Pro Stock Becomes A Gray Area

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 11 2018

Pro Stocker Tanner Gray is the 2018 Pro Stock champ.

Teen-ager Tanner Gray became the youngest professional class champion in NHRA history Saturday when he qualified in the top half of the Pro Stock ladder for the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona.

At 19 years and 6 months, Gray qualified sixth in the 16-car field and will close-out the drag racing portion of his fledgling career with a made-for-Hollywood first-round match Sunday against his father, Shane Gray. Tanner will exit NHRA after this event to pursue a career in NASCAR beginning in 2019.

“I don’t think I’ve been this nervous for qualifying since my first race here in Pomona,” said Gray, a seven-time national event winner in 2018. “It means a lot. It’s been a heck of a year. We started pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure we would be in this position. We were just able to find something, and everything just started clicking from there.

“We did so much testing and nothing seemed to be paying off. Then it seemed like a light switch flipped and everything started coming together. We had a strong run going there and came into the Countdown and executed on race day really well. I couldn’t be more grateful for the guys working on my car and everyone who contributed to this moment. I get so much support from (crew chief) Dave Connolly and my parents and grandparents, too. I wouldn’t be here without them.”

In other racing, Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) emerged as No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the final race of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season. 

Tanner Gray is a third-generation racer. In 2017 he took over the wheel of the Chevrolet Camaro SS from his father. Tanner’s grandfather is retired NHRA driver Johnny Gray, a seven-time event-winner in Funny Car.

“It’s been a long, hard road,” Gray said of his family’s racing history. “They started at the bottom trying at it and they worked their way up.

“My dad and grandpa have been there. My dad taught me how to do burnouts and got me going and he’s someone who I can really lean on, especially in my first year, for advice. It’s been a lot of fun. Moments like these make it all worth it.”

Gray became NHRA’s youngest pro event winner and was voted the Series’ top rookie in 2017, when he recorded five wins during the 24-race schedule. This season, he took over first place in the point standings for good with a victory at the prestigious 64th annual U.S. Nationals over Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis.

Two of Tanner’s seven wins have been scored during the first five events of the  Countdown to the Championship playoffs, which conclude Sunday at Auto Club Raceway in Southern California.

Gray praised Connolly, a semi-retired Pro Stock driver, for serving as his mentor. Connolly is tied with the late Lee Shepherd, a four-time NHRA world champion, for 10th on the “Factory Hot Rod” all-time wins list with 26.

“It’s been a lot of fun working with Dave,” said Gray, who will take a 97-35 win/loss round record into his 48th race on Sunday. “I was a fan of Dave as a kid, waiting for him outside his trailer so I could talk to him. About 2013, we became somewhat friends and 2014 he came over and raced for us. He used to help me out a lot.

“Everyone who knows Dave knows how competitive he is. We’d sit on the practice (Christmas) Tree and he’d pretty much make fun of me. He’s pushed me to be better every weekend. Sometimes he has weird ways of doing it, but he’s the best at what he does. He’s one of the all-time greats in my opinion and I’d love to see him back out here in a car.”

LE Tonglet (20 years, 11 months) became the previous youngest NHRA series champion in 2010 in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Larry Lombardo (27 years, 7 months) was the previous youngest Pro Stock world champion in 1976.

Chevrolet now has powered the Pro Stock champion for five consecutive years _ Bo Butner in 2017, Jason Line in ’16 and Erica Enders in ’14 and ’15. Entering the season-finale, five-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. earned his sixth pole of the season Saturday with a quarter-mile pass of 6.510-seconds at 211.49 mph in his Chevrolet Camaro SS.

“First off, I want to congratulate Tanner Gray and Gray Motorsports on their Pro Stock championship season,” said Coughlin, who is among 10 Chevy Pro Stock drivers to visit various winner circles in 2018. “We made a great run in that last pass. Now we’ll try to finish strong and take second place on the year.”

Coughlin will open against Kenny Delco during Sunday’s first round of eliminations as he chases his fourth win of the season. “Rickie Jones (crew chief) was going for it,” Coughlin said. “From the time I let the clutch out this thing was just singing. It was singing through every one of the four gear changes and fifth gear was great and just hummed it down through there. I could tell by the tone on his voice on the radio that not only did we run well but kept the No. 1 qualifier.”

