Krawiec puts fork in PSM race

Big O Tires NHRA Nationals at The Strip in Las Vegas, Nevada, Oct. 26-28, 2012

story and photos by Tim Hailey

With his Reading and Vegas wins, the title all but belongs to Eddie Krawiec. NHRA Bike Photos

Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson rider Kwick Eddie Krawiec earned his ninth NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle win of the 2012 season by defeating Matt Smith with a .017/ 6.959 at 194.10 to Smith’s .028/6.967/192.28 at Big O Tires NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I’m just really excited, really happy, and very proud to be part of the Harley-Davidson team,” Krawiec said. “These guys support me 100 percent and give me awesome equipment to make sure I get up and down the track. You know, I have to do my job, and I tried that this weekend. I knew I was going to have a tough round and a tough opponent against Matt Smith in the final. I really had to step up my game and I didn’t want to leave a whole lot of leeway.”

Smith advanced out of the semi when Hector Arana Sr.’s claims his engine “went sour” after a particularly awful .233 light. “I know I pre-staged, and I was waiting for him,” Arana Sr. said. “He pre-staged and wacked the throttle. I’m waiting for him to stage, and before I know it, I could hear him on the two-step. I thought I didn’t move, that I didn’t stage. Here I was staged, and I didn’t realize it. It caught me by surprise. I was way too late, but the motor did not respond anyway. As soon as I went into second gear, I could hear the motor going sour, so I pulled in the clutch. Nothing else I could do.

Hector Arana Sr. NHRA Bike Photos

“You know, it’s been a rough weekend. We were behind the 8-ball and came to Saturday not even in the show. It puts it in perspective how well you can do, and then at the snap of the fingers, everything can go totally opposite. To make it to the semifinals today, it was great.”

H1 took out Steve Johnson in the first round with a pass of 6.988 seconds at 191.19 mph to beat Johnson’s pass of 7.114 seconds at 188.81 mph. That put him against son Hector Arana Jr. in the second round, the third time this season father and son have raced each other in eliminations. Arana Sr. improved to 2-1 against his son after posting an elapsed time of 7.001 seconds at 192.19 mph as Arana Jr. slowed to a run of 9.247 seconds at 93.99 mph with a mechanical issue.

“The second win, it hurt more, even though it was a win,” Arana Sr. said. “I didn’t enjoy it because it was against my son. I kept trying to hear him: ‘How come he’s not coming? How come he’s not coming?’ I was just waiting for him. As soon as I was able to slow down enough that I could look back, I saw him, and I knew something had happened. I think it hurt me more than if he would’ve beat me.”

Hector Arana Jr. NHRA Bike Photos

“I think it was a freak thing,” Arana Jr. said. “I was in second gear and the bike finally came down onto the front wheel. It started tank-slapping, going from one side to the other. It caused me to plug out of second gear early into third, and it was still doing it, so I just pulled in the clutch. If I was racing somebody else, I might have stayed with it a little longer, depending on how it felt. I was holding on but the run was already screwed up, so I pulled in the clutch.”

Arana Sr.’s win enabled him to put some distance on Karen Stoffer in the battle for fourth place in the Pro Stock Motorcycle points standings. Arana Jr. is in third, 114 points ahead of Stoffer. “He needed that round win more than I did,” Arana Jr. said. “He needed to get more of a buffer. I’m quite a ways ahead of him, but they’re close to him.”

Stoffer beat LE Tonglet in the first round before falling to eventual runner-up Smith in the second round. “The thing that made it fun today was the close racing,” Stoffer said. “LE Tonglet is kind of our benchmark for racing. If you want to talk about parity, that’s it between LE and the GEICO bike. They’re pretty darn close from a Suzuki standpoint.”

Karen Stoffer. NHRA Bike Photos

Stoffer had a slight edge off the starting line and she needed every fraction of a second because Tonglet ran a quicker 7.016-second lap at 191.46 mph to Stoffer’s 7.021 at 190.92 mph. However it was her .007-second advantage at the starting line that gave her the holeshot victory. “It was just a fun, close race,” Stoffer said. “When you’re on the NHRA Mobile Vision in the first round because of a close race and you get on it in the second round again for a close race, you know you’ve been doing something right.”

