Antron Brown, Cruz Pedregon, Jason Line, and Andrew Hines were the low qualifiers Saturday at Houston Raceway Park as qualifying concluded for the 22nd annual O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil. The event is the fourth of the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
Racers and race fans knew they were in for an exciting day after Friday's weather predictions pointed to record-breaking conditions Saturday, and they weren't disappointed.
Career bests were reset in all classes, and Houston fans even got to see a longstanding national record fall in Pro Stock among all of the drama of the final two runs of qualifying, where the bump spots changed with just about every run.
Brown, the defending event champ in Top Fuel, improved a tenth of a second from his Friday 3.91 to a stout 3.81 in Saturday's first session to take the No. 1 spot with Mike Ashley's Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-tuned Matco Tools dragster, and finished with a solid 3.87, his fourth successful pass down the newly refurbished racing surface.
"We just wanted to go down the racetrack on that last run to get a tune-up for tomorrow," said Brown, who qualified No. 1 for the 16th time in his career and for the second time this season. "You can’t run low .80s every run. We saw the cars in front of us smoke the tires, so we made a few adjustments before we ran. We got the Matco car down the track on all four runs and with a decent run every time, so we're happy about that and geared up for tomorrow, plus we know we have a run in the bank where we can jack it up tomorrow if someone runs real stout.
"The weather is going to be great here tomorrow and we did good here last year, but tomorrow is a whole new day and we have a lot of competitive cars all the way through. We're just going to stay focused and race our lane like we did in qualifying. It's going to be cool when we run tomorrow, even cooler than today, but we'll be able to see what's going on ahead of us and make changes if we need to."
Brandon Bernstein moved into the No. 2 spot with a 3.841 in his Rob Flynn-wrenched Budweiser dragster, just ahead of world champ Tony Schumacher, who raced from the No. 12 spot to No. 3 in the final session on the strength of a 3.868. Clay Millican's Hope 4 Sudan dragster rounds out the top four with a 3.871, also recorded in the final qualifying session. Friday's leading qualifier, Cory McClenathan, fell all the way to ninth.
Todd Simpson made the field in his Top Fuel debut on the bump at 4.31 but the former nitro and Alcohol Funny Car driver had to sweat it out on the bump spot after his car had to be shut off on the line on its final attempt with reverser problems. Winternationals champ Doug Kalitta was the lone car who could bump Simpson out but smoked the tires at half-track and slowed to a 4.42. Simpson and his Modular Systems team will face Brown in round one.
Reigning world champ Pedregon, mired in an early-season slump, was not in the Funny Car field when he brought his Advance Auto Parts Toyota to the line in the final session, having just been bumped from the field, but crew chief Rahn Tobler tuned him right to the penthouse with a stunning 4.075. Pedregon has not won a round of racing in the season's first three races, and a DNQ would have been disastrous to his title defense..
"We were just trying to get into the field," said Pedregon, who has been the low qualifier five times at this event, including the last three years straight. "We weren't looking for anything special, just a good run, and if you had said 4.0-anything before that run, I would have said, 'No way.' We were probably as surprised as anyone. We were definitely staring down the barrel on that one.
"One thing we're good at is being steady and consistent, so that's what we're going to try to do tomorrow. Rahn is methodical and doesn’t get crazy with the tune-up one way or another and make big moves, so if we're off, it takes him a while to get back, but once he has it, he's real good at keeping it, so that's what we're going to bank on."
Behind Pedregon on the grid are Del Worsham, who took over the qualifying lead Saturday morning with a 4.082 in the Aaron Brooks-tuned Alan Johnson/Al-Anabi Toyota but relinquished the spot to Pedregon, and Ashley Force Hood, who made a good run at the top spot on her final pass in the Castrol GTX Mustang but fell just short with a 4.085 for the No. 3 position. Tim Wilkerson is a season-high fourth with the Levi, Ray & Shoup Mustang after cranking out a 4.086 on his final effort..
