He really wasn't that far off pace before Chicago, but for Mike Salinas, he and his Scrappers Racing team were off just enough that they knew they needed to nip it in the bud before the pendulum swung too far. He and his team formulated a game plan, and their performance at Route 66 Raceway proved that they are en route to back-on-track.
The year started off near-stellar for Salinas, who won the season opener in Gainesville and carried the momentum to Phoenix, where he was No. 2 qualifier in his Scrappers Racing entry. He picked up a couple of round-wins at the NHRA Arizona Nationals and in Pomona, but things started to get off-kilter in Las Vegas, and in Charlotte, they qualified No. 10 and lost in the first round. The alarms were sounded.
"We weren't happy with Vegas," said Salinas. "We knew we had a great car, but we had a malfunction, and that was unacceptable. The next race, the driver didn't show up and made mistakes, and that just can't happen."
The answer to their ailments was to spend a good amount of time testing at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park before sending the race car, truck, and trailer west to Chicago. The short, two-and-a-half-hour journey from Brownsburg, Ind., where the Scrappers Racing Top Fuel team is headquartered, meant bonus time working on their program ahead of the event.
Business at home in Northern California kept Salinas from the test session, but 2022 Gainesville winner Tripp Tatum was able to fill in as driver during the concentrated test, and their collective efforts paid off. Team Scrappers arrived at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Peak Performance in fine form, and out of the box, Salinas raced to a 3.686-second pass at 333.41 mph that was just a smidge off the Route 66 Raceway track records of 3.677 and 333.58, both set by Steve Torrence in 2018.
"We did a lot of work the last few weeks before Chicago," said Salinas on Friday in Chicago. "We made that run three times in testing in Indy. We were pretty pleased with those results, and the car just felt amazing. To run a number like that right out of the box, we knew we had our car back to the way it should be."
The team closed out qualifying with the second-best pass of the round, a 3.71 to Doug Kalitta's 3.70, but their run from Friday held as best overall. Salinas was able to preserve the pole and head into race day as the No. 1 qualifier for the first time this season and first time since Topeka in 2022.
Sunday did not go as planned, however, and on a warm and very tricky track that had only two top-half qualifiers advance from the first round, Salinas smoked the tires and had to pedal. As he did so, the front end of his rail raised, made a move toward the centerline, and crossed it – sending hometown hero T.J. Zizzo ahead to round two.
It was an unpleasantly abrupt ending after a promising start for the team flying the colors of Gerber Collision & Glass on their Top Fuel dragster. Although upsets were abundant in the first round of Top Fuel that weekend, the early exit for Salinas was fairly rare; the most recent previous first-round loss by a Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier was Steve Torrence at the NHRA New England Nationals in 2022.
Salinas opted not to fixate on where he qualified compared to where he landed. No. 8 in the Top Fuel standings heading into race seven of 21 on the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series schedule, Salinas is maintaining a realistic yet competitive approach in an exceptionally tough season that has, so far, only hosted one repeat winner in the category.
"You could do something really great in qualifying and not do good on the race. You can't take anybody lightly because everybody has it on kill," he said. "It's so close, and if you really think about it, Top Fuel is like Pro Stock right now. The top 12 cars are right on top of each other, and if you fumble at all, you're going to be 13 or 14 or not even in the show. Honestly, I don't care where I qualify, as long as I qualify. Every run is another test session. We know we have a very fast car. My job is to drive the car and have fun doing it."