CONCORD, N.C. — official release — NHRA photo — Pro Stock points leader Jason Line knows when he pulls into zMAX Dragway for the seventh annual NHRA Carolina Nationals, Sept. 12-14, the atmosphere will be different.
As competitive as every race on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series circuit is, the start of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship creates a palpable increase in intensity.
“With this playoff-style format, it’s do or die,” Line said. “If you get off to a bad start, it’s difficult to come back from it, especially right now when all of the top cars are so close. It’s very difficult to overcome a deficit. Right now, everybody is tuned up a little bit. You’re on edge.”
Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the NHRA Carolina Nationals, a race that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2.
It’s also the kickoff event of the six-race Countdown to the Championship, as the top 10 in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle compete to win world championships in their respective categories. The NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway, the Bellagio of dragstrips on the NHRA circuit, is just as important as any stop in the Countdown.
A championship certainly can’t be won or lost at the event, but a good start is incredibly helpful if a competitor has their sights set on a world title.
“Charlotte will set the tone without a doubt,” said Funny Car driver Ron Capps, who is currently third in points. “By the time you leave Sunday night somebody who was in fifth coming in could be in first and someone who was in first could now be light years ahead. If you stumble there you’re going to feel like your back is against the wall. If you go there and get to the final that’s a good start but with six races you can’t stumble. It’s a huge race and if someone doesn’t tell you that they’re lying.”
In Top Fuel, nobody has been more consistent than Doug Kalitta, who has advanced to nine final rounds during a banner 2014 season and is the current points leader in his 1 Mac Tools dragster. Kalitta has never won at zMAX Dragway, but a first victory at the track would go a long way toward clinching his first world championship crown.
In order to take the title, Kalitta will have to get past the Al-Anabi Racing team which has won the championship in two of the last three seasons. Defending world champ Shawn Langdon will certainly be one of the primary challengers once again during the playoffs.
“From now until the end of the season, every run we make down the track is critical and crucial towards winning the NHRA Mello Yello championship,” said Langdon, who won the Countdown-opener one year ago en route to his first pro series title.
Big challenges will also come from 2012 champ Antron Brown, who won at Charlotte in 2011, seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher, recent Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals winner Richie Crampton, two-time season winner Spencer Massey, Khalid alBalooshi, three-time season runner-up Brittany Force, rising star J.R. Todd and Steve Torrence.
Capps is chasing the John Force Racing Funny Car duo of John Force, the current points leader and reigning world champion, and Hight, who has had a stellar season in his Auto Club Ford Mustang, winning five races in seven final rounds. Other top contenders include two- Courtney Force, Indy winner Alexis DeJoria, DSR teammates Tommy Johnson Jr. and Matt Hagan and two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon.
Capps, who has one victory in 2014 in his 10,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger, has also come on strong during the summer months which is precisely the type of lead-in any driver wants to have leading into the most important stretch of the season.
“Everyone is thinking about peaking and being ready for the Countdown,” Capps said. “If there’s something in your head you want to try you have to do it soon. But with six races you can’t really stumble because there are too many good cars that can pounce on you. (Crew chief) Rahn Tobler gives me that extra bit of confidence that we’re going to fight for a championship and be one of the cars in contention.”
Line has played his way into the championship conversation in Pro Stock thanks to back-to-back victories in Sonoma and Seattle, taking over the points lead from Erica Enders-Stevens. Seeing the vast improvements his Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro has made in recent races also gives Line a massive confidence boost heading into zMAX Dragway and the rest of the Countdown.
“If you’re coming off a bad race, it’s definitely hard to remain upbeat about things,” Line said. “But we’re coming off some great races, and we’ve run really well. I wouldn’t trade places with anybody else. I’ve been fortunate and able to get off to a good start leading up to the Countdown, and whatever that approach is that we’ve had for these last few races we’re going to use the same one with hopefully the same results.”
Line’s road to a possible third world championship will be met with numerous potential challengers, including reigning champion Coughlin, 2012 world champion Allen Johnson, U.S. Nationals winner Shane Gray, Enders-Stevens, Vincent Nobile, Dave Connolly, teammate Greg Anderson and Chris McGaha.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Andrew Hines is grateful for the opportunity to again compete for a championship on his Screamin Eagle Vance and Hines Harley-Davidson. Hines finished outside the top 10 a year ago and was forced to play the spoiler role at the Countdown kickoff event.
Hines won the race, giving him two straight NHRA Carolina Nationals victories, but the current points leader prefers his current position far more. Earning his fourth world championship won’t be easy against a stacked lineup that includes teammate Eddie Krawiec, who won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, as well Hector Arana, Hector Arana Jr. and reigning world champion Matt Smith, but the journey becomes a lot more manageable with a strong performance at zMAX Dragway.
“You try to get out of the gate the best you can and take a little pressure off,” Hines said. “Luckily we’re able to run for a championship this year and hopefully we can get out of the gate fast and get some points on the board. I like being in front with people having to chase me and luckily we’ve been really good at Charlotte the last few years.”