The goal for every team in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is to peak at the perfect time, which means during the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship for everyone chasing a world title.
After building up to it all season, nobody has done a better job of that in Pro Stock through the halfway point of the Countdown than Dave Connolly. The winner of back-to-back events to jump up to second in the points standings in his Charter Communications Chevy Camaro, Connolly will look to make it three straight wins at this weekend’s 30th annual NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway.
It’s also been a total team effort recently for Connolly and the Gray Motorsports team as well, as the three-car trio of Jonathan Gray, Shane Gray and Connolly has combined for all three Countdown wins in Pro Stock and a total of five final round appearances. That bodes well for Connolly heading into one of quickest and fastest strips on the NHRA circuit.
“I can’t say enough about the Gray Motorsports team and organization, from day one that it was assembled,” Connolly said. “It took us a little while to jell but things are cooking. Team chemistry is high and that’s huge, and we’re doing a good job on Sundays, which is really important. Mentally, yeah, I’m in the best state of mind that I have been in a while.”
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car), Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year’s winners of the event that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2. It is the fourth of six events in the Countdown playoffs.
Connolly’s back-to-back wins in Dallas and St. Louis sent him from sixth to second in points and he now trails series leader Jason Line, whom he beat in a massive final-round matchup in St. Louis, by just 26 points heading into the final three events of the Countdown. Connolly, who has 26 career wins, knows there is still plenty of work to be done but likes the direction he is headed while in search of his first world championship.
“It’s just going to be not getting ahead of yourself,” Connolly said. “Winning last week in St. Louis was a huge win for this team. I was about as excited for that win as I have been in a long time because I knew what was at stake. To keep the championship within reach, we had to stop Jason, so that win was big for us. At the end of the day, we’re still playing catch up but it kept our championship hopes alive. You just have to ride those highs. It’s a very humbling sport and it can turn on you at any time. We’re just living in the moment and enjoying the wins as they come.”
The wave of momentum couldn’t be higher for Connolly, who now has three victories in 2014, and the Gray Motorsports team. Shane Gray won the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, kicking off a string of four straight victories by the team. Shane Gray is now third in points and Jonathan Gray, who picked up his first career victory at the opening event in the Countdown, is fifth.
That support has made a big difference during a crucial time and Connolly couldn’t be more pleased with how things have come together.
“That’s impressive to me, four wins in a row by three different drivers,” Connolly said. “It tells you the depth of Gray Motorsports. I’m just having a blast racing with them this year. We did sacrifice every once in a while, just trying to learn some things. We’re kind of a young team still, and there’s a bunch of us that have been out here a while but we’re learning to race the racetrack. The whole team is going in the same direction.”
That will mean preparing for a quick and fast racetrack this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway. But that’s just fine for Connolly, who has two wins and four final round appearances at the facility.
Of course, dealing with a loaded Pro Stock field will provide plenty of challenges. Coughlin defeated teammate Allen Johnson to win at Maple Grove Raceway last year en route to his fifth world championship while other Countdown contenders include Line, Erica Enders-Stevens, V Gaines, Vincent Nobile and Chris McGaha.
“Yeah, I look forward to going to Reading,” Connolly said. “We’ve had a lot of success there and it’s just one of the tracks that you have that welcome home feeling I think being in the championship chase is bringing out the best in me, and it’s just rejuvenating and exciting. The worst thing a racer can do is go through the motions with the championship on the line. That’s not happening here.”
In Top Fuel, Langdon won in Reading last year en route to his first career world championship title. Standing in his way of a repeat title is a host of star challengers including red-hot points leader Tony Schumacher, who won the first two races of the Countdown and also has four wins at Maple Grove Raceway, Doug Kalitta, who has advanced to nine finals in 2014, Antron Brown, who ended a brief slump with a win at the most recent event in St. Louis, Spencer Massey, Brittany Force, 2012 winner Khalid alBalooshi, rookie Richie Crampton, who won the U.S. Nationals, surging Steve Torrence and rising star J.R. Todd.
In Funny Car one year ago, Force won in Reading and set the stage for him to claim his 16th world championship title. Force, the current points leader, has raced to seven career victories at Maple Grove Raceway, most all-time for a driver in any professional class. Standing in his way of another championship are teammate Robert Hight and Courtney Force, who has two straight playoff victories to move to second, as well as Matt Hagan, Ron Capps, three-time season winner Alexis DeJoria, Cruz Pedregon, Tommy Johnson Jr., Tim Wilkerson and Del Worsham.
Smith was victorious at Reading in Pro Stock Motorcycle last season en route to his second championship. Smith is looking for his first win of 2014 while teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec have been the class of the Pro Stock Motorcycle field during the regular season. Hines is the points leader in the two-wheel category, while Krawiec is second. Others nipping at Hines’ heels in hopes of a championship are Angie Smith, Hector Arana Jr., Hector Arana, Michael Ray, Scotty Pollacheck, John Hall and Steve Johnson. Reading’s winningest PSM rider, Angelle Sampey, also will be making her return to the track where she’s had so much success. She will be riding the Star Racing Buell for George Bryce.
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 enjoy some cherished face time and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
Fans also will want to visit NHRA’s popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.
The event will also feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying begins Friday, Oct. 3, with sessions at 1:15 and 4:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Oct. 4, at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 5.
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