Doug Kalitta in Top Fuel and Allen Johnson in Pro Stock broke through for their first wins of the season and were joined in the winner’s circle by Robert Hight (Funny Car) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle) at the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway outside of Denver.
During the event – the final leg of the three-race Western Swing and the second-to-last event in the Countdown to the Championship’s 17-event regular season – nine drivers locked up berths in the playoff fields that will pit the top 10 drivers in all four classes in a six-race fight to the finish that begins Labor Day weekend at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil. [Story: Nine more lock up playoff berths; Dixon clinches top seed ]
One thing was certain in the Top Fuel final: One driver would finally find salvation, the other continued frustration as Kalitta, winless in four finals this year and without a victory since the 2009 Kragen O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Winternationals presented by Valvoline, paired off with Brandon Bernstein, 0-2 in finals this year for new sponsor Copart and without a tour victory since last fall’s Virginia event. Kalitta joined his uncle Connie, a two-time winner here, and late cousin Scott, a three-time Denver champ, as king of the hill, taking the victory, the 32nd of his career, 3.96 to 4.00.
“When I saw the win light come on down there, it was real special, a great relief,” said Kalitta. “They do a great job here, and each year, the facility gets better and better, and I’m just glad to finally get a win here. I’ve been close a lot of times, and fortunately, we got it done today.
“This is really going to help motivate our team and give us the confidence that we can run with these guys going into the Countdown, and hopefully we can prove it. I’m just really proud of Jim Oberhofer, my crew chief, and all the guys today. It was a great team effort.”
Kalitta, who had been runner-up four times at this event, rode a trio of 3.9-second passes to reach his fifth final of the season and 63rd of his career en route to defeating Terry McMillen, Steve Torrence, and 2007 Denver winner “Hot Rod” Fuller.
Bernstein pounded out passes of 3.96 and 3.97 in the first two rounds to best Cory McClenathan and defending event champ Antron Brown, then defeated points leader and former beer-war rival Larry Dixon in the semifinals to take a narrow 18-17 edge in their lifetime meetings. Bernstein slowed to a 4.00, but it was enough to cover the tire-hazing 4.44 of Dixon’s Al-Anabi machine to reach his 35th Top Fuel final.
Hight, the defending Funny Car world champ, closed the gap ever so slightly on his boss, John Force, by defeating the points leader, 4.21 to 4.38, for his fourth victory of the year and the 17th of his career. Hight trails Force by just 28 points.
“I’ve been in a couple of finals before with John and never been able to get the job done, but today was our turn,” said Hight. “You know, when you go up there against John that you better give it your all because he’s going to be ready. Our cars are set up real similar, so we know what they can run, and we had to go up there and give it our all.
“It’s nice to get back on the winning side here in Denver. My crew chief, Jimmy Prock, has never had a problem making horsepower, but with the racetrack being so good last year with the cooling system and everything, we just didn’t have enough horsepower, and that bothered Jimmy. He came in here with a game plan – new parts and different things – and he definitely found the horsepower that he needed.”
Hight, who won this event in his 2005 rookie season, raced back to the final, the 31st of his career and fifth this year, after defeating James Day in round one, defending event champ Ron Capps on a holeshot in round two, and low qualifier Matt Hagan in the semifinals.
Force, a five-time winner in Denver, assured that he’d leave the mountain with the points lead by reaching the final to face his hard-charging employee. Force, the all-time NHRA record holder for wins and final rounds, reached the 209th final of his career and seventh this season in pursuit of win No. 131 by defeating Paul Lee, Bob Tasca III, and fellow world champ Cruz Pedregon, ending Pedregon’s best season outing.
Three of Johnson’s eight national event Pro Stock wins have been at his sponsor’s event, and his triumph this year was his first of the season and first since he won this race last year. Johnson, who also scored in Denver in 2007 and was runner-up in 2008, was never challenged in the final, cutting a .004 light and racing to a 6.97 to easily beat Jeg Coughlin Jr., who had to abort his pass.
“We wouldn’t mind having all 23 races here,” said Johnson. “We really have an awesome setup for here. The engine guys, the car guys, and everyone else did their job, [and I] can’t say enough about them. We just made a perfect run every run. To go up against Greg [Anderson] in the second round, and of course against Jeg in the final, I knew that I had to be on my game. Fortunately, I was able to do that. I had a .073 light in the first round and knew that I had to pick it up after that. I was tickled with the .004 that I had against Jeg in the final. We’re just going to have to keep getting after it, be aggressive in trying to win the championship and hopefully pull it off.
“It was great having all the Mopar folks here. They’re not just sponsors to us. They’re like family. This was the perfect place to get my first win of the year.”
En route to the 20th final of his career, Johnson’s Mopar Avenger raced past Bob Yonke, Anderson, and Johnny Gray with six-second passes -- 6.973, 6.998, and 6.997, all of which were low for the round – to earn the right to face Coughlin.
Coughlin, who won last weekend in Sonoma, reached his second straight final, his fifth this season, and the 82nd of his career with a pair of six-second passes that sandwiched a solid 7-flat in trailering Erica Enders, Vinnie Deceglie, and rookie Shane Gray, who red-lighted in the semifinals.
The final round in Pro Stock Motorcycle pitted two riders whose last win was in Atlanta; for Hines it was earlier this year, but for Karen Stoffer, it was three long years ago. Hines kept her winless streak alive with a convincing 7.34 to 7.40 victory, the 21st of his career and his second in Denver. With the win, Hines pulled to within 60 points of leader Hector Arana.
“Today, I was playing with fire all day long with .00 lights [.006, .004, and .007] in the first three rounds,” said Hines, who was runner-up here last year. “We backed it off for the final to make sure that we wouldn’t red-light. We wanted to have a .030 and got a .029. We know that Karen is a very tough competitor, and we didn’t want to make any mistakes.
“I grew up three hours south of here in Trinidad, Colo., so it’s good to win here on the mountain. This place is my home. We didn’t have the best motorcycle this weekend, just like we didn’t have the best motorcycle [when we won] at Sonoma, but we were able to get the job done. That says a lot about our team. I’ve also been stressing out all weekend because we’ve got a baby coming. I was waiting for a phone call all weekend, but we never got one.”
Hines, who also won in Houston this season, reached his 35th final by defeating a trio of Suzukis, setting down rookie of the year hopeful LE Tonglet, Jim Underdahl, and low qualifier Michael Phillips. In a rematch of their title bout in Sonoma last weekend, Phillips red-lighted to Hines’ Harley. Prior to that race, Hines had beaten Phillips nine straight times.
Stoffer, who had yet to reach even the semifinals this season, went that much better by reaching the final aboard her GEICO Suzuki. On the heels of a great qualifying effort, Stoffer defeated red-lighting Angie Smith and fellow Suzuki riders Craig Treble and Steve Johnson to reach the 12th final round of her career and her first since last fall’s Charlotte event.
In NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series action, David Bogner in Super Stock, Brad Burton in Stock, and John Dexter in Super Street each collected his second Mile-High Nationals trophy and were joined in victory by Terry Edwards in Super Comp and Mike Wiblishouser in Super Gas.
Friday: Johnson's Dodge tops in Denver; Brown, Force, Phillips also lead
Saturday: Hagan moves to Funny Car pole; Brown, Johnson, Phillips hold Friday leads