Johnny Gray and Rob Wendland were two faces I saw a great deal of in the alcohol pits in the mid- to late 1990s, which made it somewhat surreal to see them together in the winner’s circle celebrating Gray’s first Professional win as a driver and Wendland’s first as a crew chief.

Gray has always impressed me with his versatility as a racer and his conduct away from the track. In regards to the latter, he is more of a down-to-earth, everyman-type than one can imagine a self-made billionaire can be. He has a disarming sense of humor. One of the biggest adjustments he had to make in racing for Don Schumacher was having to wear slacks because he couldn’t previously imagine wearing anything but blue jeans to the racetrack. He races because it’s fun. Being competitive is part of the equation in what makes it fun for him, but it also means seeing his friends at the racetrack and sharing the experience with his wife, Terry, and his kids, grandkids, and three dogs.

As for his versatility, Gray has tried his hand in more types of drag cars than anyone as prominent as him in the modern era. After his initial foray into Pro Stock in the early 1990s, Gray had a great deal of success as a Sportsman racer. He became the first Comp racer to record a 200-mph pass before moving up to the alcohol ranks, where he became one of 10 drivers in NHRA history to score national event wins in both Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. He started racing a nitro Funny Car at the end of the 1999 season, took a hiatus from the sport a few years later, and returned in a Pro Stocker to set the foundation for son Shane to pursue his racing career. Once he felt comfortable with Shane’s footing in the class and with their upstart team, he returned to the make of car that he considers the most fun to drive.

It’s tough to pinpoint a historical equivalent for Gray. Jeg Coughlin Sr. comes to mind because he had experience in door cars, Funny Cars, and dragsters of different varieties. Don Nicholson and Ronnie Sox also draw parallels due to their success in both Pro Stock and Funny Car.

Gray finally scoring a win in the Professional ranks after four runner-ups in Funny Car and three in Pro Stock was a big landmark for him. It’s difficult to fathom how much time and money went into that particular Wally.

“We’ve won in everything but a Pro car, and I really wanted to win in a fuel Funny Car,” said Gray. “I’m 58 years old, so there’s not a whole lot of time left. It feels great. There are no words for it.”

Before Gray raced and defeated teammate Ron Capps in the final round, he participated in a semifinal race against Bob Tasca III that was equally as pressure-packed. Tasca is No. 10 in the standings with just one race remaining to gain a spot in the Countdown to the Championship, and a loss for Gray would have all but eliminated him from contention. Though Gray still has an uphill battle ahead of him because he sits 62 points out of 10th heading into the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals presented by Lucas Oil, at least he has a chance.

“If Tasca runs like he normally runs and doesn’t have bad luck, we’re pretty well wept,” said Gray. “No matter what, we’re putting together a good car that we can carry into next year. The way I look at it, there are guys out there who crucified me when we weren’t running good, and we’ll see if we can’t ruin their chances at a championship.”

Developing the Service Central Dodge Charger into a fast, consistent race car was a tumultuous process. Gray made some good runs during the early season but wasn’t able to put a string of A to B passes together on race day. Frustration mounted, and crew chief Lee Beard was reassigned within the organization prior to the Chicago event, and assistant crew chief Wendland was promoted. The car was changed over to be more like the combination utilized on the car driven by teammate Jack Beckman, but Gray logged another DNQ in Chicago before they had a chance to make runs in testing and get a handle on the tune-up.

Gray began this event slowly. In fact, he was shut off during his first qualifying attempt when an O-ring got sucked into the fuel system during the burnout, plugged several nozzles, and played havoc. They got progressively better during the race and stepped up to a 4.11 in the final, and that run was essentially a 4.09 when you factor in how much e.t. Gray took away during the staging process.

Wendland was a successful tuner-for-hire in the alcohol ranks and earned two wins driving the late Mike Troxel’s In-N-Out Burger Top Alcohol Dragster in 1999. His nitro pedigree was developed in the decade that followed while he worked on cars driven by father-in-law John Lawson, John Force, and Antron Brown. He learned a great deal from John Force Racing crew chiefs Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, and John Medlen, and his closest crew chief counterparts are Matco Tools tuners Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald, with whom he shared the Brainerd winner’s circle. Beard coached Wendland while the two worked together. During a brief but successful stint with Cruz Pedregon toward the end of 2010, Wendland developed such an instant rapport with Danny DeGennaro that they gave each other the respective nicknames of “Peanut Butter” and “Jelly.”

Rahn Tobler and John Collins from Beckman’s team have been particularly instrumental in helping Wendland along since he took the crew chief role, and he called upon Tobler for assistance after Beckman lost in the opening round.

“Rip [Reynolds, assistant crew chief] is so hands-on with the car that I don’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of when it gets hectic between rounds, so I asked Rahn for help,” said Wendland. “Rahn, John, and Todd Okuhara all helped out. Rahn taught me that it doesn’t take big steps to make a car fast. We just tickled it here and there, and the car got better all day.

“It seems like every good crew chief has a yin and a yang. Brian Corradi, for example, is a yang; he’s a smart guy who wants to run 3.75 on every pass. Mark Oswald is a yin who is kind of like Brian’s more conservative conscience.”

