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Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals Saturday Notebook

19 May 2018
NHRA National Dragster staff
Race coverage
Topeka

Preview | Features | Results | Photos

QUALIFYING ROUNDS RECAPS


millican.jpgTOP FUEL Q3 (1:20 p.m.): With the threat of impending weather this afternoon, NHRA officials threw a curveball, deciding to open Mello Yello qualifying with Top Fuel, and Clay Millican and crew chief David Grubnic responded with a fast ball, rocketing from the No. 16 spot to No. 1 with a 3.739 that was six-hundredths quicker than the next-best driver, Terry McMillen, who improved on his Friday 3.809 with a 3.792. Neither Steve nor Billy Torrence, Friday’s top two, made it down the track, and Steve-o slid to second and Billy to fourth behind McMillen. Rookie Audrey Worm smoked the tires instantly and remained outside the field, the final spot of which is now 4.227, held by Terry Totten.

capps.jpgFUNNY CAR Q3 (1: 25 p.m.): Cruz Pedregon racked up three more qualifying bonus points thanks to a 3.980 run that led the third session. Pedregon, who broke his long winless drought in Houston, has now earned a bonus point in seven consecutive qualifying sessions. Pedregon was the only driver of the round to run in the three second zone, and actually improved on his 3.983 run from last night. Jonnie Lindberg has also been extremely consistent at Heartland Motorsports Park with three-straight full-throttle runs during qualifying. The two-time Top Alcohol Funny Car champ scored two bonus points thanks to a 4.015, 313.00 run in the Head Racing Ford. Ron Capps entered the day in the No. 13 spot but moved to No. 6 following a competitive 4.025, 316.97 in his NAPA Dodge. Jim Campbell also bumped his way into the field after a 4.185. Shane Westerfield and Todd Simpson remain outside the field with one session remaining.

anderson.jpgPRO STOCK Q3 (2:03 p.m.): Several drivers improved during the third Pro Stock session most notably Greg Anderson, who moved from the fifth spot to the second with a 6.626, 208.97 from his Summit Camaro. Anderson grabbed three bonus points and now trails Friday’s leader Erica Enders by just a thousandth of a second. Deric Kramer, Anderson’s KB Racing teammate, also showed a solid improvement with a 6.630, 208.39 run from his American Ethanol Camaro while Enders was third best of the round with a 6.633, 207.66. Jason Line, who switched race cars again this week and is now driving the same blue Summit Camaro that he started the season with, moved into the top half of the field with a 6.641, 208.04, his best run of the weekend so far. The qualifying spread has tightened considerably with just .016-second separating the No. 1 and No. 8 qualifiers.

torrence3_0.jpgTOP FUEL Q4 (3:40 p.m.): Just as they did to close Friday Top Fuel qualifying, Steve Torrence and his father, Billy, had the two best runs of the session with respective times of 3.747 and 3.762, but neither was able to stop Clay Millican from claiming the No. 1 qualifier’s green hat for the 14th time in his career, the fourth this season, and his second straight. Tony Schumacher ran 3.771 for the session’s third-best time, a run that puts him fourth in the final order behind Millican and the Torrences. Six drivers ran in the 3.70s to put a cap on the field, with Audrey Worm, who could not make the call, left outside the field and Terry Totten on the bump spot –- with a first-round date with Millican –- after a 4.227 best.

First-round pairings (lane choice first): Clay Millican vs. Terry Totten; Steve Torrence vs. Terry Haddock; Billy Torrence vs. Kebin Kinsley; Tony Schumacher vs. Bill Littton; Leah Pritchett vs. Antron Brown; Brittany Force vs. Mike Salinas; Terry McMillen vs. Mike Salinas; Doug Kalitta vs. Scott Palmer.

tsca.jpgFUNNY CAR Q4 (3:58 p.m.): Courtney Force held on to the top spot and will be the last Funny Car driver introduced during pre-race ceremonies tomorrow morning. Force’s 3.911 effort from Friday went unchallenged throughout Saturday’s two runs. Force has been the top qualifier five times in the first eight races of the year including the last three races. Bob Tasca III made the quickest run of the final session with a 4.006 to secure his best starting spot of the season. Tasca’s Mustang has been the most consistent car in the field with four runs between 4.006 and 4.091. Ron Capps and J.R. Todd also earned qualifying bonus points with runs of 4.021 and 4.051, respectively. The unpredictable nature of the Funny Car class has led to several interesting match-ups on race day. Cruz Pedregon continued his recent string of solid qualifying performances but will be paired with reigning Mello Yello champ Robert Hight in round one. No. 6 qualifier Jack Beckman also has a tough draw against teammate Tommy Johnson Jr.

