FINAL NOTEBOOK -
WINNING ONE FOR MOMMA - Antron Brown literally is going home to central New Jersey to see his mother. And he's going to be bringing a shiny brass-plated Wally trophy from the Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals that's a far better Mothers Day gift than any bouquet of flowers or box of chocolates.
The Matco Tools/Army/Toyota Dragster driver earned that statue for handily defeating Brandon Bernstein in Saturday's final round of Top Fuel competition at Commerce, Ga.
But, figuratively speaking, Brown said he felt like he was going home when he arrived at Atlanta Drag way (for the second straight weekend, thanks to a rain postponement).
"This reminds me of how I grew up, from my hometown," the Burlington, N.J., native who lives at Pittsboro, Ind., with wife Billie Jo and their three children, said. "It's like one of those grassroots tracks I've been around forever -- forever. This is like me going to Englishtown or Maple Grove. It's just a plus."
He said the fans are so intense here that "they're talking to me like they're a coach." He said a fellow will ask him such detailed technical questions -- about his fuel mixture, for instance -- "that I think he's a spy [for a rival team]." He said he especially enjoys the eyes of the children and older fans alike whose "eyes are lit up" with the sheer joy of being at the races they so love.
"This is 'Hotlanta.' This is the dirty South down here. These boys, they get it on. When they come out here, they know what they're talking about," Brown said.
"I can remember when I was on the other side of those expansion ropes. I see a reflection of myself looking back at me," Brown said.
All Bernstein saw in the final round was the rear end of Brown's Mark Oswald/Brian Corradi-tuned dragster as it sped away to a 3.801-second, 321.35-mph victory on the 1,000-foot course. Bernstein lost traction in his ProtectTheHarvest.com/MAVTV Dragster and posted a 7.105, 90.64.
Brown, who trails leader Tony Schumacher by just five points in the standings as the tour heads to Topeka this coming weekend for the Kansas Nationals, earned his fifth victory at Atlanta. He shared the winners circle for this 39th overall victory (his 23rd in the Top Fuel class and second of the season) with Funny Car colleague Johnny Gray.
That marked his organization's 205th triumph and the 36th time DSR has doubled up in the winners circle. It is the company's fifth Top Fuel victory this season to go with four Funny Car wins so far.
"This is big. This track has always been real special. This is our fifth time winning at Atlanta -- two times on the bikes and three times in a fuel car. We like this place a lot," Brown said.
"It was tricky this weekend. All of our crew chiefs definitely had their work cut out for them. All the teams were running phenomenal this weekend. Just to pull this one out, it was definitely a monumental deal for us to get this thing done."
Starting with the dramatic side-by-side first-round race between No. 1 qualifier Shawn Langdon and No. 16 Morgan Lucas, high-school pals and former teammates, Brown cited several examples of "phenomenal" performances. Among them were "Brandon throwin' down that [3.]76 in the semis" and "[Doug] Kalitta runnin' that .78 in the second round [with a track record 325.61 mph speed that rewrote his own record from the round before]."
Brown advanced past Pat Dakin, Spencer Massey, and Kalitta to reach his third final round in the past five races. He said his competitors "know if they want to take that win from us, they have to step up because we weren't going to leave nothin' on the table. We were just going to give it all we got, and if we lose we lose. And we do sometimes."
He didn't Saturday. "And we didn't show no shabby numbers out there," he said. "It just fell our way."
Just as he elevates his rivals' efforts, they do the same for him.
"Not just the driver, but everybody's got to be on point," he said. "You can't screw up. If you cut an .070[-second] light, you might as well haven't even staged the car, because more than likely you’re going home. It's rough out there -- everybody's cutting .040s and .050s. A .060 light is average now. Back in the days when I started, if you cut a .060, you were 'da man!'
"Now it's just cutthroat out there in Top Fuel," Brown said. "We're winning rounds by less than a thousandth at over 320 miles an hour. It gets no more crazier than that."
Bernstein was seeking his second victory in three final-round appearances at Atlanta Dragway after beating Terry McMillen, Khalid al Balooshi, and Langdon.
He credited crew chief Joe Barlam and the progress he and the team are making.
"I can't say enough about our team. They did an awesome job today. We just came up a little short in the final," Bernstein said. "We got some more points, and that's what we were here to do. Yeah, we'd like to win all the races, but the big key is to stay in the top 10 and keep us up there for the championship. We made a huge step, a big, big step, especially with the new clutch package that we're running. We made some really good strides this weekend."
Brown and Bernstein figured into last season's final race, when Bernstein won for the first time in 70 races and beat Tony Schumacher on a holeshot to assure Brown his series championship.