It was another nail-biter against Smith in the second round. Stoffer was first off the line again but Smith’s bike had too much power. Smith ran a 6.973 second lap at 191.84 mph to Stoffer’s 6.994 at 192.14 mph. “I didn’t like coming out on the losing side of that round against Matt, but it was less than a thousandth of a second if you look at the numbers,” Stoffer said. “I think it was even tighter than the first race. Matt Smith’s got a good bike. For us to even get close to him was huge props to (crew chief) Gary Stoffer for figuring out that tune-up.”

Stoffer took a point of pride for leaving first in both her races. “That’s another good thing: We left first on both of them,” Stoffer said. “I’ve been working real hard on that. We’re up there on leaving first in the stats this year. We rode good, we tuned good and it was flat-out good racing.

“This track has always bit us; it always has those voodoo gremlins around, and we did experience that on Friday, but luckily we were able to turn it around and have a good day Saturday and a reasonably good day today.”

With his victory, Krawiec increased his series lead to 111 over Andrew Hines, who lost in the second round. Consider this one done. Eddie will have to be bound and gagged in Brownsburg not to win his third NHRA championship.

With a brand new car, Troy Coughlin raced from behind to claim his first NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by Pro Care Rx Series world championship on the strength of his second win of the season. The stage was set at for Coughlin to win the championship when Mike Castellana, points leader coming into the event, was defeated in the quarter finals.

Coughlin, who debuted his 2012 Corvette at the race, needed to win the event to have an opportunity to overcome Castellana, who was sitting on the sidelines. Coughlin defeated Danny Rowe in the semi-finals and then outran top qualifier Don Walsh in the finals, securing the championship by three points over Castellana.

“We approached it like lets go in and run as best as we can and not overpower the track and just take it one round at a time, just go up and make laps, get off the starting line on time and make some laps and turn the winlights on,” Coughlin said. “We came into this race with a brand new car, made a few laps and tested here last week in Vegas and it seemed to be OK, good enough to come to the race. All the guys back at Jegs have done a fabulous job with this thing and making my job really much simpler than in the past.”

Rob Flynn had Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s C&J Energy car set on “Stick & Kill”. NHRA Car Photos

Bob Vandergriff Jr. earned his second career Top Fuel victory with a run of 3.832 at 324.75 in his Rob Flynn-tuned C&J Energy Services dragster, defeating seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher in the final round. “We’ve had a great race car all weekend,” Vandergriff said. “It’s been a year since my last win, and we certainly didn’t think it would take that long to win again. Everybody said this next one comes easy. Well, I think they’re full of it because they don’t come easy. That’s just a great job by the guys. We made four great runs today. First round was a little tough. It got hot out there, but other than that, our car was pretty flawless.”

The Top Fuel championship landscape changed a bit when series points leader Antron Brown lost to Al-Anabi Racing’s Khalid al-Balooshi in round one after his Matco Tools dragster encountered engine issues midway down the track. FRAM/Prestone dragster driver Spencer Massey, who is currently third in points, was defeated by Vandergriff in the quarterfinals. With his runner-up finish Schumacher moved to second overall, 65 points back of leader Brown.

Ron Capps raced to his fifth Funny Car victory of the season and cut Jack Beckman’s series lead to four points with one race remaining in the season. Capps powered his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger to a performance of 4.070 seconds at 315.12 mph to hold off Beckman’s Schumacher Electric Charger in a dramatic final round. Capps also defeated Tony Pedregon, top qualifier Cruz Pedregon and Johnny Gray in earlier rounds to claim his 38th career victory and move ever closer to earning that elusive first world championship title. The veteran driver has finished second three times in his career.

“Qualifying was tough,” Capps said. “Rahn Tobler, our crew chief, was like, ‘OK, we’re alright. We’re alright. We’re sneaking up on it. We’re just trying to get down the track,’ until today. Oh man, he unleashed that 4.09 in one of the biggest rounds of the year because we didn’t have lane choice. Cruz Pedregon went 4.06 first round. We were taking a pistol to a gunfight. I don’t think we were very comfortable that we could go up there and run that in that right lane. To throw down that 4.09 like he did was unbelievable, and then we come back with a 4.08 and 4.07. It’s a fun car to go to Pomona with and actually have a shot at a championship.”

In Pro Stock, Allen Johnson continued his domination, winning his sixth event of the season and 15th of his career with a performance of 6.637 at 208.17 in his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger to outrun Vincent Nobile in the final round. With the win, he increased his Countdown to the Championship points lead to 126 over defending champ Jason Line.

“The Mopar Dodge Avenger has just been so consistent,” Johnson said. “Consistency is what we’ve preached all year, and today, how was that for consistency with four 6.63s in the heat of the day? The crew is doing an awesome job, and to cushion that point lead there to where we feel a little bit more comfortable at Pomona is great.”

GK Motorsports driver Erica Enders was defeated in round two by eventual runner-up Nobile and his Mountain View Tire team. With the loss, she is mathematically out of title contention.

The NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship season-finale, the Auto Club NHRA Finals at historic Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, will be held Nov. 8-11 in Southern California.

With Reading Win, Krawiec Looks to Title

Eddie Krawiec has little blocking his way to championship #3. NHRA Bike Photos

Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson rider Eddie Krawiec won the rain-delayed final elimination round from Reading with a run of 6.966 at 194.13, defeating redlighting teammate Andrew Hines in the process to earn his eighth win of the 2012 season. With the win, he increases his championship points lead to 51 over Hines. Krawiec also scored the No.1 qualifying position for the fifth time this season, 14th of his career with a time of 6.902 at 195.11.

Andrew Hines is simply not the Prostar-tested racer that Krawiec is. NHRA Bike Photos

“Man, to win today was huge,” Krawiec said. “I sort of had mixed emotions when we didn’t have the chance to run the final in Reading. I thought I had a great opportunity then. But after unloading my bike here, we still had a fast motorcycle. We made some good laps this weekend and I feel I have a very consistent bike.”

Hector Arana Jr, who currently sits third in the points, qualified second with a time of 6.912 at 194.41 on his Lucas Oil Buell while father, Hector Arana Sr., landed seventh on the ladder with a 6.989 pass at 192.60. Hines qualified fourth with a run of 6.963 at 194.07 on his Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson.

But if anybody needs a curse lifted off of a haunted race track on this weekend before Halloween, it’s Karen Stoffer. “This race track has always had this voodoo curse and gremlins,” Stoffer said. “I don’t know if the goblins come out early for us or not, but every single year, there’s been some issue for us. Starting with the (transporter) door falling on me in 2005, my dad having a heart attack here in 2006, it just goes on and on.”

Ouch! Those are some pretty bad things to have happen at the race track. Stoffer was seriously injured in that door accident, and I don’t walk anywhere near one of those without thinking of it. This time, it was a cable to one of the four carburetors on her Suzuki engine that didn’t disengage, causing her to abort her first qualifying attempt on Friday. But Stoffer’s GEICO Suzuki team fought through the gremlins to qualify No. 11.

“You certainly don’t want to do anything that will break the engine, so we shut it off and came back,” Stoffer said. “Had we known, we probably could’ve whacked the throttle, and it would’ve come back in to place. Or I could’ve gone up to the line and held it wide open, it may have worked. But you just don’t know those things.”

The engine sounded off, so the team shut the bike down. The fix was easy, and crew chief Gary Stoffer was able to get it back out for the second session. “It was one of those little goblins that ran in my motor and pulled that little cable out of its normal place,” Karen said. “That’s what happens here at this race. It’s a bummer because you need every single run to get the tune-up. It’s very, very dry here, and you need every run to get the fuel right to get the tune-up right. We were down a run, but Gary turned it around pretty quick.”

Stoffer got down the track with a run of 7.041 seconds at 190.06 mph in less than ideal conditions Friday, but she improved to 6.996 seconds at 190.89 mph in Q3. She’ll face No. 6 qualifier L.E. Tonglet in a battle of Suzukis in the first round Sunday. Tonglet’s top lap was 6.973 seconds at 192.52 mph.

“It will definitely be a good race,” Stoffer said. “Bummer we have to race a Suzuki in the first round, but at least we’re matched up. We’ve got a shot against each other.”

Hector Arana Jr. NHRA Bike Photos

Hector Arana Jr. hopes to parlay his number 2 into a number 1. H2 qualified second in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a lap of 6.912 seconds at 194.41 mph to extend his streak of qualifying fourth or better to 20 consecutive races. That matches the streak of his dad as the longest in the class.

