CAPTION – Top Fuel team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr. believes the NHRA’s adjustment of the Countdown format was intended to combat part-time successes such as his teams and Billy Torrence, who did qualify for the Countdown in 2020 and was a contender until the final day of the season. 

The changes NHRA announced Jan. 22 and made to get into the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship provided similar thoughts of frustration from team owner Bob Vandergriff Jr., Pro Stock pilot Matt Hartford and Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ Matt Smith and one different viewpoint from nitro Funny car world champion Matt Hagan.

As NHRA stated, like in the past, the top 10 drivers in each of the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series categories at the conclusion of the NHRA U.S. Nationals Sept. 7 will earn positions in the Countdown to the Championship.

However, now there’s a new wrinkle for drivers to qualify for the Countdown to the Championship. Drivers to also get into the Countdown if they meet new requirements.

In NHRA’s Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, drivers who compete at all 18 regular-season races – and make a minimum of two qualifying sessions at each event will also earn their place in the playoffs.

In Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, drivers who compete at all 13 or 11 events, respectively, in the regular season and run a minimum of two qualifying sessions at each event will also earn bids to compete for world titles in five events throughout the Countdown to the Championship.

NHRA officials made this change to better reward driver endurance and encourage participation in regular-season events.

Consider Vandergriff as one of those who don’t opening up the Countdown is an answer.

Drag racing is the ultimate two come up to race, and one goes home sport,” said Vandergriff, whose Top Fuel teams run a part-time schedule by choice. “Now awarding just showing up, everyone knows this rule was implemented because of Billy Torrence and Bob Vandergriff Racing.

“Bottom line. if I don’t make the Countdown when I run all of the races, and someone comes along and runs ten … hat’s off to them. I just need to do a better job with my program. If I run twice as many races as someone and they outperform me, that’s my fault, and I don’t deserve to be rewarded. It goes completely against the spirit of competition and 100-percent against what I believe in.

“My kids know there are no participation trophies in the Vandergriff household. In sports, you strive to win. If you don’t, you just try harder next time. That’s why we keep score.”






Caption – Two-time Funny Car champion is one of those who believe the NHRA must do what it sees fit, to ensure participation at all events. 

Veteran Pro Stock competitor Hartford, who finished fifth in the final 2019 points standings, doesn’t agree with NHRA’s reasoning for the changes.

“I think it is stupid,” Hartford said. “If you’re not going to have drivers earn their way in the Countdown, then get rid of all of it. They should just go by the points drivers earn during the entire season like they used to. This really doesn’t make any sense to me. I have no idea what (NHRA) trying to do.”

Those who secure a position in the Countdown to the Championship will have their NHRA Mello Yello points adjusted after the NHRA U.S. Nationals. In the nitro categories, first and second place will be separated by 20 points, and a 10-point differential will separate each consecutive position. In Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, first and second place will be separated by 20 points while 10 points will separate second through fifth place, and five points will separate all following positions.

“These (changes) take the hype away from trying to make the top 10 to be able to run for a championship,” said Smith, a three-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle world champion. “It also takes away the hype of Indy of being double points to try and get into the championship because now there’s no reason to do that. To me, this is not a good thing.”

Smith said what the NHRA is doing is something that has become commonplace – rewarding people for essentially doing nothing.

“Now you get a participation award for going to all the races because now you get to run for a championship,” Smith said.

“That’s what’s wrong with our society because everybody wants a participation award instead of working hard to make the top 10. It’s just if ‘I go to all the races then I get to run for a championship.’ Really?”

Like Hartford, Smith is scratching his head too as to why NHRA implemented these changes.

“I think the whole issue is because they said people don’t come to the Countdown races because if cars don’t make the Countdown, they lose car counts,” Smith said. “They are the ones who started this whole deal. That’s the way our system works. What should have been done is they should still have the top 10, and only the top 10 get to run for the championship. Then let’s say from places sixth back now the people who are 11th and 12th don’t necessarily get to run for the No. 1 spot, but they can run to be in the top six in points. They should have done something like that. That would bring more drivers to the races.”

While Hartford and Smith are adamantly against the Countdown’s new format – Hagan, a two-time nitro Funny Car world champ, isn’t.

“We are here to put on a show,” Hagan said. “We’re selling an experience, and we’re selling impressions on people and young children where they walk away saying, ‘I think drag racing is amazing.’ The more cars we have out there, I think the better our sport is going to be, and we need that. It’s costing so much money to run these cars, and we have to find a way to keep people out here. Any incentives we can give to these teams to win a half-million dollars is a good thing.”

Hagan said the modifications to possibly letting more drivers into the Countdown doesn’t change his mindset – at all.

“We all roll into the Countdown knowing what we have to do, and that’s win three or four of those races out of six,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you have gone to the races and you gave our fans a show, and you get hot at the end of the deal (in the Countdown), then so be it. We all know the rules when we start off the season, and it is what it is. I roll into every event, knowing I have to bust my a**.

“I have to give my team 100 percent all the time, so there’s always pressure for me. I’ve made the Countdown, and I have missed the Countdown, so I understand what it is like not to be in it. We all have one goal in mind, and that’s to win a championship, so I don’t know if there’s any less luster about anything.”





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