Larry Dixon, Matt Hagan, Allen Johnson, and Hector Arana finished atop their respective fields Saturday and will lead their classes into final eliminations battle Sunday at Maple Grove Raceway.
Although atmospheric conditions changed from Friday’s fantasy settings and major improvements were limited, a number of drivers did improve on their Friday outings as they jockeyed for position for Sunday’s final eliminations. The Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals is the fourth race of the six-event NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship playoffs and with tight points battles raging in all four classes, teams also were battling for every bonus point they could earn by being among the class’ top-three performers in each qualifying session.
Funny Car championship contender Hagan reset his own 4.022 national record with the DieHard Dodge by backing up his Friday 4.011 with a 4.046 to provisionally earn the 20 bonus points that would move him into the points lead ahead of John Force by four points. If it stands, the record points will not officially be added to Hagan’s total until the event’s completion.
“It’s stuff you dream about out there,” said Hagan. “It’s great that we have a car that’s capable of coming up here and laying that kind of number down, even with the sun out like that. It’s just a real testament of how smart Tommy DeLago is and how hardworking the crew is. I was up there on pins and needles and just trying to do everything right and keep it in the groove and make it go to the other end. When I sent through the trap, I could see the mph. I was trying to duck to see the e.t., but I couldn’t see it, but the guys came over real quick on the radio and said we got it done. It was just an overwhelming feeling. I guess that evens up the points for now, but we’ve still got a lot of racing to do. As of tonight, that’s huge us. We’ll put this behind us after tonight, after we do a little celebrating, and focus on tomorrow.
“We went .08 in the heat [first session], and Tommy said, ‘We’ve got a great baseline for tomorrow. I feel confident with what we’re going to do, so pull your seatbelts down tight because we’re going to go for it this evening.’ I thought that even if we didn’t get it done this evening, I figured first round tomorrow he would probably step up. That’s just Tommy’s nature. He’s no fear. He’s going to go for it, whether it’s race day or qualifying. I’m just tickled. It kind of takes a little pressure off that we got it done this evening, and we can really focus on racing our racetrack tomorrow.”
Incoming points leader Force could not better this Friday 4.057 and remained in the No. 2 spot while teammate and reigning world champ Robert Hight remained third with his earlier 4.060 and Jack Beckman, Hagan’s teammate fourth with his 4.068, making it a Don Schumacher Racing Dodge sandwich around the two John Force Racing Fords. The third DSR entry, the special-edition Susan G, Komen for the Cure NAPA Auto Parts Dodge is fifth with a 4.068.
Former world champ Cruz Pedregon made the class’ biggest move, jumping up from 11th to sixth with a 4.081. Bib Tasca III is seventh at 4.085 and Paul Lee eighth at 4.089.
Phil Burkart Jr. , in his first event of the season, qualified for the field in the 16th spot with a 4.208 and draws Hagan in round one.
Top Fuel points leader Dixon waited for his final pass to race to the top of the pack with the Al-Anabi dragster, charting a 3.786 at 322.42 mph that broke both ends of the track record to take the No. 1 spot from longtime rival and reigning world champ Tony Schumacher. The pole position is Dixon’s third in four playoff events, his eighth of the season and the 48th of his great career.
“It was a great job by the team,” said Dixon. “Weather conditions this weekend are pretty good to where you should be able to fire some shots. We’ve seen it in Funny Car and just hadn’t come up in Top Fuel, but I was glad to see us be able to do it in that last session. As I went through, it was pretty straight, pretty true. When you’re not having to drive it a lot, you have a chance when you shut it off to try and catch the scoreboard when you pass it, and I saw the .78 on it and was like, ‘Wow, that was nice.’
“The racetrack’s a lot different when the sun’s on it versus when it’s dark. Last night, there was optimum conditions, but we just didn’t have the right setup in the car to take advantage of it. Fortunately for us, we’re racing during the day. That was such a great number. I was happy to see it come up for Alan [Johnson, team manager] and Jason [McCulloch, crew chief] and Sheikh Kalid. Everybody on the team did a great job. I was pretty happy to see it come up.”
Schumacher’s Army dragster had grabbed the No. 1 spot from Don Schumacher Racing teammate Cory McClenathan in the day’s first session with a 3.823 that matched Cory Mac’s Friday best, but Schumacher’s speed of 319.14 mph was superior to McClenanathan’s316.01, but McClenathan’s Fram dragster got back around Schumacher on the day’s final pass with a 3.815 for the No. 2 spot.
