Tim Wilkerson could do the math. He knew, coming into the Summit Racing Equipment Nationals in Norwalk, that the points were beginning to stack up against him, and if he wanted to earn a spot in the 2012 Countdown playoffs, the time to make a move was now. Right on cue, as the summer heated up to unforgettable and exhausting levels, Wilk got hot at the same time and he came within a car length of sweeping four of the toughest Fords on the planet. Mike Neff took the light in the final round, with a 4.217 to Wilk's 4.244. The margin of victory was just 21-thousandths of a second.
Getting to that point was a journey filled with moments of exhaustion, endless hours of blistering heat, blankets of heavy humidity, four qualifying runs on a track approaching 150 degrees, and three great rounds of racing on Sunday. It was a race people survived.
On Friday, Wilk put an end-to-end run on the board in Q1, an accomplishment few other teams could earn, and then came back to cement his spot in the field during Friday night's session, landing 8th with his 4.172. Once again, his 24-year old son Daniel outdid him, though, as D. Wilk landed 7th on Friday, with a 4.152. Both Wilks were clearly and solidly in the field, and with more blistering heat on the way Saturday, the mission was just to find a way to get to the other end (of both the track and the day) without mishap. The 4.335 he posted in Q4 may not look like much, but it earned him two bonus points for being the second-quickest lap of the session.
Sunday dawned cooler, though still warm, but the high overcast and slightly less sizzling temperatures gave every crew chief much to think about, as they analyzed a way to run on the edge but not over it on a track unlike the one upon which they had qualified. To make Wilk's mission slightly more daunting was the fact he had to face John Force in round one.
Running as the final pair, Wilk and Force both got off the line well but Force had the advantage. Mere moments later, Force's tires went up in smoke and this one was over, except for the pesky fact that Wilk's Goodyear slicks also lost traction further down track. The Levi, Ray & Shoup driver pedaled his car once, and then "It wasn't going to hook up, and I couldn't hear him coming, so I lifted and coasted. Lucky for us we smoked the tires further down track than he did."
It was a big round win for Wilk, who had only five on the season entering this race. With Force holding down the 10th spot in the standings, and Wilk entering eliminations 90 full points behind in 11th, the early head-to-head match up was a make-or-break deal for the popular LRS driver. In hockey, they're called "four-point games" when two teams fighting for the same playoff spot play each other. In Full Throttle drag racing, they're considered 40-point rounds, since that's the swing between winning and losing. Wilk moved on from the opening round 70 points behind Force, instead of the potential deficit of 110.
In round two it was yet another Ford star, as Robert Hight lined up next to the LRS Shelby Mustang, and this one started weird but ended well for the LRS team. Wilk double-stepped the throttle at the line, initially almost fouling but then getting away with a molasses-slow reaction time of .265, against Hight's .108-second leave. Hight's Mustang lost traction early, though, and Wilk's stayed stuck the whole way, turning on the win light with a 4.191, for low e.t. of the round. Wilk was now 50 points behind Force in the standings.
In the semifinal, Wilk's second of the year, his third consecutive Ford opponent was Bob Tasca. Both drivers were itching for a trip to the final round, but neither was stellar on the tree, and Wilk was able to get away first with a 6-hundredths edge at the line. Both Fords made solid passes down a tricky race track. Both cars stayed planted the whole way. At the stripe, Tasca clocked in with a solid 4.237 to Wilk's slower 4.242, but the starting line advantage made the difference and Wilk advanced to the final round on a hole-shot. Wilk was 30 points behind Force.
Mike Neff, Wilk's fourth straight Ford opponent, was waiting there as the anticipation built and the excitement grew. At the flash of amber, Wilk summoned all of his focus and got away first with a .065, his best light of the day. Wilk led at 60 feet, at 330, and at 660. Neff, however, had enough top-end power to come around the LRS Ford before the finish line, taking the win and pulling the magic carpet out from under Wilk and his team.
"Great day, and a great morale boost for my guys," Wilk said. "They were out here until the middle of the night helping Daniel's team put a new car together, and they sweltered through those two days just like everyone else did. I can tell you this about my crew, though, they're not the types who slow down and get lazy when it feels like 115 degrees out. They work just as hard as they do when it's 65, so we have to keep them hydrated and really watch them or they'll work themselves right to the ground.
"It would've been terrific to get our first win this year, but being in our first final was pretty good too. Other than the little top-end spin against Force in round one, we were able to get it down there under power in all the other rounds, and that was hard to do here with the heat and sun taking its toll on the track. We did okay, we picked up some big points, and we got to the final. Seems to me, once we break the seal on getting to the final round each year, we tend to be a little better from there onward. The key right now, though, is to just keep winning some rounds whether we get to have the big celebration at the end or not. We just have to win rounds."
Wilk left Norwalk 30 points behind Force, with five races left in the regular season. All of a sudden, it's a race.
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