Anyone who knows Wendland can attest to the fact that he’s a fiery guy who is never at a loss for words. Several scribbled notebook pages into our conversation, he realized that his crew had left him in the winner’s circle approximately 15 minutes earlier. The elated tuner shrugged it off and basked in the moment a little longer.

“This has been such a tremendous learning process, but having the help from all the guys at DSR makes it possible,” said Wendland. “I’m glad for Johnny, Don [Schumacher], and the whole team, which has really jelled. These guys take pride in their ability to make the car perfect every time, and they turn it around crazy fast.”

The Fast Five

Antron Brown
is back to the form that allotted him six wins during the 2009 season. He followed up a strong Western Swing with his fourth win of the season. It’s his fifth win in Brainerd, though the other four occurred aboard a Pro Stock Motorcycle. The Matco Tools team had the fabricators at DSR install a new front half on their chassis prior to this event to keep their pipe fresh for the Countdown. Brown scored a big win over points leader Del Worsham in the semifinals and dispatched teammate Tony Schumacher in the final to move up to No. 2 in the standings. “The track got better on every run and came around to what we were trying to do in qualifying,” said crew chief Brian Corradi.

Greg Anderson had a big weekend. To recap, the driver of the Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac GXP won the event, took the points lead from teammate Jason Line, kept himself from becoming the answer to a trivia question by once again denying Erica Enders her first win in the final round, and had an emotional component to his victory by winning in his home state and taking part in a tribute to late mentor John Hagen with Hagen’s family in attendance. He also drove his butt off with four leaves between .028 and .036, ensuring that the window to defeat one of the best cars on the premises was a small one.

LE Tonglet
is a winning machine. The reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle champ found his way to victory for the fourth time this season. The biggest difference between this and his other three wins is that it wasn't preceded by an early loss; Tonglet won the Sonoma event at his previous appearance. Tonglet overcame holeshots by Angie Smith and Chip Ellis to win close races in the first two rounds before he defeated the strongest two bikes at the event, those ridden by Eddie Krawiec and Hector Arana Jr. Krawiec was late in the semi’s, and Tonglet, who cut a .013 light, was most certainly not. First-time finalist Arana appeared to have the edge with a .001-quicker reaction time on a bike that had been running consistently quicker, but his 60-foot time fell off a half-tenth from the 1.04- to 1.05-second clockings he had been recording, and Tonglet was able to get a lead that he maintained by .006-second at the finish line.

Ron Capps and the NAPA Funny Car team appear to be in top form heading into the playoffs. His Tim Richards-tuned Dodge Charger only smoked the tires once, which he did during the final qualifying session, and stayed in the low 4-teens in three of the four eliminations rounds. During his worst run of the event, a 4.21 in the second round, the driver buoyed the team with a .076 light that helped them earn a holeshot win against Mike Neff.

Erica Enders
remains entrenched in win-waiting-to-happen status. Her ZaZa Energy Chevy Cobalt reached the final round for the third time this season, but she fell a hundredth of a second short of becoming the first woman to win a Pro Stock event when she lost to Greg Anderson by a 6.59 to 6.61 decision. Her biggest win during eliminations was a holeshot victory over No. 1 qualifier Jason Line in the second round. Her immense popularity was evident when fans loudly cheered that victory even though popular Minnesota native Line was on the losing end. Dave Connolly and Victor Cagnazzi continually guide her to good runs on race day, and she cuts .02- and .03-second reaction times more often than she doesn't.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Tony Pedregon was mathematically eliminated from Countdown contention after Bob Tasca III won their second-round matchup, thus ending the longest active streak of top 10 points finishes at 15. Pedregon finished in the top 10 during every season that he drove for John Force Racing from 1996 to 2003 and each year since then with his own team. Pedregon won the season titles in 2003 and 2007.

Three finalists were vying for their first win at this event. The last time that happened was at this race in 2010, when Bob Bode, Shane Gray, and Jim Underdahl made the final round.

Tony Schumacher began his career with eight runner-up finishes before getting his first win at the Dallas event in 1999. Since then, he had gone winless in more than two straight final-round appearances only twice, posting three runner-ups between wins in 2000 and 2005. He is currently winless in 2006 despite six final-round appearances, including runner-ups at the last four consecutive races.

Crew chiefs of the race: Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald made Brown run between 3.842 and 3.850 in three of four runs that were made in two different lanes in sun and under cloud cover; Chris Cunningham and Marc Denner got Bob Tasca III down the track on every single run before their weekend ended due to parts failure; there wasn’t much doubt that the Summit cars were the class of the field thanks to the calls made by Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley; Hector Arana Sr. gave his son a bike that made three of the five quickest runs of eliminations from the No. 2 spot.

Best races: Erica Enders vs. Jason Line, Pro Stock round two: Enders used every bit of a .026 to .057 starting-line advantage to brush off Line’s three-hundredths-superior run. The race was decided by the fourth digit; she took the stripe by .0008-second.

LE Tonglet vs. Chip Ellis, Pro Stock Motorcycle round two: Ellis took advantage of the champ's worst light of the event by getting a three-hundredths advantage and increasing his lead to the 60-foot mark, but the Nitro Fish Suzuki had enough steam at the big end to move around Ellis by a .007-second margin.

