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NEWS & ANALYSIS
NHRA pros at Las Vegas
Antron Brown piloted his Matco Tools dragster to the Top Fuel victory Sunday, April 2, at the 18th annual DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car) and rookie Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) were also winners at the fourth event of 24 on the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.
Wind and a tricky track surface made the event a challenge for racers, tuners and the fans.
Tommy Johnson Jr. and Terry Chandler's Make-A-Wish 2017 Dodge Charger R/T team won its first Funny Car title of the year for Don Schumacher Racing's 299th win and that was followed by an all-DSR final in which three-time and reigning Top Fuel champion Antron Brown and the Matco Tool team beat teammate Tony Schumacher's U.S. Army team for No. 300.
The 68th double-up of nitro titles by DSR at the same race since 2003 was also the third time in four NHRA races this year when DSR won both Top Fuel and Funny Car titles.
Coincidentally, the same teams earned DSR its 199th and 200th wins; Johnny Gray was in what is now the Make-A-Wish Funny Car sponsored by his sister, Terry Chandler, and Brown was at the wheel of the Matco dragster.
Tony Schumacher’s runner-up finish moved him to the top of the points standings.
DSR leaves Las Vegas with the top three spots in Top Fuel but a switch was made at the top with eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher passing teammate Leah Pritchett with Brown in third. Each of the DSR drivers have won at least one title this year.
"When you race two of your teammates, you know you've got a battle on your hands because we all have the same quality parts and pieces that Don provides for us,” Brown said. “So when you go up against them, you've got to throw everything at it. Especially Tony, he hasn't won eight championships for nothing, believe me. He knows how to race, how to get wins.
"But Brian and Mark and all of our boys had to push hard. We qualified eighth this weekend and to get that win today was pretty spectacular. I feel like I just won my first race, that's how tough the competition is this year."
In Friday’s second qualifying session, Troy Coughlin Jr. was up in smoke right at the hit of the throttle. On Sunday he lost to Terry McMillen in the first round.
Clay Millican was carrying the colors for event sponsor DENSO. He took out Tripp Tatum in the first round, but lost to Doug Kalitta in the next.
VOLUME XIX, NUMBER 3 - March 2017
Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force met in the second round, where Pritchett got the win, but then met Antron Brown in the next.
In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson with crew chief John Collins and assistant Rip Reynolds defeated rookie Jonnie Lindberg in the final round for Johnson's 16th career title and first at Las Vegas since 2001. The victory enabled Johnson to move up to second in points, trailing leader and teammate Matt Hagan by 44.
Johnson was not qualified after Friday's first two sessions, but after Saturday found himself in the sixth spot. He began his Sunday march to the class win by beating Dodge driver Jim Campbell in the first round (3.943/320.97 to 4.714/181.28) before besting Robert Hight in the second after a Hight red light. Johnson next knocked out 16-time Funny Car champion John Force (3.997/319.45 to 4.128/282.13) to reach the final against Lindberg.
"It started off Friday with qualifying and just a very tricky racetrack and very few cars got down it," Johnson said. "You kind of went into Saturday going, 'boy, I hope we can figure this thing out.' The weather changed a little bit. We're not used to running those conditions, but when the weather changed to a little warmer racetrack with sun on it it kind of came to everybody. John and Rip just made the appropriate changes like we normally would to the car and went right down the racetrack.
"Today was a pretty trying day too because it was pretty hot. It's probably the hottest track we've seen this season yet and we're at a little bit of altitude so it changes the tune-up and it kind of changes the clutch curve so the guys really have to work at it and the guys did a great job.
Courtney Force set the track elapsed time record of 3.867 seconds and was the No. 1 qualifier, but was upset in the first round by former JFR driver Gary Densham after Force’s car lost traction.
“It’s a bummer,” Force said. “Our Advance Auto Parts team has had some great runs, and we know the car is capable of running some stellar numbers. We’re having a hard time finding some consistency with it, especially being able to run it in the heat.
“When I got back to the pit, it was straight to the computer to figure out the problem with the car, what’s going on, how we can fix it and how we can move forward going into the next few races.”
Densham’s engine died with a flash of fire as he reached the finish line resulting in his third oil-down of the season, which cost him 15 points and $4,000. He set Top Speed for the class at 331.28 mph.
Jonnie Lindberg driving Jim Head’s Toyota Camry had another successful day in Funny Car, getting to the finals. He made it past Ron Capps (4.332/250.37 to 5.607/125.26), Jack Beckman (4.017/325.37 to 4.096/312.42) and Gary Densham (3.991/318.92 to 5.916/126.78) before bowing to Johnson in the final.
Some colorful flames for Ron Capps on Friday night.
J.R. Todd was up in smoke right off the line in the first round against Alexis DeJoria. She turned on the red light in the second round, moving Gary Densham into the semifinal.
Robert Hight got a first-round win over Tim Wilkerson (4.036/312.86 to 4.801/173.01). However, a double-step in the second round against Tommy Johnson Jr. caused Hight to red light with his Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS, ending his Las Vegas weekend too early. His car barely moved off the starting line.
“Just screwed up,” Hight said. “I really don’t know what happened. I really hate it for my guys because they work so hard. No excuses.”
The Christmas Tree controls when drivers launch, and the delay from the time the drivers stage until the Tree comes in is a random time. The delay for the Hight-Johnson matchup was longer than usual, just as it was when Alexis DeJoria red-lit against Gary Densham in another second-round matchup.
Tanner Gray, who turns 18 on April 15, became the youngest Pro Stock winner in NHRA history when he drove his Gray Motorsports Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro to a 6.681 pass at 206.61 to defeat Bo Butner and his Jim Butner's Auto Chevy Camaro on a holeshot in the finals. Butner raced to a quicker 6.678 at 206.76 but his reaction time of .088 at the start was too slow for Gray's .010.
“I was pretty nervous coming up,” Tanner said. “This is something I wanted to do since I was really young and I finally got the opportunity to do it. When I started this deal, I told my dad I wanted to be the youngest Pro Stock winner. To be able to do that feels really cool.”
Gray had the quicker Reaction Time in each round (well, except when Deric Kramer red lit in the first). In the second he took out Greg Anderson with a .001 RT coupled with a 6.702/206.57 to Anderson’s .027 RT and 6.717 at 206.80 mph. A .037 RT and 6.691 at 206.67 was able to defeat Anderson’s teammate, Jason Line, who had a .060 RT and ran 6.739/205.10.
“I’ve never seen natural talent like this kid has and it didn’t take him long to prove it,” said crew chief Dave Connolly, a former racer. “To go up in his first final round and perform like that, I’m really proud of him.”
Gray joins his father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny, as national event winners – an NHRA first.
Bo Butner (far lane) stopped Erica Enders in the second round, 6.695/206.45 to 6.713/206.80. Butner took out Enders’ teammate, Jeg Coughlin Jr., in the next round, 6.714/206.42 to 6.739/205.10. The Elite Motorsports duo have had a much more successful season so far after returning to Chevrolet Camaros.
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