Kidded that he had a chance to pay back Bernstein by letting him win here at Atlanta, Brown laughed and said, "Brandon and I are really close friends. And he doesn't want nobody to give him nothin'. And trust me, it wasn't no favor [last November]. Brandon won the Auto Club Finals and he got that big check at the end, too. He won a race. He broke that dry spell. He was hungry. But that's how it rolls in drag racing."
And when he rolls up to his family's home at Burlington, N.J., this home that always has embraced drag racing with his dad and uncle competing at the dragstrip and his grandmother egging him on to follow his own dream, Brown will be able to share, to give back.
"My Wally's going straight to my mom," he said. "This is the best present I could ever bring her."
JUST WIN BABY - Just after rain postponed the NHRA Southern Nationals last weekend at Atlanta Dragway, Don Schumacher paid a visit to the trailer of Funny Car driver Johnny Gray.
He relayed a message from his daughter, Megan, and said she wouldn’t be able to attend the rescheduled race because she was graduating from Lynn University, but she wanted Gray to win.
It might have added some pressure for the soon-to-be-retiring Gray, but he didn’t seem to mind.
“I’m pretty good at doing what I’m told. I’ve been married for 42 years,” Gray said.
Gray fulfilled the request in fine fashion Saturday, going a weekend-best 4.077 at 314.17 mph in the final against DSR teammate Matt Hagan, who had been red-hot entering the finals.
Hagan was the No. 1 qualifier with a blistering 4.067 at 312 mph, but Gray was solid off the line in the final and had the lead by 330 feet.
It marked the second win in 2013 for Gray, who continues to have himself quite the retirement party in his final season of full-time Funny Car racing.
“We struggled pretty good for a couple races and the car was getting real inconsistent, but the boys made the decision to back the thing way down, get way over on the soft side and start picking their way back up,” said Gray, who also picked up his fifth career win.
“I didn’t know they would pick it back up quite that quick, but we’re tickled to death. It came back strong.
Gray, who joined Cruz Pedregon as the only two-time winner in FC this season, is now third in points through seven races, trailing only Hagan and Pedregon.
He knocked off both Saturday, showing impressive improvement throughout another rain-littered day in Atlanta.
After qualifying No. 10 with a 4.128, Gray started his run by going 4.137 at 309 mph to knock off Robert Hight. He turned away Ron Capps with a 4.09 at 307 mph and moved into the finals with a strong 4.088 at 311 mph against Pedregon.
In the finals, Hagan left first with an .042 reaction time, but Gray wasn’t far behind with a .059 and he drove right past Hagan, who slowed to a 4.16.
“Matt’s car has just been flying. You probably are not going to leave on Matt. It’s just not going to happen. The best thing I can do is get my brain out of the way and let my body drive the car,” Gray said.
After already gaining a second win in 2013 and now firmly entrenched in the championship chase, one other major thing remains for Gray this season.
He hopes to share the winners circle with his son, Shane, who continues to make dramatic strides in Pro Stock. In fact, the father-son duo nearly shared the moment Saturday, as Shane had an .001 reaction time in the Pro Stock final against Mike Edwards.
Edwards chased him down to get the win, but that double-up win for the Gray family might not be too far off.
“Our cars are running good enough that I think there’s a really good chance we can do that this year,” Gray said. “That would be the absolute best way for me to end my career, to be able to stand on stage with my son having both won the same race. That would do it all for me.”
HOT MIKE IN ATLANTA - Mike Edwards had to deal with an .001 reaction time from Shane Gray in the Pro Stock final of the NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway Saturday.
But now that Edwards has figured out how to take his qualifying dominance into eliminations, even that quick start from Gray couldn’t stop him.
Edwards chased down Gray quickly, running a terrific 6.595 at 209.14 mph in the final to claim his second victory of the season.
“The competition is amazing. Pro Stock is just a great class and it’s just fun to be part of. It’s tough and those guys are so good. They just pull up and pop those double-.00s on you, but, man, we made a nice run in the finals. I was a little nervous, but it was a sweet run,” Edwards said.
Edwards has provided plenty of those through seven races in a spectacular 2013 season, claiming the No. 1 qualifying spot in the loaded Pro Stock classes six times.
He’s also figured out how to turn that into strong performances in eliminations recently, winning two of the last three races to build on his points lead in the class.
Edwards, who now has 36 career wins, described how he’s been able to turn that qualifying success into victories.
“I think being consistent and knowing if I can do a halfway decent job I have a chance to win,” Edwards said. “When I pull in, I just have to concentrate on what I have to do. It’s tough, but you have to clear everything out and do your job. Hopefully I can keep it up.
“We’re getting stronger and we’re getting better, and anytime you can win it’s good.”
Gray was red-hot on the starting line in eliminations, putting together reaction times of .008, .002 and .001 starting in the second round.
Edwards didn’t run slower than 6.61 in eliminations after qualifying No. 1 with a 6.583, and he needed every bit of that horsepower to chase down Gray, who went 6.643 at 208 mph in the finals.
