NHRA: Pro Stock's Skillman set to defend his title
Drew Skillman is smoking.
With three wins in the last four events, the driver of the Ray Skillman Chevrolet Camaro is the hottest driver in Pro Stock heading into the Lucas Oil Nationals Aug. 18-20 at Brainerd International Raceway.
And wouldn't you know it, Skillman is the defending champ at Brainerd.
While he and the team are at a more comfortable point in their careers, winning at Brainerd is never a bad goal.
"Last year was definitely a big transition year for us," said Skillman. "We really struggled at the beginning of the year with the new (electronic fuel injection) changes. Then we ended up switching teams a couple of races before Brainerd. So we were just getting acclimated with new people and trying to figure out how to run their engine combinations was definitely a challenge."
--- --- --- --- ---
- Division: Pro Stock
- Hometown: Greenwood, Ind.
- Crew Chief: Tomi Laine
- Sponsor: Ray Skillman Chevrolet Camaro
- Career wins: 12
--- --- --- --- ---
Skillman said the new team and the car bolted out to a good start to the weekend last year in Brainerd. That built momentum and confidence and pushed Skillman into the finals where he faced Jason Line, who is the most snake-bitten driver maybe in BIR history. It was his second straight finals loss at BIR.
"We just went round by round and I got Jason Line in the final, which is one of the local boys," Skillman said. "I've known him for a long time now. We always play games with each other. He sent me a peanut candy bar, which is supposed to be bad luck with the peanuts and I sent him a bottle of vodka, which is supposed to be bad luck when you're surrounded by family.
"It was a good race. We were glad to win it. That's one of our favorite tracks out there. You guys definitely have the best fanbase out there. You have some real hardcore racers. They're a lot of fun."
Two weeks ago in Seattle, Skillman qualified No. 2 and then snuck past Erica Enders in the finals by .005 seconds.
Skillman qualified No. 1 at Sonoma before falling to eventual champ Tanner Gray in the semifinals.
He was the No. 1 qualifier at the Mopar Mile-High Nationals in Denver and held off Richie Stevens, Jason Line and Bo Butner to win the title.
Skillman beat Enders again in the finals of the Fallen Patriots NHRA Route 66 Nationals. He qualified third and eliminated Shane Tucker, Gray and Butner to get to Enders.
Skillman's recent success is a bit of surprise as the Indiana native struggled at the beginning of the season.
He failed to get out of the first round in the series opener. That was followed by a runner-up finish in Arizona, but again failed to get out of the first round in the next three events.
"We really struggled just with the race car and getting it lined back out," Skillman said. "We kind of got lost. It's easy to do in this sport. You make a few moves in one direction and you're completely lost. We got it back now. We've got a good idea what we're doing and the car has been really consistent with this new combination with the chassis setup and the engine combination."
After winning in BIR last year, Skillman placed sixth in the 2016 final standings, 215 points behind season champ Line. He did collect a win in Dallas during the Countdown.
The gameplan this year for the Lucas Oil Nationals is to go rounds, gain experience and knowledge and get ready for the postseason.
Skillman is sitting fifth in the Pro Stock standings. He likes where he's at with two races remaining before the Countdown.
"Top five has the best chance of winning this," Skillman said. "When you get below the top five it is a real struggle to get there. I feel confident that we are in contention to win the championship and that's our goal."
The confidence comes from a comfort level Skillman and his team have found themselves in for the past month. It's a new feeling for him and he seems ready to exploit it.
"We finally got our feet underneath us," said Skillman. "Everything is working really well. We're not chasing our tail trying to get parts or trying to figure out what we're going to do. We're stable for the first time in a long time. That helps a ton when you have stability. We know when we go to the race track what we've got."