First round pairings (lane choice first): Courtney Force vs. Richard Townsend; Jonnie Lindberg vs. Jim Campbell; Cruz Pedregon vs. Robert Hight; J.R. Todd vs. Dale Creasy; Bob Tasca III vs. Jack Beckman; Tommy Johnson Jr. vs John Force; Ron Capps vs. Shawn Langdon; Matt Hagan vs. Tim Wilkerson

kramer.jpgPRO STOCK Q4 (4:27 p.m.): The Pro Stock drivers took advantage of late afternoon cloud cover to shuffle the field and improve their positions ahead of tomorrow’s opening round. The biggest move came from Deric Kramer who drove his American Ethanol Camaro to a 6.613 to take the top spot from Erica Enders, who was not far behind with a 6.616. Kramer, who was also the low qualifier in Phoenix, will open eliminations against his old car, which is being driven by rookie Will Hatcher. Greg Anderson also made a big leap forward with the third-best run of the round, a 6.620 that is good for the No. 3 spot and a date with Alan Prusiensky’s Dodge in round one. Anderson’s teammate, Jason Line, was also one of the performance leaders in Q4 with a 6.627. It’s also worth noting that none of the drivers who have won a race so far this season have qualified higher than fifth in Pro Stock.

First round pairings (lane choice first): Deric Kramer vs. Will Hatcher; Erica Enders vs. Mark Hogan; Greg Anderson vs. Alan Pruisensky; Chris McGaha vs. Richard Freeman; Jason Line vs. Alex Laughlin; Vincent Nobile vs. Drew Skillman; Tanner Gray vs. Bo Butner; Matt Hartford vs. Jeg Coughlin Jr.

C_Millican.JPGTop Fuel low qualifier Clay Millican: “Before the run ‘Grubby’ [crew chief David Grubnic] gave me a couple of scenarios. If Audrey Worm bumps us out I have Scenario 1, which is basically what I call ‘The A/Fuel car tune-up’ where the car just goes down the racetrack. If she has trouble, I’m going to step it up some. Step it up some was probably supposed to be .77 or .78, so I have to admit that when I went by the scoreboard I did a double take; that’s no .78, that’s a .73.

“I’m just giddy because our car is starting run big mile-per-hour. We went 331 [mph] in Atlanta and did it again here. To do that in those conditions, and to have a run where the next best run [that session] was a .79, when you can gap a field like we have these days, it’s very big. Even though we didn’t get the car down the track on our final run, I’m not concerned because we were looking for more than a .73. It was close to making it, but if it’s cool tomorrow like it was today, I really like our chances.”

C_Force.JPGFunny Car low qualifier Courtney Force: “[The different conditions] didn’t change much for us because we had that solid pass yesterday to get us in the top spot. Everyone said it would be hotter today, but we had cloud cover. We could hear all through Top Fuel and Funny Car that there were a lot of cars improving there runs from yesterday, so you never know. Someone could jump right up and pass you.

“We were definitely pushing to see what we could run because we had nothing to lose; we were pushing for the .80s, but we had a hole [cylinder] out in Q4 so I had to step off of it. It was still a job well done for my team and sponsors and we’re hoping for a great day tomorrow.”

D_Kramer.JPGPro Stock low qualifier Deric Kramer: “We were thinking after Greg [Anderson] ran that 6.62 that we might be able to run a 6.623 if we did really well. We didn’t expect that at all. It was good to hear. Everyone on the radio was super excited. It just seems to get cooler in the car. I get in the car as late as I can and It seemed to be more comfortable and more comfortable the longer I sat there so I think [cooling] conditions played a big part in that run.

“I think everyone has their dues to pay. We definitely tried to do our best with the equipment we were given. We pretty much made the decision that we were making good runs and we just didn’t have the power  to compete so we went out and found the power [from KB Racing]. I have to thank all of the American Ethanol folks and all our sponsors for helping us get here. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow morning.”

