Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock), and Hector Arana (Pro Stock Motorcycle) helped their bids for the 2009 world championships in their classes when they held onto the No. 1 qualifying spots at the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals. Rookie Matt Hagan also maintained his hold of the top spot in Funny Car.
All four drivers kept their leads on the runs they posted in the quick late-day session Friday, runs that were never really in jeopardy on Saturday. Antron Brown posted the best time of the day in Top Fuel, running a 3.834, but he was still about three-hundredths off the 3.805 Dixon ran Friday to grab the pole. Robert Hight had the best Funny Car lap on Saturday, but his 4.089 was well slower than Hagan’s 4.030. Edwards was the best car of Saturday with a 6.664 that lagged about four-hundredths behind his pole-setting 6.623. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Eddie Krawiec was tops of the day with a 7.023 in the early session, but as was the case in the other classes, that was quite a bit below Arana’s No. 1 time of 6.979.
Dixon remained perfect in qualifying in the Countdown to 1 races, collecting his fifth straight No. 1 start, his ninth of the season, and the 40th of his career. He also added another three bonus points for a total of six on the weekend, which is the amount by which Dixon was able to trim Tony Schumacher’s lead, from 47 points to 41.
“You can pick up the nickels and the pennies and all that kind of points in qualifying, but you get 20 points a round on race day, and that’s what makes a big chunk,” said Dixon. “At this point, I’m not looking any further than Morgan Lucas [in the first round]. It’s a great car. It’s a Countdown car, so you’ve just got to go in there and race your own race and not get ahead of yourself. We’ve just got to go up there and race Morgan Lucas and go to the next round and just hope that you can get the round-wins. If we’re fortunate enough to go on to win the race, then obviously we’ll have made up some ground.
“This is a great racetrack. You get to see some great numbers go up on the board, whether the sun’s out or it’s nighttime. And the fans are great. We obviously love what we do, but when you roll up to the starting line, you’re sitting up in the water, and you look out and see the stands full, that makes you proud of what you do for a living.”
Though he struggled on both runs Saturday, Steve Torrence remained second thanks to his 3.831 Friday. Brown jumped up to third, and Tony Schumacher slipped to fourth when he couldn’t better his 3.839. Cory McClenathan grabbed the fifth spot when he improved to a 3.841 in the final session. Brandon Bernstein, Shawn Langdon, and Norway’s Thomas Nataas round out the quick eight. Nataas is one of three European races who made the field; Switzerland’s Urs Erbacher qualified 13th, and Denmark racer Stig Neergaard secured the 14th position.
Morgan Lucas was the final driver to qualify for the program, posting a 16th-best 3.978; he faces Dixon in round one. Points leader Schumacher has Erbacher in round one. Dixon and Schumacher are on the same side of the ladder, creating a potential meeting in the semifinals.
With 26 Top Fuelers on the grounds, 10 were relegated to the sidelines after qualifying. Among them were Mike Strasburg, Troy Buff, and Chris Karamesines, a regular qualifier this year.
With rookie of the year balloting underway, Hagan made a strong push for voters to consider him when he secured his second No. 1 start of the season; he was also the top qualifier in Sonoma in July. Hagan showed his strong run Friday was no fluke when he paced Saturday’s early session with a 4.153, setting him up for what he hopes will be another good day on Sunday.
“We’ve had a great weekend so far, and the only way for us to top this off is with a win tomorrow,” said Hagan. “This is a good team and a good car, and we showed that we can run in the heat this morning and we’ve got a good tune-up. I think that’s what Tommy [DeLago, crew chief] is going to do tomorrow. I think he’s going to go right back to what we did this morning and make it go right down the track. That’s what I’m looking forward to, and hopefully our plan will come together and work for us.”
“I would love to come out here and win [the rookie of the year award], but if it doesn’t happen, you know that you got beat by the better guy — that’s the same way as winning on the dragstrip in the morning. I think there’s definitely some talent out here. I think all the rookies are learning and growing together. As the year has gone along, I think you can see us all polish our driving skills and really focus more on what we have to do to get these cars and motorcycles down the track.”
