Reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence still 'not a fan' of current playoff format

Steve Torrence ran the table in 2018, winning all six races in the NHRA Countdown to the Championship. Still, not a fan, though. 

A frightening-looking crash in Race No. 22 of 24 destroyed the Top Fuel dragster that had carried Steve Torrence to eight victories in 11 final rounds in 2017. He couldn’t coax any more magic from his backup car in the final two races, and Brittany Force completed a march from sixth place to the championship.

Torrence at that time said the NHRA Mello Yello Series’ six-race Countdown to the Championship is a “welfare points system” and “just a crock of crap” and expressed contempt for what he called “this bullshit points system.”

Two years later, as the six-race chase looms again with this weekend’s kickoff at Reading, Pennsylvania, Torrence said he feels “no differently than I did in ’17” about the title-determining format.

He claimed his justice last fall by winning every race in the Countdown and seizing the championship, a feat unprecedented since the sanctioning body introduced the system in 2007. So he didn’t benefit from the fact that after the Countdown fields are set upon completion of the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis and the top-10 drivers are separated by 10-point increments. He flourished in spite of it.

As he turned his focus to this weekend’s Mopar Express Lane Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa., Torrence said his stiffest competition is … another fellow named Torrence — his father, Billy.

Never mind the unique aspect of a father and son engaged in a championship battle because in 18 races, they hogged 10 victories in 14 different final rounds. (Steve Torrence beat his dad in the Topeka final in June.) And Billy Torrence has one of the class’ best race-day records at 20-8, but he had competed in just 10 events. The fact that 10th-seeded Billy Torrence is in the Countdown at all reinforces the son’s argument.

How’s it going to look if my dad goes out and wins the championship and he raced 16 of the 24 races?” Torrence asked.

When Robert Hight earned the first of his two Funny Car championships in 2009, the 2019 season-long points leader gave every racer hope that it’s possible to enter the Countdown in 10th place and win the title. So a Billy Torrence championship is a real possibility.

“That’s arguably the second-best car at the place, if not the best. If he raced all of them, it would be my main competition, I believe,” Torrence said. “I see him as the main competition. He’s driving very well. The car is running as good as ours, sometimes even a little bit better. So it’s going to be a threat.”

He said that isn’t a weird concept for him, vying for a second straight title against his own father.

“Ultimately, we race to race. It’s a competition. Yeah, we’re family, but you’re going out there and doing the best you can, and we’re both as competitive as each other. Whether it’s my dad or Antron (Brown) or anybody else, I still want to win.”

Might he have a secret weapon?

He said, “We had the liberty of the last couple of races, knowing that no matter the outcome we were still going to be No. 1 and anything that we did (any more points we would accumulate) we would lose, you’re able to somewhat sacrifice some races on trying things and learning something new for the Countdown. As they did last year, the track prep has changed going into the Countdown. It’s different. The prep is better. So we need to be able to go out there and adjust our tuneup and run harder when it’s that way. So we’ve been trying some stuff.”

Billy Torrence might just be Steve Torrence’s top competition in this year’s NHRA Top Fuel playoffs.

Doesn’t that mean his father and his father’s Capco Dragster team — his chief rivals — are armed with the same information?

“Uh … maybe,” Torrence said.

But Torrence wasn’t coy when he responded to the question about whether it’s time to change the system.

“I think there’s more than the points system that needs to be changed, but I think that would be a good starting place,” he said. “I think there should be some type of reward for winning races, whether it’s one round or half a round (worth of points) or whatever. I think that even that small of a change would be much better than just nothing.

“They’re trying to create drama (with the 13-year-old format), and I understand it. But I’m personally just not a fan of it,” Torrence said.

In the Funny Car class, Hight and John Force are two of only six drivers who have qualified for all 13 Countdowns. Hight will start first, Force second. It is the third time John Force Racing has started the Countdown ranked first and second. Force and Hight were 1-2, respectively, in 2010 and 2014.

Four-time winner and 2017 champion Bo Butner, who is 23-8 on race day and never has relinquished his points lead all year, is the driver to beat in Pro Stock. And the Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson duo of leader Andrew Hines and No. 2 Eddie Krawiec is making things tough on the rest of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. Hines has won seven of the 10 bike events.

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