July 15, 2015

There is no denying the fact that Dave Connolly has made significant progress in recent weeks during his debut season in Top Fuel. But Connolly’s next major learning experience takes place at a critical time, as the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series kicks off its legendary Western Swing at Bandimere Speedway near Denver.

The 36th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals, July 24-26, presents one of the most unique challenges on the NHRA circuit, meaning Connolly will also be racing his 10,000-horsepower C&J Energy Services dragster for the first time at an elevation of more than 5,800 feet.

“I love Denver and I love Bandimere Speedway, but it’s been one of those places where I haven’t had a lot of confidence,” Connolly said. “The guys on the Top Fuel team seem comfortable racing there and after Chicago I’m really looking forward to going this year. It’s a lot different when it comes to the changes you have to make and this is definitely a learning year but we learned a lot in Chicago. Denver is going to be exciting and I definitely love going there.”

J.R. Todd (Top Fuel), Robert Hight (Funny Car), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the event. ESPN2 will provide television coverage of qualifying and eliminations at the event. It is the 14th of 24 events during the 2015 season and the first of three on the Western Swing as teams prepare for one final push before the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.

For the former Pro Stock standout that means trying to make a major move in the loaded Top Fuel class. In a class filled with juggernauts, Connolly is trying to make a dent in the top 10 in his first season, currently sitting in 12th and 54 points behind 10th-place Steve Torrence.

The good news for Connolly is he has made significant strides over the past two months. After seven first-round losses in the first eight races, Connolly and his team have just one over the past five, that coming to red-hot teammate Larry Dixon, who has four final round appearances in the last six races.

The brightest spot came last weekend in Chicago, where Connolly posted his second semifinal appearance, losing in an incredibly close race to eventual winner Tony Schumacher. Denver will present massively different conditions, but Connolly will take confidence into Bandimere Speedway knowing his team appears to have left its early-season struggles behind.

“You can’t look back on the year but we put ourselves in a tough position,” said Connolly, who has 26 career Pro Stock wins. “I’ll look after the Western Swing and see where we are and what we need to do, but you can’t do anything about what happened earlier this season. You just have to focus on the now and we had a car that was capable of winning in Chicago. Drag racing can be a major mental game and we’re racing against some animals in this class.”

That includes last year’s defending Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals winner Todd, as well as his Kalitta Motorsports teammate Doug Kalitta, a two-time winner this season in his Mac Tools dragster. Other contenders include points leader and reigning champion Schumacher, Dixon, Antron Brown and Richie Crampton, who both have three wins this season, Brittany Force, Spencer Massey, Shawn Langdon, Clay Millican and Torrence.

With a slew of powerhouses it also means Connolly has had to learn on the fly in 2015. Despite being what he called his own “worst critic,” he has made impressive improvements. He has gotten more familiar powering his 10,000-horsepower dragster down the track, noting he did a much better job keeping the dragster in the groove in Chicago.

There is still work to be done, but Connolly remains excited about contending for a spot in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“Obviously I’m very pleased with the team Bob put together,” Connolly said. “At this point in the season I was hoping to be sitting a little higher in the standings, but to be in this position and have a full-time ride with one of the baddest Top Fuel rides is extremely exciting. Hopefully we can pull it off and get into the top 10, but it’s not going to be an easy task with so many good cars.”

It also makes a strong start on the Western Swing imperative and that means performing well at Bandimere Speedway. But Connolly also realizes that he can’t try to do too much.

“We’ve got a long road to go,” Connolly said. “Chicago was great but we have to take care of what’s in front of us now. I’ve got some great guys ahead of me and it’s not going to be easy to get around them. I have to take it one race and one round at a time. If I do my job the points will take care of themselves. We’ve got five races (before the Countdown) so hopefully we can get a win or two.”

In Funny Car, Bandimere Speedway has been a Funny Car favorite for John Force Racing’s stable of drivers throughout the years with a combined 11 wins among three drivers. John Force, a 16-time world champion, has six wins at Denver and teammate Hight has three victories, including last season. Other Funny Car stars are two-time event winner Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, reigning world champion Matt Hagan, Del Worsham, Alexis DeJoria, two-time race winner Cruz Pedregon, Chicago winner Tommy Johnson Jr., Tim Wilkerson and Funny Car’s winningest female, Courtney Force.

No driver has had more recent success at a certain track than Allen Johnson has had at Bandimere Speedway in Pro Stock. Johnson, the 2012 world champ who won recently in Chicago, has claimed the last three in a row and six of the last eight at Denver. Four-time world champ and current points Greg Anderson has had one of the hottest hot rods in the category with four wins on the season. Defending world champ Erica Enders, who attended the ESPYs on July 15 as a nominee in the Best Driver category, has four wins this season and Phoenix winner Rodger Brogdon, rookie sensation Drew Skillman, Houston runner-up Chris McGaha and Vincent Nobile are all expected to be major contenders in the popular factory hot rod category.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson team has had major success in the Rockies and hopes to continue that trend in 2015. Matt Hines, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec have combined for nine wins on the track. Gainesville winner Karen Stoffer, two-time Denver winner Angelle Sampey, perennial title contender and Chicago winner Hector Arana Jr., Atlanta winner Hector Arana and many more figure to give their best shot in the two-wheel category.