Robert Hight all but locked up his first NHRA Funny Car title when he drove to victory at the NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, a win that put him 105 points ahead of the rest of his competitors. Hight was joined in the winner’s circle by Spencer Massey (Top Fuel), Larry Morgan (Pro Stock), and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).
The championship picture got much clearer in Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Motorcycle and a lot more complicated in Top Fuel at the second-to-last event in the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series season. The most interesting race heading into the final event is in Top Fuel, where just one point separates leader Tony Schumacher and second-place Larry Dixon. Cory McClenathan is just 48 markers out of the lead. Hight very likely put the Funny Car title out of reach when he went the distance and his closest competitors fell early. His biggest boost came in round one when he defeated second-place Ashley Force Hood, who is 105 points back. In Pro Stock, Mike Edwards all but clinched the championship. Edwards left Las Vegas 139 points in front of Greg Anderson, the only driver in mathematical contention, meaning Edwards can clinch the title during Pomona qualifying. The Pro Stock Motorcycle championship is now down to two riders, Hector Arana and Eddie Krawiec. The pair met in the semifinals, where Arana came out on top. Though Arana lost in the final, he holds a solid 54-point advantage over Krawiec heading to Pomona.
Though he realistically is out of the Top Fuel championship hunt (he has not been mathematically eliminated but would need a miracle), Massey may very well have locked up the 2009 Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award when he drove Don Prudhomme’s U.S. Smokeless rail to his second win of the season; Massey also won in Chicago. Massey was on a roll through eliminations, capping the day with a 3.827, low e.t. of eliminations, to defeat Dixon in the final. This was a rematch of the Reading final, in which Dixon prevailed.
“I don’t like to think that I should or shouldn’t [win rookie of the year]; I don’t really think like that,” said Massey. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I would like for it to happen, but Shawn [Langdon] is an awesome racer, and so are Matt Hagan and Doug Horne. Obviously, we’ve got a couple of wins now and the points are the points, but there’s a whole lot of different situations and things that happen for the rookie of the year. I don’t know if it draws a line under it or puts a check by my name or whatever, but I’d love to find out at the end of Pomona that it happened that way.
“It’s just unbelievable just being able to get to the final round. Every race car out here is capable of winning races. The competition is so tight out here. Every round was a key round and meant something because for points, we’re down to the wire. And not only for points, but we’re also going for the Wally at the end of the day. It means a whole lot to me personally and to ‘Snake’ and everybody because we’ve been struggling here in the Countdown; we just haven’t been on our game. So it’s nice to come in here and throw down these good numbers and go A to B and not beat ourselves because that’s what we’ve really been doing all year long. We got a handle on it, and now we’ve got some momentum.”
Massey advanced to his fourth final round on the strength of 3.83- to 3.87-second passes. He opened with a 3.83 to oust fellow rookie Langdon, then clocked 3.87 and 3.84 runs to defeat No. 2 qualifier Steve Torrence and Richmond champ Brandon Bernstein.
Dixon just missed taking over the points lead when he came up short in the final, his ninth of the season and 92nd of his career. Dixon, who now sits one point out of first, had a perfect day leading up to the final, in which he smoked the tires. Dixon ran low e.t. of the first two rounds as he dispatched Morgan Lucas and Doug Kalitta. In the semi’s, he had the second-best time of the round, a 3.845 that was only bettered by McClenathan, whom Dixon beat on a holeshot.
Hight couldn’t have scripted his Las Vegas outing any better. His Auto Club-backed Mustang was the class of the Funny Car field on Sunday, running low e.t. of every round. In the final, Hight powered to a 4.125 to edge Jack Beckman by .012-second for the win. Beckman, who got the jump at the Tree, .058 to .075, finished with a 4.154. The win is the third of the season for Hight and third during the Countdown to 1 playoffs and the 14th of his career.
“To have a 105-point lead going into Pomona, it gives you a lot of confidence, but it’s still not over,” said Hight. “You hate to make predictions, but back when we didn’t qualify in Bristol, I said, ‘This car is too good. This team is too good, and we will still contend for the championship.’ We weren’t even in the top 10, and you wonder when you say that, you know, ‘Ah, those predictions will come back and bite you.’ But anything can happen. We could not qualify in Pomona, and that could be it. But with the way my car is running right now, I’m very confident, and I just know we can go out there and qualify and seal this deal up.
“[Tuner] Jimmy Prock has just done a great job since the Countdown started, really since Indy. Three wins in the Countdown and we’ve only been to five races, so that is stout. It’s all been on performance. We have not gotten lucky, and I’ve not had to pedal the race car; we have just outmuscled these guys. That was a close race in the final. I think our car fell off a little bit. It hurt itself, so we probably got a little lucky there in the final. All the rest of the runs this weekend, though, it was on performance.”
