Texas Motorplex Takes its Toll on the NHRA Full Throttle Countdow
We knew the Texas Motorplex would definitely reshape the outcome of the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to One. Little did we know going into Sunday’s eliminations, that it would shake up all the 2011 inclinations and reshuffle the point standings in all categories.
The Full Throttle Top Fuel points leader, Antron Brown entered the race hotter than the Lone Star heat after winning three in a row and four races out of the last five. His string of runs ended at 14 rounds on Sunday when his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Spencer Massey got by him in the semifinals.
Then the shift to the upset mode began in Top Fuel with that division’s newest winner.
It was 17 years and 246 races in the making that Bob Vandergriff would finally get his first Top Fuel win, finally breaking through to the winner’s side of a NHRA professional victory column.
Vandergriff raced to his first win in his 14th final round appearance, ending the longest streak of final-round appearances before a win in NHRA history. Vandergriff powered his C&J Energy Services dragster to a 4.243 at 238.44 to hold off hometown favorite Massey in the final round.
Vandergriff’s jubilation over winning spurred him to literally run back up the track. Not wanting to celebrate by himself, Vandergriff, jumped from his dragster after winning, leaving it at the top end and started jogging back to the starting line - a half-mile distance - before NHRA officials picked him up in a golf cart.
Although Vandergriff had reached as far back as the 660-foot mark (half-track of the quarter-mile), he kept his helmet and his seven-layer driver’s suit on the whole way. The former high school football standout is still in good shape at 46-years old.
“We’ve lost finals every way, and you begin to question it,” said Vandergriff. “But I’ve got a great bunch of guys with me now, and I knew it was going to happen, I was just hoping it was this time. I don’t think I could take another speech where I say, ‘Well, it’s all right,’ because it’s not all right. But it’s great. I’m just a little overwhelmed right now.”
Massey’s final round appearance moved him to the top of the Top Fuel standings, just seven points ahead of second-place driver Brown, who fell to Massey in the semifinal round of eliminations. Massey is the 41st different driver in NHRA history to lead the points in Top Fuel.
Cruz Pedregon held off an impressive lineup of cars to reach the Funny Car final round, driving his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry past Todd Simpson, Bob Tasca and Melanie Troxel on his way to a final round matchup with Ron Capps.
In the final Pedregon drove to an impressive 4.200 seconds at 302.48 mph past Capps to secure his first win of the season and 29th of his career. The win also propelled Pedregon from fourth to third in the point standings, just seven points behind leader Mike Neff with four races left in the season.
“The car was just so good all weekend,” said Pedregon. “I think this is probably the best race car I’ve ever had, with the exception of one run. We slipped up in the semis against Melanie. The track was hot, the hottest it’d been all weekend, and we got a little too aggressive with it. However, other than that, the car was great, and I think I felt more pressure because we had such a great car. But it was great to win, finally.”
Funny Car points leader Neff lost in the first round to second-place driver in the standings, Matt Hagan. Hagan was unable to get around Troxel in the second round though, and only four points separate first-place Neff from Hagan.
Speaking of Neff, his first-round matchup against Hagan was a blockbuster. Neff lost on a hole shot after running an impressive elapsed time of 4.151 seconds to Hagan’s 4.172 with a slim margin of victory of five-thousandths (.005) of a second at the finish line.
After the race, Neff did not lose his cool, but kept a positive outlook when he was looking at the possibility of losing his points lead if Hagan defeated Troxel in round two. When he was asked what he would have done differently against Hagan, Neff was straightforward and to the point.
“I would have hit the gas six thousandths sooner. Honestly, I am all right. This Castrol GTX Ford Mustang ran exactly what I was shooting for,” said Neff, a five-time winner in 2011. “That is the hard part. We have a great team here and they put up a good run over there. The race was decided by five thousandths of a second. What more can you ask for? You aren’t going to win all those.
“Like I said, our car is running good. I am not discouraged or worried in any way. We have come from behind and won championships before. There are four to go and we’ll be ready.”
Neff will not have to come from behind because in the second round he received a huge boost from Troxel and Capps as the two non-Countdown drivers eliminated Hagan and Jack Beckman respectively, securing the points lead for Neff.
The last time all of Team Force was bounced from eliminations in the first round was last year at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa.
Here’s another amazing statistic. Robert Hight, the 2009 Funny Car champion, hasn’t won a single round of competition in the Countdown format since that time. In that period of eight races, Hight has had the unfortunate luck of never seeing a win light.
First round of Pro Stock had an assortment of “Countdown Busters” crop up. The “Factory Hot Rods” division had five of the eight rounds contested ending up in hole shot victories. Your No. 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 qualifiers were beaten on a hole shot. On that list are defending Pro Stock champion Greg Anderson, Vincent Nobile, Mike Edwards, Allen Johnson, and National ET record holder, Roger Brogdon.
In turn, just that round of wholesale changes took out your No. 2, 4, 5, 7, 8, and 10 in the Pro Stock Countdown standings leaving No. 1, Jason Line, No. 3, Erica Enders, and No. 6 Greg Stanfield as the only teams left standing to add to their points totals. No. 9, Shane Gray had already received his DNQ on Saturday avoiding adding his name to this list. Never before can I ever remember such a jumbling in the standings in just one round with that many upsets.
