Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – LAS VEGAS, NV – This is the situation J.R. Todd has waited for his entire career and the Funny Car standout is determined to make the most of it.
Todd has come on strong during the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, advancing to the finals at three of the four playoff races and finds himself just 11 points behind points leader Robert Hight heading to this weekend’s 18th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
It puts Todd in a legitimate and intense hunt for his first NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championship and he couldn’t be more excited for the opportunity. He’s posted four wins during an impressive 2018 season in his 10,00-horsepower DHL Toyota Camry and a fifth victory – and his first career win at Las Vegas – would put Todd one step closer to his ultimate goal.
“As a driver, this is pretty much all you can ask for, having a shot at a championship,” said Todd, who has 15 career victories, six of which have come in Funny Car. “I’ve never really been in this position before. In 2014, we finished second (in Top Fuel) but we weren’t really in the hunt. This is what it’s all about and I keep saying we need to go out and keep doing what we’ve been doing. We just have to keep making consistent runs, gain as many points as we can and keep going rounds.”
Terry McMillen (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including final eliminations coverage starting at 7:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday. It is the fifth of sixth races in the Countdown to the Championship and the 23rd of 24 races in the 2018 season. It’s the second year for Todd in Funny Car and the improvements have been apparent.
Todd has felt considerably more comfortable than a year ago, while the team, led by crew chiefs Jon Oberhofer and Todd Smith, has been equally strong. It’s led to a championship combination where the team, much like it did during Del Worsham’s championship season in 2015, is clicking perfectly at the ideal time. Todd won in Indy to close out the regular season, won the playoff opener and has since been to a pair of finals at the past two races to close in on Hight.
“This DHL team is a championship-caliber team,” Todd said. “We ran well last year at a certain point and fell off in the Countdown. This year, we turned it around in Indy and when the performance of the car comes around and you can make consistent runs like we have, it makes it more fun and really raises your confidence level as a driver. You don’t have to worry about a lot of other things. Really, it’s all you can ask for and hopefully we can keep it up.”
Todd is ready to take advantage of the opportunity in front of him, but it won’t be easy. Hight has continually been a strong finisher, while Ron Capps, who topped Todd in the finals in Charlotte, and Tim Wilkerson remain in contention at 109 and 111 points back, respectively. But Todd, who has enjoyed a standout career in two classes, knows these chances don’t come by often and he wants to make the most of it in Vegas, especially with it being a Toyota-sponsored race.
“You definitely have to seize the moment and block out the distractions,” Todd said. “You have to enjoy the moment and not let it get the best of you. We’re having a lot of fun with it and Vegas is one of my favorite races of the year. It draws a lot of people and it’s a big race for Toyota, so we just have to stay focused on the task at hand. There’s going to be a lot of important Toyota people there and it would be awesome to celebrate in the winner’s circle with them on Sunday.”
Steve Torrence will look to clinch his first Top Fuel world title in Vegas. He’s won the first four playoff races and currently holds a commanding 169-point lead over Clay Millican.
In Pro Stock, second-year star Tanner Gray has posted seven victories in 2018, as he looks to claim his first world title. He leads Jeg Coughlin Jr. by 130 points heading to the final two races.
Matt Smith has two playoff wins in Pro Stock Motorcycle and the points lead, as he holds a 41-point lead on LE Tonglet and 56-point advantage on defending world champ Eddie Krawiec.
The NHRA Toyota Nationals also features thrilling competition in the season-finale of the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service, as well as the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, showcasing the future stars of the sport. After Nitro qualifying on Friday, watch five spectacular jet cars run during a special “Night of the Jets.” The five jet cars slated to run on Friday include a pair of Lucas Oil “Muy Caliente” jets, the “American Freedom Fighter,” as well as “The Majestic” and “The FireStarter.” Known for exciting pre-run flame shows and after burner pops, jet cars are thrust driven vehicles propelled by jet engines.
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 Toyota Nationals include Joe Amato, Don Garlits and Jim Dunn.
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 11:45 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Oct. 27, at 11:45 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28.