Hight’s big points day got off to a high-pressure start when he was matched with second-place points runner and teammate Force Hood. Hight was up to the task, running a 4.11 to defeat Force Hood, who faded on the top end and slowed to a 4.33. Hight then clocked a 4.12 to defeat boss John Force, who smoked the tires and crossed the centerline while trying to get his car to recover. Hight advanced to his fourth final of the year and 26th of his career when he powered to low e.t. of eliminations, 4.080, to trailer Tim Wilkerson.
Beckman kept himself in mathematical contention with a clutch final-round performance that moved him up two spots in the standings, to fourth. Beckman’s day was the polar opposite of that of Hight as the Don Schumacher Racing driver struggled most of eliminations. In round one, Beckman outpedaled Mike Neff to win the tire-smoking affair on a 4.43 to 4.69 count. The following round, Beckman and teammate Hagan both had troubles; Beckman ultimately came out on top with a 4.21. Beckman’s sluggish runs continued in the semi’s when he clocked a 4.35 to oust a tire-smoking Del Worsham and advance to his fifth final this year and the 17th of his career.
Morgan snapped a dry spell that dated back to Sonoma 2002 when he defeated Rickie Jones in the Pro Stock final. Morgan led the final wire to wire, cutting a .012 light and outpowering Jones, 6.72 to 6.79, to claim his 10th win.
“My guys have worked so hard to get where we’re at, but now with this Ford program that we’re working on, I’m not sure how we could keep this Dodge running like we have,” said Morgan. “The best win I ever had was when I won Indy and the [NHRA K&N Horsepower Challenge] in 1989 and my oldest boy was born the week before, but this ranks right up there. It was just a great win for us.”
“I threw a hundred dollars in a slot machine and won $1,200, and I thought I might be pretty lucky here. I felt relaxed all day, and everything was going our way. We put ourselves in a position to win, and I guess I drove well enough to beat the bad guys out here.”
Morgan may not be part of the championship chase, but he played a key role in it during eliminations. In round one, Morgan defeated Jason Line, eliminating the Summit driver from championship contention. He then denied Edwards the 2009 world title when he defeated the points leader on a holeshot, 6.72 to 6.67. Morgan advanced to his first final of the year and the 32nd of his career when he drove his Lucas Oil-backed Dodge past Greg Stanfield.
Jones combined solid driving with a solid-running car to advance to the first final of his young career. Jones began the day with a holeshot victory against Vinnie Deceglie, combining a .020 light with a 6.72 to better Deceglie’s .072-initiated 6.69. Jones then ran back-to-back 6.71s to defeat Rodger Brogdon and Ron Krisher to advance to the money round.
Hines was mathematically eliminated from Pro Stock Motorcycle championship consideration in the semifinals, but he gave his teammate, Krawiec, a big boost in his bid to win back-to-back titles when he defeated Arana in the final. Arana made things easy when he left with a very early -.144 light. Hines also left before the green with a -.014, but at that point, it didn’t matter. Hines punctuated his win, the third this season and 18th overall, with a 6.998.
“I felt really good today,” said Hines. “For some reason, I get into these races and get all caught up in the battles and rivalries, but today I was relaxed. Today, I didn’t really care. I just went out there to ride and have fun. I had no pressure today.
“In the final, Hector must have been rattled. He did a neutral burnout. He didn’t put the bike in gear, and that’s never a good thing. When I heard that, I had a feeling that I was going to get the win light."
Hines really was the class of the field in eliminations. Though he wasn’t the quickest of the class in his round-one victory over Fred Camarena, Hines was the best of the following three rounds. He clocked a 7.00 to trailer Horne in round two, then blasted to a 6.992, low e.t. of the day, to defeat Matt Smith in the semi’s and advance to his fourth final of 2009 and 31st of his career.
“That was a big round against Matt Smith in the semi’s because he’s my biggest rival," added Hines. "That was for third place, and I think I’ve got it. For some reason, I just knew I needed to get to the final today. It was a little bittersweet to see Hector beat Eddie in the semi’s, but for me to come back and take out Hector gives Eddie a glimmer of hope for the championship.”
Arana extended his lead, boosting it to 54 markers, with his final-round showing. Starting from the No. 1 spot, Arana clocked a series of 7.0s en route to the final, beginning with a 7.05 to defeat Mike Berry. He then put a 7.02 on the boards to end David Hope's day. In the semi’s, Arana won an important match with second-place Krawiec and did so on the starting line, turning a .016 to .032 reaction-time advantage into a 7.039 to 7.028 victory. That gave him a spot in his sixth final of the year and ninth overall.
Friday: Hagan, Dixon, Edwards, Arana lead opening day in Las Vegas
Saturday: Friday leaders remain on point in Las Vegas