‘Countdown Casino’ Makes Some, Breaks Some In NHRA Countdown

(Images courtesy NHRA/National Dragster)

Think of the National Hot Rod Association’s Big  O Tires Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as a Countdown casino. All the contenders came in feeling lucky. Two of the pro-class points leaders, one serious challenger, and one long shot hit their respective class jackpots.  One points leader rolled snake eyes. And a few hopefuls gambled and lost, while drag racing merely teased a couple of others before dashing their hopes. Find out who Sunday’s winners and losers were.
MIRACLE-TIME AGAIN? – Top Fuel runner-up Tony Schumacher heads into the Nov. 8-11 Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif., in second place in the Top Fuel class, just 65 points behind leader Antron Brown. The U.S. Army Dragster driver, the No. 1 qualifier, said he had hoped to win this race not only for our troops but also for his son Michael, who turned nine years old Sunday. With his eighth final-round appearance this season, Schumacher improved from third place, passed Don Schumacher Racing teammate Spencer Massey, and sliced other DSR mate Brown’s advantage from 136 points. Schumacher, that master of championship-producing, last-minute miracles in his season finale, said, “We’ve pulled off miracles. You don’t want to wish anyone else a mistake, but if we’re going to be champs it’s required.” But he said Brown would make an excellent champion: “I hope he comes out and makes clean runs and becomes world champion. He’s earned it.”  
 BROWN SCRAMBLING NOW – A first-round loss to Khalid al-Balooshi helped erode Antron Brown’s once-dominating points margin. It also marked Brown’s second straight loss to the Al-Anabi Top Fuel rookie and the third overall in the Countdown. What looked like an almost-sure bet for the Top Fuel title looks shaky now for the Aaron’s/Matco Tools/Toyota Dragster driver.
“No matter what, we’re leaving with the points lead,” Brown said. “We lost some points, but we’ll go into Pomona with the lead. Our Matco boys are going to keep working hard. We had a lot of things go wrong this weekend that usually never go wrong, like the clutch management system breaking, electrical wires breaking. All these little nitpicky gremlins came out this weekend.”

He started eliminations from his worst qualifying position of the season (13th). His engine developed major problems, but so did al Balooshi’s after he drove past Brown. But al Balooshi had enough momentum to coast to victory.

It is what it is, and that’s drag racing. The bad part is that we’re letting these other guys get back in it. – Antron Brown

“It felt good off the line, like it was moving good,” Brown said. “As I saw the finish line coming up I kept my foot in it. I should have slapped the throttle one more time, because when it was spinning it kept on spinning and popped the supercharger and then my car was just coasting to the finish line and I saw al Balooshi come around us at the stripe, and that’s the worse feeling — and he was on fire.”
Brown said he won’t give up. “It is what it is, and that’s drag racing. The bad part is that we’re letting these other guys get back in it,” he said. “We’re going to keep on pressing. We’re not whipped. We’ll be here testing [Monday]. One thing is that the good Lord is an able guy, He never gives you anything you can’t handle. Things happen for a reason and this is all part of it. We’ve put ourselves in a good position in case something like this happened.”

A MASSEY MIRACLE AWAITS? – While it appeared his second-round loss to Bob Vandergriff tanked his chance to win an NHRA Top Fuel title to match the one he earned in his one and only IHRA season, Spencer Massey is conceding nothing. “We weren’t able to [capitalize]. It is what it is. Mathematically we still have a shot in Pomona. If things fall the right way, we can still win the championship. If Antron [Brown] does well, he can win it. If we do well, we can win it. If Tony [Schumacher] does well, he can win it. There are so many different scenarios. I’m not even going to think about it. I’m just going to try to win Pomona.” However, he clearly is thinking about it, strategizing, with Schumacher’s memorable 2006 “Run” as inspiration. “If we qualify in Pomona like we did here, we can make up almost another round of racing. So there’s always that shot,” Massey said. “There are different scenarios. It’s not over until it’s over. We’ve seen Tony Schumacher make ‘The Run’ and win the race, set the record, and get the championship. It’s NHRA drag racing. You’ve got to keep your eyes on it, because it’s an awesome show.”

