SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - THE CHAMPIONS ARE CROWNED
NO SWEEP TALK - Antron Brown, in the Matco Tools Dragster, grabbed a share of Spencer Massey's Top Fuel lead Sunday by beating the FRAM Dragster driver in the final round of the Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma, Calif.
Brown won the 25th anniversary edition of this race at the former Sears Point / Infineon Raceway and currently nameless dragstrip to complete Don Schumacher Racing's first nitro-class sweep since last August at Brainerd, Minn., and set up a sweep of his own.
The Denver winner last Sunday is in position -- as is Pro Stock winner Allen Johnson -- to go for a trifecta in the so-called Western Swing as the tour heads to Seattle for this coming weekend's stop at Pacific Raceways.
"This weekend our team went through a whole bunch of little issues," Brown said, indicating that his march back to the winners circle and back to the top of the class standings was no cakewalk. So he had behind-the-scenes mechanical glitches that crew chiefs Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald had to handle.
Aside from that, the repeat winner here had a buzz saw of opponents in Steve Torrence, Tony Schumacher, Brandon Bernstein, and finally Massey.
And a lineup such as that -- once again proving exactly what he has been saying all season long about the quality of Top Fuel competition this season -- is what is preventing him from crowing about his chance to pull off a Western Swing sweep like he did in 2009.
"We can talk about sweeping if we can get to the final round of the next race," Brown said. "First we've got to qualify, and then we've got to get to the first round. Look at first round this week -- we had to race Steve Torrence and we both ran (3.)78s. That just tells you how hard it is to win one round of drag racing this year."
Moreover, Brown said, "there's over al million things on these race cars that can go wrong. You can get nicked by a dollar part, and you can get nicked by an expensive part. You have to go over your car with a fine-tooth comb."
Besides, the concept of luck is not part of his mindset, he said.
"I've never believed in good luck or in bad luck," Brown said. "I believe that what you do is keep your head down and create your own circumstances. You've just got to control what's in your lane."
Referring to Corradi, Oswald, and the crew, Brown said, "The boys made really great decisions each and every round, and the car performed flawlessly."
While Brown would not indulge himself in chatter about "brooms" and "sweeps," the team owner wasn't hesitant to bring it up.
Schumacher admitted that in certain circumstances he has favorites. "Love the FRAM guys (but) Antron came out of Denver with a win. It would have been wonderful for him to win the race here -- which he did, That way we have the opportunity to possibly have a sweep. There's an opportunity -- that's all I'm sayin'. I'm worried about Antron qualifying when we get to Seattle. I worry about that with all seven of my teams."
Brown said he wants to grab that points lead from Massey and keep it through the Indianapolis race and gather those bonus points that go to the "regular-season champion."
He said, "We're just trying to win as many races as possible. You've only got six races to win the championship. Last year Spencer and I both fell one round short. We were all within one round going to the Finals. Trust me, we're clawing for everything that we can get."
This was former bike racer Brown's third victory at Sonoma in four years in Top Fuel. (He was Pro Stock Motorcycle runner-up twice, as well.) And with Johnny Gray's victory in the Funny Car final over DSR mate Matt Hagan, the organization's dominance was obvious, especially considering the double-up victory at Denver the previous weekend.
"We're sharing information among the three (Top Fuel) teams. You can see that all of our teams work in unison," Brown said. "But we're each other's worse enemies, because we push each other to a whole other level. But that's what we want, and that's where Don wants to take this organization."
Schumacher, whose Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered operation gained its 188th and 189th all-time victories here at Sonoma, said, "It's an incredible feeling to be able to have the cars and the teams perform the way they did this weekend and to have both Funny Car finalists and both Top Fuel finalist. I've been blessed by the people I've been able to surround myself with, both here at the racetrack and back at the shop. We have about 20 people at the race shop who don't come to the races. We build more than 200 different at this point.
"I'm blessed that I've been able to blend these guys together and they work together," he said. "Let me tell you, there's a lot of egos in all these drivers, and there's a lot of egos in all these crew chiefs. And getting them to blend together, work together, and cooperate is really a task."
Task complete. Mission accomplished. Now it's on to Seattle, which will end the Western Swing and leave only two more races until the Countdown fields are set. And as Antron Brown and Spencer Massey play tug-o-war with the points lead -- the distinction that yields 20 bonus points for the on who has it at the end of Labor Day -- the Top Fuel fight can only get more intense and dramatic.
Tony Schumacher is third in the standings, Torrence fourth, and this weekend's top qualifier, Doug Kalitta, fifth. Morgan Lucas, Shawn Langdon, Brandon Bernstein, Dave Grubnic, and Bob Vandergriff hold down places six-10 so far.
THIS IS A GRAY AREA - In the winners circle Sunday at the Sonoma Nationals were Brown and Gray.
But it was really written in black and white -- that green is the favorite color of drag racers.
Antron Brown in Top Fuel and Johnny Gray held up special silver anniversary trophies to commemorate the 25th running of this event at the racetrack familiar to National Hot Road Association fans as Sears Point and later Infineon Raceway which is nameless at the moment.
But what was unique about this DSR double-up result -- which gave the seven-car organization its 188th and 189th overall triumphs -- was that DSR produced all four finalists in the NHRA's headliner nitro classes. Just before Brown defeated Spencer Massey to seize a share of the points lead, Gray ran away from mechanically jinxed Matt Hagan.
After becoming a two-time winner using a 4.142-second elapsed time at 305.15 mph, Gray said the DSR phenomenon is because of "day-after-day hard work" and "all the parts, pieces, and people" Don Schumacher has built through a network of sponsorships that a legacy of winning and professionalism have attracted.
"You can go out and buy all the parts and pieces you want to, but if you don’t have a family of crew members and a family of crew chiefs that share information, you get lost and you can't find your way back.
"We've been lost a couple of times since I've been over at Don's," the former Pro Stock driver, who still owns the team that features his son Shane Gray, said. "And the other crew chiefs come over. They look at what we're doing. So that's what it's all about: sharing information and having a team effort."
And that takes money to assemble.
Gray easily can recognize that. He's a smart and opportunistic businessman who made his reputation and fortune in the oil and gas industry in his native New Mexico. So, as the saying goes, it takes one to know one.
And Gray can recognize that he has the perfect combination of crew chiefs and crew members. He praised crew chiefs Rob Wendland and Rip Reynolds and his Big O Tires/SpeeDee Lube Dodge Charger team with giving him a car he doesn't have to worry about when he climbs into it.
"We had a great race car all weekend," Gray said, joking that "they gave me a good enough one I couldn't even screw it up."
Seriously, he said, "You absolutely depend on your crew to give you a good, safe race car. The beauty of my car is I never walk around to look at the car, to see if everything's like it’s supposed to be and it's safe and everything's hooked up or whatever. I just never give it any thought. When you can crawl in a race car without having to worry about the quality of parts that are in the car or the quality of people working on it, it kind of frees your mind up to just go drive the race car and have a good time."
Gray is having a lot more fun this season than he did last year, when he discovered he had a stout car that could beat the field's elite only after he missed the Countdown cutoff. He remains fifth in the standings. Although he hasn't clinched a berth in the six-race playoff, he appears to be a shoo-in for a spot this year.
The jury is still out for Hagan, the reigning champion who desperately needed a strong performance this weekend.
He has a mathematical chance to gain ground in the next three races before the fields are set. Although he had some spectacular engine troubles in the final round that prevented him from giving Gray a challenge in their first final-round encounter (posting a 5.461/146.67), the Virginia cattle farmer said he considered advancing to a final round for the first time -- getting past the second round for the first time in this year's 14 races -- a major step in the right direction.
"I'll take second today, darn right I will," Hagan said. "Johnny's a great teammate and friend, but I wanted to beat him like a drum. He just had a better car this weekend."
He said, "Our guys had to wick it up because he had lane choice."
"We spent the day pedal-festing, but Johnny did a great job of leaving on time and keeping it in the groove. Don't get me wrong -- I wanted to thump him bad, but congratulations to Johnny and his guys because they worked just as hard as our guys did."
The last time DSR drivers claimed all four spots in the nitro final rounds at the same event was Aug. 21, 2011, at Brainerd, Minn. Both Brown and Gray won that time, as well.
This meeting between Gray and Hagan marked the 15th time that DSR fielded both Funny Car finalists.
NERVOUSLY DOMINATING - Allen Johnson admitted he cannot wait to see what excitement the Countdown to the Championship will generate. The Mopar-sponsored Pro Stock driver hopes his actions are an indication of what is to come in the battle for the series championship.
Johnson defeated six-time series champion Greg Anderson in the finals of the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in Sonoma, Ca, to score his fourth victory in five final rounds this season. He’s one race away from sweeping the revered NHRA Western Swing.
“Right now we have an awesome race car,” Johnson said. “We have an awesome team making decisions. It’s sweet to go up there as a driver and know you have the fastest car and it’s up to you as a driver to be consistent. That’s my job and I was able to do it today. Hopefully we can carry it into Seattle.”
Though Johnson set the pace for the class from start to finish at the last event in Denver and continued this weekend in Sonoma, he was anything but brimming with confidence.
“We were not confident because of the combination we were running was a brand new combination engine we hurt on the first run in Denver and had to ship home,” Johnson said. “That was the motor we tested in Denver and ran bad-to-the-bone. We never ran it at sea level. We sent it home, repaired it and shipped it back. We had a team meeting and voted to take the Denver winning engine out and put the repaired engine back in. We struggled a bit the first couple of runs. It wasn’t the dominant .02 or .03.”
Johnson has been a threat to win the NHRA Full Throttle Series championship for the last three seasons and for various reasons fell out of contention. This season Johnson was determined to change what had become a tradition.
“We changed chassis and added personnel,” Johnson said. “We’ve got the best crew chief in the pits in Mark Ingersoll. He was battling three crew chiefs on the Summit team and two on the Cagnazzi team. He was trying to make decisions for two teams. We just saw the need to add some expertise to him, with him and behind him. We added Jim Yates, an engineer and racer. We added him to the team to support Mark, keep the data and keep everything to help him make the decisions instead of him making those decisions from the gut, the heart. That’s paid dividends.”
Johnson admits one of the best attributes of his team presently is they have learned how to win and one round at a time.
As Johnson learned, they can change engines in 19 minutes and did so before his second round match with Jeg Coughlin.
