Say, "St. Louis," and watch reigning NHRA Pro Stock champion Jason Line's normally cheerful countenance turn sour. Leaping to his mind were torturously hot, humid summer days -- and a failure to qualify the last time he visited the suburban Madison, Ill., racetrack.
But his image of the place changed suddenly Friday at the inaugural AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals.
The KB / Summit Equipment Camaro driver left Gateway Motorsports Park with both ends of his class' track record, a tentative top-qualifying position that's the first with his relatively new Chevy, and maybe even a chance to flirt with lowering his own national records that could put some serious heat on points leader Allen Johnson with four races left in the Countdown.
Line summed up his day on this fifth straight weekend of racing by declaring, "All in all, pretty darn happy to have a starting spot here at St. Louis. Last time I was here I didn't get one. So this place does not necessarily have fond memories for me. Maybe this will be one."
In the first session, which Erica Enders dominated with a 6.521-second elapsed time in her Chevy Cobalt, Line was seventh but registered the track speed record at 212.76 mph.
He scored the one that counted -- a track-record elapsed time of 6.514 seconds that aced out provisional No. 2 Johnson by two-thousandths of a second and relegated Enders to third as she shaved her E.T. to 6.519 seconds.
Line is seeking his first top-qualifying position since early June at Englishtown, his sixth of the season, and 30th of his career.
"We're getting better. We've still got a ways to go," Line said. "It's been so long I can't even remember back that far. First time with this car. We're definitely not where we thought we'd be, where we'd like to be, and where we should be. But all in all, a good day for both the Summit cars. Greg's [Anderson's] was a tick behind mine, but he still made a decent run [6.533 seconds for sixth in the order overnight]."
Line complimented the racing surface and express gratitude that this return to Gateway since the 2010 season is in cooler but still moderate September.
"The track is definitely smoother than the last time we raced here. It really felt pretty nice. And great weather -- any time it's not raining. it’s good. It's not far above sea level, so for a Pro Stock car it's a good place to race," he said.
With talk of 6.40-second E.T.s in reach, Line said, "I definitely felt like it was out there, for sure. But none of us did a good enough job. We definitely underestimated [with the tune-up, what the track could hold]. We definitely left some [potential] out there. Maybe if the weather's good in the morning we can take a crack at it again. We won’t be quite so conservative as we were this time. It's out there. We just didn't do a good enough job to get it."
Line owns the Pro Stock national E.T. record, the 6.477-second performance he made last October at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa.. He also has the national speed record -- 213.91 mph -- for the spring race this year at Charlotte's zMAX Dragway.
He entered this race in second place, only 93 points behind leader Johnson, so the 20 points for setting a national E.T. record could put a fresh wrinkle in the tight Pro Stock championship battle. Line didn't guess whether he or anyone else could find conditions ripe enough for a 6.4-second E.T. that could erase a 6.477.
All Line is concerned with, at least until Saturday's two final qualifying sessions, is making sure St. Louis makes him feel a lot more welcome than it did the last time he showed up.
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