While much focus was on Countdown to 1 contenders entering the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, a non-Countdown racer stole the headlines Friday. Matt Hagan jumped the top in Funny Car on the strength of the fastest run in history. Joining Hagan as No. 1 qualifiers were championship runners Larry Dixon, Mike Edwards, and Hector Arana.
The penultimate event in the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series got off to a somewhat slow start with a series of delays throughout the day spacing the action out and pushing the second session from a late-afternoon one to a night affair. That meant cool temperatures — track temps were in the upper 70s when the two Pro Stock classes ran and dipped into the low 70s when the nitro cars rolled up — and quick conditions on which many racers capitalized. Track records fell in nearly every class. In Funny Car, both track marks were reset by Hagan, who posted a 4.030 at 313.88 mph. Hagan’s speed was the fastest ever recorded in NHRA 1,000-foot history, and his e.t. was the fourth quickest ever. Edwards’ pole-setting 6.623 at 207.75 mph reset both ends of the Pro Stock track record. Andrew Hines set a new standard for speed in Pro Stock Motorcycle at 192.25 mph, and Arana matched the e.t. record with the 6.979 that garnered him the No. 1 spot.
Dixon has been perfect in qualifying in Countdown to 1 races, and he kept his hopes of keeping that record intact when he powered his Alan Johnson Racing/Al-Anabi dragster to the top spot in Top Fuel with a 3.805. If Dixon’s run holds through Saturday, it would be his ninth No. 1 of the season and 40th of his career.
“I didn’t know it was going to run that good,” said Dixon. “When we spun the tires the first run today, I figured they might calm it down just to make sure we got down the track and got qualified and all that. That’s a great run for the Al-Anabi team. His Highness Sheik Kalid is in the house this week. There’s a lot on the line the next two weeks, so we’re out there trying to do our best.
“Without the qualifying bonus points, being more than two rounds of racing out against a car like [Tony] Schumacher’s, you couldn’t make up the points in two races. I know there was one race where we made up 12 points, there was one where we made up seven points, and they obviously start adding up. It would be tough to make up ground if we didn’t have that. Alan [Johnson, team owner] and Jason [McCulloch, crew chief] and everybody on the Al-Anabi team is really trying to do everything we can. We’re trying to not leave anything on the table because it’s not going to do any good to talk in the wintertime about what-ifs.”
Steve Torrence, who is making just his third appearance of ’09, is the surprise No. 2 qualifier. Torrence led the first session with a 3.831, and although he couldn’t better it in the night session, it was good enough to stay second. Tony Schumacher moved to third with a 3.839, and Shawn Langdon, the second-place driver after session one, slipped to fourth when he didn’t improve upon his 3.855. Norwegian runner Thomas Nataas made his presence known with a 3.859 that places him fifth entering Saturday.
Another foreign driver, Urs Erbacher, holds down the final transfer spot after posting a 12th-best 3.927. Countdown to 1 racer Morgan Lucas is among the 14 drivers who head into Saturday not yet qualified. Dave Grubnic is also on the list of nonqualifiers at this point.
Hagan continued his strong history at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that began with a final-round showing at the Spring event and continued with the provisional No. 1 spot after Friday night’s lightning-quick session. After Hagan’s teammate Capps set the bar with a blistering 4.041 in the very first pair of Funny Cars, the rookie of the year contender one-upped him with the 4.030 that puts Hagan on his way to his second career No. 1 start.
“This track has always been good to me,” said Hagan. “I’ve raced here before in Pro Mod, and I got my license here, so this track has got quite a few memories for me. Hopefully, we can take a Wally home this weekend. We’ve got a great race car. Tommy [DeLago, crew chief] is doing his job tuning the car. Hopefully, I can do my job driving the car, and when we put two and two together, it ought to add up. I know we’ve got a fast hot rod, and we’ve got a lot of good data from when we were here at the beginning of the year, so hopefully we can go out there and run some good numbers.
“It was a great, smooth run. I didn’t have to drive it around a whole lot. It just went out there and did what it was supposed to do; it went right down the track. I drove it a little bit far, but when it feels that good, it’s hard to pull your foot out of it. Tommy DeLago, I can’t say enough about that guy. I got the easy job. I just hang on to this thing. Sometimes it can be more difficult than you think, but other times, it just runs right down through there, and that’s what it did tonight.”
