Coughlin won championships in season-long points battles in 2000 (just his third year in Pro Stock) and 2002. He then surprised everyone by leaving the pro ranks in 2006, only to return the next year, the first year of the still-controversial playoff format, and win his third Pro Stock title.
"People wondered why I would just walk away like that, but for me, it was stepping away from the rigors of Pro Stock – not the whole sport," he says. "I still raced, just not in Pro Stock. NHRA isn't 100 percent of my life, but at times it feels is. Every now and then, you just need a little rewind. I focused on big-money bracket racing that year, and I'll put my '06 season up against any year of my career."
Coughlin did it again in 2011, only to return with Dodge power in 2012 and reach the final of his first race back. "After the '10 season, we'd had a great couple of years – won two championships, challenged for a couple more, and even were favored in one of the ones we didn't win. It was just time, and I honestly had no definite plan for an immediate return."
With a switch to Roy Johnson power for 2013, Coughlin is back bigger than ever, poised to win the championship as the races dwindle and the pressure to perform increases exponentially. "There's more pressure now," he says. "Definitely. There's just more at stake. Hey, it's the playoffs. You're not going for one of 10 spots over 18 races. You're going for number one over just six races. And now there's only three left. It's darn near sudden death. That's great for the fans, which is what this is really all about, but for the engine staff, the at-the-track team, and the drivers, it really adds a lot of pressure."
That's where Coughlin has, probably more than anyone in all of Pro Stock, thrived. In the first year of the Countdown, 2007, he came from behind to win the championship. The next year? Won it again.
"That 2007 championship is something I'll never forget," he says. "I've been racing for a long time, and Sunday of the 2007 Finals was the most memorable single day of my entire career. It was amazing. I got goose bumps thinking about it just now. Going into that day, I was third, behind Dave Connolly and Greg Anderson. Connolly had won five races in a row that year – the longest streak since Bob Glidden in the '70s. Greg had just won four championships in a row. First round, the whole thing was unfolding right in front of me. Connolly red-lighted, then Greg got beat on a holeshot, and all the cards were on the table. It was all right there.
"I still remember letting the clutch out in the first round and knowing I cut a good light, and just praying nothing would break. Second gear, third gear, fourth gear, fifth gear – they all seemed to take forever, and I was just praying nothing would break. Then it was one more round for the championship, and it was the same thing: a great light, everything worked perfectly, and we won the championship. Then we won the whole race, too. We did it then, so we can do it again this year."
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