NHRA To Settle Things This Weekend In Pomona

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 15 2019
Doug Kalitta needs to keep it clean in Top Fuel this weekend. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Doug Kalitta knows he will need to keep his “laundry” neatly and securely packed this weekend if he has any chance of emerging as a first-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion.

Kalitta heads into Friday’s qualifications for the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona third in a point chase involving the two most recent world champions. Steve Torrence, the reigning champion, holds a 16-point lead over 2017 champ Brittany Force rolling into the first of two rounds of time trials. Torrence leads Kalitta by 55 points and Billy Torrence, his father, by 86 points entering the final race of the six-event Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.

Kalitta’s Sunday two weekends ago at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ended in embarrassment when a connection wire in the Mac Tools dragster’s safety box broke during his semifinal round burnout. The break triggered the safety measures that deployed the car’s parachutes and shut off the engine. Kalitta was unable to run against Steve Torrence, who eventually was beaten by Force in the final.
“It was just real unfortunate,” Kalitta said of the malfunction. “We were definitely going to give it our best out there to see if we could get by Steve. We had some bad luck in Las Vegas but we put that behind us and are focusing all our energy on winning this last race.”

With each round worth 30 points at the season-finale _ 10 points more than during the season _  Kalitta easily remains within striking distance. This will be the fourth time Kalitta has rolled into the season’s last race with a chance to claim the championship.

“You start every season with one goal and that’s to win the world championship,” said Kalitta, the nephew of team-owner and NHRA icon Conrad “Connie” Kalitta. “You have to be in contention in Pomona at the Auto Club Finals to achieve that goal. We’ve had a really strong season and I feel as confident as ever that we can race for this championship. We knew it would come down to the last race of the season.“

Kalitta has the most wins (46) in NHRA history without a championship. After a career that’s spanned more than 500 races and included 100 final-round appearances, it’s one statistic Kalitta wants to erase. To that end, Kalitta has logged two final-round appearances in the Countdown as well as the semifinal finish in Vegas. His only first-round loss occurred in Round 4 of the Countdown at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, where he was joined by Steve Torrence as an early upset victim.

“We have gone rounds at every Countdown race this year,” Kalitta said. “It’s been a wide-open battle and we have a really good shot at this championship. We need to run well in qualifying and get some bonus points. Qualifying on Friday and Saturday will be critical to setting us up for success on race day.

“I would love to bookend this season with a win this weekend to go along with our win at the Winternationals (in February). We aren’t going to save anything for the offseason, that’s for sure.”

In addition to Steve Torrence, J.R. Todd (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of a race that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), beginning with two hours of qualifying today at 5:30 p.m. (EST). FS1 will are live finals coverage starting at 4 p.m. (EST) on Sunday.

“There are lots of different scenarios. But if we just go out and win the race, everything else will take care of itself,” said Torrence, driver of the Capco Contractors dragster. “Look, we know from experience what can happen out here but if we execute our game plan, it’ll be hard to beat us. I know these Capco boys are gonna give me a good race car and my job is to bring it home.”

Racing in Pomona represents an opportunity for Torrence to continue one of the most impressive success stretches in the class. He has logged nine wins in 2019, including one in the Countdown, giving the Texan 28 victories since 2017. That mark includes his sweep of all six playoff races a year ago.

“We get everybody’s best shot and we wouldn’t have it any other way,” Torrence said. “It’s just a privilege and a blessing to be able to compete at this level with a family race team, but we know how easy it is to go from hero to zero and vice versa. (Crew chiefs) Richard Hogan and Bobby Lagana (Jr.) have got a good handle on things wherever we go. I know when I go up there that I’m gonna have a shot,  and that’s all you can ask for.”

Force, meanwhile, is re-living her memorable Countdown run in 2017, when she overhauled Torrence to become the first woman in 35 years to win NHRA’s premier championship. Force qualified No. 1, set the track record and won the race to join Shirley Muldowney as the only other woman to claim the sport’s biggest prize. Since then, Force has changed crew chiefs, crews, engine and drivetrain components and her primary sponsor. Still, that doesn’t mean her focus is any different.