Saturday recap: Millican, C. Force grab No. 1s again in Topeka; Kramer tops Pro Stock pack

PRE-RACE FEATURES

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Mike Salinas reached his first career semifinal two weeks ago in Atlanta, and if not for getting out of the groove while leading eventual winner Leah Pritchett, he might have reached the final round, another strong step forward for the Northern California racer as he continues to learn the ropes, and he’s getting a lot of help from some of his fellow racers.

“Antron[Brown] told me later that you have to stay right in the center of that [left] lane in Atlanta, or you’ll get sucked either to the guardwall or the centerline,” he said. “He has a whole book on all of the track and lanes and how they drive it that that he’s sharing with me.”

salinas2.jpg“In that race with Leah, I had an 028. [reaction time], and it wasn’t a guess,” he added. “I have Jack Beckman to thank for that. He’s been helping me a lot. I’m not afraid to ask for help and I respect him a lot. I had always looked at the top bulb [of the three simultaneously-flashing amber bulbs] but he told me to look at the center bulb instead. If you look at the top bulb or the bottom bulb, you’ll just see a bulb. If you look at the center bulb you see what looks like yellow stripe instead [as all three bulbs light]. He said if I do that I’ll also never red-light. We talked about a lot of things and I’m going to try three different things on my first three qualifying runs and find out which one works best and then stick with it, for qualifying and eliminations, In the past I never worried about my lights in qualifying, but now I will.”

For the record, the class average reaction time in Top Fuel is .082; Doug Kalitta is the class leader with a .056 average.

Salinas, who had committed to run the entire schedule this season, will actually skip the Chicago event to attend his daughter’s high-school graduation –- “Family is way more important to me than racing, and I don’t have a sponsor to answer to,” he said -– then return to run the balance of schedule beginning in Richmond, where the car will sport a new orange paint scheme. He currently sits 10th in points and hopes that a good outing this weekend will keep him in the Top 10 through his brief absence.

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NHRA’s new lighter track-prep routine has been the talk of the pits the last few races, but it’s turned fairly rapidly from dismay to delight for a number of teams, including Terry McMillen, who’ve seen their parts bills drop significantly.

“It’s cut my tire bill at least in half,” he said. “We were to the point on really tight tracks that we might get one run on a set of tires. Now we’re getting three to four, and, at $1,800 a pair, that’s pretty significant. The parts coming out of the engine all look better, too. Once you figure out how to get it stop dropping cylinders and beating itself up on the other end, it’s all good. We all have knobs on these things, and we know how to adjust them. We can all take away fuel and timing, or you can even put some more wing in it if you want.”

The other benefit, as we’ve seen already this season, is it closes the power gap between the mega teams and the middle teams.

“It’s definitely leveled the playing field; just look at all of the ‘little guys’ who have been runner-up this season [Scott Palmer, Shawn Reed, and Blake Alexander],” he said. “Those guys are all in the same boat that we are; they don’t have super-quick cars, but they go down the track. We know that if we can make it down the track 95 percent of the time, we’re going to put ourselves in the position for some great opportunities. I’m sure the big teams don’t like it that much because they have more power than everyone else and have to take out more, where we have to just take a way a little.”

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Steve Torrence ended up with the No. 1 spot Friday night with a 3.77, but Clay Millican knows it could have been him. That’s quite a statement from the guy who instead entered the day in the No. 16 spot with a 4.47. And he’ll admit it was all his fault.

“The run we were set up for last night was a .75 until I screwed it up,” he admitted prior to the day's first qualifying session. “I rolled the throttle instead of stomping it, so that messes up the timing of everything, the way the motor goes up and the fuel system starts to go. I screwed it up The good thing is that ‘Grubby’ [crew chief David Grubnic] was a driver and he knows. I don’t see way we couldn’t go better than [the 3.77] easy with these conditions.” [He was right; they went 3.73 in Q3.]