Ron Capps vs. Matt Hagan, Funny Car semifinals:
The DSR teammates left the starting line virtually together, and Capps pulled away very slightly at each increment to win the bout by a hundredth of a second.

Tough luck of the race:
No. 10-ranked Funny Car driver Bob Tasca III had the chance to put the nail in the coffin on Johnny Gray’s playoff chances in the semifinal round and was well on his way toward doing so until his camshaft broke 750 feet into the run. The split cam spawned a quick chain of events in which he broke connecting rods that windowed his block. Tasca would have a case for a "Tough Luck of the Season" award because he has had a penchant for being on the losing end of close races with competitive runs. “We have the fastest car on the property, but we can’t win a race,” said Tasca. “We were running a 4.13 or 4.14 when it split the cam right down the middle.”

Quotes of the race:
“It wasn’t too slow or too fast. It looked the same as yesterday’s run until it smoked the tires. If we ran it again in the same conditions, I wouldn’t change a thing; we’d drag it back up there and run it again. It’s nitro roulette.” — Fram/Prestone co-crew chief Phil Shuler, on smoking the tires in the opening round

“Jason [McCulloch, crew chief] saw that I got welded and used telepathy to make the car drop a hole at 200 feet. That helped the driver save face.” — Larry Dixon, who had a .069 to .030 starting-line disadvantage against Tony Schumacher in the semifinals before dropping a cylinder

"We still love Brainerd. We did this to ourselves. Hopefully, we'll be smarter in Indy." — defending Funny Car event winner Bob Bode, who failed to make the 16-car show.

“We changed our clutch to switch from a fine-spline to a course-spline shaft. The biggest difference is that now we have what everybody else has, so I can get discs from other guys’ trash cans if I need to.” — Jim Head

Like John Force and Ron Capps before him, Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson hopped in the rejuvenation machine during the 2011 Western Swing. The driver, owner, and tuner of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang entered the three-race excursion on the heels of three straight first-round losses — two of which were close holeshot losses — and achieved a season-first accomplishment at each stop.

In Denver, Wilkerson scored a pivotal round-win against Johnny Gray, with whom he has been battling for a playoff berth, to break into the top 10 for the first time this season. One week later, the Springfield, Ill., native went to Wine Country and posted his first final-round finish of the season. (He reached the final round at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in April but finished in third place, which earned him semifinal points.) He fell short in a competitive finish against Capps, but he only had to wait one week to finish the job elsewhere.

It should come as no surprise that Wilkerson entered Pacific Raceways in Seattle with guns blazing because he made more runs down that racetrack than any other Funny Car driver in the previous two seasons. Wilkerson’s 2009 and 2010 Seattle triumphs comprised two of his five most recent wins heading into the race, and the latter win preceded a 22-race winless stretch.

Wilkerson qualified No. 1 for the 16th time in his career and the first time since the Dallas event last September when he blazed down the track in 4.10 seconds during the third qualifying session on Saturday. He survived a close opening-round matchup against Brian Thiel in which Thiel got off the line first and stepped up to a 4.25 opposite Wilkerson’s 4.21. Unlike the way the dice had been landing for Wilkerson all season, he came up on the winning end of a close race.

Wilkerson stayed locked in the 4-teens for the remainder of eliminations. The only drivers who were running as well as him were Jack Beckman, Matt Hagan, and Capps from the Don Schumacher Racing stable, only one of which Wilkerson would have to deal with because they were all on the opposite side of the ladder. Wilkerson drew Beckman in the final, and it was over quickly when Beckman spun the tires before he covered 300 feet of concrete.

The phrase “peaking at the right time” has become the cliché of choice to describe one with ample and newfound momentum heading into the playoffs. Wilkerson knows all too well about how the Countdown to the Championship format emphasizes not just what you do but when you do it; he dominated the 2008 season with six wins but missed the championship when Cruz Pedregon swept the last three races. He and his loyal fan base of Wilk’s Warriors wouldn’t mind the karmic retribution of being able to wash away a lackluster start and contending for a title.

Wilkerson described the early part of his 2011 season as “dismal” and offered snippets of his self-deprecating sense of humor throughout his trials, but he never seemed overly broken up about it. He began the season with some new components that he had faith would be better once he built up enough of a database to tune from, and his crew of diehards kept their heads up through an 11-race stretch that only yielded four round-wins. Wilkerson tripled that total during this last three-race swing and has moved into a semi-comfortable ninth-place standing with two races left before the playoffs.

Wilkerson may not have the star power of some of the other prominent or younger drivers he competes against, but he has earned the respect and affection of his peers and those who follow him. It’s not uncommon to hear drivers groan or roll their eyes behind the scenes when they hear the names of certain competitors having success, but the general attitude among other Funny Car drivers when Wilkerson wins is one of “If my teammates or I couldn’t win this race, I’m glad he did.”

The Fast Five

Del Worsham
earned a career-high total of six wins in a single season at a place that he and Al-Anabi Racing team manager and tuner Alan Johnson have special memories. Worsham broke an eight-year drought when he won the Funny Car event in Seattle in 1999 that sparked a career renaissance. Johnson had a great deal of success in the Northwest as well, winning three straight years in Top Alcohol Dragster with late brother Blaine between 1991 to 1993 and winning in six out of nine times between 2000 to 2008 with Gary Scelzi (twice) and Tony Schumacher (four times). Worsham has 35 round-wins so far in 2011, which equals the second-most amount of round-wins he has accumulated in a single season and is six rounds shy of his career high.

