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Thu, 21 Sep 2017, 10:01 AM

Pro Stock Rookie Tanner Gray Thinking Big at Dodge NHRA Nationals
Courtesy of NHRA Communications
Photo copyright 2017 Auto Imagery, Inc.

After Impressive Start to the Countdown to the Championship


Tanner Gray celebrates win in Charlotte.
In terms of a blueprint for starting a critical juncture of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season well, Tanner Gray came about as close as possible to a perfect one at the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship opener in Charlotte.

The rookie phenom continued to roll at his first playoff race, qualifying No. 1 and winning his fifth race of the season heading to this weekend's 33rd annual Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway. It has Gray in a prime position to contend for a world championship, but the 18-year-old rising star is well aware that plenty of work remains if that is to be a possibility.

"It is really important to stay focused," Gray said. "This is what we race for all year, the opportunity to race in the Countdown and ultimately to contend and win the championship. My team is in the driver's seat. They have a great handle on the car, our dynamic as a team is on point and we are all having a lot of fun. Coming off of a win in Charlotte increases the focus and proves that our team has what it takes to be champions. There is a lot of racing left and this class is so competitive, we have to continue to collect round wins to make this championship possible."

Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Tommy Johnson Jr. (Funny Car), Vincent Nobile (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were last year's winners of the event that will be televised on FOX Sports 1, including live final eliminations coverage starting at 2 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Sept. 24. It is the second of three straight races to open the Countdown to the Championship, and Gray is simply looking to keep his fantastic stretch going in his Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro.

He has combined with teammate Drew Skillman to win the past seven races, with Skillman's four victories coming in that span. It's certainly the perfect time to get hot, as the Charlotte win gave Gray a 25-point lead over Bo Butner heading into this weekend. He is up 35 points on Anderson and 74 on reigning champ Jason Line after knocking off both in the playoff opener, while teammate Skillman remains within striking distance at 93 points back.

"Drew (Skillman) and I are pretty close," Gray said. "We talk after qualifying and in between every round about what the car did, what we did as drivers and how to continually improve. We are also each other's biggest competition. When we race each other we both know what each has because it's the exact same thing. There isn't room for error. Knowing that I have a teammate like Drew helps my confidence. It is our goal to meet in the final every race day."

Tanner Gray
That will be the plan this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway going against a talented list of drivers. With each race in the Countdown to the Championship the pressure will also rise, but Gray has handled each moment thus far impressively, a nod to a great team led by crew chief Dave Connolly. He's expecting no let-up this weekend at the Dodge NHRA Nationals, furthering that momentum from the Charlotte win with a strong week of testing.

"Coming off of a win in Charlotte to start the Countdown gives us five wins on the season and a heck of a lot to look forward to as we go to Reading this weekend," Gray said. "We tested at zMAX (Dragway) this week and put up some impressive numbers, so between our test session and the round wins, we are looking to continue this momentum during the Countdown."

Back-to-back Top Fuel world champ Brown looks to rebound after an early Charlotte loss, chasing seven-time 2017 winner Steve Torrence and Doug Kalitta, the Charlotte winner and points leader.

Robert Hight took the Funny Car points lead with a win in Charlotte, and will look to hold off reigning world champ Ron Capps and defending event winner Johnson.

Reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle winner Krawiec has all the momentum after back-to-back wins, including the playoff opener to take the points lead from LE Tonglet, who has five wins in 2017.

The event features thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. After Nitro qualifying, fans can watch the spectacular Hanna Motorsports First Strike and Top Secret Eastern Raider Jet Funny Cars. They are thrust driven propelled by jet engines with pre-run flame shows.

As always, fans can interact with their favorite drivers as they're granted an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful and sensory-filled motorsports attraction on the planet. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers. Fans also will want to visit NHRA's popular Nitro Alley and Manufacturers Midway, where sponsors and race vendors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun for the entire family.

Before the race, the Mopar Mega Block Party will jump start the Dodge NHRA Nationals for the second consecutive year, with a full slate of free, fan-friendly activities from 4-10 p.m. on Thursday at FirstEnergy Stadium in Reading. The event includes a home run derby with Mopar drivers and NHRA personalities, the unveiling of Top Fuel driver Leah Pritchett's dragster with a wrap celebrating the Mopar brand's 80th anniversary, and special recognition for retiring Mopar Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson. Dodge Challenger SRT Demon simulators, an NHRA driver autograph session, live bands, an all-Mopar car show, fireworks and more will also be part of the festivities.

Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 1:45 and 4:15 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 22, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, Sept. 23, at 12:45 and 3:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 12 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 24.

To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call 610-856-9200. Tickets also are available online at Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult. To honor the Salute to First Responders, military and first responders can save 20 percent on general admission tickets at the gate.

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