Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Courtney Force (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) qualify No. 1 in Las Vegas

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Antron Brown (Top Fuel) and Courtney Force (Funny Car) on Saturday rocketed to the top qualifying spots for Sunday’s SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Meanwhile, Jeg Coughlin, who was the top qualifier on Friday in Pro Stock, held on to his advantage in Saturday’s two additional qualifying rounds and will hold the top position in his category on Sunday.

Final eliminations for the fourth race on the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule begin at 11 a.m. PT on Sunday.

Brown earned his first No. 1 qualifying position of the season – and 35th of his career – with the quickest run in Top Fuel at 3.768 seconds at 325.14 mph, earned in his final qualifying attempt against points leader Doug Kalitta.

“Doug put that 3.77 on the board right in front of us, so I knew it was time to get to work,” Brown said. “We had just been picking at it, but I saw my boys go into the box and make some adjustments I just said, ‘Uh oh, here we go. This is where it gets good.’

“It’s going to be a fight like this all year. It’s not going to be just the fastest car, but the most efficient car that makes great laps the most often. We’re looking forward to that challenge.”

Brown is seeking his third career win at Las Vegas, including his triumph there last fall. He faces Mike Strasburg in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.

In Funny Car, Courtney Force smashed both ends of the track record in her category, covering the racing surface in 4.006 seconds at 325.37 mph, which was also the fastest speed overall of the day (including Top Fuel).

“When I got out of the car, I didn’t realize the speed was 325 mph,” Force said. “It’s pretty [amazing to see] the 325 mph run was not only the best in Funny Car, but Top Fuel, as well.”

The daughter of 16-time Funny car champ John Force, who qualified No. 2, Courtney Force earned her first top qualifying position of the season and fourth of her young career.

The younger Force will square off with Jon Capps in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin’s Friday run of 6.625 seconds at 208.78 mph held up during Saturday’s two qualifying sessions, earning him the 20th No. 1 starting spot of his career and his first No. 1 of the season.

“I’m really proud to hold onto the No. 1 position,” said Coughlin, who faces Mark Wolfe in Sunday’s first round of eliminations. “I think it really shows quite a bit from our team. We’ve been hustling the last month-and-a-half getting these new cars ready.”

Also of note in Pro Stock, Erica Enders-Stevens won the K&N Horsepower Challenge and its $50,000 first prize, defeating fan-vote winner and her former crew chief Dave Connolly, covering the track at 6.646 seconds and 208.39 mph.

“Part of being a professional athlete is having to put personal things aside for business, and it is a true challenge and something I work hard on,” Enders-Stevens said. “It’s about me getting up on the wheel and the guys putting a great race car underneath me to get from Point A to Point B.”

Connolly’s car broke just past the starting line and he was never a factor as Enders-Stevens streaked to the win.

It was the second straight year that Enders-Stevens reached the final round of the Challenge, and by virtue of winning it Saturday, becomes the first woman to ever do so in its history.

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Here are Sunday’s first-round pairings for eliminations for the 15th annual SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the fourth of 24 events in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.  Pairings based on results in qualifying, which ended Saturday. DNQs listed below pairings.

Top Fuel — 1. Antron Brown, 3.768 seconds, 325.14 mph  vs. 16. Mike Strasburg, 4.138, 279.85; 2. Doug Kalitta, 3.775, 323.19  vs. 15. Steve Faria, 4.038, 289.63; 3. Steve Torrence, 3.779, 324.28  vs. 14. Terry McMillen, 3.936, 309.98; 4. Spencer Massey, 3.794, 323.81  vs. 13. Clay Millican, 3.874, 295.59; 5. Tony Schumacher, 3.797, 324.28  vs. 12. Troy Buff, 3.858, 305.08; 6. Richie Crampton, 3.798, 320.13  vs. 11. J.R. Todd, 3.841, 310.34; 7. Brittany Force, 3.799, 315.86  vs. 10. Bob Vandergriff, 3.831, 319.52; 8. Shawn Langdon, 3.815, 324.05  vs. 9. Khalid alBalooshi, 3.824, 313.22.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Steven Chrisman, 4.209, 280.95; 18. Scott Palmer, broke.

Funny Car — 1. Courtney Force, Ford Mustang, 4.006, 325.37  vs. 16. Jon Capps, Chevy Impala, 4.245, 278.23; 2. John Force, Mustang, 4.017, 317.87  vs. 15. Paul Lee, Dodge Charger, 4.124, 306.81; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.023, 317.87  vs. 14. Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.115, 310.13; 4. Del Worsham, Toyota Camry, 4.041, 315.71  vs. 13. Tony Pedregon, Camry, 4.100, 309.77; 5. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.046, 318.17  vs. 12. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 4.090, 309.84; 6. Ron Capps, Charger, 4.052, 315.34  vs. 11. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.090, 312.13; 7. Robert Hight, Mustang, 4.059, 317.49  vs. 10. Jeff Arend, Charger, 4.081, 311.70; 8. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.067, 313.00  vs. 9. Chad Head, Camry, 4.076, 309.20.

Did Not Qualify: 17. Gary Densham, 4.248, 290.88; 18. Jeff Diehl, 4.287, 293.98; 19. Bob Tasca III, 4.411, 307.30.

Pro Stock — 1. Jeg Coughlin, Dodge Dart, 6.625, 209.17  vs. 16. Mark Wolfe, Ford Mustang, 6.724, 205.76; 2. Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.625, 208.46  vs. 15. Rodger Brogdon, Camaro, 6.699, 206.95; 3. Erica Enders-Stevens, Camaro, 6.627, 209.04  vs. 14. Larry Morgan, Mustang, 6.696, 206.99; 4. Dave Connolly, Camaro, 6.627, 208.26  vs. 13. Matt Hartford, Dodge Avenger, 6.695, 207.46; 5. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.630, 208.94  vs. 12. Deric Kramer, Avenger, 6.686, 207.59; 6. Allen Johnson, Dart, 6.632, 208.94  vs. 11. Steve Kent, Camaro, 6.657, 207.56; 7. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.632, 209.17  vs. 10. V. Gaines, Avenger, 6.657, 209.07; 8. Jimmy Alund, Camaro, 6.639, 208.49  vs. 9. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.647, 207.72.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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