Tanner Gray enjoyed the most spectacular homecoming of his brief-but-impressive NHRA career on Sunday, as the Denver, North Carolina, native rocketed to a thrilling Pro Stock victory in the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

Gray - an 18-year-old rookie - kicked off the NHRA's six-race Countdown to the Championship with his first win at the Bellagio of drag strips. Gray's 6.024-second, 208.07-mph pass in the finals held off Greg Anderson by just .024 seconds.

"This season has gone better than anybody expected," said Gray, who took over the points lead after his fifth win of the season. "The guys have such a great handle on the car that they make my job easy. Everybody pitched in today. I guess that's just how this deal works. I couldn't be any more proud of them.

"This is probably up there among my biggest wins. My grandparents came from New Mexico to watch. I'm not really an emotional guy, but my grandpa hugged me and it was hard not to tear up. I'm blessed to be able to win here. It's definitely special."

Robert Hight bested John Force Racing teammate Courtney Force with a .019-second reaction time and a 3.911-second, 302.75-mph pass in the Funny Car finals. Hight - who entered the Countdown seeded second in Funny Car points - claimed his fifth win at zMAX Dragway and his third in the NHRA Carolina Nationals.

"This is probably one of the toughest race days I've ever had," Hight said. "All four drivers I faced today (Matt Hagan, Tommy Johnson Jr., J.R. Todd and Courtney Force) are in the Countdown. I would've been bummed if we didn't take advantage of all those cars dropping out early. I felt like we had to capitalize and win today. … We definitely earned this one."

Doug Kalitta entered the weekend ranked fifth in Top Fuel standings but ended Sunday ranked first. After the top four drivers failed to advance to the finals, Kalitta moved to the top in points after he claimed the No. 1 spot in qualifying and prevailed in the final over Richie Crampton with a 3.775-second, 318.39-mph pass.

Kalitta's victory was the 43rd of his career and his first at zMAX Dragway.

"Getting my first win at this great facility is huge for me and for my family," Kalitta said. "This is a great day for sure. …This is just the first (Countdown) race but it's great momentum and this is definitely the time to make it happen. We'll keep our heads down and stay after it."

Eddie Krawiec's Countdown kicked off with a narrow victory. The Vance & Hines Harley rider held off teammate and No. 1 Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifier Andrew Hines with a 6.850-second, 196.87-mph pass in the finals.

"To me, this is actually a bigger one (to win than the U.S. Nationals)," said Krawiec, who earned his 40th career victory in the Countdown opener. "I enjoy racing at Charlotte. I love this drag strip. This is a beautiful place and the Smiths do nothing short of spectacular.

"To come out of here with the points lead (is great). I think statistics show that whoever comes out of here with the points lead tends to win the championship. I hope that holds true."

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