Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – BRAINERD, MN – With the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship closing in, every team with title aspirations wants to be performing at their best. That holds true for a trio of Top Fuel standouts, all who hope to secure their spot in the NHRA’s six-race playoffs at this weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.
Seattle winner Antron Brown, defending world champion Brittany Force and Terry McMillen all hope to lock in their spot for the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship at the penultimate event in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series’ regular season. It would be a welcome accomplishment for Force, who has just two rounds wins in her last eight races. But a strong performance at Brainerd, where she won in 2016, could provide the spark for the talented driver to get on another hot streak during the Countdown to the Championship like she did a year ago.
“This team is still struggling a little bit,” said Force, who has one win this season. “We have two more races before the Countdown is on and we have to hang in there. We’re eighth right now, but we really have to go some rounds the next two races to make sure we’re safe in there, and then it’s time to hit it hard in that Countdown. We go into Brainerd, where we’ve had some luck. We’ve won there before and we always seem to do really well there. Maybe that will be our weekend.”
Leah Pritchett (Top Fuel), Alexis DeJoria (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock), and Jerry Savoie (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including live final eliminations coverage starting at 2:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Aug. 19. It is the 17th of 24 races in the 2018 season and Brown could be coming around at the perfect time.
The three-time world champion won for the first time in 2018 at the most recent race in Seattle, notching his 50th career Top Fuel win in the process. It was a milestone accomplishment, but just as importantly it got the team on track for what they hope is another title run. Brown has been impressed with how his team responded to some of the early-season frustrations, and that perseverance could continue to pay off if the team keeps its momentum going in Brainerd.
“It’s no secret that we struggled at the beginning of the year,” said Brown, who is sixth in points. “Our main focus has just been to get better every race and learn this new combination and how to make it work. We were good in Sonoma, we were good in Denver, we were good in Virginia. We were just losing close races. We used to be on the opposite side and (in Seattle) all of the win lights turned on for our team. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys in how persistent they’ve been throughout the year. Now it’s happening at the right time with the Countdown approaching.”
McMillen, meanwhile, already has 13 rounds wins this season, one away from matching a career-high with eight races still left in the 2018 campaign. That success also includes three final round appearances this year, but McMillen, who will debut a new chassis and front half this weekend, still has a major goal to accomplish in his regular season. A year after clinching his first appearance in the Countdown to the Championship, McMillen now has a chance to do it a race earlier in 2018.
“We want to leave Brainerd with spot clinched in the Countdown to the Championship,” McMillen said. “It would be huge. Last year we had to wait until the end of Indy to get it. Being optimistic, our goal was to secure our spot on the Western Swing, but we fell short of that. We’ve refocused and we’ll try to make it happen in Brainerd. I think we can do it. We want to move up from last year and finish better than ninth. We’ve done very well this year and we’re in a good position. Now it’s up to us where we end up. We control our destiny.”
Funny Car points leader Courtney Force will look for her first career Brainerd win against the likes of Matt Hagan, five-time event winner Ron Capps, and John Force, who has 11 Brainerd victories.
Pro Stock’s Gray has four 2018 wins, but he’s chasing points leader Greg Anderson, a Minnesota native with three Brainerd wins. Others to watch are Erica Enders and Vincent Nobile.
Savoie will look for his second Pro Stock Motorcycle win of 2018 against points leader Andrew Hines, Eddie Krawiec, Hector Arana Jr. and Sonoma winner LE Tonglet.
The event also features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. After Nitro qualifying, fans can watch the spectacular Lucas Oil “Muy Caliente” jet cars, with Tom Bogner driving the Lucas Oil Racing TV Missile and Tony Franco driving the Lucas Oil Terminal Velocity. Jet cars are propelled by jet engines with exciting pre-run flame shows.
Those in attendance will have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with a few of the most renowned names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This will feature meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals include Tom Hoover, Al Corda and Forrest Lucas.
As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:40 and 4:20 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 17 and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Aug. 18, at 12:45 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 19.