Leave it to Larry Morgan to be brazenly honest about what it will take for him or fellow NHRA Pro Stock veteran Jeg Coughlin to make the Countdown to the Championship in a class that has the No. 7 and No. 12 drivers separated by just 51 points.
"Jeg and myself are going to Michigan to test next week, and both of us need to pick our cars up in the front part of the track. I think we both have plenty enough to qualify well and do well," Morgan, the Lucas Oil Ford Mustang driver, said, "but we have got to get our heads out of our rear ends on the front part of the track. We are both terrible at that point."
He got no argument from Coughlin, who started this season with a brand-new team, car, manufacturer, and sponsor.
First on his mind, the JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger driver said, is "the efficiency of our car to behave a little better in the first 200 to 300 feet. We are running the back half pretty well, meaning we are showing good speeds and horsepower, but our acceleration and the way we are navigating the front of the track has been lacking."
That's their plan for preparing for the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the last chance to make the list of 10 drivers eligible to compete for the series crown. And the way their respective seasons have gone, both know they're blessed to be in the running for one of those spots at all.
In the first 16 races, Morgan has three failures to qualify, five first-round exits, and eight quarterfinal losses. So he hasn't lasted n race day past the second round this year. Coughlin looked fantastic out of the gate at the Winternationals, finishing as runner-up to Greg Anderson. Since then, he has three DNQs, seven first-round losses, and five Round 2 defeats. So this four-time class champion also has not advanced to even one semifinal all year, either.
"It certainly has been a building year for us. I don't think we anticipated this much of that kind of effort," Coughlin said. "The competitiveness right now in the sport, in NHRA Drag Racing, is really second to none. It is that cutthroat right now. It is that intense. And you just need a little lady luck. You've prepared all year to put yourself in a position to be in the Countdown, and you just have to put your best foot forward and see how things turn out.
"The Countdown, it's doing exactly what we have designed it to do, and that's create some excitement, create some drama, and show the fans in the sport that there's a lot going on at all times. And that's I think what's exciting at this point when you talk to myself, and here we are on the outside of this bubble, looking to climb in there," he said.
Morgan agreed, saying, "Well, it's so close right now, and I am pumped. But you know what? There's four guys that can get in. And each and every one of us better have our act together. That's the only way we are going to get in. It's just so tight. Qualifying points mean a big thing now, and we just have to do well."
No. 7 Ron Krisher has not secured a spot in the Countdown yet, and he is 11 points ahead of No. 8 Shane Gray, who is three points ahead of No. 9 Morgan. But Morgan has No. 10 V Gaines on his heels, 16 points back. Coughlin is in 11th place, just two points below the cutoff -- two points behind Gaines. Ronnie Humphrey, in 12th place, trails Coughlin by 19 points. Rodger Brogdon fell from the top 10 by opting out of the Western Swing, but he still has a remote mathematical chance to get in the Countdown from the No. 13 position.
'When we look at the lineup, from Shane Gray to myself, Ronnie Humphrey, and even Roger Brogdon is a little distant in the 13th spot, there's still mathematically a lot of really good drivers, really good teams that are capable of getting into this elite top 10," Coughlin said. "I can tell when you we started our new program and our alliance with Mopar and JEGS in 2012, that we want to have this car in that Top 10."
He knew he would have a lot of stiff competition. He just wasn't expecting it to be at the bottom of the order. But he said it's the same dynamic as what he has experienced at the top: 'We have been in situations like this, volleying for world championships, and it feels no different, I can promise you. It's going to be exciting. The granddaddy of them all, the U.S. Nationals, is going to be worked up more than ever this year, certainly in our camp, and we are looking to go in and make no mistakes and get our program in the Top 10 and go for this championship."
That "make no mistakes" part is the trickiest.
"You challenge yourself, you challenge your team to go out and try to make that zero tolerance effort, make no mistakes. That's in the pit area and that is in preparing the car and that's in the tune-ups and that's in the set-ups. Then they have to put me behind the wheel and try to let me get out and do my thing in a class and in a sport that's separated by 10,000th of a second," Coughlin said. "It can be anyone's game."
Morgan said he agreed -- and he reminded that two incredibly experienced and successful drivers not regularly on the tour will be competing at Indianapolis, adding another element of excitement.
"We really have to be prepared on every part of the car: the driver, engine tune-up, the track tune-up. We can't miss in order to stay in this and have a shot to win the championship," Morgan said. "Then we are going to have guys out there protecting their positions. Richie Stevens is going to be running. Dave Connelly is going to be running. It's going to be kind of tough for the bottom cars qualifying to stay in. And I'm just hoping that we are in a position that we make the right moves and move forward."
Trying to focus on the task immediately at hand is what Morgan said he's trying to do, but he admitted that he does count the points and think of the sceanrios.
"You really kind of put your nose to the grindstone and just do the best you can do, because in order to stay in this, we have to do well. But do we look at that? Absolutely. I look at Jeg, and he's less than [two rounds] behind me. But if he goes out and qualifies -- the rounds are what count at this point. And there's a couple guys that if I don't win the first round, I'm out of there, and that's the bottom line. So I have to prepare for everything happening there."
Coughlin said he wants to make sure that in his excitement he doesn't want to "get get the cart before the horse here. First we have to get qualified, qualify well. We need to turn some win lights on Monday.
"Every point is going to count. It's the final race. We need to win some rounds," he said. "And I know in both of our cases, we are certainly capable of it. And that's what's going to make it exciting."
The thrill of that first year of the Countdown is flooding back to him now, Coughlin said.
"I can remember 2007, first year of the Countdown, winning on Sunday at Pomona, in front of an amazing crowd. [It] is probably one of the more electrifying events in my career," he said. "And I can tell you I'm feeling a lot of those things going on right now within myself and our team. Stay tuned. It's going to be awesome."
The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals will start Wednesday, Aug. 29, but the pro classes will make their first appearances on the track Friday evening, Aug. 31.
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