Brown, Force Hood, Edwards hold onto top spots in Topeka
Saturday, May 30, 2009

by Candida Benson, National DRAGSTER Associate Editor

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The second day of qualifying at the O’Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX produced no changes at the top of the three Professional classes with Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ashley Force Hood (Funny Car), and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) remaining at the head of their respective classes in Topeka.

The trio locked in their No. 1s with the runs they posted in Friday’s night session, and with air temperatures in the low 90s and track temps above 120, those runs were never at risk during Saturday’s two sessions. Though there were two 6.6-second Pro Stock runs and a 4.1-second Funny Car pass, really good runs were hard to come by as the warmer conditions created quite a challenge for the crew chiefs.

Antron Brown

Brown was among the drivers who struggled on Saturday with the Matco-backed driver not making a full run during the day. He wasn’t alone in his struggles, however, as only two drivers, Spencer Massey and Clay Millican, made it to the 1,000-foot timer fully under power during the day. With the struggles, Brown’s 3.841 from Friday was never in jeopardy, and the run earned Brown his third No. 1 start this year and the 17th of his career. Brown will have a bye in the opening round due to a short field.

“It feels great to be No. 1 qualifier,” said Brown. “Here, we came in with a little bit of a short field with 15 people, and we’re going to get a bye run tomorrow. We’ve got a bye run first round, so that will be another test session for us to get down the racetrack and get a baseline to get this Matco car down the racetrack. That’s going to be important because conditions are going to be just like they are right now.

“It’s tough conditions out here. These are definitely conditions we haven’t seen all year. Tomorrow, it’s going to be whoever gets their stuff together and brings their A game, just like any other race day. It’s nothing different. It’s just we’ve got to learn how to go slow. We’re used to stepping it up and running low- to mid-3.8s. Now, we’ve got figure out how to run mid-3.9s to low-4.0s. None of these cars have been in that range all year, so we’ve got to figure out how to do that.”

Larry Dixon, the runner-up at last year’s event, finished as the No. 2 qualifier, and points leader Tony Schumacher enters race day from the third spot on the ladder. Brandon Bernstein, Millican, Massey, Morgan Lucas, and Shawn Langdon round out the top half of the field.

In one of the better pairings of the opening round, Bernstein will take on Doug Kalitta, the runner-up two weeks ago in Bristol. In another interesting pairing, Lucas faces Cory McClenathan.

Ashley Force Hood

For the second straight event, Force Hood is the top qualifier in Funny Car after her 4.107 from Friday night easily held through Saturday’s two sessions. This is the second straight No. 1 start for the Castrol GTX-backed driver and the sixth of her career.

“I think everyone’s kind of surprised that people are struggling as much as they are, so the track must not be that bad,” said Force Hood. “There’s been tracks we’ve been to where when it’s a certain temp they talk about it being greasy and real problem spots that they’re trying to get the car around. Sometimes they’ll stage you outside and tell you to move back in, and I haven’t really heard any of that. They want me to be staged in the center of the lane, and they want me to go right down, so I don’t think it’s the track. I think it’s really just the heat, and these cars just aren’t really happy with it. Maybe all the teams haven’t quite got under their belt tuning under the hot conditions.

“I know we tested some things today because we were in the show, so I don’t know how much that played a part in us not running as well as we hoped. My team doesn’t seem too worried, but I, of coursed, panicked. I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, we haven’t got down in the heat,’ but they’re like, ‘It’s fine.’ We’ve run good in the heat before, and we’ll just do what we do. The good thing is we’re all in the same boat. We’re not the only ones struggling with these conditions.”

Force Hood’s father, John Force, remained second on the sheets, and Tony Pedregon is third. Mike Neff was the best of Saturday with a 4.194 that moved him up to the fourth starting spot. Cruz Pedregon also recorded a 4.194, on Friday night, but lost the speed tie-breaker to Neff, 292.14 to 288.21. Jack Beckman finished sixth, and Ron Capps is seventh. Daniel Wilkerson was very impressive in his nitro debut, wheeling his Levi, Ray & Shoup-adorned Impala to a 4.215 to earn a top-half start. Wilkerson’s run was second quickest of the early session and gave him bragging rights over father Tim, who finished 12th on the sheets.

The opening round will feature a number of good matches. One of the most buzzed-about pairings is that of Neff, Saturday’s quickest driver, and Del Worsham, the winner of the last two events. Also of interest in the opening round, Cruz Pedregon will square off with Tim Wilkerson, Tony Pedregon will face Robert Hight, and two of the class’ newer drivers, Daniel Wilkerson and Bob Tasca III, will do battle.

Mike Edwards

Edwards will lead the Pro Stock field into race day for the fifth time this season and the 11th time in his career, grabbing the No. 1 spot on the strength of his 6.674 from Friday night. After a picture-perfect Friday, during which he ran low e.t. on both qualifying runs, Edwards had a slight setback during the first session Saturday when his car experienced mechanical troubles early in the run and slowed to an 8.026. He rebounded in the afternoon, clocking a 6.701 that was second quickest of the session.

“Hats off to all my guys; they just did an awesome job,” said Edwards. “This is our fifth No. 1 this year, and I can’t express how good that feels. We’re just having a great year. I’ve been doing this a long time, and I haven’t had this much success. It’s just fun to come out here and race.

“The first part of the track is real, real tricky for the Pro Stock cars. It seems like everybody’s having the same problem, except maybe AJ [Allen Johnson] — he’s really fast, two-hundredths faster than everyone that time. It’s going to be whoever can figure out the track tomorrow because the track’s going to be just as hot, and it’s going to be tricky. We’re going to have to figure the first part of the track out. If we can figure that out, I think we’ll be just fine.”

Allen Johnson was the quickest on Saturday, running a 6.683 in the second session that matched the Friday night run that gave him the second starting spot. Greg Anderson finished third, and Jeg Coughlin moved up to fourth after posting a 6.698 in the day’s earlier session. Jason Line, Ron Krisher, Kurt Johnson, and Greg Stanfield round out the quick eight. The day’s biggest mover was Warren Johnson, who went from not qualified up to 10th when he ran a 6.730 in the earlier qualifying round. “The Professor” will face off with son Kurt in the opening round. Dave Northrop’s 6.781 anchors the 16-car field.

Among the drivers who missed the field is V. Gaines, who continued to struggle as he and his team go through the growing pains of building an in-house engine program. This is the third straight race in which Gaines is not part of Sunday’s show. Mark Buehring, Dave River, and Mark Hogan were also unable to break into the top 16.

ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage at 8 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, May 30. On Sunday, May 31, ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will feature NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET), and three hours of eliminations coverage at 4 p.m. (ET).
Related stories:
Friday: Force Hood, Edwards lead fields again; Brown tops in Top Fuel