KB Racing teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson met each other in the final round for the third time this season and 17th time in their careers. Line has won all three this season, though Anderson has a 10-7 career advantage. Unlike the Sonoma event, in which they made adjustments on the Summit Racing Equipment Pontiacs throughout the event to get them competitive enough on Sunday to reach the late rounds, Line and Anderson were good from the get-go and occupied the top two positions in the field. Both drivers thwarted Cagnazzi-powered opposition in Erica Enders and Rodger Brogdon in the semi’s before staging a great final. Both drivers cut their best lights of the event, as competitive teammates tend to do against each other, and Line got to the finish line first by a hundredth to earn his fourth win of the season and first since the Atlanta event. Line also reclaimed the points lead that Mike Edwards took away in Sonoma.

Tony Schumacher reached the final round for the third straight event, but the U.S. Army driver was shut out once again. Schumacher was locked in the 3.88-to-3.91 range throughout eliminations and even scored a win in the semifinals against teammate Antron Brown, who had been his Achilles’ heel through much of the season. “The Sarge” left first in the final round but was .009-second short of defeating Del Worsham at the big end. All three DSR dragsters made it to the final four for the second time in three races, but none were able to bring home the Wally on this occasion.

Seven weeks before making her scheduled Professional debut at the Dallas event in a Tequila Patron Funny Car managed by Kalitta Motorsports, Alexis DeJoria scored her first Top Alcohol Funny Car national event win. DeJoria, who scored a national event win in Super Comp in 2006 before moving to the alcohol ranks, had only two chances left after Seattle to do the same in TAFC before moving up to the nitro ranks, and she got the job done with consistent 5.6-second, 260-mph runs. She became only the second woman in class history to score a national event win, the first being Bunny Burkett at the 1986 Keystone Nationals. A source within the Kalitta camp said that Connie Kalitta let out a big yell to celebrate their driver’s victory when his plane touched the ground in Ypsilanti, Mich.

Jack Beckman earned his first round-wins of the Western Swing by driving the Aaron’s/Valvoline Dodge Charger to a runner-up finish. Beckman and DSR teammates Ron Capps and Matt Hagan were the only Funny Car drivers besides Tim Wilkerson who were mired in the 4.1-second range during eliminations. Unfortunately for them, they had to get through each other to reach the final. After Hagan beat Capps in round two, Beckman put Hagan away but was .015-second short of keeping lane choice against Wilkerson. Prior to his early exits in Denver and Sonoma, Beckman had gotten out of the first round in 10 straight races and won in Charlotte and Atlanta. “Fast Jack” is ranked third in the standings and is 13 points out of second.

Special Awards

Stats of the race:
Tony Pedregon scored the 500th round-win of his career when he defeated Jeff Arend in the first round. Two of his round-wins occurred in Top Fuel, and his 498 round-wins in Funny Car are second only to 15-time champion John Force. Pedregon and Ron Capps also made their 100th consecutive race-day starts dating back to their last DNQs at the Topeka event in 2007. Pedregon’s 100 starts are chock-full of last-ditch heroics.

Jody Lang doubled for the second time in his career by scoring wins in both Super Stock and Stock. Lang is one of 10 different drivers to double-up at an NHRA national event dating back to Pat Austin’s Top Fuel/Top Alcohol Funny Car double at the Topeka event 20 years ago. Of those 10 drivers, Lang belongs to a group of five who have done so more than once. Edmond Richardson has the most doubles with five orchestrated between 1992 to 1999. The fete has now been accomplished 20 times. The most recent double before Lang’s was David Rampy’s Comp/Super Stock double in Englishtown this season.

Crew chiefs of the race: Brian Husen and Alan Johnson dialed in four 3.8-second runs in sun and shade; Tim Wilkerson had the quickest car during qualifying and the last three rounds of eliminations; Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley conspired to give Jason Line what might be the best car he’s had in his career.

Best races: Spencer Massey vs. Larry Dixon, Top Fuel round two: Massey got a slight .061 to .066 starting-line advantage that made all the difference in the world as the dragsters were only a thousandth of a second apart in performance. The FRAM dragster won by a .006-second margin.

Allen Johnson vs. Larry Morgan, Pro Stock round one: Morgan was a thousandth quicker off the line, but A.J. and the Mopar flagship made up enough on the racetrack to score the win by a .0039-second margin.

Ron Capps busted a slump at Infineon Raceway for the second straight season. The driver of the NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger ended a 20-race winless drought by scoring again at the FRAM/Autolite NHRA Nationals.

Long winless droughts haven’t been commonplace in the career of Capps, whose 31 wins since his first Funny Car score at the Madison event in 1997 is more than anybody in the class except for John Force and Tony Pedregon. Capps dominated the early 2009 season with five wins by the Denver event, but he went home empty-handed for 25 races after that until his 2010 Sonoma score, then went another 20 races before winning in Sonoma again.