But Arana Jr. is looking to hoist the trophy as the race winner on Sunday. “I always go into Sunday believing that I have a shot to win the race,” Arana Jr. said. “If I didn’t believe I have a shot at winning the race, why am I racing? I always go up there confident I can win. I’ll do my best as far as riding the bike and try to make the best tuneup calls that we can. Hopefully, they don’t turn it up too much against me, and maybe I can surprise them and get a win.”

Not only has Arana Jr.’s bike been fast this weekend, but it’s been consistent. He was second-fastest in three of the four qualifying sessions and was third in Q4. He’ll square off against Redell Harris in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations after Harris qualified No. 15 with a best pass of 7.068 seconds at 189.23 mph. “It’s been really consistent, and that’s been good,” Arana Jr. said. “It’s running pretty good, considering the conditions out here. We’ll see what happens on Sunday.”

But before turning his attention to Sunday, Arana Jr. and his team had some fun during the final qualifying session on Saturday. In what has become tradition in Vegas, many Pro Stock Motorcycle crew members came to Q4 in Halloween costumes. Arana Jr. was accompanied to the staging lanes by crewman Juan Mata, who was dressed as a Playboy bunny. “The most important thing in coming out here and running is having fun, and that’s what we did,” Arana Jr. said. “We had fun and put a show on for the crowd. Hopefully, everybody loved it. It was fun.”

Hector Arana Sr. NHRA Bike Photos

Instead of having fun, Hector Sr. was scratching his head after Friday’s two qualifying sessions at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Then H1 rolled the dice Saturday, and they came up sevens. The veteran Pro Stock Motorcycle rider qualified No. 7 for the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals with a run of 6.989 seconds at 191.57 mph Saturday after he overcame two unusually subpar runs on Friday.

Now, he turns his attention to eliminations, where he’ll face No. 10 qualifier Steve Johnson. Johnson’s best lap was 6.994 at 190.22 mph. “I know everything is there,” Arana Sr. said. “Now, I know which direction to go and be able to tune it right and pick up the pace.”

Arana Sr. came into Vegas having qualified in the top four in 20 consecutive races. But he struggled getting the Lucas Oil Buell to launch on Friday and was only 15th-fastest after the first day. “It’s amazing how you could be running good, and, suddenly, with a flip of the finger, you can just lose your combination,” Arana Sr. said. “I struggled here a little bit, and I finally got really aggressive and made a big move. I went totally the opposite direction. I saw something that was what I wanted. Now I can start backing up and get to where I was.”

Arana Sr. wasn’t sure what went wrong on Friday, but he’s confident at improving on Sunday. “Maybe that I had a streak of so long qualifying in the top four – now I don’t,” Arana Sr. said. “It’s amazing. We have notes, we know everything was there, but it didn’t repeat. Sometimes, when we get parts, they’re never the same. You’ve got to find what it wants, find the balance, and it takes a couple runs.”

Don Walsh. NHRA Car Photos

Don Walsh was able to retain fifth consecutive No. 1 qualifying position of the season during the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by ProCare Rx event during the 12th annual Big O Tires NHRA Nationals. Walsh was able to best Clint Satterfield in the first round of eliminations held on Saturday and will face Ray Commisso when racing resumes on Sunday.

Series points leader Mike Castellana made it through to the second round of eliminations when he defeated Jay Payne on Saturday. Castellana will be seeking his first career NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by Pro Care Rx championship on Sunday when he faces third in points racer, Troy Coughlin.

Rickie Smith, who is second in points, will face Leah Pruett in the other quarter-final matchup. Danny Rowe will face Pete Farber in the remaining quarter-final race.

Tony Schumacher claimed the No. 1 qualifying position in Top Fuel. Schumacher powered his U.S. Army dragster to a leading performance of 3.773 seconds at 324.20 mph to earn his fourth No. 1 qualifying position of the season, bringing his career total to 71. In doing so, he keeps his Countdown to the Championship hopes alive in his bid to win his eighth world championship, heading into Sunday’s 11 a.m. eliminations which will be aired on ESPN2HD.

