Long before Dave Connolly got behind the wheel of a Pro Stock car, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series star knew the importance of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
With three career Pro Stock victories at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, Connolly has also managed to put his own name into the rich history book of the world’s most prestigious drag race, last winning the event in 2012. After not competing at the event a year ago, Connolly has a chance to add to his growing Indy legacy and will chase his fourth victory at the illustrious race at this weekend’s 60th annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
“Even when I was a kid growing up, I knew that Indy was the race everybody put up on a pedestal,” Connolly said. “Even though I'm of a younger generation, I still grew up in an era where that was the hugest race of the year. Other than the world championship, that's the trophy you want in the trophy case. One of my first national events was getting to run Super Comp at Indy, and I thought that was the greatest thing ever."
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock), and John Hall (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will once again be televised on ESPN2 in more than 10 hours of coverage. It is the 18th of 24 events during the 2014 season and the final race of the regular season before the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship playoffs begins.
Currently in fifth place during the 2014 season with one victory and two final-round appearances, Connolly feels good about how his Charter Communications Chevy Camaro has performed. But things have a chance to get even better for the 23-time Pro Stock winner heading into the Countdown based on his previous history at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals.
Despite the added pressure and spotlight the race brings, Connolly has always found a comfort level at the event, leading to some of the most impressive performances of his career.
“I don't know how to explain it, other than to say that every racer has certain tracks where they tend to do well,” Connolly said. “That's one of those tracks that has come to our liking, and that definitely helps you perform on Monday. I feel very confident in the car, and I think we have a really good handle on it. Everything is starting to click at the right time, and it should be a very fun and exciting Countdown.”
Three of Connolly’s finest moments came during the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, including his first Indy win in 2007 that came in the middle of an incredible five-race winning streak. Connolly followed that by repeating at Indy in 2008, picking up his third win at the event in 2012 in what was only one of a handful of events Connolly competed in that year.
“There are certain things at each race that you can definitely pick out and remember,” Connolly said. “I remember the first year we won Indy, it was the right place-right time type of deal, and we hit on something in our setup that was a little ahead of our class. We had the field by four- or five-hundredths, and I had it in my mind that all I had to do was let the clutch out on time and we were going to win the U.S. Nationals. It played out, and we did. We won. Another Indy that stands out was in 2012, crewing for Erica [Enders-Stevens], running her in the final and beating her. That's something I'll never forget.”
Another memorable performance would give Connolly plenty of championship momentum heading into a loaded Pro Stock class headed by current points leader Jason Line. Connolly’s quest for a first championship would also be heightened should all three Gray Motorsports cars qualify for the Countdown.
Shane Gray and Connolly have already clinched spots, and rookie Jonathan Gray currently trails Greg Anderson, a six-time winner at the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, by 32 points for the final spot. Other championship contenders in Pro Stock include three-time Indy winner Jeg Coughlin Jr., Enders-Stevens, Allen Johnson, Vincent Nobile, V. Gaines, and Chris McGaha, but Connolly’s hope is that his team comes out of Indy with three spots in the Countdown.
“Myself and Shane are locked in, but for Jonathan, it's going to take a very healthy Monday to get him around Greg,” Connolly said. “Part of the goal for us when Jonathan started driving was to get him in the top 10, and he missed a few races at the beginning of the year but so did Greg. They are in the same boat, and they're both fighting hard. Jonathan is just a round and a half out, so anything can happen."
The first of five Mello Yello Series qualifying sessions is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 29. Two more sessions will take to the track on Saturday, Aug. 30, at 2:30 and 6 p.m., and the final two qualifying sessions will take place on Sunday, Aug. 31, at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 1.
ESPN2 will televise more than 10 hours of coverage of the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals. Five hours of qualifying coverage and coverage of the NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout will air on ESPN2 at 11 a.m.-2 p.m. (ET) and 5-7 p.m. on Sunday, Aug. 31. Monday’s (Sept. 1) eliminations for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals will be featured in six hours of coverage starting at noon (ET).
To purchase tickets for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, fans can contact NHRA’s Ticket Sales Center at 800-884-NHRA (6472) or get their tickets online at www.NHRATIX.com.