Led by Funny Car points leader, females a Force in Countdown
A statement often heard over the public-address system at NHRA events is "our women don't just compete -- they win." And win they did in the top three professional classes in 2018.
In 18 events during the regular season, female drivers won eight across the three classes and reached the finals in nine others.
Now it's time for the Countdown for the Championship, and for the second time in three years, all of the women competing full time in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock have qualified for the six-event NHRA playoffs.
Courtney Force is making history this year as the first woman to be the No. 1 seed in either of the Nitro classes -- Top Fuel and Funny Car. From early in the season it was apparent Force would be a title contender. Her team's consistency resulted in four victories, including two straight, and 10 No. 1 qualifying positions. Force, who competes in Funny Car, has a 20-point lead as the Countdown opens this weekend at Maple Grove Raceway in Mohnton, Pennsylvania.
"We have a target on our back right now," Force said. "We're extremely glad to have a 20-point lead over the No. 2 guy ... but it doesn't make it any easier. The biggest thing for me is not to count up all of the little points and try to focus on what we have been doing all season -- getting the car running consistent, being focused as a driver and going rounds. It's anybody's game."
Force's older sister, Brittany, was not the No. 1 seed entering last year's Countdown yet still claimed the Top Fuel championship.
"It goes to show that anybody can get it, but it definitely made me feel good that we've got a little bit of a head start," Courtney Force said.
An interesting twist to this year's Countdown, Courtney Force said, is a change in schedule from previous years. zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina, had hosted the Countdown's opening race since 2008, but the order of the tracks was shuffled this year. Charlotte Motor Speedway, the dragway's owner, moved its fall NASCAR race to September and its NHRA event to October.
Courtney said she had struggled at Maple Grove Raceway in previous years, so she was happy it was first up in the Countdown. She noted she's always done well at Las Vegas and Pomona, California, the season's final two races.
"I'm curious when we go to some of these races if the weather will be drastically different than how we've been running in years past at that track, which will change everybody's setup," she said. "It could definitely juggle things up a little bit. I'm excited about it."
Here is a glance at the female racers in this year's NHRA Countdown to the Championship:
Seeding: No. 4
Best finish: First (Atlanta, Denver)
Outlook: After a slow start, Pritchett claimed her first of three No. 1 qualifying positions in the season's fifth event. Two events later, she claimed her first of two victories this year. She twice made it as high as third in the standings, most recently after her Denver victory in mid-July, but she dropped to fourth after first-round losses in three of the final four events. Maintaining consistency will be the key in Pritchett's title bid. She finished a career-best fifth in the standings last year.
Seeding: No. 8
Best finish: First (Houston)
Outlook: It's been a difficult season for the 2017 Top Fuel champion with her sole victory coming in the fifth event. Force, who had a vicious crash in the season opener at Pomona, qualified in the top five on 11 occasions this year. Yet she lost in the first round in 11 of the regular season's 18 events. Her lone No. 1 qualifying position came at Charlotte in the 4-Wide Nationals. She faces an uphill battle in the Countdown.
Seeding: No. 1
Best finish: First (Phoenix, Atlanta, Topeka, Richmond)
Outlook: Force was untouchable this year. After losing in the first round in the season opener, she was the No. 1 qualifier and the victor in the second event. She took the points lead with her Atlanta victory -- and never lost it. In addition to four victories, Force was the No. 1 qualifier in 10 of 18 events. At one point during the regular season, her lead in the standings exceeded 200 points. Force and her team could emerge with the Funny Car championship if they maintain the consistency they exhibited during the regular season. She recorded a career-best third-place finish in last year's standings.
Seeding: No. 3
Best finish: First (Charlotte)
Outlook: Enders entering the Countdown with only one victory is a bit misleading. In addition to her victory, she reached the final on five other occasions, and she made it to one semifinal and seven quarterfinals. She lost in the first round only four times in 18 events. Expect the title battle to be between standings leader Tanner Gray, two-time champion Enders and four-time title holder Greg Anderson.
Pro Stock Motorcycle
Seeding: No. 9
Best finish: Two semifinal rounds
Outlook: In 10 races, Smith's best performances came in Norwalk, Ohio, and Brainerd, Minnesota, when she reached the semifinals. Her best qualifying effort came at Chicago when she was seventh quickest. She was eighth in the standings until Indianapolis, where she failed to qualify for the regular-season finale. After point totals were reset for the Countdown, Smith trailed leader Eddie Krawiec by 90 points.
Seeding: No. 10
Best finish: One semifinal round
Outlook: Sampey has 42 career victories but has struggled this year. Her lone semifinal appearance came early in the season at Atlanta. She failed to qualify for two events, Chicago and Richmond, and has been no higher than fifth in the standings. The three-time champion is on the outside of this year's title battle.
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990, 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.