Robert Hight leads Funny Car in points, J.R. Todd won the first race in the 2018 Countdown to the Championship, but if voting happened today, there’s only one choice for MVR. Okay, so there’s no award for Most Valuable Racer in the Funny Car category (or any category, for that matter), but for the sake of this column, let’s fake something up for the awards banquet at the end of the year.
Let me open the envelope dramatically and … pull Tim Wilkerson’s name out on an overpriced piece of paper. So that’s where my Christmas bonus went. Absolutely worth it. Here’s a Lewis Bloom stat I probably could have looked up myself (but don’t have to now — nice): the only driver to earn more Funny Car points in the first two races than Wilkerson is the guy leading the standings.
Wilkerson began the Countdown in 10th place, defeating Del Worsham in a tight race to help seal his spot in the playoffs. He has earned 196 points by reaching back-to-back finals, losing by a couple of a hundredths in Reading and under half a second in St. Louis. His opponent at Gateway Motorsports Park, Hight, has earned just four more points and leads Funny Car as the tour moves to Dallas.
Climbing Mount Everest is impressive, but not all parties start at the same level or with the same equipment. If Hight, or Ron Capps, or Courtney Force, or any member of any well-funded team goes on to capture the championship — they’ll have earned it fair and square. It would also be the 10th straight season a driver of a team car won a title, going back to 2009 when Hight won his first title.
Tony and Cruz Pedregon captured back-to-back trophies in 2007 and 2008 to begin the Countdown era; since then, it has been a drought for the small fries of drag racing. Wilk came agonizingly close to his first championship in 2008, but back-to-back first-round losses in Las Vegas and Pomona cost him in a six-win season. The veteran has yet to win this time around, but his performance has steadily improved since struggling to begin the campaign — culminating in three finals through 20 events.
The overall numbers, like a 4.038 e.t. average and 54.5 success rate, don’t pop off the screen. Truthfully, they rarely will with a racer like Wilkerson. In a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, though, the racer shines. He’s getting down the track more often over the past two months (69.6 percent), and he’s doing it quicker (4.022) than he did through the summer months, a time of year conventional wisdom suggests a small-budget team finds more success.
That first number jumps out because it takes Wilk up into Rahn Tobler levels of consistency. The NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger gets down the track 68.8 percent of the time, and while Wilkerson hasn’t done it for as long as the Capps/Tobler duo — it’s still a nearly 50-run track record.
Perhaps that’s good fortune or maybe it’s just the team finally getting enough laps in to find its tune-up. Certainly, the tenor of assistant crew chief Richard Hartman’s trackside interviews changed following the Western Swing, when Wilk reached the semi’s in Seattle. Armchair psychology has never been my favorite pastime, but it certainly seemed like a little swagger was back in the Levi, Ray and Shoup camp.
By the time Reading rolled along and the Mustang made it down the track seven out of eight tries, it was clear the team was for real. At that time, it seemed like a good story and many (this writer included) would have been satisfied if it had been nothing more. Then the team showed up at Gateway Motorsports Park and did it again with the same sort of consistency and strong performance in good conditions.
Listen, Everest is a big mountain. Rooting for independent racers to do the thing and get the points ends in heartbreak more often than not, which is why it’s great to be soulless and agnostic like me. For now, this is one of the best stories in NHRA Drag Racing — and it’s okay to be happy about that. Don’t let anyone else ruin it for you. Not yet, anyway.