Shawn Langdon never has shrunk away from the legacy that reigning but retired Top Fuel champion Del Worsham left him with the silver Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster. He has expressed his joy and responsibility in accepting the ride for team manager Alan Johnson.
Just the same, he knows the expectations team owner Sheikh Khalid al Thani of Qatar has for him. He knows the fans are smart and have a long memory, enjoying thoughts of how much Worsham dominated last season after his switch from the Funny Car class. And likely nowhere this year has he felt that pressure more than Maple Grove Raceway at Reading, Pa.
That's where Worsham set the national elapsed-time record at 3.735 seconds in a stunning final-round loss to Spencer Massey last year in a rain-delayed showdown. The Al-Anabi/Toyota team's history here includes Top Fuel victories in 2009 and 2010 with Larry Dixon.
And Langdon did his part Friday, taking the early lead at the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals
with a 3.762-second, 328.38-mph pass that was nearly three-hundredths of a second quicker than nearest opponent Doug Kalitta (3.789, 327.59). Langdon's speed was his career best, the Maple Grove Raceway record, and eighth-fastest in the 1000-foot era.
But his former boss, Morgan Lucas, came out early in the second session and upstaged him by two-thousandths of a second to become the overnight leader. Despite a wiggle as he cross the finish line, Lucas recorded a 3.760-second E.T. at 326.95 mph to grab the tentative No. 1 spot.
Lucas, who seems to shine in rain-disturbed races, is seeking his fifth top-qualifying position of the season but first since April at Houston. Lucas -- who had an excellent start to the year followed by a mid-season slump with a DNQ at Bristol and first-round losses at the next five races before winning at Brainerd, Minn, -- is making a late-season comeback and said before taking to the track, "I've got a good feeling about what we can do this weekend.
"Aaron [crew chief Brooks], he knows what this track's capable of. We went 3.74 in Gainesville on a 100-degree racetrack. There's no reason we shouldn't think we'll be able to run a .72-.73 on a track like this." Lucas said." And I think people probably just missed out tonight. That's why we have to be on our game tomorrow."
His predictions: "Tomorrow, the first session's going to be just as fast as it was tonight. The second session, depending on weather obviously, it's probably going to be just as fast as that one was."
Said Lucas, "This track is dynamite. All you have to do is just hit everything right and you'll run fast. If that run keeps us top four through tomorrow night, I'll be really pleased."
Lucas' pass was a bit wobbly there at the end, but Lucas said afterward, "To be completely honest, as good as a run as 3.76 is, (A) had I driven it straight and (B) had the belt stayed on, it probably would have run [3.]74-75. But I still thought a 76 wouldn't have ended up No. 1 after the way guys ran the first session.
"We were just trying to focus on getting down the racetrack so we didn't have to worry about it tomorrow," he said. "I'm really pleased with that, but we've got to get the car to move early.
"This track is always fast, and it's just going to get quicker tomorrow," Lucas said. "Hopefully we can take what we learned today and maybe pick up a little bit in the first few incrementals and step up a little bit."
Lucas said hearing fans tell him that he's having a great season is hitting the point home harder. And, he said, it’s a lot more gratifying to hear that than all the encouraging but telling remarks such as "You'll get there."
He said, "We're not there yet, but we're a lot better than where we were. We've accomplished more in one year than I've probably done in my whole career. The biggest thing I think our team was missing was the chemistry we have now.
"I think Aaron has the balls to be aggressive -- and to look at something and say, 'I screwed up' and go back up and fix it rather than try to find some other reason. He's really objective and common-sense-minded. I think that's our team needed," Lucas said.
He said his crew always has "done a good job putting the car together" but said "I think a lot of people wanted to point the finger toward them or toward me. I think now that we got the right people in place and the combination's right, it’s really proven to complement our whole program. The money has always been there. The people have always been there. It's just a matter of putting it all together."
Lucas provided a bit of levity when asked if he was apprehensive about being too aggressive in his first run or on the first day, given the unfavorable weather forecast.
"We're all too young on our team to probably look that far ahead," he said.
But he was looking ahead plenty.
"Reading is known for big numbers. If the track is like it normally is, we should be able to fly down there," Lucas, the No. 6-ranked Countdown driver, said days before his first run. "Our biggest problem is getting this thing to leave the starting line, because the air is so good the car wants to overpower the track surface. [Crew chief] Aaron Brooks does such a great job in those kinds of conditions. If we can get the car on the right path we'll be all right."
Morgan Lucas looked more than all right Friday night.
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