LAS VEGAS - All season long, motorsports fans have been debating what's the closest form of competition in all motorsports. For thrilling side-by-side racing that leaves everyone breathless - NHRA Pro Stock is as close as it gets in any form of...
LAS VEGAS - All season long, motorsports fans have been debating what's the closest form of competition in all motorsports. For thrilling side-by-side racing that leaves everyone breathless - NHRA Pro Stock is as close as it gets in any form of auto racing.
In 21 Pro Stock races this season, there have been 12 different winners, nine lead changes in the POWERade standings, six different points leaders overall, and only one driver that has qualified for every event this season. Win margins at the finish line have been decided by less than an inch.
Drivers in the ultra-competitive category will be making their return trip to the quarter-mile at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the second annual ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals, Oct. 24-27. The $2 million race is the 22nd of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag racing Series.
With races usually determined by a few thousandths-of-a-second, it's not surprising that a champion probably won't be crowned in the 200-mph category until the season finale at Pomona, Calif. With that being the case, every qualifying point and every round seems to hold that much more value in the race towards the POWERade crown.
"It's crunch time for everyone," said Jeg Coughlin, winner of seven of the last 10 races enabling him to reclaim the points lead heading into Las Vegas. "There is just no room for mistakes in Pro Stock and the importance of each round is immeasurable right now. It is rewarding to win the races that we have won and be in the position that this Jeg's Mail Order team is in. However, we all know that there is a lot of racing left before anyone is crowned the 2002 NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champion"
Coughlin, who has a category-leading seven victories, is one of three drivers that has a legitimate shot at the Pro Stock title. Two-time series champ Jim Yates didn't score his first win of the season until the 18th race of the year, but his ability to go rounds during eliminations in his Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Grand Am has kept him among the category leaders. Greg Anderson, who is competing in his first full season of Pro Stock competition, has two wins this year behind the wheel of his Vegas General Construction Chevy Cavalier and also has demonstrated consistency similar to Yates' to be in the top three for the latter part of the season.
All three drivers have posted a DNQ (did not qualify) at least once this season, which has contributed to the parity in the standings. Even six-time champion Warren Johnson, who has been mathematically eliminated for the championship, failed to qualify for an event this season. It was Johnson's first DNQ in 303 races, dating back to 1987, which is indicative of the competitiveness of Pro Stock. Routinely there are 35-40 cars vying for one of the 16 qualifying spots at any given NHRA national event.
"To have the number of cars that are involved in the chase right now that are so close together, it's definitely the closest I've ever seen," said Yates, the 1996 and 1997 champion. "The two guys that are battling me for the championship have come from pretty far back in the field from earlier this year, so that makes it interesting. It has been a competitive year just because of the number of cars and then because of the number of competitive cars that are there at the top."
"We're in control of our own destiny as far as our own program goes," said the 32-year-old-Coughlin, the 2000 Pro Stock champion. "We have to stay focused and run this thing to the end. Our goal is to be on the podium (at the awards banquet) on the Monday night after the Pomona race."
There has been a remarkable amount of equality in Pro Stock. One of the amazing aspects is the fact that any car qualified for eliminations has a legitimate shot at winning the event. Despite the fact that there are three serious contenders for the title, there are many drivers that can play the role of spoiler down the final stretch of the season. Any Pro Stock driver is quick to point out that no elimination matchup is a guaranteed victory. Every round win needs to be earned.
"We've had a couple of tough races these last couple events and lost a few points in the points deal," said Anderson, the former crew chief for Johnson. "It's time to get back to winning races. It's gonna take winning races to win this thing, it's not going to be a semifinal deal to win it. It's gonna take (wins) and we know that."
"If someone makes one little miscue, then that can be the difference between being the champion and being in second or third place," said Yates. "I think the team that makes the proper decisions and doesn't get caught up in head games and looking at somebody else's program and pay attention to their own stuff, I think that's the team that wins the championship."