Nobody on the NAPA team carries the belief that it’s going to take 20-plus more races for their next win. Prior to winning Sonoma, Capps had been knocking on the door. With the exception of the Bristol event, he had qualified in the top half and gone rounds at each of the past seven races.

The upturn in Capps’ performance is due in no small part to Tim and Kim Richards. The couple surprisingly came out of retirement for the chance to run a Funny Car that is part of a multicar operation for the first time in their careers. Though Tim had been out of fuel racing since the end of the 2008 season and hadn’t tuned a Funny Car since 2000, the legendary crew chief was able to expedite the process of getting acclimated with the help of Rahn Tobler and John Collins from the Aaron’s/Valvoline team. Eight races into his return, “the General” is off and running.

Shoring up the crew chief position had been a priority in the NAPA camp. Capps’ last three wins have been with three different people tuning. Most of his career success came with Ed “the Ace” McCulloch calling the shots. McCulloch and Capps had a successful stint together on Don Prudhomme’s team before reuniting in the Don Schumacher Racing organization in 2005. They won 16 times together in the five-year span between 2005 and 2009 and were perennial championship contenders. McCulloch was replaced by John Medlen during midseason in 2010, and he rode out the rest of the year with DSR before announcing his retirement in the off-season.

Capps won the Sonoma event last year with Medlen tuning. However, there weren’t many highlight reel moments for Capps after the 2010 Western Swing. It became increasingly noticeable as Capps’ performance was being overshadowed by DSR teammates Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman, who finished second and fourth in the championship standings. Medlen was dismissed and later reappointed during the off-season, leaving Capps on shaky ground to start the 2011 season. The situation lasted four races into the season before Hagan’s crew chief, Tommy DeLago, and Beckman’s crew chief, Tobler, co-tuned Capps in Houston and made way for Richards to take control in Atlanta.

The timing of Capps' turnaround may put him in the enviable position of carrying momentum into the playoffs. Capps had fallen victim to the change in the points format in 2007 when his hefty points lead diminished in the playoffs, but now he's in a spot where he can make up ground when the points are reset after Indy and try to rid himself of the dubious honor of being one of the best drivers to have never won a season title.

A Funny Car title would be an official first for Richards, who has six Top Fuel championships as a crew chief, although he played a large role in Bruce Larson's 1989 championship.

The Fast Five

Antron Brown
won his third Top Fuel event of the season in a different and more favorable fashion than his wins at the Las Vegas and Atlanta events. At the first two wins and at the Denver event before a dropped cylinder derailed Brown in the semifinals, crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald didn’t crack the code until the second round of eliminations, at which point the Matco Tools/Aaron’s dragster would turn up the jets. At this event, Brown looked like a winner from the get-go. “One goal that we set for ourselves this weekend was to get five bonus points in qualifying,” said Corradi, who fell one point short of that mark but achieved his ultimate goal of winning the race. Brown defeated still-winless teammate Tony Schumacher in the final round, raising his record against Schumacher to 4-1 in eliminations this season. Brown has won the Sonoma event twice in the last three years.

Greg Anderson won for the second time in the past three races. The four-time Pro Stock world champ sits third in the points standings, just 21 points behind Mike Edwards and six points behind teammate Jason Line. Anderson, Edwards, and Line each have three event wins this year. Anderson scored his 68th career win and fourth at the Sonoma event much the way he won in Chicago: with a good car to carry him through the early rounds and some good driving near the end to seal the deal. Edwards prevented an all-Team Summit final by drilling Line on the Tree in the semifinals with his third straight .01-second light. Edwards got the holeshot in the final, too, but Anderson made the better run and crossed the line first by a scant .002-second.

All three of LE Tonglet’s 2011 victories were preceded by a DNQ or a red-light. The buoyant reigning world champ found his way to the final round with relative ease because none of his first three opponents ran quicker than a 7.29. The Nitro Fish rider, who sported an Autolite scheme on his Suzuki at this event for the title sponsor, faced a hefty challenge in defending event winner Michael Phillips in the final. Both riders got off the line with .03-second lights, and Tonglet’s bike was quicker early and was able to withstand Phillips’ top-end charge by .007-second to set the pace in the first of four tightly-contested Pro finals.

Tim Wilkerson was as hungry for a win as fellow Funny Car finalist Ron Capps. His last win was at the Seattle event last year, which preceded Sonoma on the 2010 schedule, so his winless streak was one event longer than Capps’. Coincidentally, Wilkerson defeated Capps in the final round in Seattle. Wilkerson is happy to have some consistency with his combination, though, as he is fending off all challengers for the 10th spot in the points standings. He opened eliminations with a crucial matchup against one such challenger, Tony Pedregon, whom he defeated by a 4.17 to 4.23 count. He advanced two rounds further than Johnny Gray and came within three-hundredths of a second of getting his first pewter Wally in the final.

Michael Phillips has spent his Western Swing on the upswing since discovering that a hub on his clutch was an 1/8-inch off-center. The rider of The Racers Edge Suzuki missed the show for the second time this season when he posted a DNQ in Chicago, and he responded with back-to-back final-round finishes in Denver and Sonoma. Phillips managed to shake both Vance & Hines/Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson riders at this event, using a superb .004 light to defeat Andrew Hines by a holeshot in round two and drawing a foul against Eddie Krawiec in the semifinals.

