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