CHARLOTTE (Sept. 10) — A misstep or two in the 18-race regular season can be overcome. The slightest slip-up in the six-race Countdown to the Championship, which starts this weekend with the Carlyle Tools NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMax Dragway, can be fatal.

"I guess the best way I can describe racing in the Countdown is that every single round is like the final round of some high-dollar bracket race," Pro Stock frontrunner Jeg Coughlin Jr. said. "You certainly have to treat it that way. Your focus has to be that intense, and I'm not just talking about the driver. I'm including the crew chiefs and the crewmen and the staff back at the shop. Everyone needs to be on task.

"It's game time baby."

Despite the increased pressure, Coughlin says he loves this time of year. After all, he's won two of his four Pro Stock championships in the playoff era, and has been both a wire-to-wire leader and a comeback kid, winning one title despite having never led the points until the final race of the year.

"We really feel good about our Dodge Avenger and this J&J Racing operation as a whole," Coughlin said. "We only had one bad race, and that was Brainerd. Otherwise we've had a couple of big wins and raced to six finals and five semifinals so we're right where we want to be.

"The reality is, as we've proven ourselves in the past, anyone in the elite top 10 that is eligible to win the championship can win this thing. You just need to get hot at the right time. We've all spent the entire regular season perfecting our tune-ups. Now it's time to cut it loose and see what happens."

This weekend's venue is one of only three places on the NHRA pro tour where Coughlin has yet to score a win, although he was No. 1 qualifier during the inaugural race there and recorded his personal best top speed of 213.47 mph earlier this year at the facility.

"We've always run well (at zMax) but haven't gotten a win as of yet," said Coughlin, who enters the playoffs as the No. 3 driver in the Countdown. "We'd certainly love to change that this weekend. They reshuffled the standings and we're now only 40 points off the top spot so it can be done.

"This is the most pressure-packed time of the season but it's also the most fulfilling and rewarding if you can find some success. The Countdown does everything a playoff format is supposed to do; it stacks all the fun into the end of the year. We've got six races to make it happen."

Professional qualifying rounds begin at 4:15 and 6:45 p.m., Friday, and continue at 12:15 and 2:30 p.m., Saturday. Eliminations are slated to start at 1 p.m., Sunday, with ESPN2 carrying all of the action.


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