NHRA: Tanner Gray clinches Pro Stock crown, at 19 is youngest champ ever

Tanner Gray clinched the NHRA Pro Stock title Saturday. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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NHRA media release

POMONA, Calif – Just 19 years old and in only his second full-time season of competition, Pro Stock racer Tanner Gray became the youngest NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champion by qualifying Saturday at the season ending Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.

During his championship season Gray notched seven victories including securing his first career win at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals win in Indianapolis. In the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship, Gray cemented his first crown with two wins and maintained the points lead throughout the entire playoffs.

“It has been a heck of a year,” said Gray, a New Mexico native. “It started out pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure it would end up here. About midseason we were able to find something, and everything seemed like it started clicking from there. We did so much testing at the beginning of the season and it really paid off. It was like a light flipped and everything started coming together. We had a strong running going there for a little bit and came into the Countdown and executed on race day really well.”

In other racing, Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin Jr. (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were No. 1 qualifiers in their respective categories at the final race of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.

Pritchett remained atop of the Top Fuel category for all four qualifying sessions in her Mopar Dodge dragster at her hometown race. Her final qualifying run of 3.631-seconds at 332.84 mph secured her fourth No. 1 qualifier of the season and 11th of her career. Pritchett will square off against Bill Litton Sunday morning as she seeks to secure her third win of the season.

“The car is finally communicating in a proper way,” Pritchett said. “We found out our window is a lot bigger for making these fast passes. I’m most excited for Todd Okuhara (crew chief) because he finally has his race car back. For the history that has been laid on this track and for us to chase putting down our own history makes me feel like our team is on our way.”

Top Fuel world champion Steve Torrence is second with his pass of 3.661 at 330.96 in his Capco Contractors/Torrence Racing dragster and 2017 world champion Brittany Force is third overall.

Don Schumacher Racing swept the top three qualifying positions in Funny Car as Capps powered his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T to the top of the class with his fourth qualifying pass of 3.848 at 331.53. Teammates Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. were second and third, respectively.

“The fans are going to be in for unbelievable racing tomorrow,” Capps stated. “It will be a nice warm Southern California day but it is going to be good track conditions and it won’t be messy or greasy. I can’t think of a better place to race.”

Capps will see Ray Martin in the first round of eliminations. Beckman’s speed of 330.96 at 3.867 in his Infinite Hero Dodge Charger R/T surpassed Johnson Jr.’s 326.40 at 3.867 during their side-by-side fourth qualifying run. Points leader J.R. Todd is qualified fourth and defending world champion and championship contender Robert Hight follows in fifth.

Pro Stock veteran Coughlin Jr. locked-in his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season in his JEGS.com/Elite Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro with his final qualifying pass of 6.510 at 211.49. He will face-off against Kenny Delco during the first round of eliminations as he chases his fourth win of the season.

“Rickie Jones (crew chief) was going for it,” Coughlin Jr. stated. “From the time I let the clutch out this thing was just singing. It was singing through every one of the four gear changes and fifth gear was great and just hummed it down through there. I could tell by the tone on his voice on the radio that not only did we run well but kept the No. 1 qualifier.”

Jason Line moved up to the No. 2 spot during the final round of qualifying with his run of 6.529 at 212.06 in his Summit Racing Chevrolet Equipment and will see Vincent Nobile for the first round of eliminations. Erica Enders rounds out to the top three for qualifying and will start eliminations against Deric Kramer.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Matt Smith, the points leader, secured his fifth No. 1 qualifier of the season, 31st of his career and second during the Countdown to the Championship by racing his Elite Motorsports DENSO Auto Parts EBR to a 6.754 at 201.10.

“Our Q3 run was a phenomenal pass,” Smith said. “We did 60-foot well like we did in Q1 and Q2 but as everybody sees we have a real good tune-up, we have a lot of power, and the 201.10 is pretty hateful out here. We ran big speed at eighth mile, changed some gear ratios and made a nice pass.”

Smith will open eliminations against his wife, Angie Smith. Hector Arana Jr. is qualified second after a 6.781 at 197.57 on his Lucas Oil Racing TV EBR and he’ll line up against Freddie Camarena. Defending world champion Eddie Krawiec is in qualified third and in contention for his fifth world championship.

