NHRA: As Countdown moves to second round, questions abound

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The NHRA playoffs move on to the second round of the six-race Countdown to the Championship for this weekend’s AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park in suburban St. Louis.

But before we move forward, let’s look back at the Countdown-opening Carolina Nationals last weekend in suburban Charlotte.

Several questions arose from the results. Let’s break things down:

* In Top Fuel, for the second consecutive year, Antron Brown won the Countdown-opening race. Can Brown take that win and do the same thing he did last year, namely, go on and win the championship again? Can he make it two titles in a row and three in the last five years?

* Can Doug Kalitta, who is in second place in the standings (42 points behind Brown), overtake Brown in the coming races and finally earn his first Top Fuel championship after nearly 20 years of trying?

* This weekend’s race at Gateway could be very pivotal for the third through seventh-ranked drivers in Top Fuel, who are already 100 or more points behind Brown: Steve Torrence (-100), Brittany Force (-116), eight-time champion Tony Schumacher (-127), J.R. Todd (-152) and Shawn Langdon (-159). If they don’t have strong finishes this Sunday, could some of them potentially find their playoff chances all but over?

* In Funny Car, the biggest story of Carolina was the event victory by 67-year-old driver John Force. The winningest driver in NHRA history (16 championships, 146 national event wins) has made it very clear that he intends on winning a 17th championship. Force came close to that milestone in 2014, but Matt Hagan pulled away in the final two races of the Countdown to win the championship. Now Force has another chance. Can he finish what he wasn’t able to do two years ago?

* In his 22nd season on the NHRA national circuit, Ron Capps is arguably in the best position he’s ever been in to win his first Funny Car championship. Capps has four wins this season and remains atop the Funny Car standings after Carolina. Defending champ Del Worsham is second (-42), while Force is third (-50). Can Capps finally put it all together this year to win that elusive first title?

* Alexis DeJoria is close to being fully healed from the fractured pelvis she suffered in a wreck at Sonoma. While DeJoria is 10th in the Countdown in the Funny Car class, 158 points behind Capps, strong runs at Gateway and next week at Maple Grove Raceway could potentially put her right back in the game for championship contention. Don’t sell DeJoria short. With Kalitta Motorsports backing, she still has the potential to become one of the biggest surprises of the Countdown in Funny Car. The question is, will she?

* Even though he failed to qualify for the Countdown, former two-time Funny Car champ Cruz Pedregon looked very strong at Carolina. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, could Pedregon become the biggest spoiler in Funny Car in the Countdown?

* In Pro Stock, teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson have combined for 15 wins in the first 19 races. It’s going to be hard for another driver to challenge their supremacy, but because the Countdown is essentially a new season, if there’s a class where we could see potential upsets, it’s Pro Stock. Can Line and Anderson hold on to their standings lead and potentially end the season facing each other in the final run of the year for the championship?

* Two-time defending Pro Stock champion Erica Enders got off to the worst start possible in the Countdown, failing to qualify to race in last Sunday’s eliminations at Charlotte. Enders, who has struggled all season, finds herself still in the Countdown, but in 10th place (last) she is also a massive 213 points behind points leader Jason Line. For Enders to have any chance of making it three titles in a row, she essentially is faced with a must-win situation in each of the last five races of the Countdown – and even if she were to win all five, that still may not be enough. Is Enders’ reign as Pro Stock’s best driver at an end?

* Jeg Coughlin also has his work cut out for him in Pro Stock. The former five-time champion lost in the first round at Charlotte and finds himself heading to Gateway this weekend in ninth place, 181 points behind Line. Coughlin has built his career and being a driver who thrives on pressure and coming from behind, but being so many points back and with so few races left, can he mount a comeback that could challenge Line and Anderson?

* In Pro Stock Motorcycle, defending and five-time champion Andrew Hines is off to a good start, coming into this weekend where he’s been much of the season already: No. 1 in the standings. Can Hines keep up his momentum in the remaining five races?

* In what was the biggest upset – and most likely the most pleasant surprise – of the Carolina Nationals, veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Chip Ellis unquestionably pulled off the biggest upset of the day in all four pro classes. Ellis defeated Hines in the final round to capture his seventh career win – but the first since 2008. With the win, Ellis vaulted to second place in the standings, just 44 points behind Hines. Could Ellis be this year’s Cinderella story of the Countdown?

* Veteran rider Steve Johnson missed the Countdown but showed he could be a spoiler during the playoffs, advancing to the semifinals at Carolina before losing to Hines. Could Johnson have a significant impact upon the Countdown and how it plays out if his Suzuki continues running like it did at Charlotte?

NOTES: The NHRA made two announcements Tuesday.

First, Dodge has been named the title rights sponsor of the upcoming third race of the Countdown, at Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pennsylvania.

The race will be held Sept. 29-Oct. 2 and will be known as the 32nd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals.

“The Dodge NHRA Nationals in the Keystone state is an integral part of the championship hunt,” said Brad Gerber, NHRA vice president and chief development officer. “We are pleased to have Dodge involved with the event and will build upon their relationships in the sport of NHRA Drag Racing.”

Second, four tracks have joined the NHRA Member Track Network and will all be part of the NHRA’s Southeast Division 2. Those tracks are Orlando Speed World Dragway in Orlando, Fla., Lakeland Drag Strip in Lakeland, Fla., South Georgia Motorsports Park in Cecil, Ga., and Emerald Coast Dragway in Holt, Fla.

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

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Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”