Now Dave Connolly has a chance to race for his first NHRA world championship.
Charlotte, N.C. – Dave Connolly knew he faced heavy odds to made the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, needing to make up a 134-point gap at the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
Standing in his way was two Top Fuel world champions in Antron Brown and Shawn Langdon, adding one more layer of difficulty in a pressure-filled weekend. But Connolly, the former Pro Stock standout competing in his first season of Top Fuel in 2015, passed with flying colors.
He knocked off three talented opponents, including Brown and Langdon, and advanced to the final round in his 10,000-horsepower C&J Energy Services dragster, making an improbable run into the 10th and final spot in the Countdown to the Championship. But now that he has a chance to race for his first NHRA world championship, Connolly has no plans of letting up at the Countdown opener, the eighth annual NHRA Carolina Nationals, Sept. 18-20 at state-of-the-art zMAX Dragway.
You don’t want to get behind eight rounds with five races to go
“We made the top 10 but I don’t feel like we’re going to stop now,” Connolly said. “You never know what’s going to happen with these cars but hopefully we can get on a streak. You get some momentum and who knows what can happen. Every round is important and you try not to treat anything different but in our position we have to race a little more aggressive. But I feel like we’ve got a great team and great crew chief and we’re going to give it our best effort.”
Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel); Matt Hagan (Funny Car); Jonathan Gray (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the playoff opener. ESPN2 will provide national television coverage of the NHRA Carolina Nationals. The event, which has kicked off the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoff since 2008, provides a great chance for a contender to jumpstart a chase toward a world championship. That’s precisely what Connolly hopes to do after a clutch performance in Indy clinched his Countdown berth.
Heading into eliminations Connolly, who has 26 career Pro Stock wins, knew he needed to earn at least a second final round appearance of the season to move into the top 10. But Connolly and his team, led by crew chiefs Kurt Elliott and Jason McCulloch, were up to the task, knocking off Khalid alBalooshi, Brown and Langdon in succession before falling to Morgan Lucas in the final round. The scenario certainly tested his resolve, but it could prove to be something Connolly can lean on throughout the Countdown.
“The last couple months I knew we had a shot at making the top 10,” Connolly said. “We started doing the math and we felt like we had a chance going into Indy and that place has always treated me pretty well. We had to run (well), but I knew our team was close to getting it all figured out.
“I felt like we could do it but that second round against Antron was big. The season was on the line every time we raced on Monday, but to perform like we did in some pressure situations I couldn’t be happier. We had to get by some great teams to get in and that made it feel like we deserved to get in. To see the team jell and come together this year, and get into the top 10, it’s a great feeling.”
But Connolly is eager to continue the good string and is hopeful it leads to his first career Top Fuel victory. Charging from the 10th spot and passing nine other drivers to win the championship won’t be easy but it also isn’t unprecedented in the Countdown to the Championship era.
The biggest task will be trying to deny reigning world champion and points leader Tony Schumacher his ninth Top Fuel world title. But Connolly also knows that he can’t get ahead of himself and must be focused on each and every pass starting next weekend in Charlotte.
“With six races left and us starting at the bottom we can’t have any of those early exits,” Connolly said. “Doing well in those early rounds is going to be crucial and we have to treat every round as a huge one. We’re going to race aggressively and to the best of our ability. There are so many good cars in this class and there are definitely no easy rounds. What’s been impressive with our team is how well we’ve run in all conditions. We’re going to see a lot of different track conditions and we’re going to need to put up a good number at all of them.”
The NHRA Carolina Nationals is the first of three races in a three-week string to open the Countdown and Connolly, who has two final round appearances in 2015, knows the importance of starting it on the right foot. The Countdown field is impressive, though, and along with Schumacher includes Brown, Richie Crampton, who has four wins in 2015 and will start from the third spot, three-time world champion and teammate Larry Dixon, Brittany Force, Langdon, Doug Kalitta, J.R. Todd and Steve Torrence.
“That first race is crucial because it sets the tone,” Connolly said. “If you take an early exit it really puts you back. You don’t want to get behind eight rounds with five races to go. But we had a good car at the (Four-Wide Nationals at zMAX Dragway), so we’ll see how it goes.”
Hagan drove his Mopar Express Lane/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger to a victory at the event a year ago in Funny Car, which helped him get the jump on the competition en route to his second world championship. But everyone is chasing red-hot Jack Beckman, the current points leader who won his sixth race of the year with a memorable weekend in Indy. Along with Hagan, who is currently in second, his major threats will be Tommy Johnson Jr., John Force, Robert Hight, Ron Capps, Del Worsham, who moved to fourth heading into the Countdown, Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and Alexis DeJoria, who will start the quest for her first championship from the No. 10 position.
Pro Stock points leader and reigning world champion Erica Enders, who has six wins this season including the most recent prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, will have her hands full as the playoff top seed dealing with challenges from four-time world champion and four-time 2015 winner Greg Anderson, who is in second to begin the Countdown. Other championship contenders include two-time event winner in 2015 Chris McGaha, who is currently third, two-time world champ Jason Line, Allen Johnson, Vincent Nobile, Shane Gray, Jonathan Gray, rookie Drew Skillman and veteran driver Larry Morgan, who won the Four-Wide Nationals here in April.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ Andrew Hines is a two-time winner of this event and will battle defending winner and teammate Krawiec, who is the current points leader, for the title. Others to watch include Hector Arana Jr., who starts the Countdown in second, Jim Underdahl, Hector Arana, Karen Stoffer, alligator farmer Jerry Savoie, who won at Indy for the first time in his career and moved all the way to fourth, Chip Ellis, who jumped into eighth after a runner-up finish in Indy, Scotty Pollacheck and local favorite Matt Smith.
Drivers in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series and the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Series also will look to become winners of the thrilling event during the weekend.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as they’re granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Sept. 18, with sessions at 12:30 and 3 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Sept. 19, at 12:45 and 3 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for Noon on Sunday, Sept. 20. J&A Service Pro Mod Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday at 2:30 and 4:45 p.m. with one final qualifying session on Saturday at 12:15 p.m. The first round will begin on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and continue on Sunday.