When a driver has won eight of the first 18 races of the season, 19 of the last 42 (dating back to last year) and 27 of the last 64 races (dating back to the start of the 2017 season), it’s hard to think he or she would be in a slump.
But Steve Torrence, the most dominant NHRA Top Fuel driver in the last three seasons, is indeed in a slump as the premier drag racing series heads into the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania.
Torrence has uncharacteristically failed to reach the winner’s circle at the last four NHRA national events. After winning for the eighth time this season at Denver on July 21 (which, by the way, was his eighth win in nine consecutive races), Torrence lost in the semifinals at Sonoma the following week to his father, Billy, then lost the following week in Seattle in the final round to rookie Austin Prock.
After that, Torrence lost in the quarterfinals at Brainerd, Minn. (on a very rare red-light foul) to Doug Kalitta, and last week at the U.S. Nationals in the quarters to best friend Antron Brown.
It’s actually somewhat unusual, given Torrence’s domination of the class since 2017, that there have now been five different winners in the last five races in Top Fuel, Kalitta being the most recent victor at the U.S. Nationals.
But don’t start preparing a tag day or set up a GoFundMe account for Torrence. The 35-race national event winner enters the six-race Countdown still No. 1 in the Top Fuel standings and thrives on pressure.
So while others may say he’s in a slump, Torrence isn’t of the same mindset.
“No, I wouldn’t say we’re in a slump at all,” he said. “(Crew Chief Richard) Hogan has been working the last couple races on our Countdown setup. It’s not like we weren’t trying to win because, to be honest, we want to win every race, but he was trying things that we probably wouldn’t have tried if we didn’t have that big cushion.
“It was the same last year. We didn’t go to the finals for four or five races before the start of the Countdown.”
So does that mean the Texas native is in the same place as he was at this time last season, and is ready to go out and sweep all six of the Countdown playoff races again like he did last year, becoming the first driver in NHRA history to do so?
“Sweeping the Countdown a second time isn’t that likely, but that’s still our goal,” he said. “We got burned on the points (adjustment) two years ago (losing the title to Brittany Force on the final day of the season) so our mindset last year was that the only way to keep that from happening was to win ‘em all – and we did.
“This year, it’ll be even tougher because we’re running two cars at every race. If my dad hadn’t made the Countdown, he would have run the other car just two or three times. Now, he’s running all six races so that’ll spread us a little thinner but it’s great for him to get the chance. He’s done a great job this year and I’m really proud of him and that team. We’ve always raced as a family, me, my mom (Kay) and my dad (Billy) but to do it at this level is really special.
“We’ve got a great team, a great car and a great track record, but that’s just history. You still have to perform in the playoffs and none of these guys is going to go easy on us, especially after last year. We’ve got a target on our back, but that’s fine. We earned it.”
Torrence isn’t living on last year’s laurels. Nor is he thinking ahead. He plans on doing what he’s done ever since he first got into drag racing more than a decade ago: take each race one round at a time and let the wins – or wherever he finishes – take care of themselves.
“It’s still just a six-race shootout,” Torrence said. “Yeah, we had a great regular season. We won eight times and my dad (Billy Torrence) won twice, but when we go to Reading, I’ll just be 20 points ahead of Doug (Kalitta). We’ve got a great team, a great car and a great track record, but that’s just history. You still have to perform in the playoffs.”
Torrence and Kalitta are the premier matchup in Top Fuel heading to Reading. Kalitta has never won a Top Fuel championship. And don’t forget Brown, a three-time former Top Fuel champ (2012, 2015 and 2016), or 2017 champ Brittney Force (daughter of Funny Car legend John Force). They will also be among the most formidable opponents to Torrence and Kalitta.
“Last year was unbelievable,” said Torrence, whose motto in this year’s playoffs is “no prisoners” (see tweet above). “To win six straight races, whether it’s in the Countdown or just the regular season, is incredible. Everything has to go perfect. The crew chiefs have to make the right calls. The crew can’t make a mistake putting the parts and pieces together. The driver has to do his job and, even after all that, you still need some luck because there are so many things that can break on one of these cars even if you do everything else right.
Kalitta has been chasing a Top Fuel championship for two decades, with runner-up finishes in the 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2016 seasons. He’s hoping some of Torrence’s good fortune and luck rubs off on him and that 2019 is finally his year to claim the No. 1 spot.
“This is pretty exciting for me, just to have another opportunity to do the Countdown and see how it ends up,” Kalitta said. “We worked hard to have a good position to open the playoffs. My guys are really working their tails off on my Mac Tools Toyota right now and it’s running well. We’re looking forward to the Countdown. It’s what it’s all about for my team and everybody out here. So we’re going to give it our best.
“(The key to success in the Countdown is) you have to qualify well and then it’s all about going rounds and I think we can do that this year. Last year, Steve Torrence didn’t allow the other teams any room for error, but most years everyone is going to have at least one race where they lose early. The key is to get a strong start at Reading and put yourself in a position to win at Pomona.
“The Top Fuel world championship is something I’ve worked at for 21 years now. It would be a huge deal for me. Just all the support we’ve received over the years from so many people. It would be a great way to repay them.”
Kalitta doesn’t have to look far at last year’s champion – only we’re not talking about Torrence this time. Rather, even closer is Kalitta shares the same pit space with last year’s Funny Car champion, Kalitta Motorsports teammate J.R. Todd. Kalitta saw what Todd went through and the rewards he reaped at the end – and now he hopes it’s his turn to do the same.
“We’re real proud of the efforts of the DHL Toyota Funny Car in winning the title last year, but we really want to bring it home in the dragster,” Kalitta said.
Brown has enjoyed a resurgence this season after periods of struggles. He’s ready to win his fourth Top Fuel championship, as well.
“The Countdown is going to be very challenging,” Brown said. “There are a lot of good cars out here and right now there’s no one dominant car. The Kalitta cars have really stepped up, the (John Force Racing) cars, Clay Millican and Mike Salinas are all running well, both Torrence cars are running phenomenal, our teammate Leah Pritchett is running well and won at Brainerd and, we’ve stepped it up as well. That’s 10 cars right there. Five different cars have won in the last five races, so it is going to be a wide-open race.
“(This weekend will be) a huge race for us. It’s not far from my hometown (Chesterfield, N.J.) and, hopefully, the conditions will be good. It’s starting to cool down and it’s going to be fast. We need to go out there and get after it. Everybody is so tight, so you need to come out strong. You can’t afford to fall back in the standings with just five races left after Reading and if you can win early, you gain confidence and you put more pressure on your rivals going forward, knowing they can’t afford to slip up.
“We’ve won at least one round in 11 of the last 12 races. It shows our progression. We’re working hard to get better every weekend and that’s what we’re doing. The Matco Tools Toyota is doing what we want it to do. It’s responding. We ran in the 60s at Indy and we showed we can run to the 60 foot mark with anybody out there.”
But like Torrence, don’t ask Brown about winning another championship. He doesn’t want to think about it – only until the time he has to, which will likely be the season finale at Pomona, California, in mid-November.
“Honestly, I’m not even going to think about another championship until it happens,” Brown aid. “A fourth title would be huge, but the thing about it is you can’t put the wagon before the horse. There’s a lot of racing left, everyone’s tight and the pressure is mounting and we’ll see how everyone handles it.”
Here’s the six-race NHRA Countdown to the Championship playoff schedule:
Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Penn., Sept. 13-15
World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway Sept. 27-29
zMAX Dragway in Charlotte, Oct. 11-13
Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Oct. 18-20
The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nov. 1-3
NHRA Finals in Pomona, Nov. 15-17