In a repeat matchup from the Pro Stock final round in Charlotte just one week previous, Line and spoiler Kurt Johnson met again in the finals. This time it was Line who powered his Summit Racing Pontiac GXP to a 6.633 at 208.46 to get his fifth win of the season and 26th of his career, tying him with Pro Stock great Lee Shepherd. The win also helped strengthen Line’s lead to 112 points over second-place driver and KB Racing teammate Anderson, who lost in the first round.
“It was a huge day for us,” said Line, who now has won four consecutive poles. “I guarantee you that there is no way that anybody can be happier than me right now. It’s just not possible. It was a big day for us. The fact that we could actually get it done was amazing.
“I drove like garbage all day long. It was the worst I’ve driven all year. Finally, I managed to pull myself together for the final, the time that we needed it, and made a great run at the same time. It was just a really big day for us.
“To be honest, I was extremely nervous watching all the top Countdown cars going out in the first round, because I wondered if I would be the next one on the list. Fortunately, things worked out in our favor, and I was finally able to win one from the No. 1 position, as well as getting my first win at the Texas Motorplex including getting that cool Stetson cowboy hat they give the winners.”
Sunday’s win marked KB Racing’s 10th win out of 18 races in 2011.
In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Michael Phillips held off rookie rider and Mac Tools U.S. Nationals winner Hector Arana Jr., when he rode his Racers Edge Suzuki to a run of 6.979 at 194.96 to secure his first win in over a year and move up to the seventh spot in the point standings. Arana Jr. moved to the third spot in the standings with his runner-up finish to Phillips.
“Having my mother, Aline, here this weekend made the win real sweet,” said Phillips. “I had talked to her on Monday about coming to the races, and at first she said it was too hot. Then on Friday morning, just before we were ready to run, she popped up at the racetrack. My mom made my weekend, even if we had not won. I’m still a ‘Momma’s Boy.’”
Eddie Krawiec has a 67-point lead with four races remaining in the six-race Countdown to the Championship. Karen Stoffer, who also lost in the second round in Dallas, remains second in the Pro Stock Motorcycle point standings.
Speaking of the heat, the quarterfinals and semifinals were a crew chief’s nightmare. After producing records at Charlotte, all benefiting from the unusually cool conditions, at Dallas it was all about wheel speed in trying not to lose traction and end up smoking the tires.
The air temperature stayed around 99 with a track temperature of 121 degrees in the second round and rose up to 102 degrees ambient temperature with a blazing track temperature of 134 degrees, causing tuners to set their cars up to combat the slick concrete surface of the Texas Motorplex.
The weirdest race of the day was in the quarterfinals of the Pro Stock Motorcycle division between Stoffer and Matt Smith.
GEICO Suzuki rider Stoffer displayed class and sportsmanship after a difficult loss Sunday at the Texas Motorplex. Stoffer accepted responsibility for the defeat to Smith, even though her run was slower, and then went to Smith's pit area to congratulate him before his semifinal matchup.
Stoffer qualified fifth and then made the fastest pass of the first round in defeating Michael Ray, going the quarter-mile in 6.880 seconds at 195.93 mph. That put her GEICO Suzuki against Smith in the second round, with Stoffer getting the lane choice.
As Stoffer was preparing to stage for that race, though, Smith started having ignition problems with his bike. Stoffer and the GEICO team waited for Smith to be able to stage.
After that, nothing went right.
"I waited for him, and I would do it again," Stoffer said. "I was sitting on the starting line thinking, 'Oh, he's not going to run. He hurt his bike. All I have to do is cut a green light.' I figured he would squirt out and then die or something like that.
Then as both bikes rolled up to stage, the green flashed and Smith left the starting line never looking back.
"That was my fault, 100 percent my fault,” stated Stoffer. “I was thinking, and I know better than to think on the starting line."
Stoffer left the starting line late, giving Smith a big advantage. However, Smith ran 6.974 seconds at 190.86 mph to Stoffer's 7.014 seconds at 189.42 mph.
"While I sat there and waited, I thought, 'All he wants me to do is red-light so he can go to the next round. I'll make sure it's good and green,'" Stoffer said "I didn't plan on it being that green (.443-reaction time). That's what happens when you think on the starting line.
"Ultimately, the bike slowed down. We went from a 6.88 to a 7.01. I had to cut a .030 light to win that first round race. It could've been done. I've been cutting .020s and .000s all weekend. I could've done it had I done my normal thing, but I was thinking that I didn't have to do my normal thing. “
Despite all the rearrangement in the standings, two more Countdown drivers didn’t make the cut leading up to the race failing to qualify. Morgan Lucas in Top Fuel and Shane Gray in Pro Stock missed the setup in the cars at Texas. Last weekend in Charlotte, Ron Krisher missed the Pro Stock ladder; removing all of them from post-season contention.
The NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship is now one-third the way through. After all we saw in Dallas, there’s no way to predict the outcome with one of the quickest and fastest tracks coming up next weekend.
The Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals at the Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa., will give another opportunity to go for the National ET record again and another 20 valuable points towards the Countdown.
The Fall weather predicted next weekend will resemble the weather in Charlotte and could be even cooler giving crew chiefs more license to stand on it.
So leaving Dallas, here’s what you need to remember: Massey has a seven-point lead over Brown in Top Fuel. Neff, despite his first-round loss in Funny Car, still has the lead with Hagan trailing by four points and Cruz Pedregon right in there seven points behind.
Pro Stock’s Line has a commanding 112-point lead over KB Racing teammate Greg Anderson and Krawiec has a 63-point lead over Stoffer in Pro Stock Motorcycle.