Auto Club NHRA Finals: Weekend Preview

by Chris Leone // Website // Twitter
Images via Don Schumacher Racing (1); Steve Torrence (2); Tanner Gray (3)

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series brings its 24-race season, and six-race Countdown to the Championship, to a close this weekend with the Auto Club NHRA Finals, the annual season-ender at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona. Established in 1984 as the companion race to the Winternationals that kick off the NHRA season, the Finals shifted to Pomona after two decades at the now-defunct Orange County International Raceway and have remained there ever since.

The championship-deciding race is, unsurprisingly, one of the biggest and most prestigious events on the schedule. Stacked fields of at least 18 entries in all of the top four national classes, including a high of 21 entries for Pro Stock Motorcycle, will likely see some familiar names sent home on Saturday afternoon. The 16 who make it to eliminations on each ladder will be racing for a higher points payout than usual, with the winner taking 150 and a maximum of 191 available.

Impressively, despite the Countdown re-seeding and bunching up the field, Steve Torrence has already locked up the Top Fuel title thanks to wins in each of the first five playoff events, becoming the first driver to ever accomplish such a feat. Torrence will look to do the unthinkable this weekend and sweep the entire Top Fuel playoffs, although he has yet to win at Pomona so far in the class.

Elsewhere in the paddock, the points races are a bit closer. Once again, Pro Stock Motorcycle produces the most exciting numbers, as championship leader Matt Smith only boasts a four-point advantage over defending title winner Eddie Krawiec. In fact, all of the top six drivers in PSM standings are mathematically eligible to claim the title with the right combination of results.

Las Vegas winner J.R. Todd controls his own destiny in Funny Car, as he’ll eliminate Tim Wilkerson and Tommy Johnson Jr. just by making a qualifying run and Ron Capps by making the ladder. That means that second-place Robert Hight, who has equaled Todd with two Countdown wins, will probably be Todd’s only competition on Sunday afternoon. Hight, the defending Funny Car champion, has a total of four wins on the season and sits 74 points out of the lead.

Finally, Tanner Gray looks to wrap up his last season in Pro Stock with a championship. Gray, who announced that he’ll shift his sights to stock car racing in 2019 and beyond, has seven victories and a 140-point advantage over second place. That spot belongs to Jeg Coughlin Jr., who hasn’t won since Sonoma in July; third place is Erica Enders, who sits 149 points back, but won this event in both 2014 and 2015.

After this weekend’s event, preparation will be in high gear for the 2019 season. Current Top Fuel runner-up Clay Millican will prepare to work with a new crew chief as he looks to dethrone Torrence, while Pro Stock prepares for a number of changes with Gray and Bo Butner departing, Smith trading in two wheels for four, and perhaps a shift to a 16-race schedule, similar to the current Pro Stock Motorcycle setup.

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