Clay Millican and crew chief Mike Kloeber dropped a lot of jaws Friday when their Parts Plus/Straightline Strategy Group dragster raced to the No. 1 spot in the heat of the day with a 3.749 that not only broke an 11-year-old track record but that also was almost five-hundredths quicker than the next best run, a 3.793 by Leah Pritchett.
Tony Schumacher had set the track record way back in 2008- – before the NHRA’s 9-year-hiatus at Virginia Motorsports Park -- and Schumacher had cranked out his 3.771 when the event was held in October, not in steamy mid-May.
But then again, Millican and Kloeber have been dropping jaws all season.
When Millican announced late last year that he was reuniting with his old IHRA tuner Kloeber for the 2019 season, after ending a long and fruitful partnership with talented tuner David Grubnic, many people figured it would take them a while to get back to Millican’s 2018 level, where he challenged for the championship before ultimately finishing third.
Yet, seven races into the 2019 season, they’ve been to three final rounds –- including at both four-wide events -– and even though they’re still looking for their first win together, Millican is not far off his fast 2108 pace, sitting fifth instead of fourth and only 13 points more behind the points leader than he was in 2018.
After blistering the track on their first surprising run at the Virginia NHRA Nationals, the team dropped another surprise by opting not to run the evening session. They were in line, scheduled to run Pritchett, yet when it came time for them to run, their mighty red digger was pushed to trackside instead of into the burnout box.
“Mike said he didn’t know that we had a reason to run other than we can go quicker and economically, you have to look at it,” explained Millican. “We got together as a group -– the entire team, including [the owners] –- in a huddle and we knew that the conditions we were going to run in were not the conditions we were going to race in [Sunday].
“We’re a small team and how do we make that decision? We thought that the other cars would step up and we’d didn’t expect to still be No. 1. So we made the decision that if we fell below fifth –- qualifying in the top five is always kind of our goal coming into a race -– then we would make the run. We didn’t fall at all and even though we expected Leah could go to No. 1, we decided not to run.”
The decision speaks volumes about the Straightline Strategy Group’s approach –- with the emphasis on “strategy” -– that they were willing to forego a “hero run” and a chance to show off just because they could.
“I honestly don’t think it will stick as No. 1 through [today], if the weather is better or the same than [Friday],” Millican assessed. “We showed everyone you can go .74 in those conditions and I promise you that everyone was in their trailer going, ‘OK, I can speed my driveshaft up here or more the clutch flow here.’ If someone shows you something can be done, then other people can do it.
“We can go quicker because Mike thought we could. We’re happy about that run and I hate that we didn’t run, especially for the fans, but we had to look at what was best for the team.”
What would be best for the team would be a win Sunday, which would match his first 2018 victory that also came in the eighth race of the season, in Topeka, and Millican has plenty of motivation after last year’s event at VMP where he red-lighted against Pritchett in the first round.
“Total screwup on the driver’s part,” he confessed. “As soon as I got here, I thought, ‘Man, I don’t want to do that this year,’ but, you know what, three of my  IHRA wins came at this track, so I’m very comfortable here. I’ve been up and down this racetrack a lot.”