Like everyone, Millican has an opinion on the new lighter track prep that NHRA has been applying to slow the cars and less parts breakage, and, as one of the ‘middle class’ of teams, he knows that closing the balance of power between his and the mega teams is a good thing,

clay2.jpg“You say ‘middle’ team but still I think we’re a small team, because we’re a one-car team, a lot like Terry McMillen. Our problem is not power – you’ve seen what we can do [i.e., the national record], but we don’t have the inventory the big teams have so we can’t always run it hard. We are so far behind everyone in that area. We have four motors, and every one of those [Don Schumacher Racing] teams has eight motors ready to go so that they can wipe on out every run until the final. The track prep deal helps us for sure, but we wouldn’t complain about it even if it didn’t. It is what it is and everyone has to deal with it. You just have to figure it out, and it’s easier than trying to change the cars.”

Sharp-eyed fans may have noticed that the Doug Stringer-owned car is bannering StrutMasters in the prime position at this event instead of PartsPlus, a nice reward for StrustMasters owner Chip Lofton, who has been a longtime backer of the team.

“We’ve had StrutMasters on car forever, and because we don’t have Parts Plus folks out here this weekend, we let him have it,” said Millican. “Chip is such a cool dude. He started as a small company that made a shock and spring system to replace the old worn-out air-bag suspension in those old Lincolns and BMWs where it would cost you more than the car was worth to replace the old system. He put them on eBay and they sold like crazy. Now he’s got 20-30 people working for him and a big warehouse. We’re excited to have his company big on the car this weekend.”

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There’s no way to sugarcoat Cruz Pedregon’s 2017 season. Six round wins in 24 events, the last of which he didn’t even qualify for. It was brutal. Flash-forward to today and Pedregon and crew chief Aaron Brooks have what is arguably the best car in the pits as their Snap-on Toyota scored its first win in four years in Charlotte and has collected qualifying bonus points as one of the top three cars in the last seven qualifying sessions (all four in Atlanta and the first three here). Tossing out a star-crossed weekend in Charlotte, they also scored points in three of four sessions in Houston.

The turnaround is the result of a massive team overhaul conducted by Brooks over the winter after his first full season with the team. His deep dive into the parts found that some crewmembers were doing sub-standard work and making poor judgement calls on maintenance and servicing and hurting his efforts to right the ship. One time a crewman put twice the required amount of oil in the engine; another time he forgot to put any oil in it. Once a crewman forgot to put in a rear main bearing. Even though he had his hands full with the tuning, Brooks started performing his own autopsies and was shocked to also find bent shafts installed in “race-ready” blowers and clutch setups that seemed to miss even the most basic points of the system. 

brooks2.jpg“This is a very challenging job and I think I’m pretty smart, but it shouldn’t be this hard,” he said. “I knew that something was really wrong but you just can’t go around checking everyone’s work; you shouldn’t have to. It took us all year to figure out what our problems really were, so at the end of the season we cleaned house. We started out this year with a bunch of rookies who had never even worked on cars, but we hired Glen Huszar, and between he and I we showed them how to do everything, so no one had any bad habits.”

Brooks and Huszar held their own version of “Nitro School,” giving hands-on intensive training from early January through Spring Training. From 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., sometimes seven days a week, they went through everything -- blowers, engines, clutches – and did mock servicing drills. After teaching all day, Brooks and Huszar would spend the evening, often until 11 p.m., working on the tuning plan and the chassis and body. The new recruits were still so raw there that the team only made six runs over four days of testing. 

The team finally hit its stride in Houston and they haven’t looked back. The new track prep has fallen right into their hands as a team with just the right amount of power to go quick but not too quick to have to severely dial back. It’s been enough to put a huge smile on Brooks’ face.

“Last year I bet we made it to the finish on eight cylinders maybe five times [out of approximately 120 runs]; this year it’s almost every run,” he said. “You can see it in our results. It’s running like it should have all last year.”

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westerfield.jpgReigning Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Top Alcohol Funny Car Shane Westerfield is driving the Worsham Racing Funny Car at this event, doing double duty while also racing his Winternationals-winning CP/Carrillo/Blake Brothers Camaro.

The Worsham Funny Car has been parked since the Houston event while they continue to look for extra funding, but they’ve kept their rental Top Fueler busy, most recently with Bill Litton driving – and winning a round – in Atlanta. That car also will run this weekend.

