Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – LAS VEGAS, NV – A NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world championship is the goal for second-year star Tanner Gray, but he’s also trying to keep it out of his mind.
With a big 130-point lead over his nearest competitor, that may be difficult for the 19-year-old Pro Stock standout looking to become the youngest world champion in NHRA history, but that’s the goal heading to this weekend’s 18th annual NHRA Toyota Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A year after being named NHRA’s top rookie, Gray has been even better during the 2018 season, winning seven times and advancing to 10 final rounds in his Gray Motorsports/Valvoline Chevrolet Camaro. That includes an impressive run during the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, where Gray has two wins and three finals appearances in four races to close in on a world championship. But Gray isn’t trying to think about that possibility just yet.
“It’s still way too early to even think about being a champion or anything like that,” said Gray, who already has 12 wins in 46 career races. “We just have to keep fighting and keep digging, and keep racing as hard as we can until the end. Especially with points and a half (at Pomona to end the season), there’s still a lot of time and racing left. We have to make sure we stay aggressive and consistent, and we just have to continue put ourselves in a good position to win.”
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 marks the fifth of sixth Countdown to the Championship races and is also the 23rd of 24 races during a 2018 NHRA season where Gray has been remarkable in crunch time.
Gray learned a great deal during his first Countdown to the Championship appearance during his rookie year in 2017 and he’s risen to the occasion during the biggest pressure moments of the year, knocking off Pro Stock standouts at nearly every turn. He’s been to the final round at six of the past seven races, winning four of them, which leads Gray to believe there’s no reason to change anything heading into the final two races of the year.
“One of the things that’s helped for the success this year is everyone having the same mindset and same goal,” Gray said. “We’ve been able to click and for the most part it’s been a really smooth season for us. I’ve learned from all the mistakes I made last year and I knew what to expect going into the Countdown this year. I knew the mindset and approach I had to take. It’s made everything a lot smoother. I worked really hard in the off-season and it feels like everything is paying off.”
But the job is not finished yet and Gray knows he needs to be at his best in Vegas. Five-time world champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. sits in second, 130 points back of Gray, while Vincent Nobile trails by 136. With 191 points being the maximum a driver can earn in Pomona at the season-finale, it makes someone catching Gray a longshot. But Gray, whose first career Pro Stock victory came at the Vegas spring race in 2017, isn’t in the celebratory mood yet, though he is enjoying the journey.
“We’re enjoying the ride and I’ve been super thankful for this opportunity,” Gray said. “I’ve been able to work with the best group of guys I could ask for. It’s really been a lot of fun and I’ve had a blast. About mid-season or a little before, I really just sat back and starting trying to appreciate the time with the guys. There’s a lot things that could be worse and it’s about enjoying the moment and just having fun with it, and it’s been a blast.”
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.
Defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight will look to get closer to a second consecutive world championship in Vegas, currently holding a slim 11-point lead on J.R. Todd.
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 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, Kenny Youngblood, 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.