Only seven points separate Leah Pritchett from second place in the NHRA Top Fuel standings.
If she dominates the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals Aug. 17-19 like she did last year, those points will disappear almost as fast as Pritchett sped down the quarter-mile dragstrip at Brainerd International Raceway.
Pritchett broke her own world record on her way to one of her four victories last year. While her record was later broken, it didn't hinder her path to the title.
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- Ride: Mopar Dodge dragster
- Crew chief: Todd Okuhara
- Hometown: Redlands, Calif.
- Last year at BIR: Won the Top Fuel division
- Current standing: 4th
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"Last year was pretty amazing and I think it was because we were able to execute so well what our strategy was," Pritchett said. "That was a solid run on Q1 (first qualifying run). Preparing for Q2 is almost as nerve-wracking, important, as elimination because Q2 is most likely what is going to set your qualifying position.
"Last year we were extremely excited about the conditions because they were record-breaking conditions and we already held that record and we improved upon it. Later that weekend it was broken again by Clay Millican, who still holds it, but we didn't let that hinder us. Actually, what that did was it amped us up. So already having phenomenal qualifying and winning round one and two and then when Clay ran that record-breaking time it excited us. We felt like final rounds let's lay everything out on the line and that's what gets our blood pumping."
Pritchett's bracket consistency last year was impressive. After qualifying No. 1 with her then-record time, she eliminated Rob Passey in the opening round with a time of 3.709 at 325.30 mph.
Round Two saw Pritchett lay down a 3.715 time at 330.63 mph to down Scott Palmer.
One round after setting the world record, Millican fell to Pritchett, who posted a 3.666 time at 330.88 mph before she won the Top Fuel title with a 3.682 time and 328.06 mph over Antron Brown.
It was one of four races Pritchett won last year in her first full year as the driver of the Papa John's Dragster. Those four wins were a career best. Her six final rounds were a career best. She posted her fastest times ever at BIR last year and qualified for the Countdown to the Championship for the second time.
However, last year's Countdown was a learning experience.
"What we took away from that is even as prepared as you think you are the unknowns can always happen," Pritchett said. "Most of our issues last year came from mechanical failures and that slowly dropped us down during the countdown. I was not the best driver that I could have been. I think I focused really heavily on upping my game, but if your game got you there maybe you should be reliant on your consistent game.
"We came into Countdown without our best arsenal. We ran really well in cooler conditions. This year, we've been more about diversifying our portfolio and not relying on those cooler conditions."
This year, Pritchett owns two victories with her last coming at Denver three events ago. She did follow that up with an opening-round elimination, but bounced back with a second-place finish at Seattle.
She's got three No. 1 qualifiers and owns a 25-14 round record helping her to the fourth position in the Top Fuel standings. But she's only seven points shy of second-place Tony Schumacher. Steve Torrence leads the standings with 1,251 points. Schumacher is second 161 points behind followed by Millican 167 points behind ad Pritchett 168 points behind.
"At one hand it's extremely key to get momentum coming out of Brainerd, but then, on the other hand, you look at it as just another race," Pritchett said. "It is important. I'd like to think of this race as a practice crunch time for hopefully what will be at the end of the season. The importance is there. Seven points is less than a round. We could all be tied up before we even get to race day on Sunday based on how we qualify."
Last year, Pritchett and her team were fast right from the start and they'll look to match that at BIR this year. While it's not the only way this team can win, but having a good qualifying run or two seems to give the Papa John's team momentum for good things to come. They qualified first at Denver before winning. They qualified fourth before winning at Atlanta.
With last year's information from BIR, the confidence to know they can win there and a direct goal insight, this year's Lucas Oil could be as exciting for Pritchett and crew as last year.
"Last year was a perfect scenario of conditions, of rising to the occasion on every level from the tuners to the crew, to making sure everything was perfect," Pritchett said. "We were able to make that all come together and execute it. That's what is so exciting. It was a sense of satisfaction, gratitude and justification when everything came together. We know what that feels like. We know what it takes to do that. You practice that every single race of trying to have that perfect execution and we were able to do that.
"That feeling and momentum are still with us and I feel it will be with us when we go into Brainerd because it will be those conditions you look forward to. Our focus is moving up in the points."