“The first Top fuel cars were in the water when Dad said we had a dead hole,” said Johnson. We changed engines in 19 minutes and fired for the first time in the staging.”
Situations such as the one he encountered prior to the second round effectively taught Johnson a valuable lesson.
“I take it one race at a time. Second round I had Jeg Coughlin and he’s a Mopar teammate, and the best leaver in the class. I left on him. Then I had Jason and he’s the defending champion. I left on him. Then I had Greg, didn’t leave on him [.001] reaction. I was loaded. You have to learn how to win, round after round.”
Johnson isn’t just winning by just enough. He’s executing an incredible level of dominance in the Western Swing.
“I cannot imagine doing two in a row, maximum points,” admitted Johnson. “It’s mind-boggling. We are getting in championship mode and we need to get in that frame of mind. I don’t know. I’ve never thought of myself as the best out there. I need to start thinking of that to get the confidence headed into the championship stretch.”
CRUSHES THE PSM COMPETITION - Eddie Krawiec had a bike which rode anything but like one.
Krawiec, in both qualifying and eliminations at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, drove a steamroller impersonating a Pro Stock Motorcycle. The Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson rider flattened the competition from Friday’s opening session, where he laid down the Sonoma track record, until Sunday when he defeated teammate Andrew Hines in the final round.
The Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team now has ten consecutive victories dating back to 2011 and for Krawiec Sunday’s win represented his fifth of the season in five finals.
‘This was our two race sweep,” Krawiec joked, in reference to the class not running the third event of the Western Swing in Seattle. “We might not get a full-size broom … maybe a dustpan broom.”
Krawiec let his intentions for the weekend be known at the onset. From his first run of the weekend, a 6.801, 198.35, Krawiec’s run was the benchmark for the event and held until the first round when Hines ran a 6.793. Krawiec reclaimed his low elapsed time in the next pair with a 6.785 to beat Matt Guidera.
From there he ran roughshod in stopping John Hall and Hector Arana Sr. While acknowledging the stiff competition the Arana family has provided, Krawiec was careful to give all credit due.
“I think this is shaping into a good rivalry, but you cannot count out the other racers,” said Krawiec. “When you look at how many people ran so well this weekend and the career bests, you had Katie Sullivan running in the 6.90s and you look at the two Star Bikes running 6.87s and Karen Stoffer went a 6.82. We went a 6.78 and a 6.79, and Hectors went an .81 and .82.
“You’ll have some who will argue the class isn’t as competitive because our Harleys have won every race and it has been the Hectors and the Harleys coming down to the final four but you look at the results from Denver and the results here. You have a Suzuki and other bikes in the mix, they are there. I feel Andrew and I are riding really well. Obviously the Hectors are riding well and they are getting there. It is going to be a battle of good lights. I almost threw it away to my teammate in the final.”
Krawiec said he and his team are focused on riding better than ever this season.
“The class is tough as a whole,” explained Krawiec. “The competition is good and you can’t make mistakes. That’s the key thing for us. We’re focusing on making good laps down the track, getting good round wins. Round wins, get enough of them and they equal race wins. Race wins will equal a championship.”
QUICK HITS RACE RECAP
TWO NEW MARKS - FRAM Dragster driver Spencer Massey rewrote both ends of the track record in edging Terry McMillen, who gave him a strong run for his money. Massey ran a 3.777-second elapsed time at 328.62 mph; McMillen had a 3.991, 294.82. Shawn Langdon had set the standard in he second pairing of the day, and Massey improved it in the next-to-last match-up of the round.
FEATS OF CLAY - Clay Millican closed the first round of eliminations in dramatic fashion, recovering from early tire smoke, taking advantage of Morgan Lucas' traction problems a split-second later in the opposite lane, and advancing with a 4.053-second, 310.55-mph clocking.
TEAMMATE VS. TEAMMATE - For the first time this season, the two Al-Anabi/Toyota dragsters squared off against each other. Langdon took bragging rights over Khlaid al Balooshi and advanced to the quarterfinals with a track-record 3.780-second elapsed time at 323.97 mph. "That felt fast! It left, man. It shot out of there and it was going," Langdon said after exiting the car. But he understood his teammate's disappointment and said, "We want to see Balooshi get in that Countdown."
RED LIGHT - Steve Torrence was overeager to race Antron Brown, and he red-lit away a 3.788-second, 323.66-mph effort. Brown ran a 3.782, 322.88.
SURVIVES 'BAY AREA BLASTER' - Tony Schumacher had to hustle against Bay Area racer Mike Salinas to avoid a second straight upset loss in the first round. "RPMs seemed high along the way." He said he wanted to be celebrating the Eric Medlen Ice Cream Social, juggling an ice-cream dish and a Wally trophy. Schumacher's winning time in the U.S. Army Dragster was 3.792, 323.74. Salinas recorded a 4.001, 248.75.
ALSO ADVANCING - Moving on to the quarterfinals were Brandon Bernstein (who defeated Bob Vandergriff), Dave Grubnic (against Mike Strasburg), and No. 1 qualifier Doug Kalitta (against Scott Palmer). All the drivers in the top half of the order won in the first round.
BB A BULLET - Brandon Bernstein sailed into his second straight semifinal round with a 3.849-second, 320.05 showing in the MAVTV/Lucas Oil Dragster, as No. 2 qualifier Dave Grubnic smoked his tires early with the Optima Batteries Dragster.
TALKING WITH FOOT - Doug Kalitta is rather quiet but is letting his right foot do the talking with the Technicoat Dragster, advancing to his fifth semifinal of the season with a 3.825-second pass at 323.89 mph. Kalitta has won 75 percent of his elimination rounds at Sonoma. Larry Dixon declared across the P.A. system that Kalitta "flat shines" here.
BROWN BLAZES ON - Antron Brown matched Kalitta's 3.825-second E.T. in his victory over tire-smoking Tony Schumacher. He'll pick his lane against Brandon Bernstein in the semifinal.
YES, I'M KEEPING SCORE - Top Fuel leader Spencer Massey helped protect his standing in the class with s 3.804-second, 326.40-mph victory against Shawn Langdon (4.414, 190.92). And he made no bones about his calculating. "You've got to count points. You've got to know the game. This is what we do for a living," Massey said.
MASSEY'S POINTS LEAD ON LINE - Spencer Massey will race for a class-best fifth victory as he tries to protect his points lead. He earned the right after running away from Doug Kalitta, 3.802, 324.12 to 4.161, 239.70, in the semifinal. Because he is running against Antron Brown, this will be the 22nd time two DSR dragsters have faced each other in the final round. That has happened four times this year in the Top Fuel class (at the Winternationals at Pomona, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Charlotte) -- and Massey has won three of those.
BACK TO THE FINALS - Surviving what he called "another tough round," Antron Brown eliminated Brandon Bernstein in a rematch of last Sunday's Denver final to reach his seventh final round of the season. Brown will be making his third final in the past four races as he goes for a fourth victory
THE SWEEP IS STILL IN EFFECT - Anton Brown moved into a tie for the Top Fuel points lead with Spencer Massey after defeating Massey in the final round. Brown ran a 3.814-second E.T. at 318.02 mph to edge Massey (3.826, 323.50) by five-thousandths of a second.
STUNNING UPSET - Gary Densham scored the day's first upset, and it spoiled Ron Capps' chance to chase a third straight victory at Sonoma in the NAPA Dodge Charger. But Densham said his own Charger had some sort of problem -- "It quit on me" halfway through the run, he said. That leaves John Force still as the only one in the class to claim three consecutive victories here.
RACING SMART - Top qualifier Cruz Pedregon has his Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry running like a bracket car with another 4.0-second pass. His winning 4.060-second, 309.56-mph performance easily topped Jeff Diehl's 4.383, 274.55. Pedregon said at the top end of the track that he was learning from "a lot of tough lessons," from coming to the starting line many times with a fast car and making a mistake. Noting that brother Tony Pedregon failed to qualify and was providing analysis with public-address announcer Bob Frey, he said, "I hate to be out here without Tony. It's not the same without him."
BECKMAN LUCKY - Jack Beckman followed Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps and had troubles in his Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger, too, but managed to hold off Dale Creasy Jr. "We made it further than Capps," Beckman said. 'We thought we were out of the trouble zone." He really wasn't, but his 4.323, 235.47 worked out in his favor, as Creasy looked strong but not strong enough with a 5.511, 128.87. That Creasy was able to bring Steve Plueger's Impala to the starting stripe was a moral victory. He said his crew worked at the track until 2:30 a.m. today, repairing the damage from his top-end fire and stuck-throttle incident during the final round of qualifying. "I just want to thank Steve Plueger for letting me drive his car," Creasy said.
NOT SCARED OF FORCE - Jeff Arend telegraphed his confidence after knocking off John Force with a 4.110, 312.21 to Force's 4.188, 306.67. The Kalitta Motorsports driver in the DHL Toyota Camry prefaced his comments by expressing respect for 15-time champion Force, but said, "He was a lot more worried about us than we were about him." As an example, he noted the trick at the Christmas Tree that the veteran tried and reminded that it didn't work.
ALREADY A WINNER - Matt Hagan said, "I feel like I just won a race" after ousting the surging Courtney Force. The victory couldn’t have come at a needier time for Hagan, who knows the clock is ticking on his chances to make the Countdown and try to repeat his Funny Car championship. "We can take this on the chin only so long," Hagan said after driving his DSR-owned Aaron's Dodge Charger to a 4.105-second E.T. and 308.28 mph and lane choice in the quarterfinals against Jeff Arend.
HELPING EVERYONE - A breathless Johnny Gray panted after his 4.075-second pass at 313 mph dispatched Tim Wilkerson and his 5.103, 146.81, "I was amped up for the run. I needed to help Matt [Hagan, who is battling Wilkerson to climb into the top 10 by the end of the Indianapolis race]. I needed to help myself." He will face Gary Densham in the quarterfinal.
'DON'T TREAD ON ME' - Alexis DeJoria continued her jinx on the John Force Racing organization, defeating Mike Neff (the third JFR driver to bow out early), 4.132, 306.74 to his 5.027, 154.94. Tony Pedregon remarked that the message DeJoria sent to not just JFR but all competitors was "You're not going to walk on us." Said DeJoria, who'll have lane choice over Beckman in Round 2, said it was a major turnaround for her Del Worsham-led team from the past two races.