“The Funny Car has been running good, but it’s still too expensive to run it without more financial help,” said Chuck Worsham. “Fortunately, we have guys like Shane who want to rent the car for a race weekend – and we might have several more this summer – that allow us to keep the car out in front of everyone. We were still in the top 10 when we left Houston [since fallen to 12th] and the car is capable of going 4.0s all day long and into the 3.90s when we need to.

“Del doesn’t want to not do it right –- just come and run one session -– because, truthfully, he’s on a high ladder as a two-time world champ. It’s hard to come out and act like your on your last legs, and we’re not, but we just can’t spend all of our own money.”

Westerfield last competed in a nitro car in the Worsham entry in 2015, running at three events and even winning a round in Charlotte. Running the car this weekend also allows him to keep his nitro license valid.


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With the 2018 season approaching the one-third mark, it’s surprising to note that reigning world champion Robert Hight has been shut out of the winner’s circle so far, but that only underscores the strength and the depth of the current Funny Car class. Hight has qualified in the top half of the field in six of the season’s first seven events and was a runner-up in Pomona and Houston but his best of 4.163 on Friday. Hight also admitted that his team, as much as any other, has had to make major adjustments to deal with the recent changes made by NHRA regarding track prep.

“We aren’t where we want to be for sure,” said Hight. “We didn’t get a solid pass down track on either of our runs. Jimmy [Prock, crew chief] will look at the data and see what we can change. We’ve had to change the way we run the car based on changes in track prep. It’s less of an issue on a smooth surface like the one we have here in Topeka but its still a big adjustment. We have won here before and we will get it figured out. I have a lot of confidence in this Auto Club team.”

Heartland Park Topeka has been good to Hight in his 13-year career. He earned back-to-back win sin 2010-11 and has started race day as the No. 1 qualifier four times and has qualified inside the top-10 12 out of 13 times and has had at least a semifinal finish eight of those years.
 
“This is a track with a lot of history,” Hight said. “When I won in 2010 it was my third win in a row that season. I would love to get a win streak started this season and this would be a great place to pick up the first win. The competition is so tough now you have to do everything right all weekend. You need to make a great run in the first qualifying session or you are behind the eight ball all weekend. You want to be back of the pack for Friday night so you can get aggressive and run low. There is a lot of strategy.”

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Jonnie Lindberg has had his ups and downs in qualifying this season by after a very competitive run on Friday night, he’s set up for what could be his best starting spot of the season. Lindberg was the second-to-last Funny Car driver to run on Friday evening and he delivered a 3.962 to take over the provisional No. 1 spot. Lindberg’s glory was short-lived because Courtney Force delivered a knock-out punch a few minutes later with a 3.911.

“For a little while, I thought we were good but I also knew that Courtney had a really good car and if they made a good run I might end up second,” said Lindberg. “We did have some more in our car; I’m not sure we could have run a 3.91 but we were on the safe side. Everyone is talking about the track prep but Jim [Head, crew chief] doesn’t seem to mind. As long as it’s the same for all of us he’s fine with it. We know what to do. We can make adjustments to get down just about any track. The good thing about the new prep is that it helps single car teams like ours. It evens out the field. Jimmy [Prock, Robert Hight’s crew chief] can’t go 3.83 out here. It makes it interesting.”

After studying Saturday’s weather forecast, Lindberg quickly concluded that he’d most likely need to make an improvement in order to maintain a top-half starting spot. Saturday’s start was delayed by rain but the cloud cover quickly moved out during the start of sportsman final eliminations.

“I am hoping for a lot of sunshine today,” Lindberg said. “I was really hoping that it would be hot and greasy so that we’d stay where we are but if we need to step up we can do that. I really want to stay in the top four because that gives us the best chance to win some rounds on Sunday and we need that. I’m trying to get back in the top ten.”

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Years from now, Mark Hogan will be the answer to an NHRA-related trivia question regarding the first driver to compete in Pro Stock with a hybrid engine-body combination. Hogan arrived in Topeka with a Mopar Hemi engine between the frame rails of his Pontiac GXP. Hogan purchased the engine from fellow Pro Stock racers Deric Kramer and his father, David, who had a surplus of Hemi powerplants after making the switch to a Chevy this season.

