NHRA Mello Yello Series clinching scenarios for Auto Club Finals at Pomona

Steve Torrence never has cared much for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship. So it’s fitting that he would defy the purpose of it — suspense down to the last minute — by locking up the Top Fuel title two weeks ago at Las Vegas. (Incidentally, he isn’t a fan of four-wide racing, either, yet he won both specialty-format events this year, at Las Vegas and Charlotte.)

However, in the other three pro classes, the six-race playoff is doing what is designed to do.

NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing spiced the deal by awarding points and a half at this weekend’s Auto Club Finals at Pomona, California. The most any racer can earn at this event is 191 points. So it pays to be strong at either math or logic to figure out all the details.

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The only sure bet among the Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle chases is that Tanner Gray, unless he drives down the freeway and into the La Brea Tar Pits, will clinch the Pro Stock title. The only question is whether he’ll do it in qualifying Saturday or make everyone wait until Sunday for it to be official.

Gray leads closest competitor Jeg Coughlin by 140 points. Simply put, the 19-year-old Gray needs to make the 16-car field to become the youngest Pro Stock champion. In doing so, he will beat Larry Lombardo’s 1976 mark of 27 years and seven months by a long shot. Gray also will become the youngest NHRA pro series champion. Right now that mark belongs to Pro Stock Motorcycle’s L.E. Tonglet, who was 20 years and 11 months old when he was crowned as a rookie in 2010.

The real action is in the Funny Car class, with a $500,000 winner’s share of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series purse on the line. Current champion Robert Hight won back-to-back Countdown races at St. Louis and Dallas and underwent surgery for a broken collarbone between the two events. But his momentum fizzled and his noble, play-through-pain effort became even more painful with a first-round loss at Las Vegas. That saddled him with a 74-point deficit to JR Todd on the eve of this final battle.

The Countdown fields were set Labor Day at Indianapolis with the showcase U.S. Nationals. Todd won that. Since then, he has compiled a sparkling 16-3 elimination-round mark by reaching four final rounds in the first five playoff races.

“With points and a half, it is a whole new ballgame,” Hight said. “We can cut into the lead in qualifying and hopefully get within two rounds going into race day. It won’t be easy, but it is doable.”

Todd agreed that “points and a half will make it interesting” and “it’s not over yet.” But he didn’t want to get Hight’s hopes up. “We just need to maintain what we've been doing and go to the later rounds. I'm not going to change the way I drive. We just need to keep making consistent runs. Step one is getting qualified, then we take it one round at a time and not let up.”

Hight can try to pick up 15 more bonus points than Todd in time trials Friday and Saturday. Even if Hight did that, he would have to last two more rounds than Todd Sunday.

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