HIGHT ENCOURAGED - Robert Hight had seen his three JFR teammates lose ahead of him, but the company president will carry the banner to the quarterfinals with his victory over Bob Tasca. "I already had a lot of pressure," Hight said about having to run fellow Ford racer Tasca. "Man, when you see Ron Capps go out, you've got to take advantage of it. I think we've got a shot here." Hight didn't have lane choice against Tasca, and Cruz Pedregon will pick in their match-up next round.
U-G-L-Y AND THEY AIN'T GOT NO ALIBI - Jack Beckman got the win light against Alexis DeJoria as both pedaled their cars and lunged down the racetrack, desperately trying to hook up the tires. Beckman advanced with an unlikely 4.972-second E.T. DeJoria crossed the line in 5.12 seconds. Announcer Bob Frey sarcastically said, "Yeah, that's just what he planned: 'If I can run a 4.97, I can win this round.' " DeJoria's team was fussing under the body of the Tequila Patron Camry at the last second, but crew chief Del Worsham downplayed it, explaining that the turnaround time had them scrambling in general. "We ran the seventh pair in the first round, then we were first pair. We put a new body on it," he said" and explained that he noticed some delaminating of the body material.
COUNTING HIS PESOS AND ROUND-WINS - Cruz Pedregon was thrilled to beat Robert Hight and erase the final remaining John Force Racing name from the list. He said after climbing from his Snap-on Camry that he was keeping score with the Force team. Keeping score? "We all do," Pedregon said. "That's a John Force car. They have lots of money. We have a few pesos we can scrape together, too."
IMPROVING - Johnny Gray halted Gary Densham's dreams of pulling off another upset with a 4.115-second , 303.91-mph blast in the Big O/SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up Dodge. "We've had a great race car. We've just had bad luck. Just stupid things, then we just didn't run good at Denver," Gray said. But he's shaking that performance slump and headed to his fourth semifinal. Gray will have lane choice against DSR colleague Jack Beckman in the next round.
ANOTHER UGLY ONE BUT ' YEE-HAW!' - Matt Hagan wiggled and smoked and pedaled his way down the 1,000-foot course track to eliminate an equally lurching, tire-smoking, twisting and pitching Jeff Arend. "Yee-haw! That was fun! It's just awesome!" an elated Hagan said after riding his bucking bronco of a Funny Car to his first semifinal of the year. "Our guys are really getting it together. We're just having some fun."
FUN'S OVER - Jack Beckman's fun and luck-round magic is over. Johnny Gray saw to that with a winning 4.092-second E.T. and 307.16-mph speed. Beckman's 4.118, 304.19 was his best clocking of the day but it wasn't enough.
HAGAN FINALLY MAKING FINAL - Matt Hagan said he hopes Don Schumacher Racing colleague Johnny Gray "won't take me to school" in the final round. But he was excited just the same, just to be making first final-round appearance by defeating top Sonoma qualifier Cruz Pedregon. Hagan trailed at the eighth-mile but Pedregon began putting out cylinders and slowed to a 4.293, 233.84. Hagan's victory ensured DSR will have its 188th and 189th overall victories, with the DSR duo of Spencer Massey and Antron Brown the Top Fuel finalists. The last time all four nitro finalists were DSR drivers was last August 21 at Brainerd, Minn., when Brown beat Tony Schumacher and Gray beat Ron Capps.
DSR SHINES AGAIN - The Gray-Hagan match-up marks the 15th time the Funny Car final round pits two DSR drivers. Gray was involved in one of the two previous such situations from earlier this year -- he beat Ron Capps at Englishtown. Beckman beat Capps in the other one.
GRAY, A TWO-TIME WINNER - Johnny Gray became a two-time winner, denying Don Schumacher Racing mate Matt Hagan a long-awaited first this season. Gray closed the deal with a 4.142-second pass at 305.15 mph. Hagan, experiencing engine trouble downtrack, trailed with a 5.461, 146.67.
PROFESSOR STILL WINLESS – Warren Johnson did everything he could to put himself in a position to win a round for the first time this season. Unfortunately for WJ, getting off of the line ahead of Jeggie Coughlin wasn’t one of them. Coughlin scored the victory by a 6.585 to 6.553 margin. The margin of victory was .001.
MORGAN ADVANCES – Two of the first three winners in the first round of Pro Stock came from slower qualified cars. Larry Morgan beat V. Gaines in a 6.565 to 6.569 decision and a .005 margin of victory.
CAMAROS ARE COMING AROUND FOR KB RACING – Both Greg Anderson and Jason Line advanced in their new Camaros. Anderson ran a 6.539 to beat Ron Krisher and his 212.29 mile per hour speed tied top speed for the event.
Line ran a 6.526 to beat Shane Gray.
“The comfort level was a four or five headed into the day, it’s a few spots higher now,” admitted Anderson.
LOW ELAPSED TIME – Anderson will need the confidence as Erica Enders’ 6.512, 211.56 in beating JR Carr not only established low elapsed time of the weekend, but gave her lane choice in their second round match. Enders made history earlier this month when she defeated Anderson to become the first female Pro Stock winner.
NOT A FOUL - On paper, the records will show Kurt Johnson fouled against Vincent Nobile. The video tells a different story.
"I believe what I see and I know I didn't move first," Johnson said. "Vincent came up with a .006 foul and I had a .2 red. Our sixty foots were off two tenths, the reaction time was off two-tenths and the car didn't move. We basically got screwed on this one and don't want it to happen again."
The NHRA's Graham Light confirmed Johnson's reaction time was incorrect but added there was no conclusive evidence to overturn the end result of the race.
JOHNSON ADVANCES - No. 1 qualifier Allen Johnson defeated Matt Hartford in the opening round.
RIVERA NEARLY STEALS ONE – Mike Edwards was extremely tardy off of the starting line, .170 reaction, against Gordie Rivera. Rivera was a tenth ahead at half-track and led the race until the 1,000-foot mark. Edwards caught him at the stripe with a 6.533, 212.06.
CUTTING IT CLOSE – Allen Johnson showed no ill-effects of an engine change prior to his second round match against Jeg Coughlin Jr. Johnson tied his qualifying run with a 6.517 and established top speed with at 212.46.
“We barely made the run,” Johnson admitted. “We didn’t event crank the car until right before we got ready to run. We didn’t know for sure it was going to start.”
Johnson believes a dead cylinder precipitated the change.
DENYING THE KID – Jason Line used a .001 reaction and a slightly quicker elapsed time to repel Vincent Nobile’s bid to clinch a playoff spot in Sonoma. Line won by a 6.534 to 6.537 margin.
“We left a lot out there, but the win light came on and that’s all that matters,” Line said.
A RIVALRY IN THE MAKING – Their slow staging battle was the least of which transpired between Greg Anderson and Erica Enders. Enders rolled the beams too early with a .003 foul. Anderson won with a 6.553 as Enders wasted a 6.550. The drivers exchanged words in the shutdown area after ESPN2’s Gary Gerould revealed to Enders how Anderson had taken issue in her celebration following the Route 66 Nationals win. Enders took offense citing, “I’ve done nothing but speak highly of them and their team, Summit and the guys over there. I think they’re great and to be the best you have to beat the best. If we did something unsportsmanship-like, I wish he’d have brought it to my attention.”
ADVANCING ON – Mike Edwards clinched a playoff spot by winning the first round over Gordie Rivera. He clinched a semi-final berth with a 6.587, 211.89 to beat Larry Morgan.
ANDERSON ADVANCES – Greg Anderson became the first Pro Stock finalist when Mike Edwards fouled. Edwards rolled the tree -,014 red, handing the win to Anderson, who ran a 6.572.
THE RUBBER CRANK BOUNCES TO FINAL – Allen Johnson stands as one of two remaining drivers still in the running to sweep the Western Swing. Johnson outreacted and outran Jason Line to set up another final round between the Rubber Cranks [Mopar] and the Off Brand [KB Racing]. Johnson won with a 6.532 and has lane choice in the final.
TWO DOWN, ONE TO GO - Allen Johnson entered the famed Western Swing seeking a sweep. In defeating Greg Anderson, he's two-thirds of the way there. Johnson ran a 6.542, 211.76. Anderson made a race of it with a 6.573 and a .001 reaction time.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
HARLEYS HAMMER THE COMPETITION –The Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team runs quick enough without help from Mother Nature. Armed with a tailwind both Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines ran low elapsed time of the event.
Hines was first with a 6.793, 196 to eliminate Matt Guidera. Krawiec reclaimed his place as the top bike on the property with a 6.785, 198.32 to beat Angie Smith.
TEAM BRYCE ROLLS – George Bryce orchestrated his riders John Hall and Scotty Pollacheck into the second round. Pollacheck ran a 6.857 to beat Jerry Savoie.
Hall ran a personal best 6.870 elapsed time to beat Michael Ray.
“I love it,” said Hall. “It felt awesome from start to end.”
STOFFER’S SUZUKI HAULS – Karen Stoffer leaned on her Suzuki in beating Michael Phillips, who fouled. Stoffer remained in the throttle and laid down a 6.827, 194.30 to win.
“You have to do something to keep up with those big ole motors,” added Stoffer.
HECTORS WIN – Hector Arana Sr. and son Hector Jr. won their first round matches. In a tale of different ends of the reaction time spectrum, Hector Sr. nailed Steve Johnson with a .001 reaction to win with a 6.803, 195. Junior, on the other hand, needed every bit of the quarter-mile to track down Katie Sullivan when he left with a .112 light. He won by a 6.812 to 6.947 margin.
UGLY – Shawn Gann coasted to a 7.702 win as both he and Matt Smith had problems with their bikes.
IT’S THE HECTORS AND HARLEYS IN THE SEMIS – The final round will either match two Harleys or two Hectors, or one of each.
The Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson riders, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec will have lane choice over Hector Arana Jr. and Sr. respectively.
Andrew Hines’ 6.799-second pass was more than enough to beat Scotty Pollachek and secure low elapsed time of the round. Krawiec used a 6.803, 197 to eliminate John Hall, the other Sovereign Racing bike managed by George Bryce.
Hector Arana Jr. didn’t let a .001 reaction time from Shawn Gann rattle his cage as he won with a 6.815. Hector Sr. won with a 6.803.
ALL HARLEY, ALL THE TIME – The Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team secured their eleventh consecutive victory dating back to 2011 when Eddie Krawiec [6.812] beat Hector Arana Sr. and Andrew Hines [6.842] eliminated Hector Jr.
