Drivers seem to have it all. They get to take the fast thrill rides and take a lion’s share of the glory and recognition. However, the biggest negative to being the driver of a winning dragster rather than being any other member of the team is not getting to experience the euphoric celebration that occurs on the starting line as soon as the win light flickers.

Bob Vandergriff Jr. was able to think long and hard about how he would celebrate a Top Fuel victory. After all, he had yet to win a race before the Dallas event despite 13 previous final-round appearances in a career that began in 1994. He decided that his long wait wasn’t going to end with a lonesome moment of quiet reflection at the top end. The athletic driver stopped his car before the turnoff and ran back toward the starting line in his firesuit and helmet on a 100-degree day to ignite an unprecedented midtrack celebration with his team and the fans who rushed down to join them.

It was a special and unique moment for an accomplishment that was a long time in the making. It had shades of the iconic moment when fans rushed from the stands to witness Don Garlits shave his beard at the 1967 Nationals after he ended his summer slump and made his first six-second pass in the final round.

Vandergriff recorded the most runner-up finishes before his first event victory in NHRA history. John Force had the most famous streak with nine runner-ups before scoring his first win in Montreal in 1987, and the 15-time world champ has done pretty well since then. The late Scott Geoffrion equaled that mark with nine Pro Stock runner-ups before he scored his first win in Memphis, Tenn., in 1993. Dave Grubnic came pretty close with eight Top Fuel runner-ups prior to his first win in Topeka in 2005.

Though there had been several occasions when Vandergriff had an overmatched car in the final, he also had some good cars that weren’t able to seal the deal for a variety of reasons. He’d been ahead when his car launched into a wheelstand before, and he lost one winnable final when the rotors in his blower were inserted backwards. His best season was in 2007, during which he endured five heartbreaking runner-up finishes en route to a fifth-place finish.

Vandergriff has been competitive before, but he’s more bullish on his current C&J Energy Services team than he has been on any of his teams in the past. He feels strongly that he’d be contending for a championship rather than playing spoiler in the Countdown to the Championship had his team been in its current configuration all year. The proof is in the pudding.

Vandergriff qualified No. 2 at the Denver event in his first race with Rob Flynn controlling the tune-up. He got past the first round for only the third time all season, and Rod Fuller, who drives the YAS Marina/DiGiorno dragster that Vandergriff manages, reached the semifinals. Nitro veteran Mike Guger, who worked as Flynn’s assistant crew chief at David Powers Motorsports and Kenny Bernstein Racing, got his first-ever shot at making the tuning calls on Fuller’s car one race earlier at the Chicago event.

Flynn and Guger were released from the Copart team only three races into the 2010 season and spent a great deal of time tuning blown doorslammers in the Middle East before they got another shot at nitro racing. Even while they were racing successfully in another category, the two never stopped talking about nitro racing and brainstorming new ideas about how they’d run a nitro car when they were given another opportunity. They have since been part of an impressive two-car assault that is behind only the Don Schumacher Racing and Al-Anabi Racing teams since the start of the Western Swing, and they continue to work feverishly to close the gap.

The win light provided a moment of redemption for Flynn, whose last team still hasn’t won an event since replacing him early last season. It also provided validation for Vandergriff, a skilled driver with a savvy marketing mind who finally earned top honors at drag racing’s highest level.

The Fast Five

Before Dallas, Cruz Pedregon’s season had been defined by great runs like a 4.015 in Pomona, a 4.095 in Denver, and a 4.026 in Indy. The two-time Funny Car champ finally put together a great race at a time when it counts the most for his championship hopes. Though Pedregon would have loved to put his Snap-on Toyota in the winner’s circle more often this season, he stressed on several occasions that his main objective was to put his car in the top five heading into the Countdown and have a strong enough car to make a championship run from there. Making his own tuning calls with help from crew chief Danny DeGennaro, Pedregon has maintained an aggressive mentality with a car that can run low e.t. at any given time but has also been susceptible to tire smoke and engine damage. He’s been developing a feel for when to rein it back, and — with the exception of a pedalfest that he won on a hot track in the semifinals — he showed consistency and an ability to go four rounds on Sunday.

