This weekend at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., across the street from Lowe's Motor Speedway, we'll be racing our second event in the Charlotte area. It is also the first race of our Countdown to 1 playoffs, which is NHRA drag racing's “Chase.”
Our NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Funny Car team has been great all year long. We won the most races of anyone in the Funny Car class, and it's interesting now because you watch the Chase with the NASCAR guys and several races ago Mark Martin was fighting just to get into it and now that he's into it he's at the top of the list with all his wins.
When the NHRA Countdown came into effect it was tough to swallow for a lot of the “old school” fans, much like the NASCAR fans when they added the Chase. It was tough to adjust to, but it's brought a lot of excitement to the sport. NHRA also announced that, besides the fact that the leader going into the Countdown earns a bonus 20 points, a new qualifying points system will begin for the Countdown this weekend, where the top three qualifiers in each of our four rounds will earn three, two and one points, respectively. If someone is No. 1 in each round, he/she could earn an additional 12 points for the weekend, on top of the regular points.
Generally, depending on the weather, we have four runs of qualifying every weekend, and everyone has a chance to make up over what is half of a round of competition points-wise (20 points for every eliminations round win) just in qualifying. I think is a great new addition to the Countdown.
Let's face it, the first year of the Countdown I was the points leader by triple digits when the Countdown started and then we lost the points lead. Had we not had the Countdown, there was a very good chance that I would have been a world champion.
But we all knew what it was going to be like going into the Countdown the first year. This year's going to be exciting, especially with NHRA adding the chance to make up three points per qualifying run.
I think NHRA wanted to make sure all the teams were trying their best to make the best runs for the fans in qualifying, because a lot of teams, if not all of them, once they were qualified decently in the show on Friday night's good session, tended to test things on Saturday because usually the conditions you have on Saturday are much like they are on Sunday on race day as far as the weather and track temperatures go.
That being said, it was the perfect opportunity to try something. Well, now, the chance to be the quickest car, which excites me as driver, and earn those points changes everything. My crew chief on the NAPA charger Ed “Ace” McCulloch is very driven, especially in conditions that are tough, hot, and the sun is out on the track. Those challenges result in a crew chief really having to figure out a way to get the car down the track.
Another thing NHRA did, which is a long time coming, is to offer the 20-point bonus for resetting the national elapsed-time record racing to 1000 feet. It's going to be tough because what they did was go back to the quickest run to 1000 feet in Funny Car, and that was our 4.02-second run in Phoenix this year. They had not recognized national records racing to 1000 feet before, but now they will, and we are the current national record holder with the NAPA Charger. The NHRA will not reward us with the 20 bonus points retroactively, unfortunately, and now that time is a bulls-eye for all the other teams.
But, you have to remember, in order to break that national record and claim the 20 points which, ironically, is one round of competition's worth of points, you have to break the 4.02 and you have to make another run within one percent of that during the weekend to back up the record.
So, it's not like a team just has to go run quicker than 4.02, they have to be able to back it up in the same race.
I think we're going to see where that is going to pose some interesting strategies for the crew chiefs when the Countdown gets down to the end of the year, because if you're going to go for the record you're going to risk going over the edge and smoking the tires. I think that's going to cause a lot of teams to change their focus – and that just might be a bigger story as far as the Countdown goes than a lot of people think.
A lot of teams are looking at it as a way that they can lose those bonus points to someone else. I'm looking at it the other way around. This is going to be a way that we can earn them. If you go into each qualifying run and think you're going to lose three points to somebody else, what kind of confidence level are you demonstrating? I'll be looking at Ace pointing at me through the front windshield when I'm staging during qualifying and I'll be thinking, OK, we're going after those three points right now. It's going to be cool.
We might not gain any points, we may not be that good in qualifying the rest of the year, I don't know, but I think the excitement of being able to earn those extra points is pretty cool.
The Concord race this weekend is going to be really exciting. It's the first Countdown event of the year, and last year was the first time we raced there. What amazed me last year was walking in the pit area and having fans that you wouldn't expect to see at a drag race who were new fans to drag racing that were big NASCAR fans. They were reaching out and actually touching you and saying, ‘Man, I can't believe I'm getting this close to you drivers.' I think that really opened up a lot of the eyes of some of the fans in that area.
I've heard so many people who are flying in for this race from all over. It's become kind of a destination race, much like the Vegas race, where people make vacation trips around the event.
And, talking to Bruton Smith, he's telling us that the ticket sales are great in advance of this race. That really makes us proud of what we're doing and we know we're going to give fans a great race this weekend.