Three-time world champion Line, of Ken Black Racing, moved up to the No. 2 spot during the final round with his run of 6.529 at 212.06 in the blue Summit Racing Equipment Camaro. Line will race Vincent Nobile and his Camaro in the first round.  Enders, a two-time world champ, rounded-out the top three in qualifying in her Camaro and will start eliminations against Deric Kramer and his American Ethanol Camaro. 

Outgoing world champion Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Butner (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of an event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including three hours of live finals coverage starting at 4 p.m. (EST) 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.

Southern California native Pritchett paced the Top Fuel category for all four qualifying sessions in her Mopar Dodge dragster fielded by Don Schumacher Racing. Pritchett’s final 1,000-foot run of 3.631-seconds at 332.84 mph secured her fourth pole of the season and 11th of her career. Pritchett will square-off against Rookie of the Year contender Bill Litton Sunday in pursuit of her third win of the season. 

“The car is finally communicating in a proper way,” Pritchett said. “We found out our window is a lot bigger for making these fast passes. I’m most excited for Todd Okuhara (crew chief) because he finally has his race car back. For the history that has been laid on this track and for us to chase putting down our own history makes me feel like our team is on our way.” 

Newly-crowned Top Fuel world champion Steve Torrence sits second on the ladder with his pass of 3.661 at 330.96 in the Torrence Racing dragster.  Brittany Force is third in her Monster Energy dragster fielded by John Force Racing. 

Don Schumacher Racing swept the top three qualifying positions in Funny Car, as Capps powered his Dodge Charger R/T to the top of the class with his fourth 1,000-foot pass of 3.848-seconds at 331.53 mph. Teammates “Fast” Jack Beckman, the 2012 world champ, and Tommy Johnson Jr. were second and third, respectively. 

“The fans are going to be in for unbelievable racing (Sunday),” said Capps, the 2016 world champion. “It will be a nice, warm Southern California day but it’s going to be good track conditions and it won’t be messy or greasy. I can’t think of a better place to race.” 

Capps will face Ray Martin in the first round of eliminations. Beckman’s speed of 330.96 mph at 3.867-seconds in his Dodge Charger R/T surpassed Johnson Jr.’s 326.40 at 3.867 during their side-by-side fourth qualifying run.

Meanwhile, point-leader J.R. Todd qualified fourth in the Toyota Camry fielded by Kalitta Motorsports _ an improvement of seven positions from Friday. Todd extended his championship lead back to 74 points heading into eliminations, the equivalent of over two rounds of racing. Todd can clinch the 2018 Funny Car championship by advancing to the semifinals or beyond.

“Nothing’s changed for our DHL Toyota,” said Todd, who registered a 3.897-second pass during his final qualifying run. “We’re going to go out there and run hard. We’re not going to let up. Our goal is to win the race.” Todd will open eliminations against Jim Campbell.

Two-time/reigning world champion Robert Hight starts fifth in his Chevrolet Camaro SS fielded by JFR after his best pass of 3.915 at 327.98 mph.

“Overall we did what we needed to do,” Hight said.”We control our own destiny. If we win the race we are the Mello Yello champions. That’s the goal when you start the season. You want to be in a position to win the world championship on the last day of the season. This Auto Club team will be ready and I feel good about how the car is running.

“When I talk with (co-crew chiefs) Jimmy Prock and Chris Cunningham I have even more confidence. We’ve been trying a few minor things to get quicker at certain points on the track and have figured some things out. (Sunday) will be an exciting day. I’m going to get a good night’s sleep and then hopefully get four win-lights.”

Hight will open against Ford Mustang driver Bob Tasca III, against whom he has a 21-7 record. If Hight wins, he could race Todd in the quarterfinals and have control of his fate.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, point-leader Smith secured his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season, 31st of his career and second during the Countdown by racing his Elite Motorsports DENSO Auto Parts EBR to a quarter-mile pass in 6.754-seconds at 201.10 mph. Smith became the third member of the 200 MPH Club on Friday at 200.65 mph and upped the ante Saturday.

“Our Q3 run was a phenomenal pass,” said Smith, the world champion in 2007 and 2013. “We did 60-foot like we did in Q1 and Q2. But as everybody sees we have a real good tune-up, we have a lot of power and the 201.10 is pretty hateful out here. We ran big speed at eighth-mile, changed some gear ratios and made a nice pass.”