Special Awards

Stats of the race: Greg Anderson successfully qualified the Summit Racing Equipment Pro Stocker for the 200th consecutive event. His last DNQ occurred in Las Vegas at the penultimate event of the 2002 season. His streak is the longest active qualifying streak and the third longest of all time, trailing only John Force’s 395 event streak that spanned from 1988 to 2007 and Warren Johnson’s 303 event streak that began in 1987 and ended in Sonoma in 2002.

John Force broke his tie with Warren Johnson atop the all-time leaders in No. 1 qualifying positions when he qualified atop the Funny Car field for the 139th time in his career. Former crew chief Austin Coil had a hand in 134 of those No. 1 positions, and the remaining five all occurred this season with Dean “Guido” Antonelli and Ron Douglas at the helm.

Tim Richards
’ last win as a Funny Car crew chief occurred at this event 12 years ago when he tuned Whit Bazemore, who worked as a reporter for ESPN2 at this year’s event, to victory in the Chuck Etchells-owned Kendall Dodge Avenger in 1999.

Crew chiefs of the race: Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald started the weekend in attack mode and never let up; Tim Richards tuned a consistent race car and reached the winner’s circle in his eighth race back from retirement; Rob Downing and Tommy Utt were a Mike Edwards holeshot away from putting two Summit cars in the Pro Stock final for the third time this season; Matt Hines got both Harleys to make consistently quick runs before they were taken out with starting-line errors.

Best races: Jason Line vs. Allen Johnson, Pro Stock round two: Line literally won this one by an inch. He overcame a slight .005-second holeshot disadvantage and caught A.J.’s mighty Mopar in the lights by .0003-second.

Del Worsham vs. Spencer Massey, Top Fuel second round: The No. 1 and 2 drivers in the Top Fuel points standings engaged in a battle that was worthy of their positions. Worsham didn’t let the quickest leaver in the class steal one as both drivers left with identical .055 lights. Worsham ran a little stronger early, and Massey bridged some of the gap but was .0029-second short where it mattered.

Rodger Brogdon vs. Kurt Johnson, Pro Stock round one:
Brogdon kept the resurgent K.J. at bay by leaving the starting line one-thousandth sooner and being one-thousandth quicker down the track.

Cruz Pedregon vs. Matt Hagan, Funny Car round one:
Cruzer waited until the last qualifying session to get in the show and promptly bounced a very good DieHard Charger in the opening round in a drag race that was decided by .003-second. Pedregon managed to put some space between himself and Hagan at Nos. 4 and 5 in the points standings.

Tough luck of the race: Gary Densham had a golden opportunity to take out his former boss, John Force, in the second round, but he was unable to do so because of a spark plug that went bad.

Mike Strasburg went quick enough to qualify in the third qualifying session but blew an engine past the finish line and put oil on the track, which disqualified his run. His later run was .003-second shy of the bump spot held by Steve Chrisman.

Quotes of the race: “He was asking for my tune-up, and I told him, ‘No.’ ” — Independent Top Fuel driver Steve Chrisman after congratulating winning Funny Car crew chief Tim Richards

“I was going with or without the light after that wait!” — Del Worsham on his .016 reaction time in the semifinals that was the result of a long Tree

“We just found an In-N-Out near the interstate, and we are celebrating. Oh yeah, this is awesome.” — Pro Stock Motorcycle winner and Double-Double enthusiast LE Tonglet, via Twitter

The location of the annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals has always made the race unique. The efforts and innovations of those at Bandimere Speedway have made it special.

The unique factor stems from the 5,800-foot elevation and the facility that is built on the side of a mountain. Racers have to treat the race unlike any other on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series due to the high altitude and low oxygen that make it difficult to create horsepower, and the low air density that makes it tough to create downforce. Some racers embrace the challenge of running in the thin air, though many throw around words like “survival” to indicate that they just hope to get through it with their points standing and most of their parts intact.

“Denver is a great place to visit and a hard place to race,” said Todd Smith, crew chief on the Copart dragster driven by Brandon Bernstein.

Smith and co-crew chief Donnie Bender referenced a checklist they made entitled “Denver Change Sheet.” The sheet covers 20 specific changes made on the car to adjust from its standard combination to its Denver setup. Exactly half of those changes are fuel system related, and the other changes occur to the wing, engine combination, compression, blower speed, and nitro percentage — teams usually prefer to run somewhere between an 86 and 88 percent mixture of nitromethane in standard conditions, but they run as close to the 90 percent limitation as possible at Thunder Mountain.

Fuel teams have the ability to raise the speed at which their superchargers pump air into their motors by changing the size of the top (blower) and bottom (crankshaft) pulleys. Most teams carry different pulley sizes in their tow vehicles regardless of the race location so they can change their blower speed in the staging lanes when conditions change. The performance of a blown engine doesn’t drop off as sharply as a naturally-aspirated engine that relies on atmospheric pressure in higher-altitude conditions for this reason, though racers encounter other issues when raising the blower speed. Being crankshaft-driven, faster blower speeds require more power from the engine. The increased speed of the blower’s rotors also causes more heat and more wear. Furthermore, inconsistencies in a team’s blower program are raised exponentially when the blowers are turned at a higher rate.

