Larry Dixon and Andrew Hines used respective wins in Top Fuel and Pro Stock Motorcycle at the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals to bolster their leads,and non-playoff runners Cruz Pedregon and Dave Connolly played spoilers in Funny Car and Pro Stock, respectively, at Maple Grove Raceway.
Matt Hagan and Greg Anderson may have been turned away in their respective Funny Car and Pro Stock finals, but both took over the points lead after the early losses of front-runners John Force and Mike Edwards. Dixon now leads by 89 points after defeating his closest challenger, Cory McClenathan, in the Top Fuel final, and Hagan leads by 64 over Force. Anderson’s lead over Edwards is 36, and Hines is in front of nemesis LE Tonglet by 72 markers after beating him in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final. The NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship playoffs reached the two-thirds-complete mark, with only the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals (Oct. 28-31) and the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals (Nov. 11-14) left to decide this year’s season champions.
Dixon remained perfect in final rounds this year, but it took some luck and some good driving for him to reach 12-0 after both his Al-Anabi machine and McClenathan’s Fram dragster broke traction. Dixon smoked the tires earlier but recovered better, and McClenathan lost the blower belt farther downtrack to help Dixon collect win No. 60, 4.90 to 5.10.
“I can hardly wait to watch [the final] on TV,” said Dixon. “Wow, it’s hell on the driver. You’d rather leave it in the car and let your car run really good and do all that. I stepped on the throttle and immediately spun the tires, and you’re coming off the throttle, and as you’re rolling back on, it’s like, ‘OK.’ Then, you look over in the other lane, and he shot way out there, and he kept going, and then, all of a sudden, I could see him start to spin the tires. I was like, ‘Hell, I might as well go for it and try to chase him down.’ Our car just hooked up. I had such a run on him, and I blew by him so fast. When I saw the win light come on, I was laughing and couldn’t believe it all at the same time because that’s a race you shouldn’t win, and I just won.
“Huge [day in the points]. I mean, you’re racing the No. 2 guy, and you could tighten it right up or spread it out. With two to go and over a four-round lead with eight rounds left, I’d rather be 90 up than 90 down.”
Dixon, the all-time class leader with 104 final rounds, defeated Terry McMillen, Doug Foley, and Dave Grubnic with runs of 3.84, 3.80, and a 3.82 that ceded lane choice in the final to McClenathan.
McClenathan’s dragster was steady all day as crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler sandwiched a pair of 3.81s around a 3.83 to defeat Dom Lagana, Shawn Langdon, and teammate Antron Brown. Cory Mac had to drive around Brown’s slight holeshot to win, 3.812 to 3.829, by just .009-second to reach his 65th Top Fuel final.
Despite failing to make the Funny Car playoffs, Pedregon has been a thorn in the side of those who did as he reached his second final of the postseason and took down four playoff runners Sunday, including new points leader Hagan in the final, 4.13 to 4.24.
“Hagan had a little bit on everybody,” said the Snap-on driver. “I’ll be honest with you, if you had said a 4.13 was going to win that, I would have said no way. We tried getting after it. We were kind of going for broke. We thought unless we could run a mid-4.0, this guy was going to send us packing. He must have had problems, but it was just a good win for us. Hagan’s going to be tough. I told Matt and his dad, ‘You guys are on the green. You just need to putt it in.’
“Friday if you had told me we would be here, I wouldn’t have believed it because we just didn’t have it together. We were doing things we were doing earlier in the year, and I thought, ‘Man, we’re really going to look like slouches,’ but we got it together Saturday. The car made two great runs Saturday, and we were just picking them off one at a time today. Other than the first round, we were flawless. We adjusted the car properly, and that’s just a credit to the team.”
Pedregon, winner two events ago in Charlotte, reached his 62nd Funny Car final by defeating blower-banging Ashley Force Hood, brother Tony, and Del Worsham with a steadily improving series of runs capped by his holeshot semifinal victory against Worsham, 4.139 to 4.136, which he scored by just .006-second. Pedregon’s victory is the 28th of his Funny Car career.