IT'S YOU AGAIN - Eddie Krawiec scored his fifth 2012 win defeating teammate Andrew Hines in the final. Krawiec won with a 6.809, 197.74 run to complete the Harley-Davidson domination for this event. Krawiec was the No. 1 qualifier.
SATURDAY NOTEBOOK - THE STAGE FOR SUNDAY IS SET
GUNNING FOR A SIXTH - Doug Kalitta hasn't won a National Hot Rod Association race since the start of the 2010 Western Swing, when he was king of Thunder Mountain in the Mopar Mile High Nationals at Denver.
So he said Saturday after claiming his No. 1 Top Fuel qualifying position since August 2010, at Brainerd, Minn., he's looking forward to Sunday's eliminations of the Sonoma Nationals in California's Wine Country.
The Ann Arbor, Mich., businessman has won five times here, more than anyone else in the class and second only at this facility to seven-time Funny Car winner John Force. And on the strength of his track-record 3.785-second elapsed time in the Technicoat Dragster Friday night, Kalitta will lead the pack for the first time this year and 31st of his career.
"I hope we can pull it off," Kalitta, said. "The car's running good. Hopefully I won't screw it up on my part."
He didn't improve his E.T. in either of Saturday's two sessions in the heat of the day on a surface that reached triple-digit temperatures. However, he did use the third-session run to earn his top speed of the weekend at 324.12 mph.
And he said he doubted crew chief Jim Oberhofer suddenly will throw a conservative tune-up into the dragster Sunday.
"We're usually not very bashful with our set-up," he said.
Besides, he indicated he knows he can run in conditions that he and the class likely will encounter Sunday. What he saw Saturday, he said, "are definitely the conditions we'll have tomorrow." So he acknowledged that Oberhofer and the crew were trying out some settings that would come in handy in eliminations.
"Hopefully we'll have a whole bunch of 3.80s for 'em tomorrow," Kalitta said.
His Kalitta Motorsports teammate Dave Grubnic, in the Optima Batteries Dragster, was the No. 2 qualifier. They were 1-2 here in 2004, and they met in that final round with Kalitta winning. This marked the first time since the 2005 Gatornationals that Kalitta and Grubnic started at the top of the order.
"That's cool to see Dave and I at the front of the pack. I'm rally excited for Jim and (assistant crew chief) Troy (Fasching) and all my guys. They're working real hard. We'll do our best," Kalitta said.
His first challenge will come from Scott Palmer. Grubnic will face No. 15 Mike Strasburg in the first round.
On the heels of performing before an outstanding Denver crowd all last weekend, Kalitta took time to applaud the encouraging two-day attendance.
"This is one of the nicest tracks we go to," he said. "The crowd yesterday and today were huge." To the track personnel, he said, "You should be proud of the marketing and everything else that attracts that many people. You built a nice facility and people appreciate that and come back. I think that's probably what you're probably seeing."
Maybe they'll be seeing another Doug Kalitta victory -- one that might be familiar to the fans here but is long overdue for him.
EYEING THE PRIZE - As Cruz Pedregon seeks his third Funny Car victory -- and his first in 14 years -- at Sonoma, Calif., Sunday, he has learned what not to do as much as what to do.
And he said he's confident he has enough information about the track and the weekend's conditions for a better-than-average shot at winning this race -- called the Sonoma NHRA Nationals this season -- like he did in 1996 and 1998.
The Snap-on Tools Toyota Camry driver will lead the field, thanks to his track elapsed-time record of 4.028 seconds at 307.30 mph from Friday night. With valuable input from consultant Lee Beard, Pedregon managed to hold onto his low-E.T. status, setting up his first-round meeting with fellow Southern California native Jeff Diehl.
Had the order remained the same as it was after the third qualifying session earlier Saturday, he would have faced his brother Tony Pedregon in the opening round.
But Tony Pedregon, with only one more chance to qualify and climb back onto the 16-car grid, saw his parachutes drop out onto the track by mistake during his burnout. That ruined his chances to compete and go head-to-head with his older brother. Tony Pedregon joined debuting Funny Car driver Josh Crawford and Todd Lesenko in posting a DNQ.
"That was a real shame," Cruz Pedregon said.
This is the first time Pedregon has been the Funny Car top qualifier here at Sonoma, although this is his fourth No. 1 start this year and the 49th of his career.
"That's pretty cool. That's a great accomplishment," Pedregon said. "What I'm not so proud of is our win-loss record on race day. It's a mediocre 11-11 for the No. 7-ranked driver who's a California native.
Pedregon was runner-up this spring in the Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte's zMAX Dragway, a sister track to this Sonoma raceway. But he said it's time to get a 30th overall Wally trophy.
"It's been time all year," he said. "We want to get over that hump. If we get to the finals, whatever happens after that is gravy. We want to make sure we're smart and we don't beat ourselves, like we have in the past. And I think that's going to be a challenge for us. "
Pedregon said he learned from his final qualifying pass, which yielded nothing beyond the lesson not to overpower the track.
"What happened to us just now, " he said, referring to the pass he had made minutes before, "we will not do tomorrow, I can guarantee you that. It doesn’t mean we're going to make it down the track. We just were pushing a little too hard in that first 60, 80, 100 feet or so. We'll learn from that and make those corrections.
"The fact that we missed on that was probably a good thing," he said, explaining that a driver can get overconfident in making decent-to-encouraging back-to-back runs.
So although he held onto the provisional No. 1 position, the day wasn't all that easy for him.
"On that first run we had a (4).14 with a cylinder out," he said, referring to his 4.148-second pass at 277.77 mph in the first of two Saturday chances. "That's a good indication that the car's wanting to run fast. "
He said he was elated about "the fact that we got down the track three out of four times in a nitro car."
Said Pedregon, "I feel good about our chances."
And why not? Maybe his mistakes from the weekend all are behind him -- and he recognizes what they were.
DOMINATION WITH A CAPITAL D - There is domination and then there’s what the Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson Pro Stock Motorcycle team has accomplished thus far in the 2012 season. Of the six Pro Stock Bike races contested thus far, this team has won all six.
Two of those six events have been all Harley-Davidson finals.
With those kinds of stats, it’s awful hard to imagine someone other than a member of Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson team will be headed into Sunday’s final eliminations at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in Sonoma, Ca.
From the time Eddie Krawiec rolled his V-Rod out of the trailer and hit the strip Friday afternoon, he has had no equal and the deficit wasn’t even close.
Krawiec heads into Sunday’s eliminations .047 of a second quicker than teammate Andrew Hines, the second quickest entry in four sessions. Both Krawiec’s 6.801 elapsed time and 198.35 mile per hour speed stand as track records at Sonoma.
Krawiec has designs of going even quicker on Saturday.
“I’m glad we got it done on the first lap [Friday] because we came out today [Saturday] a little too aggressive,” Krawiec explained. “We really shook because we were really trying to go fast. We had really good conditions and it was obviously fast. Overall, we had the best session of the weekend. We had a tailwind, everything we needed to go fast.
“Unfortunately we missed the tune-up a smidge and it really shook hard down-low … all through first gear and aggressively into second. We lost quite a bit of elapsed time and then the focus became about focusing on race day tune-up.”
Krawiec’s self-proclaimed “missed” run was a 6.886, 194.63, which was good enough for fourth in the sixteen-bike field.
Earlier this season, NHRA’s technical department assessed a 50-pound addition to the Harley-Davidson combination. This weight adjustment came into play during Saturday’s third session with the track temperature hitting 107-degrees.
“Our bikes, because they are heavier, are hard to get going when the track gets gooier,” said Krawiec. “We went from 1.05 60-foots; now we are high-to-mi 1.07s which is definitely not what we want. But, these are the conditions we will have. That’s what the weatherman is saying we will get. All we can do is pray for some cloud cover. Hopefully we can get more aggressive with our clutch tune-up. I think we have some good Harley-Davidsons headed into race day.”
History will prove Krawiec’s words to be accurate. He has won four races thus far this season having entered race day no lower than fifth. Hines has won three times.
“I think we have pretty awesome race day motorcycles.” Krawiec surmised.
TURNING UP THE WICK – Allen Johnson found the little extra he left on the table on Friday.
Johnson improved on his provisional No. 1 qualifying effort during Pro Stock qualifying at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals with a 6.517 elapsed time at 212.09 miles per hour. This marks his fifth consecutive No. 1 qualifying effort this season.
“This really feels awesome,” said Johnson, who races Matt Hartford in Sunday’s first round. “We have a great car and I believe we dialed it in a bit better today. We didn’t make a great run during the last session. We are going to try and take this momentum into Sunday and hopefully sweep the swing.”
Because the Greeneville, Tenn.-based Johnson is the only Pro Stock driver capable of capturing the three-race Western Swing, he’s leaving nothing to chance. He was the only driver in the top three to improve during Saturday’s qualifying.
“The track wasn’t bad today, we just didn’t make as good of a run as we should have on Friday,” Johnson admitted. “This morning … we hit it pretty good. “I was able to hit it and there was still just a little bit maybe I can find tomorrow when it gets hot, grimy and comes to us.”
A lot has been coming to Johnson lately, particularly good fortune.
“That’s what great about this Mopar team … we can make a mediocre run and still be in top spot or tied for it,” Johnson said. “When we make a really good run, it makes for confidence headed into Sunday. “
Johnson has made his point clear in qualifying he wants to win on Sunday.
“To win here in Sonoma, would be as big as winning anywhere,” said Johnson. “I love Sonoma. I love Bruton’s tracks. I love everybody here in Sonoma. I’ve just never been able to seal the deal. Any new place we win is special.”
TOP SPEED - Spencer Massey recorded top speed of the meet at 327.43 mph in the Todd Okuhara- and Phil Shuler-tuned FRAM Dragster during the third overall qualifying session Saturday.
NOT MUCH CHANGE IN Q3 - Only five of 18 Top Fuel drivers improved heir elapsed times in Saturday's opening session, the third overall. Spencer Massey moved from sixth to fourth, and Shawn Langdon made the biggest jump of all, from 11th to fifth. Also paring down their times in the third overall session were Steve Chrisman, Mike Salinas, and Khalid al Balooshi. Although Chrisman improved one place, he still is off the grid, along with Troy Buff.
GOING BATTY - The Kalitta Motorsports team welcomes a lot of guests to its pits at every race but got a bit of an unwelcome visitor Saturday morning. A bat -- or at least some flying creature that three crew members swear was a bat -- somehow flew into the hospitality area and became wedged between two awning poles. Evidently when a team can boast the top two drivers in the Top Fuel qualifying order, everyone wants to come and hang out.
