Coughlin masters playoff system, earns second straight title DELAWARE, Ohio (Dec. 8) -- Two years ago the NHRA implemented a playoff system to decide its champions. Two years later, one driver has mastered the format with back-to-back POWERade...
Coughlin masters playoff system, earns second straight title
DELAWARE, Ohio (Dec. 8) -- Two years ago the NHRA implemented a playoff system to decide its champions. Two years later, one driver has mastered the format with back-to-back POWERade titles in drag racing's toughest category -- Pro Stock.
Jeg Coughlin Jr. already had three world championships to his credit before the playoff era, having won the 1992 Super Gas crown and his first two Pro Stock titles in 2000 and 2002. Yet the second-generation pro from Delaware, Ohio, somehow found a way to elevate his game in the condensed six-race, playoff format, winning the biggest, most pressure-packed rounds at the perfect times to score two more titles in 2007 and 2008.
"I think NHRA took its cue from the other major sports when they created this format with the idea of building up a lot of drama late in the season," Coughlin said. "They've certainly done that with the Countdown to 1. From my standpoint, the interest from the fans and the media, both nationally and locally, has never been higher. You always have your critics but I'd say 99 percent of people enjoy it.
"There's some strategy to it. You want to have a strong start. You need to maintain a rhythm and earn one of those top 10 spots. Then towards the end of the regular season you really concentrate on earning the best position possible in that top 10. Then it's on, and you have 10 drivers getting after it, throwing everything they have at winning it all. It's a very intense time for the drivers and teams and the fans pick up on that."
Unlike 2007 when he never led the rankings until the final race of the season, Coughlin had a much steadier journey en route to his first successful title defense in 2008.
The class was wide open from the start with eight different winners in the first nine races. For a time, it looked like any one of those early winners could end up on top at the end of the season. But, as is often the case in drag racing, a few teams started to break away from the pack thanks to relentless, mistake-free racing each weekend.
Fortunately for team owner Victor Cagnazzi, one of those frontrunners was Coughlin, who started the season with a runner-up finish in Pomona, Calif., and a win in Gainesville, Fla., that established his JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt as one to watch from the onset. He even led the points on two separate occasions early in the year.
"A fast start was part of our goal," Coughlin said. "We wanted to carry over the momentum we'd gathered at the end of 2007 and we were able to do that. Then we just kind of got in sync with one another and were able to maintain a top ranking all year. We had those moments where you lose by a thousandth of a second here or there, but you're always going to have those times. It's how you react that makes the difference. This team reacted very well."
As the Countdown to 1 cutoff approached, Coughlin and crew nailed down the No. 3 slot with runner-up finishes in Chicago and Sonoma, Calif., and a big win in Reading, Pa., to keep themselves within easy striking distance of the lead. Meanwhile, back at Cagnazzi Racing, the staff back at the engine shop was polishing up an arsenal of new and improved powerplants to help their man to the finish line.
"We were really marching hard right at the start of the playoffs thanks to the efforts of the guys in the engine shop," Coughlin said. "There's always some risk in bringing out fresh horsepower because the reliability isn't probably as good as you want, but (crew chief) Roy Simmons and the crew figured out the little issues that popped up and we got the job done."
The extra effort paid off and Coughlin needed just two playoff races to return to the top of the standings, a perch he never relinquished thanks to another win in Las Vegas and two more runner-up results in Richmond, Va., and Dallas. Other racers had their chances, but Coughlin met every challenge head-on, dismissing his biggest rivals himself in satisfying head-to-head battles.
"Our goal was to win three of the six (playoff) races and although we didn't do that, we did the next best thing, winning once and getting two runner-ups," he said. "We threw a test session in there and came back and won Las Vegas, basically clinching it there.
"Having my dad around was really important also. I communicated with him throughout the year on the phone or over the internet and once the playoffs started he made the effort to come to every race. He works really well with Roy and he certainly played a big role in us winning this title."
In the end, Coughlin and his talented teammates handled the playoff pressure so well that they merely needed to qualify for the final race of the year to clinch the championship, which they did with ease. Coughlin's final tally of three wins (in eight final-round appearances) on the season pushed his career victory total to 54 and his fourth professional-level title made him the third most prolific racer in Pro Stock class history and the eighth best in all four professional categories, all at the age of 38. He now trails only Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson in Pro Stock as well as John Force, Kenny Bernstein, Tony Schumacher, Dave Schultz, and Joe Amato.
"It's one heck of an accomplishment," Coughlin said. "The class is so tough, so hard these days. We just did it and it's so satisfying. We even managed to get better somehow -- better at solving our own problems and better at working with our vendors to help them make their products better to give us the consistency you have to have.
"It's humbling to be mentioned in the same breath as the top racers in our sport. We always just try to focus on what we can do under the system that's in place for us, like the Countdown to 1. So far, we've done very well and that's exciting."
-credit: team jegs