Fittingly for Hollywood, Smith will open eliminations against his wife, Angie Smith. Hector Arana Jr. qualified second after his pass at 6.781 and 197.57 aboard the Lucas Oil Racing TV EBR and will line up against Freddie Camarena and his Suzuki. Four-time/reigning world champion Eddie Krawiec qualified third aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson Street Rod and remains in contention for another world championship. 


Sunday’s first-round pairings 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 Countdown to the Championship playoffs. Pairings based upon results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings:

Top Fuel  _1. Leah Pritchett, 3.631-seconds, 332.84 mph vs. 16. Bill Litton, 3.985, 270.43; 2. Steve Torrence, 3.661, 330.96 vs. 15. Cameron Ferre, 3.929, 287.41; 3. Brittany Force, 3.667, 333.58 vs. 14. Shawn Reed, 3.807, 323.12; 4. Clay Millican, 3.681, 325.14 vs. 13. Terry McMillen, 3.792, 324.05; 5. Blake Alexander, 3.692, 331.45 vs. 12. Mike Salinas, 3.762, 294.50; 6. Antron Brown, 3.704, 329.50 vs. 11. Doug Kalitta, 3.740, 319.29; 7. Billy Torrence, 3.711, 328.86 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.726, 325.22; 8. Tony Schumacher, 3.722, 329.75 vs. 9. Scott Palmer, 3.726, 326.95.

Did Not Qualify _ 17. Audrey Worm, 4.005, 254.47. 

Funny Car _ 1. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.848, 331.53 vs. 16. Ray Martin, Toyota Camry, 4.183, 259.31; 2. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.867, 330.96 vs. 15. Jeff Arend, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.116, 303.37; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.867, 326.40 vs. 14. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.065, 300.20; 4. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.897, 327.82 vs. 13. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.000, 309.70; 5. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.915, 327.98 vs. 12. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.991, 320.20; 6. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.920, 313.58 vs. 11. Bob Bode, Mustang, 3.981, 318.24; 7. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.931, 321.81 vs. 10. John Force, Camaro, 3.975, 320.36; 8. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.946, 323.50 vs. 9. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.950, 320.97.

Did Not Qualify _17. Terry Haddock, 4.253, 260.56; 18. Jonnie Lindberg, 4.452, 286.01; 19. Jeff Diehl, 4.632, 190.35.

Pro Stock _ 1. Jeg Coughlin Jr., Chevy Camaro, 6.510, 211.49 vs. 16. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.597, 209.36; 2. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.529, 212.06 vs. 15. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.584, 209.95; 3.Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.530, 211.39 vs. 14. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.570, 210.50; 4. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.532, 211.16 vs. 13. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.569, 209.49; 5. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.533, 211.66 vs. 12. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.568, 209.85; 6. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.534, 211.33 vs. 11. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.564, 210.08; 7. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.541, 210.87 vs. 10. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.560, 211.89; 8. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.543, 211.20 vs. 9. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.553, 211.39.

Did Not Qualify _ 17. Steve Graham, 6.622, 210.05; 18. Val Smeland, 6.640, 207.43; 19. Tom Huggins, 6.713, 207.24; 20. Joey Grose, 6.738, 196.36.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _ 1. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.754, 201.10 vs. 16. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.969, 192.60; 2. Hector Arana Jr., EBR, 6.781, 197.57 vs. 15. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.953, 194.86; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.789, 198.38 vs. 14. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.40; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.826, 196.16 vs. 13. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.898, 191.29; 5. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.828, 196.39 vs. 12. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.893, 196.64; 6. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.835, 195.93 vs. 11. Joey Gladstone, Buell, 6.880, 196.30; 7. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.838, 194.88 vs. 10. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.879, 194.66; 8. Hector Arana, EBR, 6.862, 197.48 vs. 9. Chip Ellis, Harley-Davidson, 6.862, 193.79.

Did Not Qualify _ 17. Kelly Clontz, 6.972, 192.85; 18. Katie Sullivan, 6.978, 193.99; 19. Melissa Surber, 7.052, 187.57; 20. Maurice Allen, 7.070, 185.10; 21. Anthony Vanetti, 7.074, 188.94. 



| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 11 2018
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