GOING FOR THREE FROM NO. 3 SPOT - Tony Schumacher, Sunday's No. 3 starter, has reached the Top Fuel final round here in five of the past six years. His two victories here came in 2007 and 2008, and he'll start his march toward a third one in the U.S. Army Dragster against local racer Mike Salinas.
HE'S ALREADY FAMOUS - Top Fuel No. 1 qualifier Doug Kalitta already is an honoree on this Bruton Smith-owned racetrack's Walk of Fame.
SEEKING THREE-PEAT - Ron Capps, looking for a third consecutive Sonoma victory, begins his race-day competition against wily Gary Densham. The only other Funny Car driver to win three straight here was John Force (1990-92).
HELPING THE CAUSE - Jack Beckman has been more than top-tier Funny Car performer this weekend. He's kicking off a stint as spokesman for a public-awareness campaign called Chemotherapy: Myths or Facts. Beckman, a survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma, said the program is helpful because "it's tough to get your head wrapped around what you're going to be going through" immediately following a diagnosis. He said "direction and clear focus" are the purposes of the video booth that will be on display also in September at Indianapolis during the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and the O'Reilly Auto Parts Nationals at Charlotte. The program is aimed at cancer patients and their caregivers, and part of its job is to collect personal stories of patients and caregivers encouraging them to share myths or facts about chemotherapy they have uncovered during their experience with cancer. "Go over there," Beckman urged the crowd and fans planning to attend the Indianapolis and Charlotte races. "It's going to help somebody eventually." More information is available online at www.chemomythsorfacts.com.
HIGHT 'STUCK' - Points leader Robert Hight ended his first day at Sonoma feeling "stuck with where we are at" but at least glad a tire didn't blow off his Auto Club Mustang like one did on last year's Western Swing, at Seattle.
He said, "It's a better car than that, but I'm just glad to be in there. We just have to do better than everyone tomorrow." But in Saturday's two sessions, he couldn’t do any better and wound up ninth, facing Bob Tasca III in the opening round Sunday.
He had said a better showing Saturday "will determine the winner on Sunday. If you can . . . be on the top with each qualifying run and build points each session, you got a good shot." Who knows now?
Hight smoked the tires in Friday's first qualifying session because of a nasty vibration that alarmed him.
"I almost didn't make the run," Hight said. "During the burnout, it had a vibration that was unbelievable. Backing up, that thing was hopping off the ground. It started shaking on the run, not tire shake but a vibration, and it eventually just came loose. You can see it on the drive shaft on the computer. It caused it to smoke the tires."
He discovered when the car returned to the pits that "a tire was just about to blow out. You can look at it a lot of ways . . lucky, you know, that it didn't happen. I honestly thought it was coming off, it was vibrating so bad. But I believe that it caused us to smoke the tires and it put us behind. You get behind the eight ball when you don't go down the track the first run. I do believe that we were actually ahead of Courtney (who was No. 1 after that round), if you look at her drive shaft to ours. Ours was going good. It was flipping. It wasn't piling up, but something was wrong with our tires."
Crew chief Jimmy Prock and the team fixed whatever was causing it, and Hight came back in the Friday night session to improve five positions to ninth place -- not exactly where the 2008 Sonoma winner wanted to be. "We went back up there thinking that we would be conservative in the second session," Hight said after clocking a 4.102.
ON FIRE - Dale Creasy Jr. is listed as the No. 15 starter, but it's unclear whether he'll be able to make the call for eliminations Sunday morning. As he went beyond the finish line and the scoreboard showing his 4.228-second, 286.92-mph run, Creasy's Steve Plueger-built Impala clearly was in trouble, throttle stuck open and on fire. Said Creasy after climbing form the seta and sliding down the outside of the body, "The throttle hung open." He said he tried to stop it as fast as possible because "I knew something bad was going to happen." He said he wasn't sure what equipment and spare bodies his team had in the trailer and whether he could repair the damage in time to race but said, "We're sure going to try."
OH, 'CHUTE - Tony Pedregon had one last chance to make the Funny Car field of 16, but his parachutes popped out during the burnout.
BRATTY, CANTANKEROUS CAR? - Tim Wilkerson called his Diversified Yacht Services Ford Mustang Funny Car "just bratty" and "kind of cantankerous today, to tell you the truth." But he's in the 11th position for Sunday's race, with a first-round date with Johnny Gray -- who already has warned, "I pity the poor guy who has us in Round 1." Wilkerson didn't make a complete pass in either opportunity Saturday. Part of the reason was that he was in test mode, and part of the problem was that he tried something in the set-up that the track did not appreciate.
"We were really fast on the first run, and we were just too fast for the track at that point," he said. "So, knowing we probably couldn't run any quicker than we did last night, we tried something with the clutch on the last run, so see what it would do if we took a little different approach. It got a little further, but key thing we learned is what it doesn't like, and today was one of those days where our car was just bratty and didn't like much of anything.
"Tomorrow, the track will be about as good as it can be in the first round, so we have to figure out how fast we think we can go and aim for that number," Wilkerson said. "I'm not going to think for one minute about what Johnny Gray can run, because that's the trap you fall into and we try not to go there. We'll try to run as fast and as quick as the track will let us run, and when we cross the finish line we'll see if we got there first or second. It's going to be an interesting race day, I'd say."
SAME OLD-SAME OLD - The Funny Car class order remained exactly the same following Saturday's Q3 runs as it was Friday, in spite of six racers improving their elapsed times and five running quicker.
CHANCE TO SHINE - Six women have a chance to make some drag-racing history here Sunday. Pro Stock Motorcycle's Angelle Drago (Angelle Savoie at the time, in 2004) is the only female ever to win a professional NHRA race at this facility. Eligible to add to the list of female winners are Karen Stoffer, Katie Sullivan, and Angie Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle, as well as Erica Enders in Pro Stock; and Alexis DeJoria and Courtney Force in Funny Car.
STILL LEARNING THE CAMARO - During the first day of qualifying at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals in Sonoma, Calif. Summit Racing Pro Stock drivers Jason Line and Greg Anderson are still learning what their Camaros need to run at the front of the pack.
Line is making progress, as evidenced with the second-quickest pass of the final session, a 6.533-second, 211.69 mph in the heat of the afternoon session.
“This Summit Racing crew did a great job, getting this Camaro to go quicker every round,” said Line. “I think we’re making progress, but it takes time with these cars. Just like people, they all have their own personalities, and even though they don’t speak, they tell you what they need, and it’s up to us to listen.
“These cars have already been refined by some very smart people, so any gains you are going to make are very small, making this a game of precision both in the tuning and the driving. Based on our qualifying performance, I feel good about tomorrow, and think we have as good a shot as anyone to take home the Wally. It all comes down to execution, and it’s up to us to do a better job than our competitors.”
Anderson, a four-time series champion, continued the procedure of dialing in his Camaro, recording the fifth and sixth quickest times during the final two qualifying sessions at Sonoma Raceway.His 6.539-second elapsed time from Friday evening kept him sixth headed into Sunday.
“This car’s sweet spot continues to elude us, which is very disappointing,” said Anderson. “We know this Summit Racing Camaro is capable of running at the top, and have been working over the last few races to find out exactly what it needs. We’ve tried numerous combinations, but so far it has just not produced the results we were looking for.
“The good news is that we were still able to qualify sixth, giving us lane choice for the first round and another crack at getting this car dialed in. Sonoma has historically been a very good track for this team, and we’re going to do whatever we can to try and continue that string of success tomorrow.”
NO PLACE LIKE HOME - This weekend's NHRA Sonoma Nationals aren't exactly a home game for GEICO Suzuki rider Karen Stoffer, but Sears Point Raceway feels a lot like home for her and her team.
Stoffer and husband/crew chief Gary Stoffer live in Gardnerville, Nev., about three-and-a-half hours from Sonoma. Plus, the Stoffers have a long history here, with Karen first racing a divisional at this track in 1992.
Add in Stoffer's No. 5 qualifier for this weekend's race, and you can see why she's smiling.
"This is one of our home tracks, just because we used to bracket race here," Stoffer said. "It's nice to be around a friendly crowd, a familiar crowd. We have a lot of fans, friends and family here. Sometimes it adds a little more pressure because you always want to do better, it's fun.
"Tomorrow is race day, tomorrow is, 'Keep your head on.' We've got a quick Suzuki, so I've got to keep my head down, stay focused and race and have fun."
Stoffer surged to the No. 5 spot in Saturday's opening session, making a lap of 6.907 seconds at 192.47 mph. In the first round of eliminations Sunday, she'll square off against Michael Phillips, who qualified No. 12 with a pass of 6.981 at 193.77 mph.
"I'm happy the GEICO bike is sitting in the No. 5 spot," Stoffer said. "That's where we've been running, that's where we're sitting in overall points. Considering I've got the four big monsters in front of me, that's good to be sitting right there. We've got a Buell sitting on our butt with Matt Smith. Should be a good race day tomorrow."
Stoffer, who has won at least one round in six of the seven Pro Stock Motorcycle races this season, has been racing at Sonoma for 20 years, and Gary still races in Super Street or Super Gas from time to time. Much has changed since, as Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith has made substantial upgrades to the facility. Some things, Stoffer said, haven't changed.
"The people are the same, the atmosphere, the fun is the same," Stoffer said. "It's always nice weather. It's just a fun track."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - QUICK DAY FINISHES AT NIGHT
SAFETY OFFICIAL HURT - An NHRA safety official, unidentified by the NHRA, was transported to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital at Santa Rosa, Calif., after being struck by debris during the final Friday session of Top Fuel qualifying for the Sonoma Nationals.
According to an ESPN3 report, he was alert and moving. The NHRA statement said he "was responding to medical staff when he was transported."
The NHRA crew member is described by ESPN as a senior member of the Safety Safari. The network reported that shrapnel or debris struck him in the back of the head as he turned away from the explosion from Khalid al Balooshi’s Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster.
He was flown to Santa Rosa Hospital via helicopter. He was conscious and talking to safety personnel.
SAVING THE BEST FOR LAST - When people think about Doug Kalitta's Top Fuel career, they often think about how Tony Schumacher aced him on the final run of the year to claim the championship.
