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Thu, 19 Sep 2013, 13:42 PM

Countdown to the Championship Opener Sets Stage
Courtesy of NHRA Communications
Photo copyright 2013 Ron Lewis Photography

For More Unpredictable Performances at AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals

ENNIS, Texas --

Antron Brown at Charlotte.
Surprises were plentiful in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship opener last weekend in Charlotte, N.C., as top seeds were upset in the first round of eliminations and one defending world champion failed to qualify.

Considering that everything is bigger in Texas, NHRA fans should expect more of the same when the NHRA playoffs kicks off round No. 2 at the AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals, Sept. 19-22 at the famed Texas Motorplex.

Last season, defending world champion Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Bob Tasca III (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle) earned victories at the event in the Lone Star State that will once again be televised on ESPN2 HD and ESPN News.

Brown hopes to recapture some of the magic he used last season when he powered his Matco Tools dragster to the victory in Dallas. The victory spurred him on to win his first world championship. His playoff quest to repeat got off to a rocky start at zMAX Dragway last weekend when he failed to earn one of the 16 starting spots for Sunday eliminations. It was the first time in 110 races that the popular driver posted a DNQ.

"You never imagine that something like that is going to happen," said Brown, who dropped to ninth in the standings. "And we never imagined that's how we'd start the Countdown. Sure, it's going to be hard, but we haven't given up on getting back to the top; no one on this team ever gives up. We made some great testing runs at zMAX Dragway on Monday and now we have to do that once we get to Dallas."

spencer Massey (far lane) advanced to the final
defeating Clay Millican in the semifinal.
Meanwhile, there were several upsets in Top Fuel, as season-long points leader and playoff top seed Shawn Langdon lost a close first round match to past Motorplex winner Bob Vandergriff. Langdon fell to second overall and heads to Dallas trailing new Top Fuel series leader Spencer Massey, a Fort Worth native, by 24 points.

"We had a minor setback in Charlotte, but we still feel good about things," Langdon said. "The Al-Anabi car is still running strong, and team morale is still up so it's not anything we're going to let get us down. We just have to keep working like we have been, keep digging and keep fighting. Hopefully, we can get that No. 1 spot back at the end of the Dallas event."

While a few of the top seeds fell down, several drivers at the bottom of the top 10 made strong moves to the top. Morgan Lucas, at the controls of a brand new GEICO/Lucas Oil dragster, showed off his new 8,000-horsepower ride in style. He swept the event, claiming the No. 1 qualifying position and winning over Massey in the final round. He jumped from eighth to third in the standings and has a ton of momentum heading to the Texas Motorplex.

"We've never been in the situation of chasing a championship," Lucas said. "We just want to run good and do the best we can do. You start having problems if you count your chickens before they hatch. We're comfortable saying that we know how to put ourselves in position to win races, but I don't want to put us in an uncomfortable position by going beyond that. We're trying to have fun and enjoy this."

Matt Hagan (far lane) lost to Robert Hight
Photo copyright 2013 Auto Imagery, Inc.
Meanwhile, in Funny Car, top seed Matt Hagan raced to a runner-up finish and increased his series lead to 82 points over second place Ron Capps, who made a second round exit. The Virginia cattle rancher has won at the Motorplex in the past and feels confident and comfortable in his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots team, which is led by veteran crew chief Dicky Venables.

"We've been consistent all year long and that's what we're aiming to do these last five races," Hagan said. "We added to our lead at Charlotte but can't afford any slip-ups. At the end of the day no matter what, we've already had a great season and I'm ready to see how it plays out."

The Funny Car driver that made the biggest move in the standings was Robert Hight, who charged to victory in his Auto Club Ford Mustang. The 2009 world champ's weekend was eerily similar to his '09 playoff opener. If the winning trend continues for the surging Hight, who also won the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indy to end the regular season, expect him to make it three in a row at Dallas and better his chances at earning a second world championship crown.