Dave Grubnic earned his second top-half start of the playoffs with a 3.838 recorded with the Kalitta Air dragster in Saturday’s first session while teammate Doug Kalitta is right on his heels with a 3.850 316.38. Antron Brown and the Matco Tools rail is sixth at 3.863 while Shawn Langdon (3.874) and part-timer Doug Foley (3.887) round out the top eight/
Terry McMillen put his Amalie Oil dragster into the field’s final spot with a 3.931 and will face Dixon in Sunday’s opening round.
Johnson placed his Mopar Avenger in the No. 1 spot in Pro Stock for the third time in his last six raceday starts based on his Friday 6.551. His runs of 6.570 and 6.571 Saturday were consistent but not the quickest of the rounds, tempering his happiness. His final pass was the just the third quickest of the round to earn one point; he earned no bonus points in the first session.
“This morning was almost as good as last night but we didn’t make good runs today,” he said. “I may have gotten one bonus point and we needed to do better. Everyone picked up this morning and we didn’t and I’m a little mad about that. We were just soft with out tune-up. Nothing wrong; just soft. Sometimes you hit it and sometimes you miss and we certainly missed it.
“I’m still confident and I feel good but I have to go out and win this race tomorrow. It’s as simple as that. Anything less and I’ll be disappointed. We’ve got the car to do it. I just need to go and get it done.”
V. Gaines also found no improvement with his Kendall Oil Avenger and remained second with his earlier 6.557 and points leader Mike Edwards also stayed pout after failing to better his Friday 6.561.
Jason Line moved up a few spots with his Summit Racing Equipment Pontoac after posting a 6.565 in Saturday’s first session to move past Rodger Brogdon, who slipped one spot but still finished fifth with a 6.565. Dave Connolly also made strides with 6.566 for the No. 6 spot while Ronnie Humphrey is seventh at 6.568 and Jeg Coughlin eighth with an improved 6.569.
Warren Johnson ended up on the bump spot of a quick field with a 6.599 and will take on the non-related Johnson’s Dodge in round one.
Comebacking class legend Bob Glidden did not make the field with the Cunningham Motorsports Mustang 6.686.
Reigning season champ Arana has had a dismal playoffs so far, but the rider of the Lucas Oil Buell got a much-needed lift after picking up nearly a tenth of a second on his final run, improving from a 6.913 to a dazzling 6.828, the second quickest pass in class history, to wrest the lead away from track-record holder Eddie Krawiec and earn his fifth pole of the season.
“We’ve been struggling,” Arana admitted. “We started struggling at Brainerd, and from there on, it just kept getting worse. I replaced just about everything, and in Dallas on Saturday, I replaced the ECU and the harness, and I go, ‘Guys, after this, I have replaced everything. If it’s still doing it, we’ve got to replace one more thing: The loose nut between the seat and the handle bars.’
“When I was looking carefully at the weather conditions, I knew it was staying steady — it was just a couple hundred feet worse. I feel awesome to make this awesome run. It didn’t feel like a .82. I knew it felt good because the 1st gear I had control over it, and I felt comfortable. Then I went into 2nd and it was going smooth, and then into third and now I’m waiting for my shift points. It wasn’t like the bike was ahead of me; I was waiting for the bike, and it was going straight as an arrow. The bike never stopped pulling. The Hammer’s back.”
Krawiec had a final shot at retaking his lead, but his Screamin’ Eagle/Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson could only muster a 6.872, so he remained No. 2 based on his Friday clocking of 6.855. Krawiec’s Harley teammate, former world champ and current points leader Andrew Hines, improved to a 6.859 to move to the No. 3 spot and also broke the 195.85-mph speed mark that Krawiec set yesterday with a blast of 196. 56. Another ex-champ, Matt Smih, is fourth aboard his Al-Anabi Racing Buell with a 6.875.
Jim Underdahl has the field’s quickest Suzuki as his Suzuki Extended Protection machine raced to a 6.883 for the No. 5 spot in front of a trio of other Suzuki riders -- Craig Treble (6.883), Michael Phillips (6.898), and second-place points runer LE Tonglet (6.907) – to fill out the field’s top half,
Connie Cohen qualified in the No. 16 spot and will provide Arana’s first-round opposition Sunday.
Friday: McClenathan, Hagan, Johnson, Krawiec lead fields in Reading