Two drivers could lock up NHRA titles in Vegas

There are only two drivers that can clinch their NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series championships during this weekend’s 24th annual Toyota Nationals on The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

During the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, both Antron Brown and Erica Enders-Stevens have stepped up to the plate and pulled ahead of the pack, something that’s exceptionally difficult to do in the volatile world of NHRA drag racing.

Brown closes in on the crown

Brown, driver of the hot pink and black Don Schumacher Racing Top Fuel Matco Tools for the Cause dragster, has won seven races in the first 22 contests of the season, including the first three Countdown competitions. He made it as far as the semifinals in the fourth round, but failed to get to the finals at the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in Ennis, TX two weekends past. Coming into Las Vegas, Brown holds a 132 gap over teammate and eight-time titleholder Tony Schumacher. Texas winner Richie Crampton, with five victories on the year is in third place, a vast 203 points behind Brown, who won this title in 2012.

Brown remembers how difficult it was to win his first Top Fuel title three years ago, when he had to wait until others finished the final rounds as he stood, with burnt hands from a fire earlier in the day, on the sidelines at Pomona. “I think the way we really got prepared,” for these intense six races, “is if you look at this year as a whole and how many people have won and how competitive the class is, it’s ridiculous how crazy tough this class is and I think that’s what prepared us for the Countdown.

“We lost close races this year and it’s rough out there. That really got us motivated, geared up and pumped up for the Countdown. When we came into the Countdown, we came in prepared. We knew we had to give our A-plus game and we knew we couldn’t slip up,” as the Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald-led team nearly did during their first championship season. “Our mindset in Vegas is to just keep on doing what we’ve been doing, go out there, try to qualify in the highest position we can,” he said of the four sessions that culminate on Halloween night.

“We want to be as efficient as possible on raceway and that starts with round one. We’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves. We’re just going to go out and race to the best of our ability.”

Erica Enders-Stevens also looking to lock up title

He’s not the only one that has an opportunity to clinch at this track abutting Nellis Air Force base just north of Sin City. Repeating a championship is never easy, but Enders-Stevens is proving that adage incorrect in her case, each time she rolls to the lights in Pro Stock.

“I don’t have an analogy to tell you how badly I want to win back-to-back championships,” Enders said as she extended her lead to 154 points over four-time champion Greg Anderson, who bowed to Reading victor Chris McGaha in the first round in Ennis, Texas as Enders won for a record eighth time this season. “I want it more than anything in the world and I know all my guys do, too. We share the same passion and we play with all the heart we have.”

In earning her first victory at Texas Motorplex in the most recent Countdown contest, Enders-Stevens did her job, the Elite Motorsports team did their job and victory went to their Chevrolet Camaro. After earning her eighth win of the year - the most for any woman in NHRA competition - Enders-Stevens is hoping to extend that number in this race at Las Vegas and at Pomona, NHRA’s ancestral home.

Enders-Stevens and her Elite Motorsports team, led by owner Richard Freeman, engine wizard Nick Ferri, crew chiefs Rick and Rickie Jones together with Mark Ingersoll, who was instrumental in helping both Allen Johnson and Jeg Coughlin win their 2012-2013 titles, are on a roll in NHRA Pro Stock racing, getting into the head of Anderson and keeping themselves ahead of three-time winner Chris McGaha, who lies 166 points in arrears. Only Johnson and Enders-Steven’s rookie teammate, Drew Skillman might have a numerical chance of catching her.

She needs to have 151 points in hand at the end of racing on Sunday in order to claim back-to-back titles, and Enders-Stevens is “treating this race like all the other ones. I want to do my very best to put Elite Motorsports’ Camaro in the winner’s circle. We have an awesome team with the best mechanics, engine builders and crew chiefs in the world and we have a lot of confidence. To change the way we’ve been racing at this point would be crazy.”

Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle

The outcome of Funny Car, where Del Worsham leads Jack Beckman by 38 points, Tommy Johnson Jr. by 47, with Ron Capps and Matt Hagan still very much in the hunt, won’t be settled until Pomona. Worsham, who won the most recent contest at Texas and Beckman, who won in Reading, are the two likely aspirants, but the balance of the top five are less than 160 points behind the 2011 Top Fuel titleholder. Worsham would join an elite group by earning a Funny Car title as only Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi have earned both Top Fuel and Funny Car titles.

There will be 20 Pro Stock Motorcycle racers at Las Vegas, vying for the 16 elimination slots and trying to stop the three top combatants, four-time and reigning champion Andrew Hines, his teammate and three-time titleholder Eddie Krawiec and Jerry Savoie, who’s won four races in his career and joins Hines and Krawiec as three-time victors in 2015. They lie a scant 31 points apart with Hines the leader, Krawiec 21 points in arrears and Savoie 31 points back. Hector Arana Jr. (-81) and Chip Ellis are the only other viable contestants in this class.

The weather shouldn’t play too much of a part in this weekend’s activities, as the forecast calls for warm, dry and mostly sunny weather throughout. But with large classes for most every category it could be a rather tedious time as the 16 drivers or riders in each class are determined for Sunday’s eliminations. For sure this one should be a nail-biter.

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