– Funny Car – Ron Capps and DSR teammate Jack Beckman have seen their Funny Car careers intertwine in an unforgettable way. Capps was in a downward spiral when the tour visited Las Vegas in lat March/early April. After Capps failed to qualify for that spring race, team owner Don Schumacher flip-flopped Capps’ and Beckman’s teams. Capps was aligned with Beckman’s current team for seven-plus seasons, and Capps said it’s “tough to go against them.” He said they all had opportunities to go elsewhere but vowed to remain a unit. “We always vowed we were going to win a championship together,” he said. Now he must deliver a heartbreaking blow to them if he is going to earn his first championship.

We’re both fighting for that first championship ring. I get up and that’s all I think about. I go to bed and that’s all I think about. And we’re close. – Ron Capps

The team swap proved terrific for Capps, and Beckman has flourished, as well, under  new-to-DSR crew chief Todd Smith. Capps started the Countdown as points leader, and he built that margin to 96 points after the second of six playoff events. But Capps lost the lead to Beckman and began the tour’s return to Las Vegas trailing Beckman by 23 points.

As the season showdown looms at Pomona, Calif., in two weeks, only four points separate leader Jack Beckman. The two met in the final round here, and Capps won easily with a 4.070-second elapsed time at 315.12 in the NAPA Dodge Charger, as Beckman smoked the tires of his Valvoline/NextGen Dodge. Capps said he feared Beckman in the final round: “I felt like stuff was going to go wrong. He’s on a roll. To beat Jack was huge. We’re both fighting for that first championship ring. I get up and that’s all I think about. I go to bed and that’s all I think about. And we’re close.”
Jack Beckman found the positives Sunday after his tire-smoking defeat. He said, “Right now we’re four points ahead, but four points is the same as 20 points for winning a round in eliminations. So in a sense we’re a round ahead right now. We had an off weekend. Our car didn’t respond to a lot of the changes on Sunday and we still went to the final round.”

Beckman received a key break in the semifinals. Opponent rookie Courtney Force fouled out. “That was our lucky win,” Beckman said. But the round before that, he defeated John Force Racing’s Mike Neff, the No. 3-ranked driver who is 88 points out of first place now.
“The nice thing is that we went from having a remote chance when we were almost 100 points behind (Capps) to now having as good as chance as anybody to win the championship,” Beckman said. “I’m excited to get to Pomona. I think we’ll figure out what was ailing our car, and Pomona is our kind of race track.”
LOCKED IT UP? – In Pro Stock, Team Mopar/J&J Racing’s Allen Johnson all but secured his first series championship. He defeated fellow finalist Vincent Nobile, who drives the Mountain View Tire Dodge Avenger with power from Johnson’s dad Roy Johnson. for team owner Nick Mitsos of Rancho Cucamonga. Johnson heads to Pomona with a 126-point advantage over second-place and reigning champion Jason Line. “We wanted to come down on that championship with an iron fist,” Johnson said in winning for the sixth time this year in 10 finals.
KRAWIEC EYES CROWN – Virtually sealing a third series title was Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec, who scored a repeat victory at Las Vegas on the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson to top Matt Smith aboard his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell. “It takes a lot of pressure off going into Pomona,” Krawiec said.
ANOTHER STONE IN RING – The NHRA Pro Care Rx Pro Modified Series crowned its series champion: race-winner  Troy Coughlin. The veteran from Delaware, Ohio, drove his brand-new R2B2 Race Cars-built, Steve Petty-tuned twin-turbo Corvette to the event victory over Donnie Walsh Jr. to clinch his first NHRA championship. That gave him a three-point edge over 2011 champion Mike Castellana in the final standings.

Photo Courtesy of Team JEGS

 Coughlin entered the weekend in third place, 42 points behind Castellana in third place. So he took the risk of breaking in a virtually unknown car in a last-ditch effort to gain two-plus rounds of racing with only four left. “We came into this race with a brand-new car. We tested here with it a week ago, and it was running well. So we decided to enter it in the race. Of course, everyone else said we were crazy, but Steve Petty and all the guys worked so hard to give me a perfect car and, bottom line, it’s so much easier to drive than anything I’ve had in the past. It worked perfectly all weekend and we needed every bit of it to get this title.”
He said his younger brother, five-time NHRA champion and Pro Stock star Jeg Coughlin, “started this deal where each of us [the four Coughlin brothers] have rings with a stone in it for each national championship we’ve won. I added one in 2009, when I won the NMCA Pro Street title. And now this one, combined with the five Jeg has won, will put us up to seven stones. It’s just incredible to think about it. To be a piece of the history of JEGS Racing, considering the guys I’m racing with, is pretty awesome.”

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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