CHANDLER, Ariz. – A tremendous rookie season has only pushed Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray to raise the bar even higher for the 2018 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, which is why a strong start to the year is important for the rising star.
It didn’t happen at the season-opener in Pomona, where Gray fell in the first round to eventual winner and defending world champion Bo Butner, but that hasn’t dampened Gray’s spirits heading to this weekend’s NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park.
The 19-year-old talent looks to make an early-season impact at Phoenix in his Valvoline/Nova Services Chevrolet Camaro.
“I feel very good going into Phoenix,” said Gray, who earned the NHRA’s Auto Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award last year after winning five races. “We think we fixed our problem from Pomona, had some tune up issues. It’s crazy how tough it is to get these things running right, I feel like we are still constantly learning about the fuel injection stuff but we got it fixed and, all in all, I feel confident going into this weekend.”
Phoenix marks the second of 24 races during the 2018 NHRA campaign and a big season last year only has Gray anxious for more this time around.
Gray went to seven final rounds in 2017, earned four No. 1 qualifiers and won the opening race of the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship, jumping into the points lead at that point. Some late-season stumbles dropped him to fourth overall, but it still ended up being a promising rookie year.
That kind of run also brings added attention, and maybe some extra pressure, but Gray is ready to accomplish more.
“It was definitely a great start,” Gray said. “My expectations for this year are the same as I had last year – to win. I try to take it race by race and not get too far ahead of myself. I feel like if I can go to each race focused on winning that race then I’ll be a lot better off. I try not to think about the championship too much, we just gotta take it race by race and see where the chips fall.”
Gray’s first career Pro Stock win came in just his fourth career start, with the early success paying major dividends the rest of the year. Knowing full well what a win can do for the team’s momentum, Gray is eager to have a strong result in Phoenix.
However, he’ll have to get by the likes of KB Racing teammates Butner, Greg Anderson and Jason Line, as well as two-time world champ Erica Enders, two-time event winner Jeg Coughlin, Alex Laughlin, Deric Kramer and teammate Drew Skillman.
But Gray learned a great deal during the high-pressure situations he faced a year ago, something that will likely benefit him throughout the 2018 season.
“Every race is important to me,” Gray said. “I mean, obviously it’s not to the magnitude of a Countdown race when you’re running for a championship, but every race matters and every point matters. Drag racing is so close and every single point you can get will benefit you at some point throughout the season.”
CREDIT: NHRA Communications