Jeg Coughlin may have won the battle, but Tanner Gray ultimately won the war.
While Coughlin came into the weekend with a mathematical chance to wrestle the Pro Stock championship away from Gray at the season finale, the odds were greatly stacked against him. And while Coughlin did all he could on Friday and Saturday, topping the charts both days leading to his sixth No. 1 qualifier of the season, it was Gray that walked away the ultimate victor, earning the 2018 Pro Stock championship at the 54th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
“I was telling the guys, I don’t think I have been this nervous for qualifying since my first race here,” said Gray, who earned the title when he locked himself into the field via a sixth place qualifying run on Saturday. “It has been a heck of a year. We started out pretty slow and I wasn’t quite sure we would even be in this position and about midseason we were able to find something and everything just seemed like it started clicking from there. We came into the Countdown, we executed on race day really well, we had some lucky rounds, and the guys did a phenomenal job. There were no mistakes made and (the crew) definitely made up for a few of my mistakes throughout the Countdown. I couldn’t be more grateful.”
While Gray was busy celebrating his first championship, Coughlin was reflective in the effort his team made in climbing from outside the Countdown conversation for much of the season to a runner-up finish, bookended by strong runs throughout the Countdown and his fourth No. 1 in the season’s final six races.
“Our confidence couldn’t be any higher. The car has been really, really strong and we’ve been one of the fastest cars in elimination round one most of the Countdown,” Coughlin said. “I feel great going into tomorrow. From a technical standpoint behind the wheel, I’m driving really well. Really, there is no looking back. The championship is settled, we know that, now it is time to shift our focus and see if we can’t win a race tomorrow.”
Coughlin collected his sixth overall No. 1 of 2018 and the 29th of his career in Q4 on Saturday, bettering his chart-topping Friday run with a 6.510-second pass at 211.49 mph in the Jeg’s Chevrolet Camaro.
Jason Line qualified second in the Summit Racing Equipment Camaro with a 6.529 at 212.06 mph and Erica Enders qualified third with a 6.530 at 211.39 mph. Drew Skillman (6.532) and Greg Anderson (6.533) rounded out the top five.
“Honestly, we were targeting a 6.51 if everything went perfect and we made a really, really clean run,” Coughlin said. “There was a little delay after Tanner’s pair went down to celebrate – and a big congratulations to Tanner and the Gray Motorsports team for their 2018 Pro Stock championship. We sat idle for a little bit, the track got a little bit cooler, and Rickie Jones was going for it. It felt great from behind the wheel. From the time we let the clutch out this thing was just singing. It sang through each and every one of the four gear changes and fifth gear sounded great and just hummed down through there. I could tell by the tone of his voice on the radio that, not only did we run well, we were No. 1 qualifier.”
With the championship locked up and no pressure on the team for Sunday, Coughlin said he is looking to build on what the team has accomplished over the past few weeks and end the season on a high note in preparation for 2019.
Coughlin will face Kenny Delco in round one on Sunday.
“(Crew Chief) Rickie has been very methodical and very confident in all of the decisions he has made, but I would say we will definitely see a more aggressive Rickie Jones in year two as we are moving into another Pro Stock season. I’m excited, I can tell you that,” Coughlin said. “But I am excited to finish the 2018 season off tomorrow and would love nothing more than to make four flawless runs and hoist that Wally at the end of the day and ride off into the sunset to Hollywood for the banquet. But there is a lot of racing to do and a lot of really, really good Pro Stock cars right now. We have our work cut out for us.”