After 23 races and nine months to the day of the final round of the season’s opening race in February, the 2017 NHRA season comes to a close with this weekend’s Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California.
NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championships are on the line for all four professional classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Some of the battles are extremely tight, while at least one category will be over by the potential champion merely qualifying for the race.
Let’s break down each class and where the championship battle lines are drawn, as well as who I am picking to become 2017 champions:
Antron Brown’s championship reign in 2015 and 2016, as well as three times in the last five seasons, is over.
Three drivers remain in the hunt for the 2017 title, and no matter who it is, it’s guaranteed to be a first-time Top Fuel champion.
Steve Torrence comes into Pomona holding a 20-point lead over Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force.
“To win a championship, we can do this and do that, but at the end of the day we need to go there and try to win the race,” Torrence said. “We don’t want to go there and be conservative.
“We don’t want to treat it any different than any other race. You can definitely make a lot more of it and put a lot of pressure on yourself. But we want to go there and do what we’ve been doing. We want to run well in qualifying, go rounds, and try to win the race, and go there and enjoy it.
“I feel confident we are up to the occasion. It’s up to us to go and do the best we can. If everyone on our team goes out there and does their job, I feel confident that ultimately we should prevail. That’s been the case the whole season. When we go out and do our job, we come out on top. We just have to stay calm and stay focused.”
Torrence has to stay one step – and at least one round – ahead of Force to take the title. But if Torrence runs one round short of Force, she’ll likely be the champ.
For example, if Torrence – who has won 8 of this year’s first 23 races – loses in the second round of Sunday’s eliminations but Force reaches the semifinals, she’s in and he’s out.
Also, if Force out qualifies Torrence on Friday and Saturday, she will earn bonus points (or Torrence will if he out qualifies Force) that will give her a slight edge unless they both meet in the final round, when it’s a winner-take-all situation.
“I don’t try to focus on the big picture and how many points you need,” said Force, who has six career wins. “Obviously, I hear things and how many rounds out we are, but my main focus is one round at a time. That’s the way I approach it.
“Some drivers feed off how many points they are behind and how far they are back, but for me, I do it one round at a time. It’s too much pressure, too much on my plate if I look at it another way. Then my focus is lost, it’s not in the right place, it’s not in the car, it’s a distraction. For me, less distraction is better when I’m in the car.”
Doug Kalitta is also mathematically still in it, but at 85 points behind Torrence, he has his work cut out for him. But if Force and Torrence both falter in the first or second round, Kalitta could come from behind to become the season champ.
It’s a longshot, but it’s still doable.
My championship pick: Steve Torrence
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Ron Capps is going for his second consecutive championship, but he’ll have to get past Robert Hight to do so.
Hight holds a 15-point edge over Capps, while Courtney Force is still mathematically eligible, albeit a distant 125 points back.
But if Hight and Capps exit in the first round of eliminations and Force wins the race, she could steal the championship.
And if Brittany Force wins in Top Fuel, how great would it be to have sisters being champions for the first time in NHRA history?
My championship pick: Capps.
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Pro Stock: Seeking his first championship since 2010, Greg Anderson has a 40-point lead over teammate Bo Butner and a 76-point edge over other teammate Jason Line.
While a win would help, Anderson can likely clinch the championship by just reaching the Pro Stock final round.
My championship pick: Anderson
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The driver/rider with the easiest path to a championship is Pro Stock Motorcycle’s Eddie Krawiec.
Sure, L.E. Tonglet is mathematically still in contention heading into this weekend.
But – and that’s a big but – all Krawiec has to do is qualify for Sunday’s eliminations and he will have clinched the championship.
My championship pick: Krawiec
NHRA Texas winners: B. Torrence, Hagan, Anderson, Savoie
Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.
Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.
Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.
Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.
Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).
“It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.
“It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”
In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.
“We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.
“We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”
Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).
In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.
It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.
“We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.
“We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”
Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).
In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).
It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.
“It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.
“Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”
NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).
TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.
PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.
FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.
PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.