SONOMA — For Steve Torrence, Sunday was the icing on the cake.
After two rough days of qualifying, Torrence and his Capco Contractors team put it all together with four clean runs to win the Top Fuel title at the National Hot Rod Association’s (NHRA) 30th annual Toyota Sonoma Nationals.
“Basically it’s been a dream season,” said Torrence. “We’ve been to eight final rounds and have won six. Last year, in the whole year, we made it to eight final rounds and won three.”
Torrence wrapped up a spectacular weekend of racing in style Sunday beating Antron Brown with a final round 3.784 second/329.42 mile per hour pass down the 1,000 foot track.
Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car), Tanner Gray (Pro Stock) and LE Tonglet (Pro Stock Motorcycle) joined Torrance on the winner’s stage.
Torrence and defending Mello Yello series champion Brown were side-by-side at the 500 foot mark when Brown’s Matco racer dropped a cylinder and Torrence pulled away for the win down the 1,000 foot track, increasing his lead in the Top Fuel season standings over Brown.
Torrence, the No. 6 qualifier, dominated Troy Coughlin Jr., Doug Kalitta and Brittany Force to earn his trip to the final round.
Brown, the No. 4 qualifier, knocked off Troy Buff, Scott Palmer and Terry McMillan to earn his 85th career Top Fuel final and eighth of his season.
“You don’t have to qualify No. 1 to win the race. We worked on the car last night and made a couple more changes early today. I went into today’s eliminations with a lot of confidence,” said Torrence. “Antron isn’t a three time national champion for no reason and he’s always tough to beat. My crew was amazing getting this car into winning shape. We just crushed it today.”
J.R. Todd is no stranger to victory lane but he made his first-ever trip to the winner’s podium as a Funny Car champion, beating Tim Wilkerson for the title.
Todd was looking at a semifinal loss to Jack Beckman when his fortunes turned.
Beckman got off to a strong start while Todd smoked his tires.
But Todd didn’t quit.
He got back on the accelerator and when Beckman’s engine blew up (“It just went Kaboom,” said track announcer Alan Reinhart), Todd kept pedaling, catching a slowly coasting Beckman at the finish line.
“I blew the tires off at the light tower and my car just didn’t pull off the starting line. I kept going and then I saw his car quit. I just hoped we had enough room to get by him before he hit the finish line,” said Todd. “I think everyone needs one lucky round to win a race — that was our lucky round.”
In the finals, it was Wilkerson who spun the tires. He got them spinning right off the starting line and then lost traction late in the pass giving Todd a much easier race to the line.
Todd has won NHRA before but until Sunday they were all in Top Fuel. His 4.049/323.27 run made him the 16th driver to post race wins in both Funny Car and Top Fuel.
Tanner Gray celebrated his 19th birthday on April 15 then graduated from high school in June.
On Sunday, the Pro Stock rookie posted his first win in wine country – his third race win of the season.
Gray isn’t old enough to drink the local wine that fills the champion’s custom crystal chalice.
“I just had some Mello Yello after the race,” said Gray. “But my crew gave me a champagne shower.”
Gray posted the first of his three race wins before his 19th birthday making him the youngest national event winner in NHRA history.
Gray eliminated defending Pro Stock champion Jason Line in the quarterfinals and No. 1 qualifier Drew Skillman in the semis to set a showdown with Bo Butner.
The two battled side-by-side down the track.
Gray crossed the finish line in 6.572 seconds at 210.05 mph, beating his good friend Butner by 0.004 seconds.
“We’re great friends but when you pull up to the starting line nobody’s your friend,” said Gray. “This was a great win for our team but I need to be a lot more consistent. I still have a lot of work to do.”
Pro Stock didn’t have the closest final round of the day.
That went to Pro Stock Motorcycle racers No. 3 qualifier LE Tonglet and No. 1 qualifier Matt Smith.
Tonglet beat Smith a mere 0.0002.
Late in the pass, Smith was forced to lean over to his left to keep his motorcycle straight — a lean that likely cost him the race.
“I knew it would be close all the way against Matt. It was so close I think that lean could have cost him but if he didn’t do it, then he was probably going to cross the center line,” said Tonglet. “As were racing down the track, I can’t see him because I have blinders on but I sure can hear him. I know we were side-by-side all the way. It takes a lot of mental discipline to not look over at him. If you turn your head, it can cost you that fraction of a second you need to win. I didn’t see the win light right away when I crossed the finish line and I thought he won but then the light came on and I knew I had it. I always think if the light doesn’t light up for me then it’s broken.”
For Tonglet, it was his second win of the weekend.
Tonglet won Saturday’s Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle. Tonglet followed that Sunday with his second straight Sonoma victory and fifth of the 2017 season.
“Winning the Pro Bike Battle definitely builds your confidence. The plan every weekend is to win the race. I just hope we can keep it going.
With 15 races down, there are just three races left for the drivers to qualify for the six-race Countdown to the Championship.
The 2017 season champions will be crowned at the season-ending Auto Club Finals, Nov. 9-12, at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona.