Pro Stock Motorcycle racer Matt Smith has the most realistic shot of becoming the first 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series world champion during the NHRA Toyota Nationals this weekend (Oct. 24-27) at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even he’s not counting his chickens before they hatch.
The 2007 world champ knows better. In the crazy world of NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing, anything can happen, and it usually does.
In the past, many drivers have arrived at the season’s penultimate race with sizeable points leads and championship glory in their eyes, only to be disappointed and sent off to the season finale with much smaller leads, or in some cases, no leads at all.
Smith, who holds a 125-point advantage over second-place Hector Arana Jr., could claim his second world championship title by increasing his lead by 26 points during the race weekend. That could be accomplished with a strong effort in qualifying and by going one round farther than Arana Jr. during eliminations.
The way Smith’s Viper Motorcycle Co. Buell has been performing lately, it is certainly possible. The King, N.C., rider has advanced to the final round in the last three events, winning the last two.
However, he’s not going to fall into that trap of mentally claiming the trophy before he actually puts in the final work and adds the finishing touches to a very strong season. If he’s successful, he will join his father, Rickie Smith, as NHRA world champions this season. The elder Smith already claimed the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series title.
Should Smith have a hiccup, Michael Ray, Hector Arana Sr., and defending world champ Eddie Krawiec would join Arana Jr. in the championship conversation in Pro Stock Motorcycle, with all three riders sitting just a few points back of the second-place rider.
“This thing’s not over yet,” Smith said. “I’m still looking at every round as just 20 points. But we’ll be strong, I guarantee you, in Vegas.”
The other three classes feature much tighter championship battles at the fifth of six playoff races in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship. The NHRA Toyota Nationals will be televised on ESPN2HD.
In Top Fuel, Shawn Langdon holds the lead over second-place Doug Kalitta and third-place Spencer Massey, both trailing Langdon by more than 80 points. All three drivers are looking for their first world championship title in Top Fuel, however Langdon has led the standings for most of the season at the controls of his Al-Anabi Racing dragster.
"I am very excited, and I am very proud to be in this position with a four-round lead going into Las Vegas,” said Langdon, who has won a class-best six times this season. “But we have to keep working as hard as we can because there are still eight rounds of racing left. We’ve seen it year after year. Somebody always gets hot in the last couple of races, and a four-round lead can deteriorate quickly. The Al-Anabi team has had a really good year, and we would love nothing more than to finish it off with a Mello Yello championship."
Veteran driver Kalitta, who last flirted with a championship title in 2006, is up for the challenge ahead. Kalitta has been stout in the Countdown, posting a victory in Dallas and three semifinal finishes. With five No. 1 qualifying positions this season, his machine has been one of the quickest in the class.
"Right now, I've probably got one of the better opportunities to hopefully run with Shawn and whoever else is coming up because I think second on back, everybody is within a round of one another," said Kalitta, whose Mac Tools dragster will feature a special edition Chip Foose design this weekend. "Shawn has pulled away a little bit, but we're hoping that we can definitely gain on him, and I think we can. This is one of my better opportunities I've had in a few years to be in this position, so hopefully we can take advantage of it."
Massey, who has performed well at The Strip at LVMS in the past, feels confident about his chances and is prepared to let it all unfold on the racetrack. Massey has won four times in six final-round appearances this season. However, his only Countdown final came in a runner-up finish in Charlotte.
“Vegas is usually a good track for us,” Massey said. “We have a couple of wins there, a runner-up at this race last year. That's all we need to do is just go rounds and turn on win lights, and everything will play out the way it's going to. We just need to do our part.”
In Funny Car, 15-time world champ John Force holds a 65-point lead over his recent rival Matt Hagan. The two have been involved in similar championship battles in recent years, with Force coming out on top in 2010 and Hagan winning his first title in 2011.
Force is trying to prove he can still hang with the kids and get the job done at age 64. Hagan is trying to rebound from a horrible 2012 season, when the Virginia cattle rancher failed to qualify for the Countdown.
Hagan has led the standings for most of the season, clicking early with a new but proven crew chief in Dickie Venables and a young race team. Meanwhile, Force has come on strong in the Countdown and won the last two events in his Jimmy Prock-tuned Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Force joined forces with Prock near midseason when he ordered a crew chief change with his and Robert Hight’s teams.
"We're racing with the best out there, and it's not to say that there's a couple boys back there right behind us that can't sneak up here and do this thing, too, but I really think it's turned into a two-horse race here, and we just have to focus on what our car can do and not really who's beside us, as hard as that is to do with a 15-time champ out there," Hagan said. "But we can't control how he qualifies, we can't control who he runs, we can't control how many rounds he goes. We've just got to go out there and try to go four rounds on Sunday and turn four win lights on and do it two more races. I believe we can do it. I know that's a steep hill to climb, but I've never won back to back, and I sure would like to these last two races."
Force has been in similar, close title battles throughout his stellar career and has proven many times that he has what it takes to get the job done.
“We got past him three years ago,” Force said of Hagan, “but, at the end of the day, he could do the same thing to us this time. He’s got a fast hot rod over there with Dickie (Venables, crew chief) and (car owner Don) Schumacher; he’s a great young driver, and he’s motivated. That’s a dangerous combination. But (crew chief Jimmy) Prock has given me a good hot rod, and I am ready for a fight to the finish, and I know it will be tough over these next two races.”
Should Force and Hagan stumble in Las Vegas, several other drivers will be looking to take advantage and keep their championship hopes alive, including defending world champ Jack Beckman, ’09 champ Hight, Cruz Pedregon, Ron Capps, and Courtney Force.
In Pro Stock, Jeg Coughlin Jr. is in hot pursuit of a fifth world championship title in his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger. He holds the lead over a logjam of proven drivers in second through fourth, including Mike Edwards, Jason Line, and defending champ Allen Johnson.
Coughlin is 45 points ahead of 2009 champ Edwards, a six-time winner this season, 50 up on two-time champ Line, and 73 ahead of teammate Johnson, who won the spring Vegas race.
"I don't think the title will be decided one way or the other in Vegas, but we may leave town with a much clearer picture," Coughlin said. "You have to remember, the three guys behind us in the points are all past NHRA champions. It's going to be a thrill ride."
NHRA Toyota Nationals qualifying sessions are scheduled for 1:15 and 3:45 p.m. Friday, Oct. 25. Qualifying continues at 12:15 and 2:45 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 27.
Tickets are available for the NHRA Toyota Nationals online at www.lvms.com or by calling 800-644-4444.