But Kalitta showed he had something on the final run of Friday night at California's Sonoma Nationals, and he cut loose with a track-record 3.785-second pass at 321.65 mph as the provisional No. 1 qualifying honors changed hands three times in the second overall session.
In the Technicoat Dragster, Kalitta edged Kalitta Motorsports teammate Dave Grubnic in the Optima Batteries Dragster from the No. 1 spot. Grunbic had done the same to Tony Schumacher moments before.
Kalitta has some sort of magic at this racetrack, which was first called Sears Point Raceway, then Infineon Raceway, and seems to be suffering an identity crisis with the simple title of "Sonoma" today. He has won five times here, more than any other Top Fuel driver.
"It feels great. We definitely always like coming to Sonoma," Kalitta said, as he seeks his third No. 1 start here, his 31st in all, and his first since the August 2010 Brainerd race.
"This was one of the best speed sessions we've had," Kalitta said. "If it's not the best, it ranks right up there.
"And I've always said this is probably the nicest facility we go to," he said.
Kalitta said that as he sat waiting his turn to run and watching Schumacher open the session with a 3.792, then see Antron Brown post a 3.799-second time and 322.27-mph speed, then saw Grubnic grab the track record from Schumacher with a 3.790, he got more and more excited about his chances.
"Dave, I'm really proud of those guys, but my crew chief, Jim Oberhofer, I figured when he saw that he'd step it up. I was very hopeful that my crew chief would have something for it, and he did. I'm really proud of my guys, and we have a great sponsor with Technicoat. It's helpful when you come to a place you've done well. And that migrates through the team.
"We'll see if we can get a win out of it," Kalitta said.
However, he said he did recognize "there are definitely some good runs for tomorrow."
KING OF THE FRIDAY NIGHT - John Force has said many times that what he always loved about longtime nemesis Cruz Pedregon is "he would get out of the car and say, 'I am the king' -- even when he loses!" Of course, that's a bit of an exaggeration of how the two-time Funny Car champion behaves.
Or is it?
Pedregon was talking a little bit of smack with a liberal dash of cayenne and chili powder Friday night after outperforming Jack Beckman with a sensational, class-best 4.028-second blast to become the provisional No. 1 qualifier for the Sonoma Nationals.
He bounded from his Snap-on Toyota Camry and declared, "If these guys want to throw tamales, we'll throw down with them! We're California Mexicans!"
"Aw, when I get out of the car, I get a little bit excited," Pedregon said. "Half the stuff I wish I didn't say. But I was just throwing a little heritage around here and there. It was nothing I wouldn't say to my mom."
Really? He says, "Hey, Mom, want to throw down some tamales? Want to go? Huh? Huh?" ??
"She'd laugh," he said. If his family we Italian, he said, he would have talked about "throwing spaghetti and meatballs." Said Pedregon, "You know, as long as we keep it clean, I think [it's OK.]"
He quickly said, though, "I don't want any letters or emails like I've had in the past.
"But you know, you get excited. That's what you should do. I wish earlier in my career I had been myself. I used to think I had to be this wind-up guy who thanked everybody, including my parents for having me," Pedregon said. "You got to let it hang out. I'm a Southern California guy. I'm glad I finally figured out that we don't have to be wind-up toys out there.
"We try to thank the sponsors, but the fans, they want to see what they guy's really like. I'm 48 years old, and I'm going to let it hang out a little bit for the rest of my career."
His Camry was letting it hang out on that last run. He said it pinned him back into his seat.
"We decided to push the envelope a bit. I made the call to turn the knobs on it [to make it go all-out], and I thought, 'Man, I'm going to look really good really bad here," Pedregon said. "But I was hoping it'd hang on so I didn't hear from crew chief Lee Beard. But it hung on. It was really smooth. And God, it's a great feeling when it does that.
"As a driver, you're just hoping it makes it to the end," he said. "My job was done. I pointed it straight. I was on the gas hard. And it was all horsepower from there.
"It actually, blew up, it only race 307 (mph) and kicked the rods out of it," he said. "We'll fix it up. We were thinking it had a little more in it." He said he thought he should have registered a 315- or 316-mph speed.
Beckman had withstood a challenge from his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps before him, but Pedregon said he was eager to strike a blow for the single-car teams that battle so hard to keep up with the more fortunate of the class.
"Every time I listened to the P.A., there was some kind of record," Pedregon said about sitting in the staging lanes, hearing what the drivers ahead of him had run. "So we knew the track was pretty good."
"I was just happy. The car has been good all year," Pedregon said, "but we've been misfiring on race day. I hope it's really hot tomorrow and slippery," Pedregon said, only half-joking.
He has to survive Saturday if he is to lead the Funny Car field for the fourth time this season.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING FOR JOHNSON – Peaking at the right time has been an issue for Pro Stock championship contender Allen Johnson. For the last two years, his Mopar team came out at the start of the season swinging and just as the season began to enter the mid-point his consistency would waver.
Johnson believes this is a trend of the past and Friday night’s provisional qualifier at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals is proof his Greeneville, Tenn.-based team is bucking the unwanted tradition.
“Finally we are showing our stuff,” Johnson said. “We’ve got what everybody else has got and we have a lot of determination. That’s going to pay dividends because this team has worked hard for this opportunity and we are going to try our dangdest to turn it into something.”
Johnson’s 6.527 elapsed time tied Mike Edwards, but his 212.06 was the tiebreaker which put the Mopar on the provisional pole. He likes being No. 1 on Saturday the best, but Friday superiority works fine too.
“Anytime you can go anywhere and be No. 1 it’s a great thing,” said Johnson, who stands on the cusp of four consecutive No. 1 efforts. “We’ve got a good package here but not as good as it should be yet. We still have a few runs to dial this Hemi in.”
Johnson has looked dialed in for most of the season and if the run holds it will represent eight No. 1 qualifying efforts in the first 14 races.
“Mopar is feeding us some great parts,” Johnson explained. “The Hemis are strutting their stuff. We just have to keep it up.”
Johnson, as he has done many times this season, admitted his run left some performance on the table.
“The air in the evening run was exactly as it was during the first session,” said Johnson. “We just made a little better run. Saturday at noon could be the best session we’ll see. It all depends on what the weather does tomorrow.”
If the weather comes, Johnson is confident the track can deliver.
“The track here is awesome,” said Johnson. “Any one of Bruton’s tracks are going to be this way. They do an awesome job. Bruton doesn’t waste money when it comes to making his places the best. He has the best of everything and we love coming to his places.”
Johnson took the point lead on the strength of his victory last weekend in Denver.
“We are just a work in progress,” Johnson said. “Not really a big thing here or there. We’ve just been gaining on this thing steadily. My dad and the guys at the engine shop have been doing a great job.
“I think we are hitting our stride at the right time with three races left to go until the Countdown. We’re learning how to win. We’re learning how to advance rounds and getting points; that’s what’s important now.”
HARLEY DOMINATION – A display of sandbags poking fun at Eddie Krawiec and his Screamin’ Eagle team did little to get inside of the defending series champion’s head.
Thus far this season there hasn’t been a lot the rivals could do to break the stranglehold on the Pro Stock Motorcycle class Krawiec and teammate Andrew Hines have dominated. Together they have won every race this season in the class.
This is why when a fellow motorcycle racer made a display of three sandbags, a clear reference the Screamin’ Eagle team was sandbagging, Krawiec unleashed on the field.
A two-time series champion, Krawiec opened with a 6.801-second elapsed time at 198.35 miles per hour run to stand as the quickest for the entire day. As badly as Krawiec wanted to run quicker in the second round, a headwind kept him and the rest of the field in check.
If his run holds, it will secure his third No. 1 qualifier of the season.
“Coming to Sonoma is always a good thing because you know you are going to have good air,” Krawiec said. “It’s an awesome facility with incredible atmospheric conditions. I love Northern California in driving through the rolling hills.
“It’s a big switch from Denver. When you go from Denver to Sonoma, you are going from 8 – 9,000 feet of air to about 700 here. To go a 6.80 at 198 miles per hour, this is just an awesome way to start my weekend. I just want to keep my momentum going forward.”
Krawiec’s performance also netted both track records leading to speculation the first Pro Stock Bike 200-mph run could transpire over the weekend.
“I’d love to say yes, but this isn’t one of those things you can ask to happen. Everything has to play out right.”
Everything, Krawiec adds, will be the winds not changing directions as they did between sessions on Friday.
“About a half-hour before the run, the flag pulls a 180 and starts going in a different direction,” said Krawiec. “We know it was a headwind immediately. The Saturday morning session is usually a good one for us. It’s going to all come down as to whether the wind wants to work for or against us. You never know here.”
The 200-mph drag racing milestone will require overwhelming perfect conditions.
“If we had these conditions helping us, and it would never work without the wind,” said Krawiec. “We need Mother Nature to turn the flag the other way.”
At this point, Mother Nature and beating himself could be his two major challenges.
“The biggest challenge is myself,” Krawiec. “I think that’s the easiest way to look at it. If you start racing the other people then you mess up. The key is to keep your focus headed into race day and do your job. If you’re the rider and you have the good bike under you, you have a good shot at winning.”
And to hear Krawiec talk about his competition, the Screamin’ Eagle team isn’t the only one with good bikes.
“There are a lot of good bikes out there,” Krawiec said. “I honestly don’t know why a lot of the field is struggling. I think there should have been a few more 6.80s or low 6.90s. I think it’s the swing, when you are coming off of Denver, and you have these guys sneaking up on the tune-up and being more cautious. Luckily for us, we run great in this great air. We have good notes and I am excited when we get into this kind of weather. “
ON THE OUTSIDE - Still needing to get inside the top 16 of the nitro classes Saturday are Top Fuel's Mike Salinas and Steve Chrisman and Funny Car drivers Gary Densham, Josh Crawford, and Jeff Diehl.
REWRITING HISTORY - Tony Schumacher's 3.792-second elapsed time, which shattered Antron Brown's 2009 mark, marked a milestone at the Sonoma facility. It meant that all track records in the pro classes were reset Friday. Dave Grubnic eclipsed it with his 3.790 seconds, as he raced alongside Brandon Bernstein and his 3.806 in the MAVTV Dragster. Schumacher's teammate Spencer Massey had the Top Fuel speed mark (324.90 mph).