Ron Capps stayed No. 2 on the strength of his 4.041 Friday. Robert Hight held onto the third spot at 4.065, and Tony Pedregon will start Sunday from the fourth position thanks to a 4.098 run Friday. Bob Tasca III, Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, and Jack Beckman are the other top-half starters.
Saturday’s final session included a fair amount of drama when Ashley Force Hood had to battle her way into the field. Force Hood moved into the top 16 in the first session of the day, but by the time she pulled up for her final attempt, she had been bumped out. Force Hood’s team was up to the challenge, clocking a 4.197 that places her 14th on the sheets. Interestingly, that gives her a first-round date with teammate and points rival Hight.
Grant Downing ended up on the bump with a 4.211. Downing, who also qualified for the field in Indy, will face Hagan in round one. There were 19 floppers at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leaving three drivers outside the field: Jeffrey Diehl, Bob Bode, and Jerry Toliver.
Edwards swept the qualifying points for the weekend, running the quickest time of every session. The 12 bonus points he earned added to the regular qualifying points extended Edwards’ lead to 139 points, meaning he needs to go just one round further than Greg Anderson and Jason Line, who is 168 markers back, to clinch the world championship. All three are on the same side of the ladder, meaning there could potentially be some high-stakes pairings on Sunday. If all three advance out of round one, Edwards and Line would meet in the second round. Edwards and Anderson would square off in the semi’s if both are able to advance that far.
“We’re looking to try and seal the deal,” said Edwards, who has 15 No. 1 starts this season. “This is a huge thing for us, and we’re all excited about it. We’re looking forward to tomorrow, and hopefully we can fulfill our dreams. No matter the outcome, it’s been an extraordinary year for us. We’ve worked real hard, and now we’re in a position to do something we’ve never been able to do. Maybe we can get it done tomorrow.
“You just go into it like it’s another first round, like you’ve done all season long. You just have to focus, do your job, and hope for the best. It’s just like every other race. There’s a lot riding on it, but that’s just what you’ve got to do.”
Vinnie Deceglie remained second overall with his 6.66 from Friday; it is the best starting spot in his short Pro Stock career. Ron Krisher, who leases engines from Edwards, starts race day from the third spot. Anderson is fourth, followed by Johnny Gray, Allen Johnson, Rodger Brogdon, and Larry Morgan. Line qualified ninth and thus has Morgan in round one.
Kurt Johnson struggled during the weekend but still managed to slip into the field, occupying the 16th and final starting spot with a 6.742. Johnson will have the task of battling Edwards in round one. Anderson meets brother-in-law and quasi-teammate Ronnie Humphrey.
Five racers missed the field: Matt Hartford, Steve Spiess, V. Gaines, Gordie Rivera, and Danny Gruninger.
Arana will lead the two-wheel contingent into race day for the seventh time this season and the fifth time in the last seven events. More importantly, Arana added to his lead in the championship chase, using a combination of qualifying bonus points and regular qualifying points to push his advantage from 28 points to 34 entering the first round.
“Every point counts,” said Arana. “We did try something new for today, and we struggled a little bit. The power is there. Now, I need to sit down and analyze everything and make a decision on what I want to do for tomorrow.
“Everything’s happening so fast this year. I qualified No. 1 in 1994, I believe, and then I went through a dry spell, and now I have seven this year, so it’s awesome. I know that Eddie Krawiec is on my side of the ladder, so I just got to stay focused. All I need to do is stay consistent on my lights, and I should prevail.”
Andrew Hines, the quickest rider in the third qualifying session, remained second on the strength of his 6.99 from Friday night. Matt Smith, who had the best run of the final session, stayed third with his 7.00 run from Friday. Eddie Krawiec improved during the third qualifying session, posting a 7.023 that bettered his 7.029, and that kept him fourth on the sheets. Karen Stoffer, Junior Pippin, Michael Phillips, and David Hope round out the top half of the field.
Mike Berry earned the final spot in the field with a 7.194 and will face Arana in the opening round. Also of note, Larry Cook returned to competition after a nine-year break and successfully made the show, posting a 7.165 to claim the 14th starting spot. Cook will pair up with Smith in round one. Six riders missed the field, including regular Bailey Whitaker.
Friday: Hagan, Dixon, Edwards, Arana lead opening day in Las Vegas