Pro Stock driver qualifies first in three of last six races, but hasn't closed the deal.
Shane Gray knows all about how competitive the Pro Stock class has been during the 2014 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season.
Gray has qualified No. 1 in three of the past six races and second in another at the controls of his Gray Manufacturing Chevy Camaro, but he has been unable to advance past the second round at any of those events. That tells Gray he has a car capable of winning, but it also shows he is racing in a class full of championship talent.
The intense competition in the 200-mph factory hot rod class will undoubtedly provide plenty of drama for the upcoming Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, but Gray’s focus this weekend is ending the three-week NHRA Western Swing on a positive note at the 27th annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Northwest Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries at Pacific Raceways.
“This class has really changed this year, even from last year and the year before,” Gray said. “There are a lot of differences and it seems like it’s really, really tough this year. It’s tough to even qualify in the top half of the field any more. The Countdown will be very, very tough.”
Morgan Lucas (Top Fuel), Matt Hagan (Funny Car) and Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) were last year’s winners of the event that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2. The visit to Seattle concludes the Western Swing and also serves as the 16th of 24 events in the 2014 season.
The three-car Gray Motorsports team of Gray, his younger brother Jonathan Gray and Dave Connolly has fared well and all sit in the top 10 in points, but Connolly is the only driver among the trio with a victory.
Sixth in points
Shane Gray, who is currently sixth in points, finished as the runner-up in Charlotte but hasn’t advanced out of the second round in the past eight events. The potential is certainly there, as Gray has been a top three qualifier at all but two of those eight races, meaning the chance to jump into the winner’s circle could be right around the corner.
“I try to place the same importance on every race we go to, just not worrying about anything but myself and make sure I'm getting my end of the bargain done,” Gray said. “Every race is important. I think Gray Motorsports right now is gradually getting better every run we make down the track. The cars are really close to having the same tune-up in them, and every time they go down the track (crew chiefs) Justin Elkes, Dave Connolly and Craig Hankinson are making them better and better. Kind of like fine wine, the longer they work together the better it gets."
Gray wouldn’t mind that teamwork leading to a win in Seattle, but the biggest goal is making sure everything is clicking when the Countdown to the Championship arrives. A victory at Pacific Raceways would put Gray on a fast track for the playoffs and his crew is working hard to keep pushing the team forward.
“History shows us that when the cars enter the Countdown they speed up about a hundredth for some reason,” Gray said. “I think people have been back home developing things and getting a little bit better engines. We're preparing for the Countdown, so I can't help but think everyone else is doing the same. It's going to be real tough out there. We'll have to see how it all plays out, but it's going to be tough."
Gray is referencing a star-driven Pro Stock class that includes the likes of Nobile, who is the defending winner in Seattle and one of seven victors in the category in 2014. Other marquee talents who will challenge Gray at Pacific Raceways are Jason Line, who won last weekend in Sonoma, Greg Anderson, who already has three Seattle victories, defending world champion Jeg Coughlin, Allen Johnson, V Gaines and Chris McGaha.
“I've never really had any success in Seattle, but my dad (Johnny Gray) has been to the final round there before in a Pro Stock car and maybe that has kind of paved the way a little bit for us,” Gray said. “The track can be good, but it can also be a challenge. Either way, I feel like the Gray Motorsports team has a lot of momentum right now, and it should be a good race for us. We’re a work in progress, but we’re better than we’ve ever been."
Last year’s Top Fuel winner Lucas stepped out of his ride at the end of last season but his replacement, longtime crew member Richie Crampton, already claimed his first victory in his rookie season. In order to keep Morgan Lucas Racing in the Seattle winner’s circle, he will have to stave off challenges from the likes of four-time Pacific Raceways winner Tony Schumacher, five-time season winner Antron Brown, past Seattle winner Steve Torrence, series leader Doug Kalitta, reigning world champion Shawn Langdon, Sonoma winner Khalid alBalooshi, two-time season winner Spencer Massey, three-time season runner-up and No. 1 qualifier Brittany Force and Denver winner J.R. Todd.
In Funny Car, defending race winner Matt Hagan is after his second straight victory in Seattle, but will face competition from the likes of John Force, who has seven Seattle wins, Tim Wilkerson, who has three victories at the scenic facility, Courtney Force, whose first Funny Car win came at the track in 2012 and won last weekend in Sonoma, as well as points leader Robert Hight, Del Worsham, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, Alexis DeJoria and Tommy Johnson Jr.