Fuel tuners find that the amount of change they have to make to adjust their tune-up is more drastic at altitude than it is at sea level.

“You can add a degree of timing for the same reason that you’d add a degree at sea level, and the car will just laugh at you,” said Tommy DeLago, crew chief on the Mopar/DieHard Funny Car driven by Matt Hagan.

Fuel cars are direct-drive, so they account for the difference in horsepower with the amount of weight bolted to the clutch levers, the clutch management system, and the amount that they retard the ignition system during the trouble areas of a run. The main differences for nitro drivers is the amount they might have to steer their cars due to the lack of downforce and dealing with dropped cylinders that are more commonplace.

Pro Stock cars and motorcycles face a more drastic horsepower drop off, and racers adjust their cars with the clutch, radically different transmission ratios, and raised starting-line rpm. The latter two areas make driving in Denver different for Pro Stock drivers and Pro Stock Motorcycle riders. They typically have to shift out of low gear much sooner, causing them to worry about hitting the rev limiter, and shift into their 1:1 gear much later, causing them to worry about short-shifting.

The uniqueness of racing at altitude brings more attention to track records than at any other particular facility. Major e.t. and speed barriers that are broken at Bandimere Speedway are remembered less than the same barriers that are broken for the first time at an NHRA race. For example, Eddie Hill making the first four-second run at Texas Motorplex in 1988 is the most memorable four-second pass in Top Fuel history, and Lori Johns running the first “four” at Bandimere Speedway in 1991 would likely be the second most remembered Top Fuel four-second run at a particular racetrack.

One of the things that makes Bandimere Speedway a special place is the cooling system that was installed at the track prior to the 2008 event. Pondering a way to give the fans better side-by-side racing during the event’s summer date, Bandimere Speedway Executive Vice President-Operations Larry Crispe and P.J. Harvey came up with the idea of putting cooling coils in each lane to control track temperature on the starting line.

The cooling coils are in 20-foot-wide grids in each lane that extend 160 feet (from 40 feet before the starting line to 120 feet downtrack). They keep that part of the track 10 to 20 degrees cooler than the rest of the racing surface, which allows better initial grip for race cars to gather momentum before transitioning onto a hotter surface. The Bandimere family took a big risk by installing the cooling system beneath their brand-new, all-concrete racing surface — the second of its kind on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series — but it has paid off so far in the last four years, having hosted some of the track’s best racing.

“The pad helps us get off the starting line here,” said Rahn Tobler, crew chief of the Aaron’s/Valvoline Funny Car driven by Jack Beckman. “We slow the Funny Cars down anyway at 1.6-1.7 seconds into the run, so coming off the pad isn’t too dramatic of a change.”

“When we go to Denver, I turn the knobs all the way up,” said DeLago. “When you come off the pad, you turn the knobs to the left.”

Further defining characteristics of the Denver race are the amount of fans that show up and the awareness of the event in the surrounding areas. Even on the day before the race, the streets of nearby Golden, Colo., are flooded with people attending the annual Mopar Big Block Party. The exciting racing and scenic landscape gives fans a lot for the money, just as the challenging atmospheric conditions make the crew chiefs work hard for theirs.

The Fast Five

There’s no shame in having the third-best car on a three-car team when the other two cars are tuned by Mike Neff and Jimmy Prock, both of whom merit legitimate arguments in a discussion of who is the best tuner in the Funny Car class today. It might compare to being Chris Bosh, an NBA All-Star who plays on the same team as MVP-caliber players LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. However, 15-time champion John Force drives for this team, and they had been shut out of final rounds for the first 11 races while Neff and Robert Hight scored four wins apiece. Force and the Castrol GTX High Mileage team got the job done this time in dramatic fashion. A valvetrain failure during Force’s last qualifying run on Saturday led to a spectacular body-launching explosion, and his crew was at the track until midnight making repairs. The hard work paid off because Force ran well enough to earn win lights against Tony Pedregon, Neff, and Jeff Arend before drawing a red-light against Matt Hagan in the final. “Our team cars have been running so flawlessly and carrying us, but they’ve been motivating me and Ron [Douglas] as crew chiefs, John as a driver, and all our crew guys,” said Dean “Guido” Antonelli. “We all work out of the same pool, so we just stayed positive and told ourselves that we’re not far off. I think we're a top four car wherever we go, but it never panned out for us until now. I’m thankful that John and our sponsors kept their faith in us.”

Spencer Massey
got it done in Top Fuel for the third time this season. His win highlighted a performance showcase by Don Schumacher Racing in which the team’s three dragsters combined for a maximum possible nine round-wins for the second time this season; it occurred at the Atlanta event, during which Massey lost in the semifinals, and teammates Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher battled in the final with Brown emerging victorious. This time, Massey got the win light against Brown in the semi’s and stayed in front of Schumacher in the final after both drivers hazed the tires near the eighth-mile marker. Massey clinched a spot in the Countdown to the Championship, put some distance on third-place Larry Dixon, and made significant ground up on points leader Del Worsham.