“Last year in St. Louis Deric ran a 6.59 with this engine and I ran 6.72. I don’t think there is a more economical way for me to pick up more than a tenth of a second. I know this engine is a lot better than what we were running, and the price was right. It was one of those deals where I couldn’t afford not to do it. There was no better way to become more competitive.”

hogan.jpgAccording to Hogan, fitting the new engine into his chassis was a fairly-straightforward procedure. Other than machining a new set of engine mounting plates, they had to send their bellhousing back to Comp racer Brian Browell of Browell Bellhousings in order to be fitted with the bolt pattern to match the Hemi engine block. Now, the bellhousing can be used with either the Mopar or GM engine combination. The final piece of the puzzle was a set of headers that would bolt to the Hemi cylinder head, and also clear the Pontiac’s framerails.

“This was actually an easier install than we thought it would be,” said Hogan. “We didn’t have to cut the car up at all and we can always go back to a GM engine if we need to. The key was the bellhousing and Browell did a nice job on it.”

Hogan admitted that the Hemi may have different characteristics that might require a slight adjustment to his driving such as launch rpm or shift points, but he fully expects a smooth transition.

“My stuff was 15-years old so it was time for something fresh,” Hogan said. “This just turned out to be the best way for us to go. I hope that it helps us take a big step towards being more competitive.”

On Friday, Hogan did not make a full run and finished the day as the No. 15 qualifier with a coasting 7.033.

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Nearly a month after he became just the 66th driver to win an NHRA Pro Stock race when he defeated Erica Enders in the Houston final, and Matt Hartford is still on cloud nine. Hartford’s phone has rung almost non-stop with congratulations from friends and fellow competitors and he also achieved a longtime goal when he was featured on the cover of National Dragster.

“It’s been a good month but I’m almost too busy to enjoy it,” said Hartford. “Between work and racing, it’s been almost non-stop. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I was a little in shock at first but now the reality of it has hit me. The one thing that I still have a hard time believing is that only 66 people have won in Pro Stock. That just blows my mind but when you consider that guys like WJ, Greg [Anderson] and [Bob] Glidden each have almost 100 wins that doesn’t leave a lot for everyone else.”

Hartford remains committed to a part-time schedule due to his business commitments at Total Seal, where he is the head of the research and development team. Despite the apparent limitation, he feels like this is the perfect time to be racing in the Pro Stock class.

“I learned a long time ago that if you’re going to race a full season, you have to treat it like a full-time job and for me, that’s just not realistic right now. I don’t have the budget and just as important, I have the time. Still, I can come out here, lease an engine from Elite, and I feel like I can be competitive at any race I go to. That wasn’t something you could do 10 or 15 years ago.

“The way Pro Stock is, you don’t even need to qualify in the top half of the field to have a chance. You’re don’t want to be eighth or ninth because then you have to be the first pair out on Sunday and you’ll probably have to race the No. 1 qualifier in the second round but really you can win from anywhere in the field. I’m enjoying the class a lot right now.”

To illustrate his point, Hartford finished the first day of qualifying in Topeka in the No. 7 spot after a very competitive 6.649 run. He is just .024-seconds off the pace set by Elite Performance teammate Erica Enders.

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For Tanner Gray, the Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals could not come quick enough following his recent final round loss to Vincent Nobile in Atlanta. Gray cut a great .010 light to Nobile’s .025,but came up a thousandth of a second short at the finish line.

“I should have won that race,” Gray said. “I tagged the [rpm] chip in third gear and after then watched him drive away from me. It still stings a bit but it is what it is. It’s been two weeks but I’m still a little hurt because that was one mistake that cost us. Before that, I was 10,500 across the page [on gear changes]. I shouldn’t complain because I had two holeshot wins and almost a third in the final but it’s not fun to get that far and not be able to close the deal.”

Gray’s assessment of the Atlanta final helps illustrate the ultra-competitive nature of the Pro Stock class where even the a slight mistake can make the difference between winning and losing. To that end, Gray, like many of his fellow racers, spends a lot of time working on his reaction times. He watches hours of videos, uses a practice tree, and adjusts his clutch linkage in order to hone in on a nearly-perfect light.

“I think I do things a little differently than most drivers; I go by feel rather than numbers,” said Gray. “If the clutch pedal doesn’t feel right, my lights won’t be good. I have to have it set at just the right height where my foot is comfortable. Usually, I make the first qualifying run, see how if feels and then adjust from there. We’re not talking about big adjustments; just a little here and there and I’m usually pretty close.”