“Side-by-side racing is really what it’s become,” Schumacher said. “There was a time when one car was a tenth of a second faster than everybody else, and he just didn’t have to make a mistake and he would win. But now it’s incredibly close. It’s going to be a battle, and I’m glad we all got today in to see where the conditions are going to be. How many cars ran 3.80s? It was one after another after another, and there were even a couple 3.7s. It’s great. The track is prepared good, and it’s getting better every day, and we’re going to have some fantastic racing.”

The battle atop the Top Fuel points standings remains hot as leader Antron Brown and his Matco Tools team qualified 13th with a run of 3.869 at 313.88 while Spencer Massey, who currently sits second in points, landed second with a time of 3.776 at 323.43. Brown will face rookie driver and the most recent winner on the circuit, Khalid alBalooshi, in the first round of Sunday’s 11 a.m. eliminations.

Cruz Pedregon paced the Funny Car class with a 4.066 at 312.50 in his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry to earn his fifth No.1 of the season, 50th in his career. Pedregon is currently fifth in the Countdown to the Championship point standings.

“To be honest with you, the conditions came to us,” Pedregon said. “Had we run when we were supposed to, I think the track wouldn’t have held that, but hey, we took advantage of it, as did a couple of cars. I think when I pulled into the water box we were fourth or fifth. It’s a credit to our team. It’s the fifth No. 1 of the year for our Snap-on Toyota, and man is it a great car. It’s one of the best cars I’ve driven in my 20-year Funny Car career. But we’ve got a goose egg in the win column, so we’ve got to enjoy this, but at the end of the day, we’re going to go out there tomorrow and see if we can’t get that win.”

Championship points leader Jack Beckman was seventh at the end of qualifying with a 4.091 pass at 309.06, while Ron Capps, who is currently second in points, landed eighth with a pass of 4.098 at 308.78 in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger. Mike Neff, the most recent winner who is third in points, qualified second and will face Jeff Arend in round one of eliminations.

In Pro Stock, defending world champ Jason Line led Pro Stock with a track record performance of 6.590 at 209.72 in his Summit Racing Chevrolet Camaro to earn his eighth No. 1 qualifying position of the season, 32nd of his career. He will face Shane Gray in the first round of eliminations.

“My mind-set is easy. Just win,” said Line, currently second in the points standings. “Obviously, Greg’s (Anderson) mind-set is a little bit different than mine. He’s trying to help me win, which is a great thing. You can say that it’s unorthodox because it hasn’t been done before. But that’s why we have teammates. Our philosophy has never been to try to race each other and dive. That’s been done in the past and nobody likes that. That’s not real racing.”

Points leader Allen Johnson and his Team Mopar/J & J Racing Dodge Avenger team qualified second with a time of 6.600 at 209.07 and will face Deric Kramer in round one. Erica Enders, who is currently third in the points standings, qualified fourth with a run of 6.626 at 208.71 in her GK Motorsports Chevy Cobalt

Earlier: Showdown at The Strip

As NHRA teams prepare for the Big O Tires Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, world championship titles are on the line in all classes at the next to last playoff race in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship.

As we know all too well, it has been the Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines show all season long in Pro Stock Motorcycle. The Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines duo has racked up 12 victories and seven No. 1 qualifying positions on their rules-advantaged Harley-Davidsons. Heading to Las Vegas, Hines sits 17 points behind Krawiec. “I was the runner-up there last year to Eddie and then went on to Pomona and was able to win the final against Eddie there,” Hines said. “We’re still riding that wave from this time last year, and each one of us needs to do everything we can to try and take out the other guy.”

Andrew Hines. NHRA Bike Photos

The points leader may change pending the result of the rain-delayed Reading final round, which will be contested between the two riders during the final qualifying session on Saturday. With a 40-point swing on the table, the winner of that round will take the series points lead into Sunday’s eliminations at Las Vegas. “It’s going to be some serious competition,” Hines said. “Eddie mentioned last week when we were on our radio show that the pit area is probably going to be a little quiet come time between Q3 and Q4 in Vegas, and odds are that’s going to be the case.”

Defending world champ Krawiec has led the points since Atlanta back in early May and hopes to continue his momentum by taking home the Wally for the second year in a row in Las Vegas and possibly a third championship down the road at Pomona. “We’re looking forward to it,” Krawiec said. “I am thinking these last two races are going to be really interesting, and it would be awesome to be in two more all Harley-Davidson finals.”

