Pro Stock in so ridiculously competitive the fastest qualifier in 16-car fields regularly is just five- or six-hundredths from the slowest that truly anybody can win. Such tight fields only magnify the importance of drivers’ ability, which, for four-time world champ Jeg Coughlin, has always been a huge advantage.
As the 24-race NHRA season speeds to its conclusion, Coughlin is perfectly positioned for a fifth Pro Stock championship, 10 points out of the lead with three races to go, starting with this weekend’s Auto-Plus Nationals in Reading, Pa. It’s already been another solid season, with multiple event titles and a half-dozen final-round appearances, but for Coughlin, driver of the Jegs.com/Mopar Dodge Avenger, anything short a championship is an off year.
“When the season began, our goal was to be in the top three when the regular season ended and the playoffs started,” says Coughlin, who won the first race of the Countdown to the Championship playoffs to take over the points lead. “Now that the Countdown is here, it’s time for drivers to elevate their game and drive mistake-free. I’ve had a really, really good car all year and I’d say I’ve driven OK.”
Coughlin, who probably has won more rounds on holeshots than any driver in the 44-year history of Pro Stock nearly 100 and counting has been on the wrong end of a few holeshots this year. At the two races since his Charlotte score, for possibly the first time in his career, he was ousted at consecutive by slower cars. In Dallas, after going undefeated through the first six rounds of the Countdown all four rounds in Charlotte and the first round and quarterfinals in Dallas he lost on a semifinal holeshot to Shane Gray, 6.66 seconds to his quicker 6.62. Last weekend in St. Louis, his otherwise fine .039 reaction time and 6.539 wasn’t enough against Greg Anderson, who nipped him with a 6.571. Anderson would have lost with anything slower than a telepathic .007 reaction time, but he had a .005 to ace out Coughlin by the invisible margin of two-thousandths of a second.
“That one hurt even more than the one in Dallas because it was so close,” Coughlin says. “Sometimes, the stats can be a little deceiving and you’re really just splitting hairs, but those are the numbers that came up. I ran quicker and didn’t win, so shame on me. It’s a holeshot, and it hurt.”
Don’t look for it to happen again. And, fortunately for Coughlin, he’s barely out of the lead closer, actually, than he was three weeks ago when the Countdown got under way. He leads Dodge’s Pro Stock brigade, which also includes reigning world champion Allen Johnson and young phenom Vince Nobile, each of whom as won at least three races already this year. Coughlin is second in the standings, just 10 points behind leader Mike Edwards. A.J. is sixth but easily within striking distance, and Nobile, who won all three of the West Coast races Pomona, Sonoma, and Seattle is eighth.
Coughlin won Topeka and Chicago and was runner-up in Pomona, Gainesville, Sonoma, and Seattle. “We got to a lot of finals,” says Coughlin, who ranks fourth all-time in both career Pro Stock finals (92) and wins (55). “The only downside is that we came away with only two wins. Some of those losses were self-inflicted, and losing more finals than I win is not characteristic of the career I’ve had.”
Coughlin won championships in season-long points battles in 2000 (just his third year in Pro Stock) and 2002. He then surprised everyone by leaving the pro ranks in 2006, only to return the next year, the first year of the still-controversial playoff format, and win his third Pro Stock title.
“People wondered why I would just walk away like that, but for me, it was stepping away from the rigors of Pro Stock not the whole sport,” he says. “I still raced, just not in Pro Stock. NHRA isn’t 100 percent of my life, but at times it feels is. Every now and then, you just need a little rewind. I focused on big-money bracket racing that year, and I’ll put my ’06 season up against any year of my career.”
Coughlin did it again in 2011, only to return with Dodge power in 2012 and reach the final of his first race back. “After the ’10 season, we’d had a great couple of years won two championships, challenged for a couple more, and even were favored in one of the ones we didn’t win. It was just time, and I honestly had no definite plan for an immediate return.”
With a switch to Roy Johnson power for 2013, Coughlin is back bigger than ever, poised to win the championship as the races dwindle and the pressure to perform increases exponentially. “There’s more pressure now,” he says. “Definitely. There’s just more at stake. Hey, it’s the playoffs. You’re not going for one of 10 spots over 18 races. You’re going for number one over just six races. And now there’s only three left. It’s darn near sudden death. That’s great for the fans, which is what this is really all about, but for the engine staff, the at-the-track team, and the drivers, it really adds a lot of pressure.”
That’s where Coughlin has, probably more than anyone in all of Pro Stock, thrived. In the first year of the Countdown, 2007, he came from behind to win the championship. The next year? Won it again.
“That 2007 championship is something I’ll never forget,” he says. “I’ve been racing for a long time, and Sunday of the 2007 Finals was the most memorable single day of my entire career. It was amazing. I got goose bumps thinking about it just now. Going into that day, I was third, behind Dave Connolly and Greg Anderson. Connolly had won five races in a row that year the longest streak since Bob Glidden in the ’70s. Greg had just won four championships in a row. First round, the whole thing was unfolding right in front of me. Connolly red-lighted, then Greg got beat on a holeshot, and all the cards were on the table. It was all right there.
“I still remember letting the clutch out in the first round and knowing I cut a good light, and just praying nothing would break. Second gear, third gear, fourth gear, fifth gear they all seemed to take forever, and I was just praying nothing would break. Then it was one more round for the championship, and it was the same thing: a great light, everything worked perfectly, and we won the championship. Then we won the whole race, too. We did it then, so we can do it again this year.”
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