TOPEKA, Kan. — With the success he has had throughout his standout career in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Pro Stock great Jeg Coughlin can feel good racing at just about any track on the circuit.
But following a win during an adventurous weekend at the most recent event in Atlanta, one which jump-started his season, the reigning Pro Stock world champion may pull into Heartland Park Topeka with a little more enthusiasm.
Coughlin is the defending winner of the NHRA Kansas Nationals and will be after his third career victory at Heartland Park Topeka, where he has always felt comfortable.
“Anytime you can approach a facility with a smile on your face, it definitely gives you a little more pep, a little more confidence and a little more pride in wanting to defend your championship there,” Coughlin said. “There's no question we got cut short on celebrating last year with the weather that was coming in. We would be no more proud than to try and have a big party come Sunday night and make it two in a row.”
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel) and Johnny Gray (Funny Car) also won a year ago at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event that will once again be televised nationally on ESPN2. For the first time since 2006, the race moves back to Memorial Day weekend, one of the most celebrated weekends for motorsports each year.
Coughlin will arrive in Topeka showing steady improvement after a slow start to his championship defense. After winning his fifth career Pro Stock world championship a year ago thanks in part to a pair of victories in the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, Coughlin’s 2014 season started with just two round wins over the first three races.
But Coughlin and his JEGS.com/Mopar Dodge Dart showed steady progress in recent events, advancing to his first semifinal of the season in Houston before the victory on Monday at Atlanta Dragway. Even that did not come easily, however. He qualified eighth and struggled to find the perfect combination before putting it all together in eliminations.
Coughlin knocked off teammate and 2012 world champ Allen Johnson, points leader Erica Enders-Stevens and Jason Line to reach the final, where he drove around four-time world champ Greg Anderson with a 6.558 at 211.63 mph. In the midst of the season’s busiest stretch, persevering through all of the challenges stood out in a major way to Coughlin.
“We showed a lot of strength with this team in Atlanta,” Coughlin said. “After qualifying there, things weren't going as planned. We had some errors, we had some problems, but you look at the depth of our team with Roy and Allen Johnson, Mark Ingersoll, Adam Hornberger, and both the Mopar Dodge and the JEGS.com Dodge, and that's what pulled us through. They did one hell of a job.
“That only gets magnified as we approach the summer months. We've got three straight with Atlanta, Topeka and Englishtown, and then we've got four in a row and three in a row later this summer. It's that kind of team you want behind you that has that championship quality, that championship drive.”
Coughlin certainly noticed that from his team in Atlanta and he will look for that to continue in Topeka against a deep and talented Pro Stock field. Everyone is chasing Enders-Stevens, who is seeking her first victory at the Kansas Nationals, but Coughlin will also have to deal with the likes of Line, Anderson, Vincent Nobile, V Gaines, Shane Gray, Dave Connolly and Chris McGaha. Coughlin, though, is ready to ride the wave of momentum from his recent win into this weekend at Topeka.
“Topeka is one of those tracks that, depending on what the weather is, can be extremely good for the air,” Coughlin said. “That's a track that can be extremely good down low, as far as 60-foot times. We're definitely looking forward to getting there. A strong win in Atlanta is going to put us in good position to try and keep our Topeka crown on. It's a great facility and a great crowd."
In Top Fuel, 2006 Kansas Nationals winner Doug Kalitta is the points leader and has posted four final round appearances in 2014. Antron Brown, who has two wins this season and continues to get back on track following a scary crash in Atlanta, is still searching for his first win in Topeka. Other Top Fuel standouts include Langdon, who knocked off Brown’s Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher at this event a year ago en route to the world championship title, Atlanta winner Spencer Massey, Steve Torrence, defending Auto Club of Southern California Road the Future Award winner Brittany Force and new Kalitta Motorsports driver J.R. Todd.
In Funny Car, points leader Robert Hight comes to Heartland Park Topeka on an incredible streak, advancing to the finals in six consecutive races, posting three straight wins. Hight is also a two-time Topeka winner. His primary challengers include a host of heavy hitters such as John Force, the reigning and 16-time champ in Funny Car, who has an NHRA-best nine wins in Topeka. Other top competitors include four-time event winners Cruz Pedregon and Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Alexis DeJoria, Matt Hagan, Courtney Force, Del Worsham, Tim Wilkerson and Bob Tasca III.
All eyes at Heartland Park Topeka will also be on the likes of Enders-Stevens in Pro Stock, DeJoria and Courtney Force in Funny Car, and Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force in Top Fuel as the landmark 100th win by a female will be within reach. Female competitors currently have 99 NHRA victories, putting the total just one away from the magical mark.