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What a drag: Alexander knocks off Schumacher
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SONOMA — A sellout crowd jammed the grandstands at beautiful Sonoma Raceway on Sunday for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series 31st Annual Toyota Sonoma Nationals final eliminations. 

Three of the four Pro categories were dominated by heavyweights as LE Tonglet in Pro Stock Motorcycle, Jeg Coughlin Jr. in Pro Stock and Robert Hight in Funny Car picked up wins while Blake Alexander was the surprise victor in Top Fuel.

Alexander (Pronto Auto Service Center dragster) survived a first round scare where he defeated Mike Salinas after Salinas crossed over the centerline just behind Alexander and followed him across the finish line.

“I think he was drafting me for a little bit,” joked Alexander.

Two prerace favorites, defending race champion Steve Torrence and Leah Pritchett, became first round casualties when both uncharacteristically red-lighted making Alexander’s task a bit easier.

Alexander knocked off Antron Brown and Scott Palmer in the second and third rounds to make it to his fourth ever career final where he faced off against Tony Schumacher, an eight-time Top Fuel champion with 84 career wins, who was making his 151st final appearance.

Alexander ran a relatively slow pass of 4.004-seconds at 287.41 mph, but it was good enough to take him to the winner’s circle when Schumacher blew a cylinder while leading halfway down the track.

 “I just tried to stay calm as my car started to deteriorate near the end of the race,” said Alexander, who was competing in only his sixth event of the season. “My life has changed this year with how well we have been running, and the opportunity that Bob (Vandergriff) has given me to drive his racecar has been paramount in my career to take me to higher levels.” 

Robert Hight (Auto Club of Southern California Chevrolet Camaro SS) laid down a blistering 3.984 sec/319.75 mph run to defeat 2016 Funny Car champion Ron Capps in the finals to notch his second win of the season and the second of his career at Sonoma.

Hight, the defending Funny Car world champion, only qualified in the 11th position, but salvaged the weekend for the John Force Racing stable after #1 Funny Car qualifier Courtney Force was upset in the first round, her sister Brittany went out in the second round of Top Fuel and John Force, the Funny Car winner at Denver last weekend, was eliminated in the second round.

“We never give up. With our crew we know that in the next round whatever is wrong is going to get fixed,” explained Hight, who now has 43 career victories. “This is the time of year you have to get it together if you want to win a championship, and we know we need to keep clicking before we start off the Countdown to the Championship.”

Oakdale rookie Rich Townsend, who survived an excursion into the runoff sandbox and concrete wall during Friday’s qualifying after his chutes failed to deploy, was able to regroup and make it to Sunday’s finals where he spun the tires in a first round loss to Capps. 

It was David versus Goliath when five-time world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. squared off against Deric Kramer, who was seeking his second career win, in the Pro Stock final.

Unfortunately for Kramer, there would be no upset on this Sunday as Coughlin ( Performance Chevrolet Camaro) outran Kramer in a great side by side battle to win by just a fraction of a second (6.532 to 6.534) and chalk up his third win of the season and the 61st of his career.

“We have really come on strong the last few races and to get a win here at Sonoma is just fantastic,” said Coughlin, who also won at Sonoma in 2010 and 2003. “We never once felt like we had to back-off because of these conditions, and seeing four win lights turn on at this track is an amazing feeling.”

LE Tonglet (Nitro Fish Racing Suzuki) nipped Andrew Hines by half of a bike length to take home the “Wally” trophy in in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class. It was the second win of the season and third straight at Sonoma for the 2010 world champion.

“This is my favorite track by far. The weather is awesome and the fans are always great,” said Tonglet. “We have a great tune up for this place and the bike was just flying.”

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series now heads to Pacific Raceways in Seattle, Washington for the CatSpot Northwest Nationals on August 3-5, the final leg of the three race Western Swing.