Story By: SCOTT SMITH / NHRA – CONCORD, NC – The way Ron Capps looks at it, the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship might as well be restarting this weekend during the NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals at the state-of-the-art zMAX Dragway. It’s a nod to just how competitive the Funny Car class has been through the first two playoff races, leaving a pile of contenders bunched up heading to Charlotte.
Capps is right in the thick of things as usual, sitting fourth in points, just 44 behind leader Robert Hight. He felt he had a car capable of winning the first two races, and though Capps fell short, it’s only given the former NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champ more confidence heading into he race, where he is the defending winner in his 11,000-horsepower NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat.
“As bunched up as it is right now, it’s almost like the Countdown just started against going into zMAX,” Capps said. “We just have to continue to do what we’ve been doing. We’re not changing much and if we can run like we have the last two races, we’ll be alright. We lost a chance at winning the first two races and I feel like we had a car that could win. We just stepped over the line a little bit, but we learned a lot and we’ll be ready this weekend.”
Steve Torrence (Top Fuel), Capps (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1 (FS1), including live final eliminations coverage starting at 2:00 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Oct. 13. It is the third of six races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, and the 21st of 24 races during the 2019 NHRA season, with the race coming at a key point in the Funny Car title picture.
There have been four different finalists and two different race winners at the first two Countdown to the Championship races, though Capps is still looking to join that group. He qualified No. 1 in Reading and advanced to the semifinals, running a career-best 3.837-seconds at a whopping 339.28 mph, also picking up a round win in St. Louis. Capps wants to take it a step further in Charlotte, a track that has provided plenty of good moments and will present a fast track.
“I’m glad to see zMAX and Charlotte coming, especially with the performance we’ve worked on and found,” Capps said. “The conditions we’re going to see – and that track is unbelievable – we’re going to need every bit of it. We were very consistent (in Capps’ title year in 2016) and we put pressure on opponents, and that’s the key, making someone feel like they have to step outside the box to beat you. You’ve got to have that, especially going against some of these top-tier teams. You’re going to have to make them feel like they need to push harder than they would have.”
Capps knows the importance of a fourth career Charlotte victory against a loaded Countdown to the Championship field that starts with Hight, who is also after his first playoff win in 2019. Sixteen-time world champ John Force is just 13 points out of first, while Reading winner and Capps’ Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman is 24 points back. But Capps also has to be on high alert against the likes of St. Louis winner Shawn Langdon, defending world champ J.R. Todd and Bob Tasca, as all are within 80 points of the lead. It exemplifies the championship talent in the class, which makes doing well in Charlotte so critical for Capps, who will be showcasing a special NAPA NightVision paint scheme during the weekend.
“It’s so tight right now in Funny Car, these next two races could decide who’s going to have momentum heading into the final two events,” said Capps, who has three wins in 2019 and 64 in his standout career. “Looking at who won those first two races, it kind of bunched it up even more. It’s very, very tight right now.”
Torrence has ruled zMAX Dragway of late, as the defending Top Fuel world champ won both races at the facility a year ago and grabbed a victory at the spring race this year. He’ll look for another Charlotte sweep against the likes of points leader Doug Kalitta, Brittany Force and Leah Pritchett.
The fall race will mark Pro Stock’s first appearance at the facility in 2019, and defending event winner Line is the current points leader. But Erica Enders is closing fast after winning in St. Louis, while other challengers include Bo Butner, Matt Hartford and Indy winner Alex Laughlin.
Matt Smith rode his fall Charlotte win to win another world title in Pro Stock Motorcycle, and he’ll try to repeat the feat this year. But he’ll have an uphill climb to catch points leader Andrew Hines, St. Louis winner Karen Stoffer and Eddie Krawiec.
The NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals will also feature thrilling competition in the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service, which will have its 11th of 12 races in 2019. Rick Hord is the defending event winner, while defending world champ Mike Janis won at Charlotte in the spring. Stevie “Fast” Jackson is the current points leader as he seeks his first world title. The event also includes the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where the future stars of the sport earn their racing stripes.
After nitro qualifying on Friday, stick around to watch Nitromike, the entertaining P.T. Cruiser Wheelstander. The weekend will also include the top eight Drag Week winners in the Street Car Small Block Power Adder category, as those standouts will race in a special exhibition in Charlotte.
NHRA fans can take part in the Mello Yello Walking Tour to see the cars and teams hard at work in the pits. Fans can also attend Pro Stock School and Nitro School to learn how the cars operate and reach their thrilling speeds. zMAX Dragway will also host a Mello Yello autograph session and allow fans to meet their favorite drivers as well as the Sealmaster Track Walk hosted by NHRA announcer Joe Castello. Another can’t-miss experience is the winner’s circle celebration on Sunday after racing concludes. NHRA fans are invited to congratulate the winners of the event as they celebrate their victories.
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 3:30 and 6:00 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Oct. 12, at 1:15 and 3:45 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 13.