The KB Racing cars have been so dominant of late that it has been easy to overlook the fact that Jason Line had let two winnable finals slip away at his last two events; he lost to teammate Greg Anderson on a holeshot in Indy and gave away the Charlotte final on a red-light. Line would have let things like that fester at him earlier in his driving career, but he showed his resiliency by completing the job in Dallas with a .027 light in the final while running the quickest e.t. of the round for the third time that day. Line’s fifth win of the season stretched his points lead by enormous proportions due to a strange first round in which seven of the top 10 drivers in the point standings were upset.

Michael Phillips
didn’t have a spot in the field heading into the final Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying session, and he followed one clutch run on Saturday with four more on Sunday. The rider of The Edge Suzuki posted top speed of the event on the run that put him in the No. 14 spot, and he used consistency and great riding to get through the field. After receiving a single against a broken Hector Arana Sr. in the opening round, he cut a .018 light to put Charlotte winner Eddie Krawiec on the trailer despite running a 7.01 to Krawiec’s quicker 6.98. Phillips used big top-end charges to outrun Jerry Savoie and Hector Arana Jr. and find the winner’s circle. It was an emotional victory with his mother, Aline, and brother, Jerome, in attendance along with the rest of his team. 

It was a strong weekend for both Capps brothers in the Funny Car ranks. Ron and Jon Capps got to race against each other for the first time in the semifinals. Jon, who is five years younger than the NAPA driver, qualified a career-best third and doubled his career round-win total in an impressive effort for sponsor Dave Biesenbach and the Paul Smith-led team. Ron, meanwhile, kick-started his title hopes with three round-wins over non-playoff drivers — Tony Pedregon, Johnny Gray, and Jon — en route to a runner-up finish.

Spencer Massey left his home event with the Top Fuel points lead after reaching the final round for the second straight weekend. Massey didn’t have an easy road to the final either. Shawn Langdon had the quickest losing time of the event against him in the first round, he had to beat Del Worsham in round two, and he stopped Antron Brown’s winning streak at 14 consecutive rounds when he put him away in the semi’s.

Special Awards

Stats of the race: Mike Edwards lost on a holeshot for the first time this season. He has been much sharper on the starting line this year than over the past two seasons, during which he endured seven holeshot losses apiece.

The last time Kurt Johnson had been to two consecutive final rounds was a half-decade ago when he followed a runner-up at the Topeka event in 2006 with a win in Chicago.

Top Alcohol Funny Car winner Tony Bartone scored his 300th round-win in the alcohol ranks when he defeated Billy Davis in the first round.

Super Gas winner Tommy Phillips has been outstanding at Texas races. He has won at both the Dallas and Houston events in Super Comp or Super Gas in each of the last two seasons and has scored nine of his 24 career wins in Texas.

Crew chiefs of the race: Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler had the quickest car of every elimination round until the final; Danny DeGennaro and Cruz Pedregon figured out how to make their fast car finish the job and complete four round-wins; Kurt Johnson made quality runs to get to his second straight final; Matt Hines gave his riders bikes that outran their opponents in a pair of holeshot losses.

Best races: Matt Hagan vs. Mike Neff, Funny Car round one: This was the marquee matchup of the first round between the drivers who claimed the No. 1 and 2 positions in the point standings coming into the race. Both drivers made quick runs, but Hagan was better on the starting line and held on to score a holeshot win by .005-second. Hagan had kicked himself earlier in the season for losing on two holeshots and a red-light in key moments, but he made it up to his team by earning them a critical round-win in the playoffs.

Hector Arana Jr. vs. LE Tonglet, Pro Stock Motorcycle round two: It’s hard to fathom a race between two different bike configurations traveling 1,320 feet being decided by an inch. That’s what happened here when Tonglet’s Suzuki took an early lead but was run down by the Lucas Oil Buell at the stripe by .0003-second.

Chris McGaha vs. Greg Anderson, Pro Stock round one: The biggest upset in a round full of them had to be McGaha, a Comp racer in his second-ever Pro Stock start, taking out Greg Anderson in the first round. McGaha, who lives in Odessa, Texas, got the Elite Motorsports Pontiac out of the gate first with a .042 to .086 advantage and held on at the stripe by .001-second.

Tough luck of the race:
Matt Smith battled electrical issues throughout the race and ran out of time before his bike would fire in the semifinal round against Hector Arana Jr., who got out of the groove and aborted his run. Smith made some comments after the race about Arana’s sportsmanship, though it appeared that Arana waited for Smith to refire until given instruction by the starter to proceed.