It was this time last year that drag racing people starting counting chickens for Steve Torrence before they hatched.
The NHRA Top Fuel driver had an amazing 2017 season. He won eight races. He seemed on the verge of locking down his first championship heading into the Toyota Nationals at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the penultimate event in the NHRA’s six-race Countdown for the Championship.
But Torrence faltered here and again in the season finale at Pomona, California.
When the chickens finally hatched, they waddled over to upstart Brittany Force’s coop. It was Force who got hot down the stretch and stole the title from Torrence.
But now Torrence has caught fire in the playoffs, too.
He brings a four-race win streak into Las Vegas — he’s unbeaten in the Countdown — and enjoys an even more commanding championship lead than he did a year ago. Essentially all Torrence has to do is win a round or two of the remaining eight, or have second-place Clay Millican (169 points behind) lose a round or two.
Drag racing people are counting chickens again.
Even Torrence was smiling at Thursday’s news conference. But it seemed a tight smile.
“I’ve been in this situation last year where I thought we had it wrapped up,” said the 35-year-old Texan, whose four-race win streak, the longest in Top Fuel in 10 years, ran his season victory total to nine in 22 starts.
Torrence also knows his way down the track at Las Vegas, having won the four-wide spring race at LVMS. But he’s still not talking about popping champagne corks.
“Anything can happen, so we’re not going to (let up),” he said.
Antron Brown, Torrence’s good friend who was sitting alongside on the dais, also smiled after his racing buddy gave cautious responses to clinching the championship.
“I told him you got it locked up already — I’m going to handle the remainder of the races for you, you don’t have to win ‘em,” said the three-time Top Fuel champion prompting Torrence to break into a grin that wasn’t so tight.
Focus on Funny Car
It’s conceivable the Pro Stock champion also will be crowned in Las Vegas. Prodigy Tanner Gray, who has announced he’ll begin pursuing a NASCAR career in 2019, has a 130-point edge on four-time titlist Jeg Coughlin Jr. At 19, Gray would become the youngest champion in NHRA history.
So much of the focus in Las Vegas will be on the Funny Car division, where Robert Hight and J.R. Todd are locked in a fierce battle for the title.
Hight is bidding to become the first back-to-back Funny Car champion since boss and father-in-law John Force won 10 in a row from 1993 through 2002. He leads a rapidly closing Todd (12-3 during the Countdown and winner of the spring LVMS race) by 11 points heading into the Toyota Nationals.
Ron Capps is lurking 109 points back in third place and is a five-time Las Vegas winner. He’ll need some help.
But if the pacesettters start counting chickens, the 2016 Funny Car champion might be able to sneak back into the picture with another strong showing on the LVMS strip after winning the Carolina Nationals the last time out.