There was a lot of shuffling in the bottom half of the field as Pedregon's brother Tony, Jerry Toliver, Gary Densham, and Bob Bode were all bumped from the field or not in at one point but clawed their way back into the show, leaving class rookie Brian Thiel as the lone alternate despite a good showing in his debut in Paul Smith's car. Bode ended up on the bump spot with a 4.204 and will run Cruz Pedregon in the first round.
Line powered Ken Black's Summit Pontiac to the top of the Pro Stock field in the rare air of the morning with the third quickest and third fastest run in Pro Stock history, a career-best 6.544 at 211.49 mph to lead the performance parade. Friday's low qualifier, Kurt Johnson, also improved to a 6.562 and will enter Sunday from the No. 2 spot with the ACDelco Cobalt.
"We made a couple of decent runs today and have a real good car for tomorrow," said Line. "I think the cars will slow down a bit tomorrow, which is fine with us, but the racing will still be close. Hopefully we can get both Summit cars in the final."
There was a ton of drama in the final session as Allen Johnson bumped his way into the field with a last-ditch 6.587 to knock out Rickie Jones, who then bumped his way back in with a 6.603 alongside Ron Krisher, who was on the bump at the time at 6.620 but also improved, to a 6.578, which bumped Greg Stanfield and, surprisingly, put Greg Anderson the bump. Stanfield and Anderson were the next pair. Anderson merely hammered it to a 6.563 to qualify with the fastest speed ever, 211.89, which became the new record, backed up by his earlier 210.01. The old record was 211.69 by his teammate, Line, set two years ago in Gainesville.
Tom Hammonds ended up on the bump spot with a 6.611 and will face Line in the first round. Among the surprise non-qualifiers are Stanfield and V. Gaines.
Under the morning's prime conditions, Hines made the sixth-quickest pass in Pro Stock Motorcycle history, a 6.889, to lead the field with his Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson.
"You're like a kid in a candy store when you come to a track like this with mineshaft conditions like this," said Hines, who scored his 23rd career No. 1 spot. "You're just waiting for a chance for conditions like this, and we took advantage of it in the first session. We probably sacrificed a few hundredths of a second because the bike went hard left when I popped the clutch and I had to do a little bit of riding, but we were ready to set the national record in that last session, but we got a little too greedy and slipped up four-hundredths to 60 foot.
"To come out here in just the second race with our new Screamin' Eagle V-Rods and run this good is great. I never realized how nice it is to have new tubing under you. The old bike would twist and do whatever it wanted to do in 3rd gear and you’d have to figure out what it was going to do, but this one goes nice and smooth down the track. We weren't happy with our performance [two weeks ago] in Gainesville so we tore apart all of our engines and [brother and crew chief] Matt and I were on the dyno doing everything we could. We got rid of some electrical problems and got everything straight, and now we'll go into tomorrow with our heads held high."
Craig Treble surprised a lot of people with a career-best pass of 6.925 at a booming 193.74 mph for the No. 2 spot with his Team Scream Suzuki, improving nearly a tenth from his morning pass of 7.01. Gatornationals runner-up Matt Smith is third after hitting a 6.95 in the final session with the Nitro Fish Suzuki, and the man who defeated him in Gainesville, Hector Arana, aboard the Lucas Oil Buell, is fourth with a 6.945. Seven drivers qualified in the six-second range.
LE Tonglet, younger brother of former Harley team rider GT, made his NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle debut a successful one by squeezing his way into the field on the bump on his final pass with a 7.204. It's the second straight event in which a rider debuted in the class by qualifying; Doug Horne accomplished the feat in Gainesville and qualified again here impressively in the No. 5 spot with a 6.97, his first six–second run in the class. Tonglet will race his brother's former teammate, Hines, in round one; Horne draws David Hope.
Friday: McClenathan, Force Hood, K.J., Krawiec lead rain-shortened day in Houston