Awesome for who? Criticism of the NHRA’s cozy relationship with The Motor Company is mounting far and wide, and even the rules change to level the playing field isn’t quieting the crowd. Competition Plus has now run two editorials calling for Vance & Hines/Harley equipment be made available to anyone with a checkbook. Rarely does the class garner this much attention for anything positive.

Speaking of checkbooks, the Aranas seem to get their hands on Lucas Oil’s every now and then. But Hector Arana Sr. says he won’t spend much time in the casinos on the Strip this weekend. “I already gamble with just going down the race track,” H1 said. “I might gamble a little bit, but I’m not a big gambler. I will put some money in a slot, pull the lever and see what happens. Then I’ll head to the track.”

The veteran rider returns to action at Vegas after two weekends off, but for the Arana team, the time at home was shorter than that, more like a week-and-a-half. “Like always…too much to do and not enough time to do it. We started servicing and doing the routine maintenance when we noticed another bad crankshaft. So we had to hustle, get a crankshaft and get that engine fixed.”

Arana Sr. has his eyes on getting a Wally before the season is out. “We can’t win the championship, so we’re going to stay focused and try to do the best that we can so we can get a win and finish three and four (in points),” Arana Sr. said about himself and his boy Hector Jr. “It would be awesome to get a win. All this work, it would be gratifying to win. It gives you fuel to go back at it and work. It’s rewarding. We need a win.”

H2 feels the same way. “I really, really, really want to win a race this year,” Arana Jr. said. “I know the championship’s out of the picture now, but I at least want to get a Wally out of 2012.”

Arana Jr. is third in the points standings, and he’s 139 points out of the lead with two races remaining. Arana Jr. hasn’t given up on winning the title, though he knows that would be a tall order. “I’m going to go all out, Hail Mary,” Arana Jr. said. “If I can get second place, that’s fine. But I want to do the best I can do, and hopefully get a Wally, if not two. It’s possible to get two more.”

Arana Jr., who won three times in 2011, spent the time since the most recent race in Reading, Pa., preparing for Vegas and Pomona, the season-finale. “We went over the bike real well, checked everything,” said Arana Jr., who has qualified fourth or better 19 races in a row. “We did a good inspection on the bike, the frame, the wheels, the brakes, little things like that that when you’re on that six-week stretch gets overlooked. And we did routine maintenance on the motor. We were trying to recuperate, get focused and get ready for these two races.”

One thing won’t do this weekend is spend too much time in the Vegas casinos. Arana Jr. spent time with girlfriend Nicole Nobile and her brother Vincent in Vegas during the first NHRA race at The Strip earlier this year, as the bikes weren’t racing that weekend. It didn’t go so well in Glitter Gulch. “I’m already $100 down because the casinos got me back in the spring,” Arana Jr. said. “That’s $100 too much. I’m just a college kid.”

Also not gambling is Karen Stoffer, which makes me wonder why is it such a theme of these Gieger Media press releases? Stoffer and the Aranas are all Geiger clients, and each release makes a point of saying they WON’T be gambling! Yawn…. “The funny thing is, I was much more into it when I lived in California,” Stoffer said. “But when I moved to Nevada, it definitely went by the wayside. We don’t do it much. We have guests or friends come up and gamble, but I’m not really much of a gambler.”

Stoffer hopes she can shake the home-track blues that have plagued her at Las Vegas. “There’s always been little bugs for us here at this track,” Stoffer said. “Sometimes people say, ‘It’s because you have a lot of people around,’ but that’s usually not the case. I consider all my Division 7 tracks – and there’s quite a few of them on the circuit – home tracks. That’s where we’ve been a lot, and that’s where a lot of family goes to. I’ve done well at them – except for this one. This is just the ‘bug’ track. Since they built the new track, we haven’t done that well here. It’s time to turn that around.”

Stoffer is two races removed from a final-round appearance at Dallas, and she hopes to cement her position in the top five in points at Vegas. She’s won at least one round in all but two races in 2012 and continues to be the top Suzuki rider in the class.

