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Jeg Heads West With Berth In Bag

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 10 2009

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Jeg Coughlin (NHRA Photo)

Jeg Coughlin (NHRA Photo)

Jeg Coughlin has figured out the perfect way to avoid messing with the numerics surrounding the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship format.

Clinch early.

Coughlin, the four-time NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series world champion in Pro Stock, will open the three-race Western Swing at Bandimere Speedway today as the first professional driver to have clinched a spot in the Countdown to 1.

Two rounds of qualifying for the 30th annual Mopar Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere are scheduled to begin this afternoon in Morrison, Colo. Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending champions at Bandimere, located just west of Denver.

Coughlin, driver of the familiar yellow JEGS. com Chevrolet Cobalt, has put together a dominant first half of the season. He leads all drivers in wins (5), round wins (33) and winning percentage (.825), and is a staggering 8-0 on the Christmas tree (5-0 in red lights and 3-0 in hole shots).

Since the NHRA introduced its Countdown format in 2007, only two pro drivers have clinched a playoff spot heading into The Western Swing, which encompasses this weekend’s event at Bandimere followed by stops in Kent, Wash., outside Seattle and Sonoma, Calif. Top Fuel ace Schumacher had compiled 1,062 points at this point last summer en route to his sixth championship. Coughlin arrived in Denver with 1,072 points, and a game plan for the final six “regular-season” events.

“To (have clinched) already was news to me going into this race week and it’s very flattering,” said Coughlin, whose team is owned by Victor Cagnazzi. “We are going in and approach these three races as aggressively as we can. Yes, we do have a few things on our clipboard that we would like to test in Seattle and later down the road in Infineon and Sonoma. Not going to steer too far off-course.

“This is a grueling three-race stretch, but that’s just the beginning for us as we enter the final phase of the regular season and ultimately prepare for the Countdown to 1 effort that starts in Charlotte. We have got a four-race stretch that starts that off.

“Really for us, it’s a great exercise to keep the team in sync. Obviously, we want to go out and challenge for some round wins and some race wins, ultimately. But we are really treating this as an opportunity to continue to keep that momentum going that we have had in the regular season thus far, and would like nothing more than to leave the U.S. Nationals in the points lead and enter the Countdown to 1 in the No. 1 seed (and earn 20-point bonus).

“We are very much looking forward to it, and that’s our approach.”

His consistency has allowed Coughlin to open a 68-point lead (1,072-1,004) over Mike Edwards, who has posted two wins this season. Jason Line, the 2006 Pro Stock champion, has won three events and is third with 896 points. And three-time champion Anderson – surprisingly winless thus far – sits fourth with 861 points.  Allen Johnson and Ron Krisher also have posted single victories in the class for “Factory Hot Rods” this season.

Coughlin, who logged his championships in 2000, 2002, and 2007-08, declined to categorize his early clinch as even a psychological victory over his rivals.

“I’m not sure it would be a psychological blow to them by any stretch,” Coughlin said, “but it’s just been a straight effort on the whole Jegs and JEGS.com team. When we finished our 2008 championship run, we sat as a team and tried to figure what are our goals as we approached the 2009 season. It appeared that the Countdown format would not change and it has not for the most part. Our goals at that time were to challenge for some more round wins and race wins, period, because I think we won the championship last year with three victories and just a consistent run throughout the entire year, and that’s what got it done for us.

“But we wanted to capitalize more on that in the regular season and I think that focus and that direction and that discipline is what has gotten our team prepared for the ‘09 season. And to clinch our (playoff spot) into the Top-10 going into the Countdown to 1 this early in the season, it’s allowing us to maybe test a few things along the way.

“We probably won’t do a whole lot of testing in Denver because it’s just such a different environment for us but that will give us the opportunity as we approach Seattle, as we approach Sonoma, as we approach Reading (Pa.), and also, Brainerd (Minn.) We probably won’t tinker with it a whole lot going into Indy, because, well, it’s the U.S. Nationals and you’re there to focus on winning the U.S. Nationals.”

Coughlin said his current run of success at the starting line is a product of confidence, from burnout to pre-staging before each round.

“What’s on my mind at that point is I usually have two or three game plans on how I’m going to race my opponent and approach the starting line,” said Coughlin, a 39-year-old resident of Delaware, Ohio. “Because you do have to mix it up from behind the wheel, not only to try and create a benefit on your behalf, but also to mix it up to keep it fresh for yourself, and I enjoy doing that.

“So typically pulling forward at the pre-stage I’ll have two or three game plans in mind, and you know, obviously in a pecking order, and I feel like that way I’m always on offense mentally.  As I prepare the pre-stage and my opponent has done the same, then you just kind of play the game and let it unfold, hopefully within one of your three game plans, and they typically do because you’ve got it covered.

“I think the confidence that I have is to remain focused with the most discipline; to drown out any distraction at that point, and that’s a lot easier said than done. I’ve been fortunate to be able to drown those distractions out and remain confident, and again it goes with the confidence that your team gives you and the preparation of your vehicle, and your chances of winning that round.

“So it is a big team effort, and Pro Stock racing – in all NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing – the races are side-by-side, and any little error can result in a loss. Certainly on a Christmas tree, we don’t particularly care to be second off the line or lose on a hole shot, but that is the name of the game occasionally and you just have to fire at it and be confident.”

Coughlin, who clinched his first title in 2000 by scoring 10 wins in 14 final-round appearances, said he definitely is a believer in building and maintaining momentum.

“I think you kind of earn it, and as you’re earning it, you’re feeling it, as well,” said Coughlin, the youngest of four racing brothers. “It’s kind of a difficult question, and to sum up in a few words, but yeah, I think you can feel it. I definitely don’t think it’s something you pray for or that shows up. It’s something that you earn, not only with your team, but from your competitors.

“In a lot of instances, when the engine group is making more horsepower in the dyno room, that gives them more momentum to make more. Obviously when things are on the up-and-up, it’s easier to keep on rolling, and that goes for the same group that’s at the racetrack, as well, and also for me, behind the wheel.

“You know, with six races in our Countdown to 1, momentum can be everything, as we’ve seen the last two seasons, the way the Countdowns have unfolded. In all of the classes, momentum can carry you right from the very first race, as was the case with Cruz Pedregon last year right into the Funny Car world championship.

“So in our case, it’s not easy to get that momentum going. But I think with the way our regular season has been going, we are looking to kind of play on it, and if we can, make a real strong run at a third straight Full Throttle Championship.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, July 10 2009
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