Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – CONCORD, NC – Tim Wilkerson has made the most out of a number of opportunities through the first half of the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, making life miserable for his Funny Car counterparts in the process. With three races remaining in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, the fan-favorite driver has no plans to stop doing that.
Starting the playoffs in 10th place, Wilkerson has jumped all the way to third in his 10,000-horsepower Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Shelby Mustang heading into this weekend’s 11th annual NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway. He already has two final round appearances through three playoff races, playing the underdog role perfectly against the multi-car teams in the class.
“I really enjoy needling these guys I’m not supposed to needle,” said Wilkerson, who has 21 career wins. “All of the fans do seem to think it’s pretty cool and we enjoy that. It’s what we come out here for. There’s so many good cars in this class, anybody could be in this position. We’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of some of the situations that have been there the first few races. We’ve been a little more aggressive and the team has really come around well.”
Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock), and Eddie Krawiec (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, Oct. 14. It is the fourth of six races in the Countdown to the Championship and also the 22nd of 24 races in a 2018 season that has picked up considerable momentum in the last three races for Wilkerson.
But as good of a start as the veteran has had, he is working for more. He believes he should have won the final round in St. Louis against points leader Robert Hight, while a close second-round loss to Hight in Dallas allowed the defending world champion to extend his points lead to 50 points over J.R. Todd and 133 points against Wilkerson. Now, Wilkerson is focused on closing the season strong and picking up his first win since his Charlotte triumph at the four-wide spring race in 2016.
“I think (a win) would be good for the smiling faces on this team, and I would love for them to get one with the amount of effort being put in,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve been close, but I think it would be good to get a win under our belts. If we can get J.R. and Robert out early, I think we can continue to keep things shook up by the time we get to Pomona. If you look at my history, when we race one, two, three weekends in a row I tend to get more positive, more focused, whatever you want to call it. To me, I really do a lot better and seem to thrive in those situations.”
With the NHRA Carolina Nationals being the fourth race in a five-week stretch to open the Countdown to the Championship, Wilkerson hopes that will be true this weekend. Tommy Johnson Jr. is only three points behind him and Courtney Force is 22 points back of Wilkerson, but the underdog role has suited the longtime standout well over the years. He has already secured an 11th straight top-10 finish, and Wilkerson is feeling good and looking for more headed to Charlotte.
“It’s good to see the look on the face of the team,” Wilkerson said. “I’ve been spending a lot more time with each one of them and the clutch department has really come around the last 10 races. (Richard) Hartman watches everybody else when I can’t and he’s constantly catching the little mechanical problems. That’s really went a long way in making the whole process better and it’s made things a lot easier for me.”
Top Fuel points leader Steve Torrence is undefeated in the playoffs, winning his third straight Countdown to the Championship race to open up a 103-point lead on Clay Millican.
Pro Stock points leader Gray, who has seven 2018 wins, continues his impressive season, as the second-year star holds an 89-point lead on Vincent Nobile.
Krawiec is after his first Pro Stock Motorcycle playoff win in 2018, as the defending champ tries to track down points leader LE Tonglet, who has a 47-point lead after his Dallas win.
The NHRA Carolina Nationals will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series, which will have its 11th of 12 races, as well as the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where the future stars of the sport earn their racing stripes.
Those in attendance will also have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to interact with some of the biggest names in drag racing during the NHRA Legends Tour. This includes meet-and-greets, autograph sessions, and a variety of other activities. Legends scheduled to attend the NHRA Carolina Nationals include Jim Dunn, Frank Manzo and more.
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 2:45 and 5:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 12, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 12:45 and 3:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 14.