Scotty Pollacheck. NHRA Bike Photos

After falling from the No. 5 spot to No. 7 in the Countdown, Sovereign-Star Racing driver Scotty Pollacheck is looking for consistent runs and more horsepower to gain the advantage on his fellow championship contenders. “For us, one of the biggest goals and challenges is to close the gap between our team and the top four,” Pollacheck said. “We are continually trying to get a little faster and catch up with those guys. We know we may not necessarily become the fastest out there, but keeping up with the top four or five would be ideal at this point.”

At The Strip, all teams will have to battle weather conditions that are not necessarily ideal for drag racing. “We won’t make as much power as normal,” Sovereign-Star team co-owner George Bryce said. “The trouble with Vegas is that it’s ‘halfway to Denver’ as far as the altitude. The barometer is really low which means that not much air goes into the engine and the performance will be down. I think we were about 50 horsepower down in Denver, and we expect to be about 20 down in Vegas. The good news, though, is that it’s the same for everyone, so you probably won’t see any records set this weekend other than specific Vegas track records.”

John Hall. NHRA Bike Photos

As rookies to the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series this year, both Sovereign-Star racers Pollacheck and John Hall have been motivated by their own personal goals as well as those of the team to keep them going strong throughout the long season. “Even though there are only two races left in the season, I think we’re both still ready to just get out there and compete,” Hall said. “Everything is so new to me that it’s hard to get burnt out because I’m always seeing new things and going new places. This weekend I just want to stay focused and consistent and go rounds.”

For Pollacheck, this western swing of the circuit presents more of a hometown feel for this California native and Oregon resident. “I’m really excited about the last two races because those are two of my favorites,” said Pollacheck. “Plus they’re both closer to home. I have lots of friends coming to Vegas, so it’ll be nice to have sort of a Scotty Pollacheck cheering section. I’m still upbeat and excited about this season, and I want to finish the year off strong with those last two races.”

Bryce and his Sovereign-Star Racing crew only have two more opportunities to show the results of the hard work, money and man-hours that went into this season. “All year, we’ve been getting better and better, and we’re just about to run out of time to show what we can do. So, it would be great to do our very best at end of the year,” Bryce said. “We want to go as fast as we can and continue to improve our performance compared to the field. Our No. 1 goal is to finish as high as we can in the points standings.”

Making a big change is White Alligator Racing’s Jerry Savoie, who parted ways with tuner Mark Peiser and moved all his equipment out of their Brownsburg shop. Savoie’s Buell went to Matt Smith’s shop in North Carolina and is pitted under Smith’s canopy this weekend in Vegas.

Mike Castellana. NHRA Car Photos

Topping the Pro Mod points standings heading into Vegas are series leader Mike Castellana, second-place Rickie Smith and surging Troy Coughlin, each looking for his first season crown.

Castellana took the lead with his late-model Camaro after the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus in Indianapolis and built on that margin at the following two races. He and his Awesome Al-Anabi team have recorded one win, two runner-up finishes and three No. 1 qualifying positions this season. The car ran well at the start of the season, but that doesn’t mean this campaign hasn’t been without adversity.

“It started out very consistent for us, and as the summer went along, it has been a real hot season, the tracks have been hot, and we’ve struggled a little bit when the tracks got hot,” Castellana said. “Now this time of the year, the weather and the track conditions have become more favorable with what we have been consistent with, so we feel pretty confident.”

Rickie Smith. NHRA Car Photos

Smith is in second with two wins, including his first NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by ProCare Rx victory, at the season-opener in Gainesville, and his first No. 1 qualifying position, which he secured in Bristol, Tenn. This accomplished racer, who is also an NHRA Pro Stock winner and has earned exhibition NHRA Pro Mod victories, will rely heavily on experience at the final event of the year.

“I have been through this before, years ago, when it was down to one or two races,” Smith said. “It is always a good deal when it comes down to the end and you still have a chance at the championship.”

Launching himself into title contention on the strength of his first win in the series at the most recent event in St. Louis, Coughlin sits third, just 42 points out of the lead. After two runner-up finishes this season, breaking through for his first Wally trophy in the series was a special day for him.

“It’s always great to win,” said Coughlin, driver of the turbocharged ’68 Chevy Camaro. “It’s the reward for the dedication, commitment and focus your team makes every week on and off the track. Everything is coming down to the wire, and that’s exciting for the fans. It’s a good time to be performing well on the track because it’s something very tangible your competitors see with their own eyes. If you are running well, some teams will push a little harder against you and make mistakes.”

