 3.936, 305.29; 5. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.948, 320.66; 6. Shawn Langdon, Toyota Camry, 3.950, 320.97; 7. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.965, 316.15; 8. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.029, 307.30; 9. Ray Martin, Camry, 4.183, 259.31; 10. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.217, 230.06; 11. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.220, 310.13; 12. Terry Haddock, Mustang, 4.253, 260.56; 13. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.256, 214.62; 14. Jeff Arend, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.276, 255.15; 15. Bob Bode, Mustang, 4.346, 205.76; 16. John Force, Camaro, 4.386, 206.54.

Not Qualified _ 17. Cruz Pedregon, 4.396, 204.14; 18. Jeff Diehl, 4.632, 190.35; 19. Jonnie Lindberg, 5.639, 122.74.

Pro Stock_ 1. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Chevy Camaro, 6.527, 211.39; 2. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.530, 211.39; 3. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.531, 211.56; 4. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.537, 209.59; 5. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.550, 211.39; 6. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.550, 210.18; 7. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.557, 212.09; 8. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.558, 211.03; 9. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.560, 211.89; 10. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.562, 211.43; 11. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.570, 210.50; 12. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.590, 209.20; 13. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.612, 208.55; 14. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.615, 209.88; 15. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.697, 207.27; 16. Joey Grose, Camaro, 6.738, 196.36.

Not Qualified _17. Steve Graham, 7.091, 157.19; 18. Tom Huggins, 7.481, 142.03; 19. Vincent Nobile, 12.494, 71.25.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.774, 200.65; 2. Hector Arana Jr., EBR, 6.824, 198.96; 3. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.828, 196.39; 4. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.848, 194.74; 5. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.864, 197.77; 6. Joey Gladstone, Buell, 6.880, 196.30; 7. Chip Ellis, Harley-Davidson, 6.880, 194.80; 8. Hector Arana, EBR, 6.885, 197.57; 9. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.885, 194.49; 10. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.886, 194.60; 11. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.893, 196.64; 12. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.895, 193.40; 13. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.898, 191.29; 14.Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.40; 15. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.953, 194.86; 16. Katie Sullivan, Suzuki, 6.978, 193.99.

Not Qualified _ 17. Kelly Clontz, 7.013, 191.57; 18. Anthony Vanetti, 7.074, 188.94; 19. Angie Smith, 7.081, 163.63; 20. Maurice Allen, 7.114, 186.64; 21. Melissa Surber, Broke. 



| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 10 2018
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