BRAINERD, Minn. – Neither Steve Torrence nor Antron Brown won Sunday’s 36th annual Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, but the semifinal showdown between the two not only was final round-worthy but by itself was worth the price of admission to the 17th race in the NHRA Mello Yello Series.
Torrence got the starting line advantage, as he has most of the time this season even when he has faced someone as formidable as Brown, the three-time and reigning NHRA champion, but his .014-of-a-second edge wasn’t quite enough to hold off Brown’s booming 331.61 mile per hour charge across the finish line that provided a margin of .004 of a second in a come-from behind win. After that drama, Leah Pritchett’s final round victory over Brown seemed anticlimactic.
When racing begins Labor Day weekend in the 62nd annual Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, Brown will lead the 34-year-old Torrence by 31 points and Pritchett by 60. No one else is in the hunt for the No. 1 starting spot in the Countdown.
For Torrence, the difference between racing Pritchett and watching her beat one of his closest friends was a broken intake valve in the engine of the Capco Contractors dragster that slowed the 10,000 horsepower hybrid from a finish line speed of 328 mph in the first two rounds to 323 in the semis.
“These Capco guys gave me a great car,” Torrence said of crew chief Richard Hogan and his team. “We never ran slower than 3.78 in qualifying or eliminations. We weren’t running Leah numbers (a national record 3.640) but we had a car that could win.”
Although Brown has a lopsided record against Torrence (23-4), their rivalry has moved to a new level over the last two years. Seven of their last nine meetings have come in final rounds in which Brown owns a narrow 4-3 edge. Significantly, when they line up next to each other, it seems to stoke the competitive juices. In their last five meetings, Brown’s average reaction time has been .054, which was his exact number on Sunday.
However, over those same five races, Torrence’s average is .049. Torrence came in with the best reaction time average overall at .062. Brown was second best at .064.
Despite his Sunday disappointment, Torrence reached a significant milestone Sunday by winning his 39th and 40th competitive rounds of the season. He never before has won as many as 40 rounds in a season but it’s not anything he plans to celebrate.
“The only rounds that make any difference are those in the last six races,” he said. “but if we can win two-plus rounds every week like we have so far, there’ll be a big party at the end of the year.”