There has been nothing easy about the last couple of weeks for Leah Pritchett.
A parts failure in Las Vegas ruined an otherwise promising afternoon two weeks ago. Then an illness kept her down and out leading into this weekend’s season finale.
But despite all of the distractions, Pritchett and her Don Schumacher Racing team were able to regroup and refocus and come out swinging at the 24th and final race of the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, claiming the preliminary top spot on the opening day of the 55th annual Auto Club NHRA Finals at Auto Club Raceway.
“There have been so many distractions lately, between having the flu for a full week and my team recouping from Vegas and everyone being so caught up in the points. We are just out here trying to run our race,” Pritchett said.
Pritchett drove her MOPAR Dodge dragster to the top spot in Q2 Friday afternoon with a 3.694-second pass at 322.88 mph, just edging Mike Salinas who also dipped into the 3.60s with a 3.699 at 327.11 mph.
Billy Torrence was third with a 3.708 at 330.63 mph, while Jordan Vandergriff (3.724) and Brittany Force (3.726) rounded out the top five.
Steve Torrence, who entered this weekend’s championship finale with a narrow 16-point lead over Force, has some work to do after qualifying 13th on Friday.
If her time holds on Saturday, it would be Pritchett’s second-straight No. 1 qualifier.
“The pass felt phenomenal. It was extremely smooth and we knew we were on a good hit when we got to 330 and it pulled really hard,” Pritchett said. “We changed clutch levers, which we hadn’t changed all year, after Vegas because we broke one and we didn’t get a chance to test it. So that Q1 was that first hit and it changed our entire clutch management. After making adjustments for that before Q2, it felt awesome.
“It has been a tricky track and the prep has been a little bit different which has been challenging, but when it is challenging for one it is challenging for everybody. To see the communication between Todd (Okuhara) and Neal (Strausbaugh) is great. We actually thought a 67 was out there because we had run a 67 before with the settings that were in the car minus those levers, but the 69 felt just fine.”
While a strong start by Pritchett and an early hiccup by the championship leader technically keeps Pritchett mathematically alive in the hunt for the Top Fuel title, her focus remains on the ins and outs of each individual run and not on the what ifs she can’t control.
“I can’t change the way that the math works. All we can change is ourselves,” Pritchett said. “When they say that there is a mathematical chance, sure there is a possibility, but that depends on everybody else. The cards are going to fall where they fall and as long as we can stack ours with as many aces as possible that is all we can give ourselves.”
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Pritchett calls California, home of Auto Club Raceway, her home track, growing up with fond memories of the facility.
“This place means everything to me,” Pritchett said. “Everything about it screams home – from the fans in the stands to the track itself. It is great to do well here.”