It was a relatively unusual National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) race day occurrence not to see a HEMI® engine powered Dodge vehicle advance to a final elimination round, but while Mopar® drivers in both Funny Car and Pro Stock classes were disappointed by early exits at the 32nd annual NHRA Nationals near Phoenix, there was a lot of optimism about the early season progress being made by their teams in their very competitive fields.
Coming off a win in the season opening Winternationals event, Don Schumacher Racing (DSR) driver Ron Capps earned the No. 1 qualifier position for Sunday’s eliminations at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park with his tenth sub 4-second pass of the season and a track record time of 3.925 seconds. His Dodge Charger R/T posted another stellar run in the first round of eliminations with a 3.965 second pass at 319.29 miles per hour to beat Jeff Diehl.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned in the quarterfinals, when Capps’ day went up in tire smoke halfway through the run against competitor Tim Wilkerson, who had similar issues in his own lane but regained control for the round win.
“We were a little more aggressive than what the track temperature and conditions would hold,” said Capps of his loss to eventual Funny Car title winner Wilkerson. “We just had such a great race car, so consistent. Even in the heat on Saturday we felt comfortable going down the track but it lost some grip today, enough to where it slowed everybody down, we just didn’t back ours down enough.”
Despite the early exit, Capps retains his lead in the Funny Car class points standings.
Another positive is that this weekend marks only the second time in 26 national events that a DSR Dodge Charger R/T hasn’t advanced to the final round of eliminations since the new Mopar body made its debut at the Winternationals in 2015.
Even Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger R/T, who so far this season has endured two opening round losses, sees positive gains from the work his crew put in this weekend to help diminish the disappointment.
“I think that we are so close to getting this turned around and going down the racetrack and getting our consistency back,” said Hagan who lost to DSR teammate Tommy Johnson Jr. “We tried some new things at the beginning and it just wasn’t working. We’ve just been having some bad luck and it’s unfortunate. (Crew Chief) Dickie (Venables) basically had one run to work off of this weekend. You just can’t go into race day like that. You need three or four good runs to go into Sunday and feel confident.
Both DSR teammates Jack Beckman and Tommy Johnson Jr. also fell in the second round of eliminations to John Force and Courtney Force respectively.
HEMI engine powered factory hot rods didn’t fare much better in Pro Stock eliminations as Jeg Coughlin Jr. was the only Elite Motorsports Mopar to advance out of the first round. However, the lessons learned this weekend have the Magneti Marelli Offered by Mopar Dodge Dart driver feeling positive regardless of the results as teams adapt to changes in the class.
“We’ll gather everything together and everything is in one piece, which is extremely exciting,” Coughlin said. “I know the Elite Performance guys and the SRT engineers are joined at the hip, and that’s exciting, too. We’re really looking to improve the performance of this HEMI engine and I feel like we’ve got some great opportunities to do so.”
Competing in her 200th career Pro Stock event, Erica Ender’s was in great race day form for her first round matchup against Drew Skillman, posting a .005-second reaction time off the starting line. However, it wasn’t quite enough of an advantage to propel her Mopar Performance Dodge Dart to the finish first with a 6.705 second/207.53 mph pass to her opponent’s 6.633/208.33. It was her first opening round loss since Norwalk in 2015.
After qualifying fourth, Allen Johnson’s Marathon Petroleum Dodge Dart GT fell in the first round after its 6.711-second /206.16 mph pass was edged by Deric Kramer’s run at 6.747/206.95. Kramer’s Dodge Dart lost its quarterfinal battle to Chris McGaha. HEMI engine powered ride of V. Gaines fell to No. 1 qualifier Bo Butner in the opening round.
The next stop on the 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season schedule is the NHRA Gatornationals at Auto Plus Raceway in Gainesville, Florida, scheduled for March 17-20. New television partner FOX Sports will provide coverage of the event on FS1 with a one hour qualifying show on Friday, March 18 at 9 p.m. (ET) and a final qualifying broadcast on March 19 at 6:30 p.m. (ET). A three hour eliminations broadcast, including live finals, is scheduled for Sunday, March 20 starting at 1 p.m. ET on FS1.