Eliminations begin at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals. 

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SUNDAY’S FIRST ROUND PAIRINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett, 3.631 seconds, 332.84 mph vs. 16. Bill Litton, 3.985, 270.43; 2. Steve Torrence, 3.661, 330.96 vs. 15. Cameron Ferre, 3.929, 287.41; 3. Brittany Force, 3.667, 333.58 vs. 14. Shawn Reed, 3.807, 323.12; 4. Clay Millican, 3.681, 325.14 vs. 13. Terry McMillen, 3.792, 324.05; 5. Blake Alexander, 3.692, 331.45 vs. 12. Mike Salinas, 3.762, 294.50; 6. Antron Brown, 3.704, 329.50 vs. 11. Doug Kalitta, 3.740, 319.29; 7. Billy Torrence, 3.711, 328.86 vs. 10. Richie Crampton, 3.726, 325.22; 8. Tony Schumacher, 3.722, 329.75 vs. 9. Scott Palmer, 3.726, 326.95. Did Not Qualify: 17. Audrey Worm, 4.005, 254.47.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 3.848, 331.53 vs. 16. Ray Martin, Toyota Camry, 4.183, 259.31; 2. Jack Beckman, Charger, 3.867, 330.96 vs. 15. Jeff Arend, Chevy Monte Carlo, 4.116, 303.37; 3. Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.867, 326.40 vs. 14. Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.065, 300.20; 4. J.R. Todd, Camry, 3.897, 327.82 vs. 13. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.000, 309.70; 5. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.915, 327.98 vs. 12. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.991, 320.20; 6. Courtney Force, Camaro, 3.920, 313.58 vs. 11. Bob Bode, Mustang, 3.981, 318.24; 7. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.931, 321.81 vs. 10. John Force, Camaro, 3.975, 320.36; 8. Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.946, 323.50 vs. 9. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.950, 320.97. Did Not Qualify: 17. Terry Haddock, 4.253, 260.56; 18. Jonnie Lindberg, 4.452, 286.01; 19. Jeff Diehl, 4.632, 190.35.

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.510, 211.49 vs. 16. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.597, 209.36; 2. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.529, 212.06 vs. 15. Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.584, 209.95; 3. Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.530, 211.39 vs. 14. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.570, 210.50; 4. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.532, 211.16 vs. 13. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 6.569, 209.49; 5. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.533, 211.66 vs. 12. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, 6.568, 209.85; 6. Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.534, 211.33 vs. 11. Shane Gray, Camaro, 6.564, 210.08; 7. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.541, 210.87 vs. 10. Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.560, 211.89; 8. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.543, 211.20 vs. 9. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.553, 211.39. Did Not Qualify: 17. Steve Graham, 6.622, 210.05; 18. Val Smeland, 6.640, 207.43; 19. Tom Huggins, 6.713, 207.24; 20. Joey Grose, 6.738, 196.36.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Matt Smith, EBR, 6.754, 201.10 vs. 16. Angie Smith, Buell, 6.969, 192.60; 2. Hector Arana Jr, EBR, 6.781, 197.57 vs. 15. Freddie Camarena, Suzuki, 6.953, 194.86; 3. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.789, 198.38 vs. 14. Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.952, 191.40; 4. Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.826, 196.16 vs. 13. Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.898, 191.29; 5. LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 6.828, 196.39 vs. 12. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 6.893, 196.64; 6. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.835, 195.93 vs. 11. Joey Gladstone, Buell, 6.880, 196.30; 7. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 6.838, 194.88 vs. 10. Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 6.879, 194.66; 8. Hector Arana, EBR, 6.862, 197.48 vs. 9. Chip Ellis, Harley-Davidson, 6.862, 193.79. Did Not Qualify: 17. Kelly Clontz, 6.972, 192.85; 18. Katie Sullivan, 6.978, 193.99; 19. Melissa Surber, 7.052, 187.57; 20. Maurice Allen, 7.070, 185.10; 21. Anthony Vanetti, 7.074, 188.94. 

The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.