Cory McClenathan, Ashley Force Hood, Kurt Johnson, and Eddie Krawiec are the qualifying leaders after an abbreviated opening day of qualifying at the 22nd annual O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil at Houston Raceway Park. The event is the fourth of 24 in the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
Rain that pounded the Houston area Thursday taunted, teased, and sometimes briefly halted the event throughout the day before unleashing its fury shortly after the conclusion of the first session. NHRA crews worked vigorously into the night to dry the track with hopes of running the second session, but the cool air and lowering dew point ultimately made that task impossible. All eyes now turn eagerly to Saturday's action, which is expected to yield record performances as a cold front moves in from the north to produce optimum conditions for the race cars.
McClenathan, who hasn’t won this race since 1999 despite two runner-ups since, is the early performance leader in Top Fuel after Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler tuned his Fran dragster to a 3.905 in the day's only qualifying session.
"We were really looking forward to tonight's run because we were in the position to go for it," said McClenathan, who will unveil a new white and gray Fram Tough Guard paint scheme Saturday. "I'm very excited about tomorrow and the good conditions and our new paint schemed. It's very bright, and I think everyone will like it.
"Our team is really jelling good now. Todd and Phil work so good together, and they've made a lot of Funny Cars run good, but this is their first tome together on a dragster, and I'm very proud of them."
Phoenix winner Antron Brown, the defending event champ, is ranked second in his Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-massaged Matco Tools/Mike Ashley Racing dragster after ripping to a 3.912.
A pair of Top Fuel rookies, Shawn Langdon and Spencer Massey, occupy the Nos. 3 and 4 spots on the current roster with identical passes of 3.920, with Langdon's Lucas Oil dragster getting the higher position based on its superior speed over Massey's U.S. Smokeless rail, 310.98 to 303.43.
Yet another rookie, Del Cox Jr., in Mitch King's dragster, holds down the final qualifying spot that will transfer to Saturday's final two sessions, a 12th-quickest 4.474. Among those who will need to run better Saturday are a pair of former world champs, Gainesville winner Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher, as well as Pomona champ Doug Kalitta.
Ashley Force Hood
A lot of the Funny Cars struggled, and Force Hood was the star for the John Force Racing team as she powered her Dean Antonelli-tuned Castrol GTX Mustang to a 4.139 in the day's only session to lead the field by more than a half-tenth.
"We've been off for a few weeks and you never know how your first run at a track is going to go, so we'd have been happy to have any kind of A-to-B run, but to have that kind of runs gives us a lot of confidence," said Force Hood. "Any time you can make a good pass early, you get some momentum and learn what the track can handle and improve on that the next pass.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more, other than for the rain to stop. Tomorrow we can go out and see what the track will take, then pull it back to work on a Sunday combination."
Points leader Ron Capps, who won the season's first two events, has his Ed McCulloch-wrenched NAPA Auto Parts Dodge in the No. 2 spot with a 4.194. Jeff Arend has the third position with Connie Kalitta's DHL Toyota with a 4.233. Alcohol Funny Car racer Brian Thiel, who is making his Pro debut this weekend in Paul Smith's school car after licensing less than two weeks ago, is the surprise No. 4 qualifier with a 4.034.
Only 15 cars made qualifying runs Friday, and the 12-car cutoff is Robert Hight's aborted run of 8.14 in his AAA of Texas Mustang. Hight scored his first career win at this event four years ago. Reigning world champ Cruz Pedregon, who has not won a round in the season's first three races, continued to struggle and did not make a full pass.
Johnson powered is ACDelco Cobalt to the No. 1 spot with a 6.678, but no one expects it to hold through Saturday, where weather conditions are expected to be optimal for the Pro Stockers.
"Today's run, you might as well throw that out the window; tomorrow will probably be about a tenth better," said Johnson, who tested between events at Atlanta Dragway. "The track is a little iffy in the middle for us, but the starting line is good, and if we get some rubber in the middle, it could be good.
"The good air tomorrow might pick us up as much as 60 horsepoweer, which is a lot for our cars. I think you'll definitely see some low .50s and maybe even some .40s, but to do that you’re going to have to be pinpoint perfect; you’re going to have to get the gearing right, the carburetion right, the motor right, the suspension right, and have the car under control."
Points leader Jason Line, winner of two of the season's first three races, is the No. 2 qualifier with Ken Black's Summit Racing Pontiac, just a thousandth behind K.J., with a 6.679. Allen Johnson made it three different makes atop the field as he piloted his Mopar-backed Dodge to a strong 6.681 for the No. 3 spot.
Ron Krisher has the No. 4 position with a 6.689 and is followed in the top eight by Warren Johnson (6.691), defending event champ Greg Anderson (6.694), Justin Humphreys (6.696), and Mike Edwards, the low qualifier at the last two events, who also ran 6.696.
Jim Yates has the No. 12 spot with a 6.716 while perennial qualifiers such as Rickie Jones, Greg Stanfield, V. Gaines, and Larry Morgan will have to fight their way into the field Saturday. Of interest also was the 2009 debut of Dave Connolly, who drove Kenny Koretsky's NitroFish Dodge to a 6.75 best and sits 18th best.
Harley teammates Krawiec and Andrew Hines finished 1-2 atop the qualifying sheets on the abbreviated day after respective passes of 7.004 and 7.013 on their Screamin' Eagle V-Rods.
"Those times won’t hold," predicted Krawiec. "We're supposed to have some pretty good weather tomorrow, at least for the naturally aspirated engines. The air will be a little drier, and we’ll just focus on going out there and making another good run tomorrow.
"Whatever e.t. pops up is okay. Our main focus is raceday. We're starting to get a handle on the new stuff on our Screamin' Eagle V-Rod. I think we're seeing the potential now, which makes me pretty excited. Hopefully I can win a race or two."
Craig Treble, who won this race in 2002 and has twice scored runner-up here, grabbed the No. 3 spot with his Team Scream Suzuki at 7.023, just ahead of the round's pleasant surprise, Wesley Wells, who clocked a 7.04 on his Kendall-backed Suzuki. They're followed on the sheets by Shawn Gann (7.044), Gainesville winner Hector Arana (7.049), Gainesville runner-up Matt Smith (7.057), and three-time event winner Karen Stoffer (7.089).
Douglas Horne, in his second race in the class after a successful debut in Gainesville, holds down the No. 12 spot and the final provisional to carry over to Saturday with a 7.138.