Other than putting the Atlanta loss behind him, Gray had another reason for wanting to get to Topeka; he is the defending event champ and his father, Shane, and grandfather, Johnny, are also past Topeka winners.

“I love this place; I really do,” said Gray, who finished Friday's two runs in the third-spot with a 6.640 best. “I think it’s one of my favorite tracks and not just because I won last year. I like the layout with the road course. I think that the more you enjoy a track, the more relaxed you are going to be and that will show up in your results.”

PHOTOS

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Overnight storms dumped a lot of rain on Heartland Motorsports Park, so the morning was reserved for jet track dryers of the NHRA Safety Safari and the track.

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Teams unloaded under dreary skies, but the sun came out by early afternoon to allow racing to continue.

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The cloudy weather certainly didn’t keep away hearty Kansas fans, who flocked to the pits to check out their favorite drivers.

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Top Fuel’s winningest driver, Tony Schumacher, also showed himself to be adept with a selfie, to the delight of one fan.

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Independent Funny Car campaign Todd Simpson toiled on his car prior to Q3, but had a mechanical problem and a small fire.

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NHRA’s Alan Reinhart and Funny Car pro Tommy Johnson Jr. taught some fuel-racing basics to interested fans in the pits in the popular Nitro School feature.

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1970s Top Fuel star “Kansas John” Wiebe, left, and former Top Gas world champ Ray Motes signed autographs as part of the NHRA Legends tour.

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The popular Mello Yello autograph session drew a long line to meet NHRA stars Courtney Force, Jim Campbell, Matt Hartford, and Terry McMillen.

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It's a full house at Heartland Motorsports Park for the final day of qualifying.

PREVIEW

Overnight storms doused Heartland Motorsports Park and the threat of more storms this afternoon, a rain-scrubbed track, and cooler conditions makes the day a bit of a guessing game, especially for the few who aren’t qualified.

S_Torrence.jpgThe twin-Texas threat of Steve Torrence and father Billy wreaked havoc on the field in Friday night’s qualifying session, storming to the top two spots with Steve-o ahead of his dad and Doug Kalitta in third. With 17 cars on the grounds, qualifying is not sure thing among the bottom five, which includes three more Texans, Kebin Kinsley, Terry Haddock, and Terry Totten, with national record holder Clay Millican on the bump spot and rookie Audrey Worm on the outside looking in. With the forecast calling for the chance of rain right around the start of Q3, there will be a lot of teams sitting on pins and needles, not just those in the bottom of the field but the top teams hoping for another shot at the track under the new conditions before Sunday’s eliminations.

C_Force.JPGIn addition to her two wins, Courtney Force has been the most consistent qualifier in the Funny Car class in 2018 with four low qualifier awards in the first seven races. Force and her Advance Auto Parts team are on pace for a fifth after their strong 3.911 run on Friday night. In a tightly qualified field, Force managed to separate herself from provisional No. 2 qualifier Jonnie Lindberg by five-hundredths of a second. Lindberg is on pace for his best qualifying performance of the season after a 3.962 in Jim Head’s Mustang and Cruz Pedregon and J.R. Todd are also in the three-second zone after Friday’s two runs. Two drivers worth watching on Saturday are Robert Hight and Ron Capps, the winners of the last two Mello Yello championships. Capps enters the day in the No. 13 spot after a 4.095 best and Hight is 14th after a 4.163. There are 18 cars attempting to qualify and Jim Campbell and Shane Westerfield are currently not in the field.

E_Enders.JPGA scant .028-second separates the top eight qualifiers in Pro Stock with two-time world champion Erica Enders leading the way with a 6.625 in her Melling/Elite Camaro. Enders, who has not qualified higher than eighth since Phoenix, has been the top qualifier 18 times in her career. Atlanta finalists Vincent Nobile and Tanner Gray are close behind Enders. Nobile, the only Pro Stock driver with two wins this season, ran a 6.629 last night in the Mountain View Camaro while Gray posted a third-best 6.640 in his Gray Manufacturing Technologies Camaro. Teammates Bo Butner and Jason Line are in the bottom half of the field entering  Saturday’s two runs.