In Funny Car, the records belong to Cruz Pedregon (4.028 seconds) and Ron Capps (317.57 mph). Mike Edwards claimed the Pro Stock track E.T. record at 6.527 seconds but lost the provisional No. 1 spot on speed to Allen Johnson; No. 3 Greg Anderson's consolation was setting the track's best speed (212.29 mph). Eddie Krawiec hogged all the Pro Stock Motorcycle limelight with his 6.801-second time and 198.35-mph speed.
HOW LONG CAN YOU HOLD IT? - Antron Brown had the Sonoma track E.T. record for three years before Tony Schumacher broke it. Then Schumacher had it for about 30 minutes, thanks to Grubnic's late 3.790-second blast. Asked how long he thought he would keep it, Grubnic said, "We've got a 50/50 chance of keeping it." How could he go wrong with such a prediction? It turns out he had it for far fewer minutes than Schumacher. Grubnic's teammate, Doug Kalitta, used the last pairing of the night to jump back to the top of the order with a 3.785-second time. That left the top half of the overnight order (1) Kalitta, (2) Grubnic, (3) Schumacher, (4) Brown, (5) Bernstein, (6) Spencer Massey, (7) Morgan Lucas, and (8) Clay Millican.
WEARING HIS MOJO - Scott Palmer is on a roll, and he knows exactly why his performance is improving. He bought some Mojo. He had to go across the Canadian border to find it, though. "You can't buy mojo!" girlfriend and crew chief Ashley challenged him, but he insisted he did.
Actually, they were talking about two different kinds of mojo. Palmer was referring to the bottle of green liquid branded "Mojo Metal Polish and Sealant," an item he picked up at the Peterbilt facility in Edmonton when he visited the area for a match race earlier this month. So convinced that he had the real mojo, he dabbed the stuff behind his ears, as if it were cologne, before making his first pass of the weekend.
Just for the record, for those who wonder what a sniff of "mojo" is like, Palmer said, "It smells like coconut." Anyway, maybe Palmer is onto something, because he grabbed the tentative No. 11 position and will enter Saturday's action in 16th place.
And maybe crew member Kevin, his clutch man this weekend, is wrong. He's sporting a baseball-style cap stitched with the words "Scott Palmer Sucks." Joked Palmer, "It's actually true!" The hat started as a gag because another crew member Adam Rhoades, who works on Chris Demke's Top Alcohol Dragster, had a hat that read, "Dragsters Suck." Palmer swiped the hat and presented Kevin with the "Scott Palmer" version. The Top Fuel driver hinted that drag-racing fans might see more of them.
One other thing they might see Palmer driving is Mike Giaffino's '72 Maverick Pro Mod car at local outlaw races in Missouri. Giaffino, who used to turn wrenches on Palmer's dragster, has worked on Al-Anabi Racing owner Sheikh Khalid al Thani's ADRL Pro Mod car and on Frank Manzo's Top Alcohol Funny Car crew. He has been racing the Pro Mod car at Ozark Raceway and Tulsa and said he's thinking about entering a premier street-legal race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this fall. He also has been match-racing from Milan, Mich., to Alberta.
On the NHRA Top Fuel side, Palmer said he'll finish the Western Swing and head to Brainerd. He said he's unsure about whether he'll enter the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis or if he'll race at Las Vegas or the season finale at Pomona. But he plans to make the Dallas and St. Louis Countdown races.
FLYIN' - FRAM Dragster driver Spencer Massey, who years ago was Palmer's clutch specialist before he earned his own Top Fuel license and campaigned Mitch King's dragster to an IHRA championship, set the track Top Fuel speed record on his first run of the weekend, at 324.90 mph. Massey is the points leader.
HELPING HANDS - San Jose's Mike Salinas has a couple of popular Top Fuel racers on his Scrappers Racing Dragster crew this weekend. Brothers Bobby Lagana and Dom Lagana, who campaign the NTB/Service Central (with Dom driving and Bobby tuning for the Paul Richards-operated team) at selected races, had the weekend off and rolled up their sleeves. Longtime crew chief John Stewart lent his expertise, as well. And all the experienced help paid off, as Salinas slipped into the top 12 at No. 12 with the last of the 3.9-second runs (3.984, 309.91 mph).
CAPPS EXCITED AGAIN - Like he got to do repeatedly during his unforgettable spring streak, Ron Capps was whooping it up Friday night following his monster second-session blast of 4.046 seconds at 317.57 mph. He said because of his tinted visor a bit clouded and the sun at a menacing angle, "I didn't know where I was at from half-track on. It isn't wise -- but 317, man! I apologized to Tasca -- I was having trouble finding the tree." The run pushed him up to No. 2, behind DSR mate Jack Beckman's 4.042, four-thousandths of a second quicker. "That sucks," Capps said, but he was overjoyed with his track-record speed.
'THAT WAS FUN!' - A few pairings before Ron Capps' run, Jack Beckman set the pace with a 4.042, 311.70 performance. With that, he also bumped John Force from the top 12 and Courtney Force from her tentative No. 1 perch. Explaining his showing by saying he knows this track well from his sportsman-racing days, Beckman said, "That was fun! I don't know if it will hold up, but that was fun! He said he couldn't say with certainty if crew chief Todd Smith even had been trying to post a 4.04. Cruz Pedregon came along, put a 4.028-second E.T. on the scoreboard, and swiped the top spot. It would be his fourth of the year if he can maintain it through two more qualifying sessions Saturday.
ROOKIE GALS RULE . . . FOR AWHILE - Three pairs after Tequila Patron Toyota Camry driver Alexis DeJoria assumed the Funny Car class' No. 1 spot in the opening session, Courtney Force trumped her by running her career-best elapsed time -- 4.083 seconds -- in the Traxxas Ford Mustang. DeJoria ended up second to start qualifying. Force's run was surprised crew chief Ron Douglas a little bit, for he said, "Honestly, we thought we were going to run a (4).10."
By the time Courtney Force got back to the starting line for the second session, she was No. 6, thanks to outstandings runs from Cruz Pedregon, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, and Jeff Arend. But she improved her career best elapsed time in her second chance, clocking a 4.059-second effort at 312.71, and is No. 5 overnight. She said Douglas told her he'd get her Mustang running faster, and she said, "He did just that."
DeJoria will race Saturday from the No. 7 position. She said she was elated to make two consistent runs, the second one quicker than the first. "I can't complain," she said after the evening session.
WELCOME BACK - Gary Densham is competing for the first time since the April Houston race, for which he started 16th and lost to Cruz Pedregon in the first round of Funny Car eliminations. The Bellflower, Calif., veteran experienced a top-end fire that caused a lengthy delay in the action, yet was 15th in the order.
GETTING BETTER -- AND FASTER - Funny Car's Johnny Gray was lamenting that he and his Rob Wendland- and Rip Reynolds-led crew have "had a little bit of bad luck here three races in a row, but we know that the Big O Tires/SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up Dodge is a very, very good race car. And I know I have the best team in NHRA drag racing, bar none. This has already been such a great year, and it's only going to get better." It started to improve in Friday's first qualifying session, as the DSR driver took the early No. 3 fastest in the class with a 308.78-mph speed.
BACK ON RIGHT TRACK - Todd Lesenko, ready to put his Denver DNQ behind him, made the top 12 in the first qualifying session with a 4.309-second pass. He slid down to No. 16 with two more chances Saturday to improve.
GETTING A PASSING GRADE? - When Warren Johnson ran a 6.554 elapsed time during the Friday evening qualifying session at the NHRA Sonoma Nationals, his run was only seventh quickest but stout enough to grab the attention of those who had written off the six-time series champion with 97 career NHRA event wins.
Johnson has yet to win a round of competition thus far this season but if the upward trend he’s been on lately continues, he has a good chance of breaking through this weekend.
“We’ve been working on a whole new combination and have been behind the eight-ball performance wise for the last few years,” said Johnson. “At the same time, we run a pretty tight ship. We don’t buy any outside technology other than camshafts Comp Cams grinds for us. Because we do everything in-house, it takes just a little longer. We keep it a little closer to the vest.”
Johnson hasn’t won a round since October 2010 when he beat Allen Johnson in Reading, Pa.
OUT OF PLAYOFFS, AND IT’S OKAY – Steve Johnson didn’t look overly concerned his chances of earning a playoff berth were slim to none headed into the NHRA Sonoma Nationals this weekend.
Johnson’s 7.023 best on Friday left him outside of the “provisional 12” and he will have to start from scratch during Saturday qualifying.
“I want to be in the top ten but it’s more important for us to race and win,” said Johnson. “That way, sponsors see what we are doing. We are just always behind and I think we can go faster and win more rounds if I do a better job tuning the motorcycle, riding and getting some of the money and helping my guys do their job.
“Obviously it’s prestigious to be in the Full Throttle top ten. I think the reality is that I need to make my motorcycle go down the track like it didn’t do in the first session. The cream will rise to the top. We have a really good team. I am just not doing a good job of guiding the ship.”
BROOM'S IN THE CLOSET - Antron Brown is hushing talk about his chances of sweeping the Western swing for a second time in four years. "It's a great feat to do, but there really isn't much you can say about it unless you win Denver, win Sonoma, and then if you're in the final round at Seattle. We would have our work cut out for us at Sonoma whether we won at Denver or not, " Brown said. "It's a waste of time for us to even think about sweeping the Swing. When we did it 2009, no one on the team talked about until the final round of the Swing when it was in Sonoma. Our guys won't even think about it or focus on it." He talked about what it takes: "Right now, we just got through Denver. It takes a lot of things to make the Sweep happen: Your team has to be on point for every round, and then you need some things to go your way. It's not just skill by me, but it's the skill of our crew chiefs Mark (Oswald) and Brian (Corradi) and the whole Matco team -- and some luck. The way our Top Fuel class is right now, any of the top 12 teams can win on any given Sunday." Brown is the most recent driver to sweep the three races -- at Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle. Tony Schumacher, his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Tony Schumacher, did it the year before, in 2008. They are two of only five Top Fuel drivers to have done it; so did Joe Amato (1991), Larry Dixon (2003), and Cory McClenathan (1997). Funny Car's John Force did it in 1994, and Pro Stock's Greg Anderson did it in 10 years later.
SWINGING FOR IT THIS EVEN-NUMBERED YEAR - For Top Fuel's Morgan Lucas, Infineon Raceway has a happy vibe. "I got my first win there in 2002," the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster driver and former sportsman racer said. "All the even-numbered years at that place seem to be my years there. It's just a special place for me. I'm hoping that trend carries over this year, too." He hoped to shake his midseason slump by playing a round of golf at San Francisco's Olympic Club, which was host of the U.S. Open earlier this summer. "My golf game changes day to day," Lucas said. He said before hitting the links that he was "just going to head out there and just enjoy being outside and playing on a course that is one of the most challenging, beautiful courses in the country." He can only hope Infineon's 1,000-foot course won't offer as much resistance.