"You can't rely on history to repeat itself, you have to do the work and make the wins happen," said Hight, a two-time winner at the Motorplex. "My crew chief Mike Neff and my crew guys are giving me a great race car. I am trying to give them my best driving performance every time I get in this Ford Mustang Funny Car."

The competition in the Funny Car category is extremely intense. A talented field of challengers, including former Motorplex winner Capps, defending world champ Beckman, ultra-quick Cruz Pedregon, 15-time world champ John Force, Del Worsham, Johnny Gray and two-time season winner Courtney Force, all will be trying to reel in Hagan and knock Hight off his current stride in Big D.

Ron Capps
"Our team is better than a second-round finish," said Capps, a four-time title runner-up who is seeking his first world championship crown. "We know that. A lot of points moved around (at Charlotte). Hagan has moved out there pretty good, so we're going to have to go to Dallas and battle back."

Although he didn't win, two-time Pro Stock world champ Jason Line made the biggest statement in Charlotte, by powering his Summit Racing Chevy Camaro to the No. 1 qualifying position and a runner-up finish. He moved to third in the standings and is now within striking position in the playoffs after enduring a lackluster regular season that produced only one victory and zero top qualifying positions.

"There is a lot at stake right now, and we're going to do whatever it takes to try to win this thing," Line said. "Team Summit is rejuvenated, and it feels good to have a competitive car again."

Four-time world champ Jeg Coughlin proved that he can rise to the occasion in big moments when he defeated Line in the final round using a reaction time advantage. He moved to second in the standings in his Dodge Avenger and likes where he stands, but realizes there are still five playoff races left.

"We're going to race Dallas as if it was the first race in the playoffs because even though we got off to a great start, there's still a long way to go," Coughlin said. "There are a lot of extremely talented and hungry drivers in the mix and we can't let up at all."

Jason Line
A few of those challengers in Pro Stock include season-long points leader Mike Edwards, defending world champ and AAA Texas FallNationals winner Allen Johnson, three-time season winner Vincent Nobile and local favorite Erica Enders-Stevens, who was runner-up here one year ago.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Hector Arana Jr. leads the two-wheel class with four wins aboard his Lucas Oil Buell, while battling a tough group of challengers, including two-time season winner and New Braunfels, Texas rider Ray and his Sovereign-Star Racing Buell, Matt Smith, John Hall, defending world champ Eddie Krawiec and Charlotte runner-up Hector Arana Sr. Three-time world champ Andrew Hines, who is not in the Countdown to the Championship, won the playoff opener on his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson.

Category top seed and points leader Arana Jr. lost in the semifinals at Charlotte to father Arana Sr. on a red-light start, but says in the overall scheme of things, he's still right where he needs to be, out front, 33 ahead of second place Matt Smith.

"It's about going rounds," Arana Jr. said. "The most important thing is winning the first and second rounds, because you can't always win them all."

The NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series also will thrill the crowds during the weekend with intense competition on the track.

As always, every ticket purchased for the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals is a pit pass, which offers an extraordinary look behind the scenes in the world of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. This unique opportunity in motorsports gives fans direct access to the teams, allowing them to see firsthand the highly skilled mechanics service the high horsepower machines between rounds, and enjoy some cherished face time with their favorite NHRA drivers.

Fans will also want to check out NHRA Nitro Alley and the popular NHRA Manufacturers Midway where vendors and sponsors create a carnival atmosphere, with interactive displays, simulated competitions, merchandise, food and fun. Fans will also want to take advantage of Championship Sunday for the fun fanzone featuring driver introductions and a special Track Walk at 9:30 a.m. It's free to all Sunday ticket holders.

The AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals qualifying opens on Friday, Sept. 20, with sessions at 2:15 and 5:15 p.m. The final two qualifying sessions will take place Saturday, Sept. 21, at 11:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 22.

Tickets for the AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals are available now, ranging from just $10 to $380 for weekend packages. Youth tickets for children 12 and under start as low as $5. For tickets or more information, please call the Texas Motorplex office at (800) MOTORPLEX or visit

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