ENNIS, Texas – Surprises were plentiful in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship opener last weekend in Charlotte, N.C., as top seeds were upset in the first round of eliminations and one defending world champion failed to qualify.
Considering that everything is bigger in Texas, NHRA fans should expect more of the same when the NHRA playoffs kicks off round No. 2 at the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Sept. 19-22 at the famed Texas Motorplex.
Last season, defending world champion Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle) earned victories at the event in the Lone Star State.
Brown hopes to recapture some of the magic he used last season when he powered his Matco Tools dragster to the victory in Dallas. The victory spurred him on to win his first world championship. His playoff quest to repeat got off to a rocky start at zMAX Dragway last weekend when he failed to earn one of the 16 starting spots for Sunday eliminations. It was the first time in 110 races that the popular driver posted a DNQ.
“You never imagine that something like that is going to happen,” said Brown, who dropped to ninth in the standings. “And we never imagined that’s how we’d start the Countdown. Sure, it’s going to be hard, but we haven’t given up on getting back to the top; no one on this team ever gives up. We made some great testing runs at zMAX Dragway on Monday and now we have to do that once we get to Dallas.”
Meanwhile, there were several upsets in Top Fuel, as season-long points leader and playoff top seed Shawn Langdon lost a close first round match to past Motorplex winner Bob Vandergriff. Langdon fell to second overall and heads to Dallas trailing new Top Fuel series leader Spencer Massey, a Fort Worth native, by 24 points.
“We had a minor setback in Charlotte, but we still feel good about things,” Langdon said. “The Al-Anabi car is still running strong, and team morale is still up so it’s not anything we’re going to let get us down. We just have to keep working like we have been, keep digging and keep fighting. Hopefully, we can get that No. 1 spot back at the end of the Dallas event.”
While a few of the top seeds fell down, several drivers at the bottom of the top 10 made strong moves to the top. Morgan Lucas, at the controls of a brand new GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster, showed off his new 8,000-horsepower ride in style. He swept the event, claiming the No. 1 qualifying position and winning over Massey in the final round. He jumped from eighth to third in the standings and has a ton of momentum heading to the Texas Motorplex.
“We’ve never been in the situation of chasing a championship,” Lucas said. “We just want to run good and do the best we can do. You start having problems if you count your chickens before they hatch. We’re comfortable saying that we know how to put ourselves in position to win races, but I don’t want to put us in an uncomfortable position by going beyond that. We’re trying to have fun and enjoy this.”
Meanwhile, in Funny Car, top seed Matt Hagan raced to a runner-up finish and increased his series lead to 82 points over second place Ron Capps, who made a second round exit. The Virginia cattle rancher has won at the Motorplex in the past and feels confident and comfortable in his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots team, which is led by veteran crew chief Dicky Venables.
“We’ve been consistent all year long and that’s what we’re aiming to do these last five races,” Hagan said. “We added to our lead at Charlotte but can’t afford any slip-ups. At the end of the day no matter what, we’ve already had a great season and I’m ready to see how it plays out.”
The Funny Car driver that made the biggest move in the standings was Robert Hight, who charged to victory in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. The 2009 world champ’s weekend was eerily similar to his ’09 playoff opener. If the winning trend continues for the surging Hight, who also won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indy to end the regular season, expect him to make it three in a row at Dallas and better his chances at earning a second world championship crown.