Pro Stock in so ridiculously competitive – the fastest qualifier in 16-car fields regularly is just five- or six-hundredths from the slowest – that truly anybody can win. Such tight fields only magnify the importance of drivers' ability, which, for four-time world champ Jeg Coughlin, has always been a huge advantage.
As the 24-race NHRA season speeds to its conclusion, Coughlin is perfectly positioned for a fifth Pro Stock championship, 10 points out of the lead with three races to go, starting with this weekend's Auto-Plus Nationals in Reading, Pa. It's already been another solid season, with multiple event titles and a half-dozen final-round appearances, but for Coughlin, driver of the Jegs.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger, anything short a championship is an off year.
"When the season began, our goal was to be in the top three when the regular season ended and the playoffs started," says Coughlin, who won the first race of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs to take over the points lead. "Now that the Countdown is here, it's time for drivers to elevate their game and drive mistake-free. I've had a really, really good car all year and I'd say I've driven … OK."
Coughlin, who probably has won more rounds on holeshots than any driver in the 44-year history of Pro Stock – nearly 100 and counting – has been on the wrong end of a few holeshots this year. At the two races since his Charlotte score, for possibly the first time in his career, he was ousted at consecutive by slower cars. In Dallas, after going undefeated through the first six rounds of the Countdown – all four rounds in Charlotte and the first round and quarterfinals in Dallas – he lost on a semifinal holeshot to Shane Gray, 6.66 seconds to his quicker 6.62. Last weekend in St. Louis, his otherwise fine .039 reaction time and 6.539 wasn't enough against Greg Anderson, who nipped him with a 6.571. Anderson would have lost with anything slower than a telepathic .007 reaction time, but he had a .005 to ace out Coughlin by the invisible margin of two-thousandths of a second.
"That one hurt even more than the one in Dallas because it was so close," Coughlin says. "Sometimes, the stats can be a little deceiving and you're really just splitting hairs, but those are the numbers that came up. I ran quicker and didn't win, so shame on me. It's a holeshot, and it hurt."
Don't look for it to happen again. And, fortunately for Coughlin, he's barely out of the lead – closer, actually, than he was three weeks ago when the Countdown got under way. He leads Dodge's Pro Stock brigade, which also includes reigning world champion Allen Johnson and young phenom Vince Nobile, each of whom as won at least three races already this year. Coughlin is second in the standings, just 10 points behind leader Mike Edwards. A.J. is sixth but easily within striking distance, and Nobile, who won all three of the West Coast races – Pomona, Sonoma, and Seattle – is eighth.
Coughlin won Topeka and Chicago and was runner-up in Pomona, Gainesville, Sonoma, and Seattle. "We got to a lot of finals," says Coughlin, who ranks fourth all-time in both career Pro Stock finals (92) and wins (55). "The only downside is that we came away with only two wins. Some of those losses were self-inflicted, and losing more finals than I win is not characteristic of the career I've had."