“The biggest difference this time around is I’ve been in the hunt for a championship before so I have a better idea of how to deal with the pressure,” said Force, driver of the Advance Auto Parts dragster. “I’m lucky to have (crew chiefs) David Grubnic and Mac Savage in my corner. I’m very confident going into Pomona with this team and chasing down the 2019 championship. I work alongside the most dedicated, hard-working guys. I’m proud to be in the fight with them and wouldn’t choose anyone else going into Pomona. We’ve made big moves and turned a corner at the right time. There’s only one race left and we’re looking to finish this year off with a championship.”

Force exited Vegas after becoming the first Top Fuel driver since  eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher to simultaneously hold NHRA’s performance records for elapsed time (3.623-seconds) and speed (338.17 mph) at 1,000-feet.

In Funny Car, Robert Hight of John Force Racing is the current leader but “Fast” Jack Beckman is only 46 points back. Matt Hagan, Beckman’s  Don Schumacher Racing teammate, has pulled to within 56 points after posting back-to-back wins, while 16-time world champ John Force is 72 points out of first.

Erica Enders closed-out her first Pro Stock world title in 2014 with a final-round win in Southern California, and she will take a 92-point lead into this weekend. Enders will try to secure a third title at the expense of five-time world champ Jeg Coughlin Jr., her Elite Motorsports teammate.

Andrew Hines will look to lock up his sixth world title in Pro Stock Motorcycle. The factory Harley-Davidson rider holds a 115-point lead on Jerry Savoie, a two-time playoff winner in 2019. Eddie Krawiec and reigning world champ Matt Smith are one and two points behind Savoie, respectively.

Point standings (top-10) following the 19th annual Dodge NHRA Nationals presented by Pennzoil at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 23rd of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and fifth of six races in the Countdown to the Championship:

Top Fuel _1. Steve Torrence, 2,488; 2. Brittany Force, 2,472; 3. Doug Kalitta, 2,433; 4. Billy Torrence, 2,402; 5. Leah Pritchett, 2,353; 6. Austin Prock, 2,330; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,322; 8. Antron Brown, 2,279; 9. Richie Crampton, 2,261; 10. Clay Millican, 2,241.

Funny Car _1. Robert Hight, 2,494; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,448; 3. Matt Hagan, 2,438; 4. John Force, 2,422; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,390; 6. Ron Capps, 2,334; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,312; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,306; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,274; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,223.

Pro Stock _1. Erica Enders, 2,517; 2. Jeg Coughlin Jr., 2,425; 3. Bo Butner, 2,404; 4. Jason Line, 2,401; 5. Matt Hartford, 2,399; 6. Greg Anderson, 2,360; 7. Deric Kramer, 2,359; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,291; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,250; 10. Val Smeland, 2,155.

Pro Stock Motorcycle _1. Andrew Hines, 2,540; 2. Jerry Savoie, 2,425; 3. Eddie Krawiec, 2,424; 4. Matt Smith, 2,423; 5. Karen Stoffer, 2,416; 6. Hector Arana Jr., 2,306; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,302; 8. Angie Smith, 2,233; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,191; 10. Hector Arana, 2,160.

2019 NHRA Countdown to the Championship Playoffs Schedule/Results

Sept. 12-15 _ Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, Maple Grove Raceway, Reading, Pa. Richie Crampton (Top Fuel), Jack Beckman (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock), Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Sept. 27-29 _ AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, World Wide Technology Raceway, Madison, Ill. Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Shawn Langdon (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Karen Stoffer (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 11-14 _NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals, zMAX Dragway, Concord, N.C. Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Deric Kramer (Pro Stock), Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 17-20 _ AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Texas Motorplex, Ennis, Texas. Billy Torrence (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Oct. 31-Nov. 3 _ Dodge NHRA Nationals Presented by Pennzoil, The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Brittany Force (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Erica Enders (Pro Stock), Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

Nov. 14-17 _ Auto Club NHRA Finals, Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, Calif.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, November 15 2019
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