4 P.M. - BE THERE - Clay Millican, the six-time International Hot Rod Association Top Fuel champion, is used to winning races and titles. And he is as fierce in his MPE Motorsports Parts Plus Dragster as he is friendly outside of it. And he will keep relying on his expertise and drive on the eve of the final four races that will determine the Countdown field of 10."One of our goals has been and continues to be that we get the Parts Plus Top Fuel car in the Countdown in our first full season," Millican said. "With four events left in the regular season, we've got 20 rounds, or more, to get our car back in the top 10. In order to get there, we have to make those runs one at a time. So our focus is squarely on next round and how we can take another step forward. That starts Friday at 4 o'clock, with the first round of qualifying."
KEEP STEPPING TO THE PLATE - After falling from sixth place to ninth in the Funny Car standings, Bob Tasca III said he's still looking forward to getting back into his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Shelby Mustang. "We're coming off a tough weekend in Denver, and the best part of going back-to-back-to-back is getting another shot at it a few days later," he said. "There are big swings in the points. . . . You can go back up the next weekend.: He said his car "is starting to run much better in the heat, and we've been running great in qualifying, so we'll have the opportunity to take the pole Friday night. We'll progress more with our hot-weather tune-up on Saturday. When you have the kind of confidence we do and just keep stepping up to the plate, good things can happen."
DADDY'S GOOD LUCK CHARMS - Taylor Capps just turned 16 years old Wednesday, but her dad, Funny Car driver Ron Capps, said he can't help thinking of her when she had just turned two and he was clutching her in one arm and showing off his winner's medal at his "hometown track" at Sonoma.
"There's one picture I have in my office where I'm holding her with her head on my shoulder and she's looking the other way while I'm holding the NHRA medallion for winning," the NAPA Dodge Charger driver said. "To (win) with your daughter at that age is precious. Taylor has been with us at every Western Swing race since a year after she was born. I have memories driving the motorhome and looking over and seeing her sitting next to me when she was five."
Now she'd like to drive the motorhome herself. She just earned her learner's permit, and Capps has been driving around the streets of their Carlsbad, Calif., home. "It's fun. I'm blessed with a really good girl," he said. But he has one more problem besides trying to win a fourth Wally from Infineon Raceway. "Now I have to keep all the crew guys in the pit area away from her. She's growing older and more and more beautiful, and I'm going to have to fight all these younger kids away from her," Capps said.
Taylor Capps might roll her eyes -- her dad already said, "She has complained in the past that we're always on the road for her birthday and we have to wait until we get home to celebrate with her friends. I need to figure out something special for her 16th birthday. Driving with her dad in a motorhome is not that special so it won't be the best birthday but we'll plan something really cool and big for her." Of course, she surely wouldn't mind sharing some of the payout if he were to win again.
Taylor's younger brother , Caden, who just turned 11, has shared two winners circles at Infineon with Dad. "To win a race and have your family with you is huge."
Capps is from San Luis Obispo, Calif., and the family, including wife Shelley, spent last week at a lake near there. "The fun for me will be to show up at a track like Sonoma, park the motorhome up on the hill where you have a beautiful view of the Napa Valley and you're at the racetrack. The Sonoma race is my favorite of the year, and not just because we won there the last two years. What made those wins so special was that I had my family with me in the winner's circle, and they'll be with me again," he said.
"And it's cool because I grew up near there and used to go to all the West Coast races, including (at) Sonoma with my dad when he raced. On top of that, we have the Eric Medlen dinner, we have some special NAPA Auto Parts events, and the people there are unbelievable, from the ones who work at the track to the fans," Capps said. "The Western Swing is a great time for me."
REMEMBERING ERIC - Everybody in drag racing lost a friend in 2007 with Eric Medlen's passing, but Courtney Force and her family and all of JFR will salute the late Funny Car driver this weekend following Sunday's eliminations. And the rookie driver, who went to her second final round of the season last weekend at Denver, said she's excited to race at Sonoma and swap memories of Medlen. "I'm so excited going into the Sonoma race," she said. "This is such a special track, because every year we remember Eric Medlen. Fans and friends get to be a part of the annual Eric Medlen ice cream social after final round on Sunday, and to remember Eric's famous quote, 'You can never be sad when you're eating ice cream." She participated in Thursday's Eric Medlen Nitro Night Charity dinner that benefited Speedway Children's Charities."
WANTED: KINDNESS - Pro Stock's Mike Edwards isn't feeling the love. "The last two races have not been to kind to us," the K&N/Penhall/Interstate Batteries Pontiac driver said. But the fourth-place driver could find some this weekend, for he can clinch a position in the Countdown if he reaches the second round or earlier in the event, depending how many qualifying bonus points he earns and where he qualifies. "When we started the season, we set some goals we wanted to achieve," Edwards said. "The first was earning a spot in the Countdown, which we hope will happen this weekend. That will allow us a chance to work on making the car better without the pressure of needing the points to stay in the playoffs. Hopefully we can achieve the other things we have set out, which in the end include a second championship." This middle stop on the Western Swing is the one at which Edwards has not fared as well. "We have made a couple finals, and should have been in a couple others, and maybe even won the event, but we have never had that comfort with this track like we do at the other two facilities on the Western Swing," he said, hinting that he is "taking a little different approach this time."
MORGAN KNOWS HE HAS A SHOT - Larry Morgan is 13th in the Pro Stock standings and knows his chances of making the Countdown are dwindling with just this race and three more to make progress. The Lucas Oil Ford driver especially wants to capitalize on No. 10 Rodger Brogdon's decision to skip the Western Swing. And the 2002 winner of this event is hoping some of track owner and friend Bruton Smith's mojo rubs off on him. Morgan is only 27 points behind Brogdon, one point behind No. 12 Jeg Coughlin, 19 points behind No. 11 V Gaines. "There's a good chance I can get in there. If I can pick up a round or two every race, I can get in. There's a chance, and as long as there's a chance, I'll go for it," Morgan said. "I'll be good for Sonoma. We'll be down at sea level, where I can race these guys." He has beaten four higher-qualified drivers on holeshots in the first round this season, and he's done it with fewer resources than many teams. "I can do it. Warren (Johnson) can do it. It's just tough." Morgan added, "I love Bruton's tracks, and I think a lot of Bruton Smith. He helped me race one year. He's a great guy, and he knows how to put programs together. Every race track he owns is a good one. He's a showman."
KEEPING IT ROLLING - Shane Gray lives in Denver, N.C., but it was Denver, Colo, where the eighth-ranked Pro Stock driver got a breath of fresh, if thin, air. He indicated that it has energized him and that's he's ready to race again at sea level. "You know, we went up there to Bandimere Speedway last week with a brand-new motor combination in our Big O Tires/Service Central Camaro, and she really came around," he said. "The Mile-High Nationals were like a fresh start for us, and when you see your efforts producing results, it's just a great feeling. We're excited to get to Sonoma and see if we can keep that ball rolling. If we could make gains at a high-altitude racetrack, we should have a good chance of making progress at sea level." In his rookie season, 2010, Shane Gray defeated his dad Johnny on a holeshot in the first round before eliminating reigning series champion Mike Edwards. He said he'd "love to use that beautiful facility as a backdrop for our first final round of the season – or maybe even go one better. With the way our Big O Tires/Service Central Camaro has been responding, that just may be a possibility."
GOING WITH THE SUZUKI - Jerry Savoie and Pro Stock Motorcycle crew chief Mark Pieiser have decided to ditch White Alligator Racing's Buell V-twin he raced for most of the season and go with the Suzuki that carried him to the No. 5 and best-of-the-year qualifying position last weekend. "We made some progress last weekend, and for now we are convinced that the Suzuki is the way to go," he said. "I need to win some rounds, and this would be a good place for that to happen. I thought I was going to win a few last week, but I red-lighted against LE [Tonglet]. Thankfully, we get a fresh start here in Sonoma." He said he believes he can improve from his career-best elapsed time of 6.836 seconds and his best speed of 195.31 mph, both of which he recorded last fall at Reading, Pa. Savoie is 13th in the bike standings, 82 points below the top-10 cutoff.
HOT IS COOL - Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Karen Stioffer said, "We've never been a real strong team in the heat," but she said husband / crew chief Gary Stoffer "is getting better and better at tuning. You have tuners who are either really good in the cool or really good in the heat. Last year, Gary got really good at doing both, but then we had the motor problems. We're going to go to a lot of hot tracks. If you think about how the schedule lays out, the tracks are potentially going to be hot and slippery." As for her personal preference, she said, "I love it. Heat doesn't me. It bothers the bike and my team more than it bothers me. I'm only on the bike for six seconds, so I'm OK with the heat. I'm fortunate. I get to race. Whatever the conditions are, I enjoy it. As long as I'm on a safe, fast bike, I'm happy."
ONE ARANA SEARCHING, ONE PUSHING - During last year's trip out west, Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Hector Arana and his family became lost on a mountain hike in Wyoming. It made for a little more drama than the Lucas Oil Buell rider and his wife Grace and their children bargained for. They were game to try it again this past week and had no incidents. "We had to find a different way to go down. There was nothing so dramatic this time, and we had a blast," Hector Sr. said. " It's fun. You try to get as high as you can, and we're above the trees." He found his way out of a bit of trouble last summer. But this summer he still has something he's searching for -- the cause of one mysterious mechanical issue that knocked him out in Denver's opening round and stopped his four-race streak of advancing to at least the semifinals. "We have to find this problem," Arana Sr. said. "It's still here, and we've got to find it."
His son and teammate, Hector Arana Jr., said he and his team "just want to win one and get a streak going. Whatever it takes to do that, we're going to do it." He said sometimes that means pushing the engines and other parts in his Lucas Oil Buell to the edge and beyond. A parts failure left him with a semifinal finish after he earned No. 1 qualifier, then reset the track E.T. record. "We're pushing the motors to the limits," Arana Jr. said. "The motors aren't designed to be run this hard. When you run them as hard as we're running them, parts fail easier. We want to go fast, we want to set records. We want to win races. And that's what it's going to take, so that's what we're going to do."
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