Capps’ 4.04 held for the second spot on the sheets. First-session leader Robert Hight bettered his earlier time, running a 4.065 under the lights, but he still dropped to third. Tony Pedregon was the final driver to dip in the 4.0s, clocking a 4.098 to secure the fourth spot for now. Bob Tasca III, Cruz Pedregon, Tim Wilkerson, and Jack Beckman round out the quick eight.
The 12th and final transfer spot went to Del Worsham, who posted a 4.155. The list of nonqualifiers includes one big surprise: Ashley Force Hood, the second-place points runner who has been a consistently strong qualifier all season long. Joining Force Hood on the list of racers who enter Saturday outside the field is Memphis champ Jeff Arend and series regular Jerry Toliver.
Edwards continued his reign of terror in Pro Stock, wheeling his Young Life/ART Pontiac to a crushing 6.623 that put him nearly four-hundredths ahead of his competition. Edwards is now halfway to his 15th No. 1 start of the season and a possible eighth straight start from the top of the ladder. The six bonus points he collected today also put him within 19 points, or less than a round, of clinching the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Pro Stock world championship.
“Our lead isn’t very big — this is Pro Stock, and there’s no quit in these guys out here,” said Edwards. “It’s not over. I promise you Greg Anderson and Jason Line and Jeggie they’re still after this, so we’ve just got to keep focused and try to do our best. We’ll come out here tomorrow and race the track and race the conditions and hopefully we can stay in front.
“It’s been quite a season, and to come here and run like this tonight, hats off to my guys. They’re doing a really great job here. Ever since Richmond, my guys at the shop have been fired up and they’ve been nonstop and they found some more for us. It’s just unbelievable what those guys are doing right now. This car is extremely fast, and I’m just so proud of my whole team. It’s a great feeling to work with a bunch of great guys. Like I’ve been telling you guys, I’m living my dream, and it’s close to coming true.”
Vinnie Deceglie, who sat out much of the season to be with his ailing wife, is the big surprise in Las Vegas, sitting second with a 6.660. Ron Krisher slid into the third spot with a 6.668 and is followed by Greg Anderson’s 6.670 and Johnny Gray’s 6.677.
Greg Stanfield’s 6.693 was 12th-best of the day and will be the final time that will carry over to Saturday. Among the drivers who enter the final qualifying day not in the show are consistent qualifiers Kurt Johnson, Ronnie Humphrey, Ryan Ondrejko, and Steve Spiess. Rickie Jones, who is making his return to competition after a three-race hiatus, is also on the outside entering the final two sessions.
Arana parked his Lucas Oil-backed Buell in a familiar spot, atop the Pro Stock Motorcycle sheets. Beginning with the Brainerd event in August, Arana has qualified No. 1 or No. 2 each outing, and if his 6.979 holds through Saturday’s two sessions, it would be his seventh No. 1 of the year and fifth in seven events.
“Running the .97, it released a lot of pressure off my shoulders,” said Arana, who added four more points to his lead when he collected five qualifying bonus points to one for second-place Eddie Krawiec. “On the first run, the bike stalled, so [new crew member] Dan Gonzales had his challenge right there to go and change the starter and make sure the motor was in the right position and get it started, so he passed that test. Then, we studied the run and made the adjustments necessary.
“For 20 years, I’ve been working at this and wanting this. I’ve wanted to do well and have the fans love me and to know who Hector Arana is, and I am accomplishing those things. It’s an awesome feeling. I’m not going to worry about [the championship] too much because I don’t want to lose my concentration. I just want to keep my focus.”
First-session leader Andrew Hines dropped a spot to second after he was unable to improve on his 6.990, though his 7.015 was good enough to give him one qualifying bonus point for the second session for a total of four for the day. Matt Smith jumped from fifth to third when he powered to a 7.000 on his second run, and Krawiec slipped from third to fourth when he couldn’t better the 7.029 he clocked in session one.
Steve Johnson’s 7.106 was good enough for the 12th spot, making it the final time that will transfer over to Saturday. Twenty-two bikes are in Las Vegas, meaning 10 enter Saturday outside the field and needing to make a strong run to qualify for the 16-bike show. Among those who enter Saturday not yet qualified are Fred Camarena, who ran a career-best 7.111 that put him just outside the top 12, and Bailey Whitaker, who has been a regular fixture on the Full Throttle tour this season.