In the span of three races, Tim Wilkerson has moved up five spots in the NHRA Funny Car points standings. That’s how quickly things can change in the fast-paced world of the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six-race playoffs.
Wilkerson pulled an against-all-odds move at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Auto-Plus just to qualify for the playoffs. At the two opening rounds of the Countdown, the driver/tuner of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang has maneuvered from 10th to seventh in the standings.
He hopes to continue that forward trend at his home race this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park, which is officially returning to the NHRA schedule with the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Sept. 28-30. The race, round No. 3 in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, will be televised on ESPN2HD.
At the playoff opener in Charlotte two weeks ago, Wilkerson grabbed the No. 1 qualifying position and advanced to the quarterfinals. He qualified second in Dallas and advanced to the quarters again. Wilkerson feels some confidence heading home to St. Louis and Gateway Motorsports Park, a track where he has had success.
“I'm not sure we know how our past success will work here this time around,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve never raced here at the end of September before, so it’s going to be different. Seems like the St. Louis race was always one of those blistering hot deals, and we all remember the year they had to flood the track just to cool it off, so we’re all dealing with a blank page when it comes to this late-September thing. For us, though, you can’t help but feel the support and the good mojo our Wilk’s Warriors bring with them. You can feel that, for sure.”
Wilkerson, who lives about 90 miles north of Gateway Motorsports Park in Springfield, Ill., will certainly entertain plenty of his Wilk’s Warriors as well as associates and guests of sponsor Levi, Ray & Shoup during the weekend. He is hoping for a bit of a home-field advantage, and that’s always a plus for any team during the postseason.
“I call it more of a semi-home game,” Wilkerson said. “It hurt to lose this track, but it’s great to have it back, and now that it’s a fall race, it’s part of the playoffs, and that’s very cool. Like any racer who has a 'home game' will tell you, the whole being-close-to-home thing is a double-edged sword. It’s great to have so many friends and backers around, but you also spend a lot of time answering calls for tickets and sorting all of that out. It’s all good, though. It’s an easy road trip for my wife, Krista, and me.”
Wilkerson knows that he’ll need to grab a win at Gateway if he wants to keep trending upward in the standings. Series points leader Ron Capps has had two strong playoff races as well in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger. Other drivers in Wilkerson’s way are second-place Mike Neff, who won in Indy and was runner-up in Charlotte; Snap-on Tools Toyota driver and two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon; Robert Hight, who drives the Auto Club Ford Mustang; and Dallas top qualifier Courtney Force, 24-year-old rookie driver of the Traxxas Ford Mustang.
If anything, Wilkerson can draw inspiration from Hight, who won the world championship in 2009 from the 10th-place starting spot in the playoffs.
“We have nothing to lose,” Wilkerson said. “We got in on the last day, and we got in 10th. Worst we can do is 10th, so we'll just keep the hammer down, and we'll keep going for it. We’ve gone from barely getting in 10th to moving up to ninth and now to seventh place as we get ready for Gateway, so at least we’re trending in a positive direction.”
In Top Fuel, playoff top seed Antron Brown charged back to the top of the standings with a victory in Dallas and is tied with Spencer Massey for the points lead. Seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher is 24 points back in third, and the suddenly surging Shawn Langdon, who won the playoff opener in Charlotte, is fourth in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster, 41 behind the leaders.
Allen Johnson raced to victory in Dallas in Pro Stock and takes a 93-point lead to St. Louis over defending world champion Jason Line. A couple of young drivers, Dallas runner-up and three-time season winner Erica Enders and Charlotte No. 1 qualifier and two-time season winner Vincent Nobile, are showing that they are ready to claim a postseason victory. And you can never count out past world champs Greg Anderson, Mike Edwards, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the 200-mph factory hot rod category.
Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson riders Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines are still at the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings, but Michael Ray broke their streak of victories in Dallas when he claimed his first victory. Ray moved to fourth in the standings on his Viper Motorcycle Co. Buell, just behind Hector Arana Jr., who was the top qualifier in Texas on his Lucas Oil Buell.
* SCHEDULE: NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 28, and 11:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29. Final eliminations will begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30.
* TICKETS: For tickets for the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, call 618-215-8888 or log on to www.extremetix.com.
* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise one hour of qualifying coverage at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 30, preceded by a 90-minute version at 2:30 a.m., and three hours of eliminations coverage at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, Sept. 30. A 90-minute re-air of final eliminations will be broadcast Oct. 9 at 2:30 a.m. ET.
* LUCAS OIL SERIES: The AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals will feature competition in the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, where some of the future stars of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series are born. Lucas Oil Series qualifying begins at 8 a.m. on Sept. 28, and eliminations begin at 8 a.m. on Sept. 29 and continue through Sept. 30.
* NHRA PRO MOD SERIES presented by ProCare Rx: NHRA’s popular Pro Mod touring series will make its ninth start of the 10-race 2012 season at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals. The series features some of the world’s fastest and most unique doorslammer cars, with an eclectic mix of vintage and late-model body styles, in quarter-mile competition. The first qualifying sessions will be Friday, Sept. 28, at 2:30 and 5 p.m. Qualifying will continue on Saturday, Sept. 29, with the final session at 1:30 p.m., followed by the first round of eliminations at 4 p.m. Eliminations will continue Sunday, Sept. 30, at approximately 2:30 p.m.