Overall, Clay Millican said, he's searching for the "magical combination" he used to have when he was the Top Fuel driver to beat in six International Hot Rod Association championship seasons. For the immediate future, though, he said he needs to learn to keep the racetrack clean, for oildown penalties are what cost him a spot in this year's Countdown.
He won more rounds than Bob Vandergriff, who earned the No. 10 position they were fighting each other for at the U.S. Nationals, the final race before the fields were set. Millican won 10 rounds, Vandergriff eight. But Millican lost 70 points to oildowns.
"That's nobody's fault but our own. We won enough rounds to be there, but we're not," the Parts Plus/Hope4Sudan Dragster driver said. "We won more rounds than Bob did, but he did a better job of keeping his motor clean. The man got in and we didn't. I'm hoping he does good, since he's the man who beat us out of it.
"Yeah, we did shoot ourselves in the foot," he said, "but nobody did it on purpose. Some of it was driver error, and some of it was we had a weird mechanical issue that we have since found. It's part of Top Fuel racing. I would have loved to have a shot at the championship for Parts Plus, but we did it to ourselves."
Oildown penalties were not new to Millican when he started racing in the NHRA. "IHRA's the one who came up with these oildown penalties to begin with," he said. And oddly enough, oildowns actually have helped Millican in the past.
"I can remember back in the IHRA days, we won and we left the race losing points," Millican said with a laugh. "Luckily that year it didn't cost us a championship. I've dealt with oildown penalties most of my entire Top Fuel career, because the IHRA came up with those years and years ago.
"On the flip side of that," he said, "the IHRA used to take oildown penalty money and give it to the team that had the cleanest year. And we won that before. So I've been on both sides of this oildown penalty thing."
Making the Countdown certainly is every driver's goal, but the ever-smiling, never-rattled Millican said he knew by the time he arrived at Indianapolis that "the only way we were going to get in the top 10 was if Bob somehow stumbled and we were able to get by first round. It's not one of those things that even got me down at all, to be honest with you. We knew where we were at.
"It's disappointing," Millican said, "but I ain't letting it eat at me. Now we can look at it as, 'Go out there and try to win a race.' Points don’t matter. It's all about winning races. When it's all said and done, it's all about winning races."
Doing that in the NHRA as a single-car team has become a difficult proposition. Again, Millican knows the landscape. But he knows for a single-car team to compete alongside the multi-car entries, that independent must have a car that is performing in tip-top condition. And his hasn't been for awhile.
"When we first came over here," Millican said, "we didn't run a full NHRA season. We went 10 races and went to three straight final rounds. When your car runs good, it doesn't matter where you race at. Truth be told, you go back and look at the record: It didn't matter if we raced in the IHRA or the NHRA. Our car was competitive in both places. It didn't make any difference."
Ultimately, he conceded, the difference in being a superhero in the IHRA and struggling to be a contender in the NHRA "all comes down to the multi-car guys. They have equipment that we don’t have and can't buy. When we go to the starting line, we've all got the same kind of parts. The difference is they've taken those same parts and massaged 'em -- worked on 'em, dynoed 'em. And we don't have that ability.
"They can take one qualifying run, and in a lot of cases they've got three different runs to look at from one qualifying run. You give any team three runs in the exact same conditions, they're going to be better. So that's what you're battling out here," he said.
It's the same situation Brandon Bernstein was in last season, when he defied the odds and finished sixth in the final standings. It's what Steve Torrence has overcome to be in this year's Countdown with his new Torrence Family/Capco Contractors Dragster. It's what Vandergriff had to fight against to barge into the top 10. It's what Terry McMillen has faced.
Fans love an underdog, but underdogs don't truly enjoy barking up that tree. And Millican's no different. "Being a single-car team's tough," he said.
He'll have the rest of this season to regain his form for a better season in 2013. And that's what Millican surely knows he can do, maybe feels he deserves.
"We were on top, almost unbeatable, at one point there. I enjoyed that, and I want to get there again," Millican said. "But you've got to find that combination that makes it happen for you. We used to have that magical combination. We don't have it right now. We're working on it, though."
That's typical of Clay Millican, to leave the discussion on a positive note.
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