Here are Mike Edwards’ elapsed times, in order: 7.01, 6.98, 6.98, 6.98, 6.97, 6.96, 6.97, and 6.97. The driver of the Penhall/Interstate Batteries/K&N Pro Stocker certainly had one of the top three cars at the event, along with the Dodges of Allen Johnson and V. Gaines. Gaines took himself out with a late light against Larry Morgan in the second round. Johnson, the No. 1 qualifier, took care of business on his side of the ladder to meet Edwards in the final. A.J.’s bid for a Denver three-peat ended with a -.009 red-light. Edwards, on top of making good runs, made himself difficult to beat by earning the starting-line advantage in all four elimination rounds. He’s now just six points behind leader Jason Line in the points standings.

Karen Stoffer
scored a triumphant win at the same event where she made her Pro Stock Motorcycle debut in 1996. Stoffer, who reached the final round last season, ran well on the GEICO Powersports Suzuki throughout the event, and she sealed the deal by doing some of her best riding. Stoffer had reaction times of .028 or better during eliminations, including a near-perfect .002 in a semifinal holeshot win against Eddie Krawiec that gave her the points lead. Stoffer’s most recent win was at the 2007 Atlanta event more than four years ago, and she had left empty-handed in her last five final-round appearances (three of those occurred this season). The popular rider and the Jonco Motorsports team collected their sixth NHRA Wally when they outran a resurgent Michael Phillips in the final.

Matt Hagan got down the track on all eight attempts. He made the quickest runs of the last two qualifying sessions and last two elimination rounds. Hagan has never qualified worse than No. 3 at this event during all three career starts. Crew chief Tommy DeLago credits his prowess in Denver to mentor Ed “the Ace” McCulloch, who helped his high-altitude tune-up in 2008. McCulloch tuned Ron Capps to a win in 2009 and a track record of 4.12 seconds, which lasted until Cruz Pedregon ran a 4.09 during qualifying at this year's event. Hagan outran John Force in the final round but lost the battle with a red-light.

Special Awards

Stat of the race: It had been eight years since Larry Dixon and Tony Schumacher faced each other in the opening round. They raced each other in the second round at Schumacher’s first race, the 1997 U.S. Nationals, and in the first round four times between 1998 and 2003 (Dixon held a 3-1 advantage). The last first-round matchup between the two occurred at the Madison, Ill., event in 2003, which Dixon won. That event was the third race of Alan Johnson’s tenure with the U.S. Army team. Schumacher holds a 38-36 advantage over Dixon in career head-to-head matchups.

Crew chiefs of the race: This could go to the tuners of either Top Fuel finalist, but I’ll give it to Mike Green for supplying the U.S. Army dragster with enough power to trailer three of the event’s four quickest losers; Tommy DeLago got the Mopar/DieHard Funny Car down the track in all eight attempts and had the quickest times of half the elimination rounds and half the qualifying sessions; Terry Adams and the rest of the decision makers on Mike Edwards’ Pro Stocker were a part of near-perfect runs throughout the event; Gary Stoffer and Greg Underdahl put a great bike underneath Karen Stoffer, which couldn’t have hurt her confidence as she chopped down the Christmas Tree all day.

Best races:
Matt Hagan vs. Ron Capps, Funny Car round two: The teammates did battle with Hagan getting a slight edge to the 60-foot mark, extending his lead to 330 feet, and hanging on while Capps’ NAPA Charger made up ground. Hagan got him by .006-second at the stripe.

Mike Berry vs. Steve Johnson, Pro Stock Motorcycle round one: The Colorado native cut a .008 light on Johnson's LAT Racing Oils Buell and held on for a holeshot win by a .0065-second margin as Johnson chomped the lead away at every increment.

Larry Morgan vs. Ron Krisher, Pro Stock round one: 16-thousandths of a second was all the jump Morgan’s Lucas Oil Ford needed on the starting line to hold off a nice run by his oil adversary — Ron Krisher in the Valvoline Cobalt — by .0059-second.

Quotes of the race: “It’s about time. We’ve been pulling their weight all year.” — Mike Neff, cracking wise with Jimmy Prock, Robert Hight’s crew chief, about teammate John Force’s first final-round appearance of the season

“We’re not racing for the No. 10 spot. We’re racing for No. 8 or 9.” — Bob Vandergriff Jr., who is outside of the top 10 but has renewed confidence after the performance of his two-car team with crew chief Rob Flynn now calling the shots for Vandergriff and Mike Guger directing the Yas Marina Circuit/DIGIORNO dragster driven by Rod Fuller

“We made some really good runs in testing after Chicago. I could make excuses for why the car wasn’t as good this year as it had been in the past, but Don Schumacher doesn’t want to hear it. The Army doesn’t want to hear it either. Let's just fix it.” — Mike Green, crew chief on the U.S. Army dragster driven by Tony Schumacher

“If we can do what we need to do and keep throwing rocks under Johnny Gray’s tires, we might be OK.” – Tim Wilkerson, who is battling Gray and Tony Pedregon for a spot in the top 10

“We do so well on ‘the Mountain’ that maybe we need to deprive Jimmy Prock of a little oxygen when we get back to sea level.” — Robert Hight

“When we’re on all eight, we’re mean.” — Brian Corradi, crew chief for Antron Brown, who had low e.t. of eliminations in round two but dropped a cylinder in the semifinal

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