For the third season in a row and the fifth time overall Cruz Pedregon earned the No. 1 qualifying position in Funny Car at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals.
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Dave Connolly (Pro Stock), and Michael Ray (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also will lead their categories into Sunday’s 11 a.m. eliminations as No. 1 qualifiers at the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event at historic Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
Pedregon powered to a 4.068-second run at 308.21 mph in his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry to earn his 55th No. 1 qualifying position. The 1998 Gainesville winner faces a tough opening opponent in Sunday’s 11 a.m. eliminations against longtime rival and 16-time world champ John Force. By taking the No. 1 spot, Pedregon snapped Force’s streak of five consecutive No. 1 qualifying positions dating back to last season.
"I looked at the time slip at the finish line and noticed that it ran really well to each increment," Pedregon said. "It gave me the confidence to say, 'I don't think anybody is going to run this.' From what I could see, we pretty much got all of it that we could. It had good splits, fast speed through the middle, and ran to the finish line. That was basically like, 'If you want some, come get some.' "
Pedregon is hoping his run is a foreshadowing of things to come for the weekend. The 1992 and 2008 Funny Car world champ struggled to open the season in both Pomona and Phoenix and is ready to return to the form his car is capable of.
"We changed maybe one thing too many in the off-season,” Pedregon said. “We made one good run out of five in Pomona and blew up for our troubles. In Phoenix, the component we changed in the clutch management system told us in no uncertain terms that it was going to take too many races to figure it out. We went back to our regular setup."
Pedregon’s run bumped Bob Tasca III to the No. 2 seed in Funny Car. Tasca’s 4.103 at 304.39 sets his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Mustang up for a first-round pairing with Blake Alexander.
In Top Fuel, defending world champ Langdon improved his leading time from Friday by covering the distance in 3.776 at 320.58 in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster. It is the first No. 1 for Langdon in Gainesville and the 14th of his career.
"We were able to take our 3.78 from yesterday and make a couple small, minor adjustments to go 3.77," said Langdon, who will open eliminations against J.R. Todd as he seeks his first Gatornationals victory. "Brian [Husen, crew chief] did an excellent job this weekend of making the right calls.”
Langdon’s rival Antron Brown completed a 3.804 pass at 320.43 to secure the No. 2 position. The driver of the Matco Tools dragster will face Sidnei Frigo in the first round of eliminations.
Rookie Richie Crampton secured his best qualifying start of his young NHRA career and will start third. It will be a tough opening-round matchup for the GEICO dragster driver, however, as he faces team owner Morgan Lucas, the 2012 winner here.
In Pro Stock, Connolly claimed his eighth No. 1 qualifying position and first since 2008 when his Charter Communications Chevy Camaro rocketed to a career-best performance of 6.476 at 213.98 on Friday that held through Saturday’s two sessions.
"We knew the weather was going to be a little hotter today so we thought we'd figure out what these cars like," Connolly said. "We tried a few different things and treated it like a science project. We made subtle, small changes, and we messed it up but still had the third-quickest run, and that shows how capable this team is.”
Connolly spent last season as tuner for Erica Enders-Stevens but is thrilled to be back behind the wheel full time with Gray Motorsports. He plans to use his time tonight to discuss race prep with his new teammate, Shane Gray.
"I don't take anything for granted,” Connolly said. “I know that I'm fortunate to be able to race Pro Stock, and I thank the Gray family for helping me get back out here. Tonight, I'll have a talk with Shane, and we'll make some decisions for tomorrow, and hopefully, it will be a long day both for us."
Connolly will begin the Gatornationals against No. 16 seed Matt Hartford. Enders-Stevens, who qualified second with a national speed record of 214.69 mph, will start second against Robert Patrick.
Ray earned the top spot in Pro Stock Motorcycle on his final qualifying attempt with an effort of 6.793 at 197.74 on his Star Racing Buell. His pass, the quickest run of his career, was enough to drop defending world champ Matt Smith’s Friday best run to the No. 2 qualifying position.
"We hadn't shown our potential until then, but we knew it was out there," Ray said. "It wasn't a bunt or even a hard single. George [Bryce, team owner and crew chief] decided to swing for the fences, and he connected. He told me that if I would hold low gear for another 10 feet it would go 6.7s, and he wasn't lying. I went as far as I could before hitting the [shift button] and had my career-best e.t.”
Ray will face Finland’s Fredrick Fredlund in the first round. Smith will begin his championship title defense against alligator farmer Jerry Savoie.
After leading qualifying following the first day of action, Danny Rowe improved his performance and showed that he will be a major threat to win the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series portion.
Rowe’s Agave Underground Tequila ’68 Chevy powered to a leading performance of 5.862 seconds at 250.55 mph on Friday to claim his ninth career No. 1 qualifying position and first ever in Gainesville. The Laguna Hills, Calif., native was also the quickest on Saturday as well. On his first run of the day, he posted his best time of the two qualifying sessions with a 5.858 at 249.49, the only 5.85 run in qualifying. He will open eliminations against Dan Stevenson.
Mike Janis, who tied Rowe’s elapsed time in his late-model Valvoline Camaro on Friday but lost the top spot due to Rowe’s faster speed, will start the race in the No. 2 spot, and he will face Jim Bell.
Mike Castellana found his groove on Saturday, posting a 5.863 at 244.56 in his late-model Chevy Camaro. Sitting 11th following the first two qualifying sessions, the New York driver gained the most ground during the day and will begin eliminations in third against Todd Tutterow.
Series newcomer Jason Hamstra qualified fourth with a 5.866 at 246.30 in his turbocharged '10 Ford Mustang and will face past world champ Troy Coughlin in the opening round. Defending NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series world champ Rickie Smith qualified fifth with a 5.889 at 245.09 in his ’12 Camaro, and he will open the new season against Kevin Fiscus.
The Pro Mod Series eliminations are scheduled for Sunday at 9:30 a.m.
Friday: Langdon, Tasca, Connolly, and Smith race to qualifying leads at Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals