NHRA MELLO YELLO DRAG RACING SERIES THUNDERS INTO WINE COUNTRY WITH CHAMPIONSHIP IMPLICATIONS ON THE LINE
SONOMA, Calif. — Even though the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals is not part of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship - a six race playoff that decides the champions of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series - it has major championship implications. The winners of the event held at Sonoma Raceway, which will be televised by the FOX national broadcast network, often go on to be crowned champions of the series, or very close to it, and fans should expect nothing less than championship-worthy performances this year.
The 29th annual Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, July 29-31, is the second stop of NHRA's Western Swing, a treacherous three-race stretch in the Western United States, and also the fourth-to-last race of the regular season. Only the top 10 drivers in each category earn a spot in the Countdown and with limited points remaining, a lot more is on the line than a victory.
At the 2015 Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals, five of the eight event finalists went on to finish the season in the top-three. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown raced to the winner's circle for his fourth victory of the year. After winning in Sonoma, Brown went on to win three of four final round appearances in the Countdown to secure his second Top Fuel world championship. In Funny Car, Jack Beckman outlasted Tommy Johnson Jr. to help set himself up for one of the most exciting Funny Car championship battles in recent memory. Beckman won two more races after Sonoma last year and made a strong push for the world championship but came up short by just 56 points. Beckman finished second on the season, while Tommy Johnson Jr. finished third.
Last year's excitement at the Sonoma Nationals wasn't limited only to the Nitro classes. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec defeated Jerry Savoie in the final round. At Dallas during the Countdown playoffs, Krawiec and Savoie met again with the championship on the line. Krawiec once more raced past Savoie, which in turn secured the world championship for his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson teammate Andrew Hines. Krawiec finished second in points and Savoie finished third.
The 2016 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series is currently at the midpoint in the season and all four classes - Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle - are gearing up for an exciting finish and know they will have to be on top of their game at Sonoma Raceway.
In Top Fuel, Doug Kalitta currently holds the points lead with three wins in four final round appearances. Kalitta, who drives the Mac Tools dragster for Kalitta Motorsports, is a five-time Sonoma winner. Even though he has tallied the most Top Fuel victories in Sonoma, he hasn't won there since 2005.
Hoping to defend his event title is the driver of the Matco Tools dragster, Brown. Brown, who is second in points, also won at the Sonoma Nationals in 2012 en route to his first world championship. Sonoma Raceway has treated him well in his career, and he will be gunning for his fifth career Sonoma victory and to continue his championship defense.
The Top Fuel category does not lack strength, though, and winning a Wally on Sunday is no easy feat. Others with their eyes on the prize include back-to-back 2016 winner Shawn Langdon, two-time 2016 winner Steve Torrence, eight-time world champion Tony Schumacher, recent Norwalk, Ohio, runner-up J.R. Todd and Brittany Force, who is also a two-time winner this season.
In Funny Car, John Force will look to claim a record-eighth victory at Sonoma Raceway in July. Force, driver of the Peak Antifreeze Chevy Camaro SS, has raced to one runner-up finish this season but looks forward to returning to a track in which he has seen much success.
Ron Capps has also seen great success at Sonoma Raceway, racing to four victories at the track in his career. His last came in 2013, but 2016 has been nothing less than a highlight reel for the driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T. Capps has been red-hot in June, winning three races during the month and four overall this season. He moved into the points lead during that stretch and hopes to hang on in Sonoma as he chases his first world championship.
Every point in Funny Car is well deserved, though, and drivers like Courtney Force, who won in Houston and posted a runner-up finish in Norwalk, defending event winner Beckman, reigning world champ Del Worsham, Tommy Johnson Jr., two-time 2016 event winner Matt Hagan, Alexis DeJoria, Tim Wilkerson and Robert Hight will do anything to get their hands on a few more points before the Countdown begins.
Two spots in the Countdown to the Championship are already taken in Pro Stock. Points leader Jason Line and teammate Greg Anderson, who is in second, have rightfully earned their positions in the playoffs. Line, a three-time Sonoma winner, has raced to seven victories in 2016 while Anderson, a four-time Sonoma winner, has raced to five. They have dominated Pro Stock and will look to continue that in Sonoma.
Catching up to the two will be a difficult task, but tides can turn at any minute in the redesigned Pro Stock class, which features fuel-injected engines, flat hoods, 10,500 RPM rev-limiters and shortened wheelie-bars. Those looking to knock down Line and Anderson include Chris McGaha, who raced to his first career victory at Sonoma last year, Epping runner-up Allen Johnson, 2014 top rookie Drew Skillman, Vincent Nobile, five-time world champ Jeg Coughlin and two-time and reigning world champ Erica Enders.
Pro Stock Motorcycle will hit the track at Sonoma Raceway for its eighth race of the 2016 season. Krawiec will have a good shot defending his 2015 event title, having already raced to three victories so far in 2016. Krawiec and his Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson have a strong grip on the points lead. He leads his category with three-career victories at the Sonoma Nationals.
Krawiec's teammate, Hines, is a two-time event winner and a four-time world champion. Hines won the Four-Wide Nationals earlier this season in Charlotte, N.C., and is currently tied with Savoie for second in the points standings. Savoie, a Louisiana alligator farmer, has raced to two runner-up finishes this season and will look to earn his first victory at Sonoma Nationals.
Others to watch in the two-wheeled category include recent Englishtown, N.J., and 2004 Sonoma winner Angelle Sampey, Chip Ellis, Hector Arana, Matt Smith, LE Tonglet, Steve Johnson, Hector Arana Jr. and Scotty Pollacheck.
The Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals also will feature thrilling competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where the future stars of the sport earn their racing stripes.
As always, fans will have the opportunity to 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 how the highly-skilled mechanics service their hot rods between rounds, and get autographs from their favorite NHRA drivers.
As part of NHRA's ongoing celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Funny Car class, legendary Funny Car drivers Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Ed "The Ace" McCulloch will be honored during pre-race ceremonies.
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.
Mello Yello Drag Racing Series qualifying will feature two rounds at 4:30 and 7 p.m. on Friday, July 29, and the final two rounds of qualifying on Saturday, July 30, at 1:10 and 5 p.m. Final eliminations are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Sunday, July 31.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats, call 800-870-RACE (7223). Tickets also are available online at www.sonomaraceway.com. Kids 12 and under are free in general admission areas with a paid adult for Saturday. For more information about the NHRA visit www.NHRA.com.
Before heading to Sonoma Raceway, the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series will make stops at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., for the Route 66 NHRA Nationals, July 7-10 and Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., for the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, July 22-24. Keep up with all the NHRA action on FOX and FOX Sports 1.