For all the racers going into the final event of the season, the championship battle can make for a stressful weekend. The slightest miscue could dash dreams. But the competition also can be rewarding and provides an exciting weekend for the racers and the fans. “When you are battling it out and going back and forth and it is tight racing changing points leads, who’s catching up and who’s leading it, it makes it really fun,” said Castellana. “You just take it round by round and concentrate each round.”

Added Coughlin, “You have to look at it as being fun. Because at the end of the day, this is the position you want to be in as a team, to have a shot at winning a championship. It is very easy to get wrapped up into looking at the past and find errors that were made that could have turned on more win lights throughout the season. The past is the past, and as a team, you need to look forward because that’s what you have control over.”

Antron Brown. NHRA Car Photos

Antron Brown has taken his Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster to the winner’s circle six times thus far in 2012 while teammate Spencer Massey and his FRAM/Prestone team have grabbed four Wally trophies. They currently sit one and two in the championship standings as Brown holds a 104-point lead. Tony Schumacher, Shawn Langdon and Brandon Bernstein are all still mathematically alive and have a shot at winning the title.

“We’re basically going to the last two races keeping our head down, and we want to stay on the offensive side, keep attacking,” Brown said. “We have got to keep attacking if we want to have the hopes to actually bring this championship home.”

Jack Beckman. NHRA Car Photos

In Funny Car, Jack Beckman took over the points lead following his record-setting performance at Reading. Ron Capps fell to second in the standings, but is only 23 points out of the lead while third place contender Mike Neff looks to continue his momentum following his win in Reading. He is 54 points back of Beckman in the third place.

“With only eight rounds left and in a sport where when you lose you don’t get those next few rounds, if somebody goes out second round at Vegas, they lose out on three rounds,” Beckman said.  “We want to be able to contest all eight rounds to have a legitimate shot for the championship, so you can’t have any screw ups, mechanical issues or tune-up question marks.”

With five wins and 10 No. 1 qualifying positions in Pro Stock Car, Allen Johnson and his Team Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Avenger team have been on a hot streak since the start of the Countdown playoffs. He also has been atop the points standings since the start of the Western Swing in Denver, and now has an 82-point lead over second place Jason Line and a 125-point lead over third place Erica Enders going into Las Vegas.

Despite having a four round lead over Line with eight rounds of racing remaining, Johnson is approaching this event as if that points lead doesn’t exist.

“You know, I’m looking at it as there’s no lead at all, the way Jason and Erica both are running,” Johnson said. “I’m taking it one round at a time qualifying and racing, just trying to get every single point I can get, as they are, I’m sure.  But I think it’s just like I heard Antron say, you go out there and stub your toe first round and those guys can leave Vegas ahead of you. I’m looking at it as I’ve got to go to the semis at least to win this thing, both races.”

Defending world champ Line, driver of the Summit Racing Equipment Chevy Camaro, has had a successful season so far, racing to two victories and seven No. 1 qualifying positions. He started off on the right foot in the Countdown playoffs with a win at Charlotte and sits second in the standings. Line feels there is still a chance to chase down Johnson for the championship.

“Obviously with the Countdown format, the playoff style format, it’s all about peaking at the right time,” Line said. “We still haven’t quite hit our peak yet, but I don’t think it’s too late.  We’re definitely getting faster each week, and right now we’ve got a pretty bad, fast Camaro.  Definitely it’s not over yet.  We’re definitely going to give Allen a tough time the next couple weeks.”

GK Motorsports driver Enders has been tearing up the track after earning her first career victory at Seattle. She now has a total of four victories and two No. 1 qualifying positions on the season. Enders will try to keep making things happen in Las Vegas.

“It’s always a challenge to be hot, but we’ve certainly had some momentum the past few races,” Enders said. “You know, unfortunately we started off on the wrong foot in Charlotte, and it’s been hard to catch up.  But my guys have been doing a great job, and we’ve got a really fast Cobalt.  We’ve just got to continue to carry the momentum.  We’re not out yet.”

SCHEDULE: Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for noon and 3 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 26, and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 27. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 4 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Oct. 28 and will be preceded by one hour of coverage at 1:30 a.m. (ET). ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise three-hours of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. (ET), also on Sunday, Oct. 28.