All three of the Team Force cars were out after the first round as points leader Force was unable to back up after his burnout against Dale Creasy Jr. and world champ Robert Hight smoked the tires against Tony Pedregon, paving the way for Hagan to take the lead.
Hagan’s dream weekend didn’t include a win but did include a national record pass of 4.011 in qualifying and a consistently quick car throughout eliminations. The DieHard Dodge raced to back-to-back 4.08s in the opening rounds to turn back Phil Burkart Jr. and Tim Wilkerson, then a 4.11 to stop upset-minded Jim Head in the semifinals.
It didn’t take Connolly long to get back to a winner’s circle after sitting out the better part of the last two seasons, and he scored his first win since the 2008 Virginia event and the 22nd of his Pro Stock career by besting Anderson.
“It was just an incredible weekend all together,” said Connolly. “Just to be out here is a lot of fun. I’ve definitely learned over the last couple of years that you don’t take anything for granted and just enjoy the weekends you do have out here because there’s a lot who are less fortunate than what I have. My dad was here. Unfortunately, it’s my mom’s birthday, and she wasn’t able to make it, but she told me to bring back a trophy for her when I left the house. I’m glad we were able to do that, so 'Happy birthday, Mom.'
“Our goal was to kind of make it interesting, and we definitely have. Going into it when we started this program with IDG and everyone involved, there was only one place for us to go for technical support, and that was Cagnazzi. We’ve had a lot of success in the past, and that’s where we went and hit the ground running pretty hard. We had a fresh group of guys come in that had never turned a wrench on a Pro Stock car. They might be rookies, but they didn’t show it today. We were well-prepared every run, and when you have confidence in the run, that makes my job easier.”
Connolly reached the final by racing the IDG Makita Power Tools Cobalt past Ron Krisher, Larry Morgan, and rookie Shane Gray with a pair of 6.55s and a semifinal 6.59.
Anderson raced to his third straight final round of the playoffs, but he certainly didn’t have an easy path. He had to defeat the always-tough Jeg Coughlin Jr. in round one, then the class’ all-time win leader, Warren Johnson, in round two. His victory over W.J. moved him into the points lead and a semifinal battle with Summit teammate Jason Line, which Anderson won on a 6.57 to 6.59 count.
Points leader Edwards eliminated himself in round one with a -.002 red-light against Morgan, clearing the path for Anderson to take the lead.
For the fourth straight time in the four Countdown playoffs events, the Pro Stock Motorcycle final came down to points leader Hines and rookie challenger Tonglet. Tonglet had defeated Hines in the money round in Indy, Charlotte, and Dallas, but Hines turned the tables with a brilliant holeshot win, 6.916 to 6.913.
“When I saw that win light, that was one of the prettiest win lights I’ve seen in a long time,” said Hines. “I’m trying to rely on some of the other competitors out there to take LE out early, but we keep matching up in the final round. It’s been tough with that little blue bike beating us the last few races. We were wondering what it was going to take to get it done.
“We have a nice cushion. It could come down to just a few measly points there at the end. We have a very consistent motorcycle. Unfortunately, throughout Sunday, we just seem to lose our tune-up. The bike just goes slower, slower, and slower. It’s done it the last four races, and LE’s just been consistent and getting us those last three. But we were able to put together a decent enough package. It ran hard to the eighth-mile, but it didn’t run the back half like it should.”
Hines raced to his seventh straight final round of the season and the 40th of his career by defeating Neil Jacobs’ Kawasaki, Angie Smith’s Buell, and teammate Eddie Krawiec’s Harley in the semifinals with passes of 6.85, 6.86, and a slowing 6.90. The final-four battle of the Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines teammates raised eyebrows when Krawiec, who’s out of the championship hunt, was late off the line, but Hines insisted that the race was run with no team orders.
Tonglet got two free passes to begin Sunday when Karen Stoffer and low qualifier Hector Arana red-lighted against his Nitro Fish Suzuki, which ran 6.86 and 6.88. Matt Smith was green against the first-year rider in the semifinals, but his 7.00 was no match for Tonglet’s second straight 6.88.
Friday: McClenathan, Hagan, Johnson, Krawiec lead fields in Reading
Saturday: Hagan sets Funny Car national record; Dixon, A.J., Arana also lead final fields