But Edwards had the fastest Pro Stock run Saturday in the final, beating Gray to the finish line by seven feet.
“I just thank God for a fast car. Shane was on today. He did a phenomenal job and they’re definitely catching fire and running good. We just have to keep digging and keep getting better, and hopefully we can keep it up,” Edwards said.
Edwards joked that he doesn’t “have many” .001 reaction times left in his career, but he might not need them at this point.
He’s worked diligently to find the right combination for his Camaro and the payoff has been one incredible run after another through the first portion of 2013.
Edwards wasn’t totally pleased with his performance Saturday, but he still had enough to hold off everyone - .001 reaction times and all.
“We made some good runs, but it seemed like we couldn’t make any great runs. We tried all day; we just couldn’t make it go any faster. But it feels good to come out with a win. We’ve been here a couple weeks now, but it’s a great win for my guys,” Edwards said.
ODD MOMENTS - Drag racing is often known for having a few off moments.
The first round of the rain-delayed NHRA Summit Southern Nationals outside of Atlanta, Ga., produced a number of odd happenings.
Two of the more shining examples involved Pro Stock driver Rickie Jones and fuel Funny Car rookie Chad Head.
Jones, who qualified No. 3 and was on his way to an almost certain first round win against Kurt Johnson, inexplicably pulled the parachute and shut the engine down. Johnson went around for the win.
An astonished Jones couldn’t explain what had happened and pointed out that he believed a malfunction of the Electrimotion system, the device intended to disable the engine and activate the parachute, was what transpired.
“I hit the starting line real well and halfway through high gear, the parachutes came out and the motor shut off,” said Jones. “I’m sitting there coasting with my foot to the floor.”
Jones believes the device activated before the finish line instead of after, as it’s intended to do.
“We went to the tower to discuss what had happened and were denied the opportunity for a re-run,” said Jones. “I don’t know what it is, a glitch in the system, but it’s unfortunate. We’ll go to Topeka next weekend and hopefully it won’t happen again.”
NHRA VP of Operations Graham Light said experience with the Electrimotion system has proven the issue is usually within the car and not the actual unit employed by the NHRA. Video showed the incident happened just shy of the 1,000 foot mark and the safety device is not configured to engage this early in the run.
“It’s impossible to send the signal that far,” Light said. “It didn’t pick up the signal from the transmitter. Typically, over the last four years we’ve used this device, in the times it was believed to have been set off in error, the tech department has always been over to the car, and they went over to Rickie’s, and in the past it’s usually been a crimped wire on the car from the receiver to the parachute or fuel shutoff.”
Light said more times than not, in these instances, it’s a wiring issue on the car itself, which causes that.
Saturday after the incident there was no solid evidence to confirm what caused the Elite Performance Pro Stocker to stop running.
There was no such issue as to what caused Head’s starting line snafu.
“My right foot went down before the tree activated … stupid,” Head admitted. “I’ve stood there on the starting line many times and seen that happen and wondered how can someone be that stupid? I was jacked up trying to cut a good light, and flat screwed up.”
QUALIFYING NOTEBOOK - ONE DAY OF THRILLS TO GET IN THE FIELD
BOTH ENDS OF THE RECORD - Shawn Langdon said the Alan Johnson-Brian Husen-Jason McCulloch brain trust at Al-Anabi Racing is "slowly but surely" coaxing his and Khalid al Balooshi's Top Fuel dragsters "back to where we want them to be."
However, nothing was slow and everything was sure about Langdon's performance Friday afternoon on the 1,000-foot Atlanta Dragway course.
With a 3.791-second elapsed time and 324.36-mph speed in the final qualifying session that set both ends of the track record, Langdon earned the Top Fuel class' No. 1 qualifying position for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Commerce, Ga.
Langdon led the Top Fuel field a class-best five times last season, and Friday's feat represented the silver Al-Anabi/Toyota Dragster driver's second in the past three events. This marked the sixth time he has qualified No. 1 since the U.S. Nationals last September, more than any of his competitors in that stretch.
He credited team manager Johnson and crew chiefs Husen and McCulloch for their tireless work on both cars, "finishing up what we were trying to accomplish with these cars last year. We got behind the eight-ball last year, trying to test some new stuff. They're getting it figured out now."
They didn't have that far to go. Langdon has reached the final round at the past two events.
He's hoping Georgia's House of Speed is where he'll be able to close the deal and earn his second victory of the year, a Wally statue to complement his Winternationals trophy from the season-opener in February.
But it bugs him that he hasn't capitalized on his successes in the past two races. It's even more annoying to him, considering his team went up against a 55-minute turn-around clock at Houston because of the live TV broadcast and "35 minutes after the semifinal, they had the car disassembled, put back together, warmed up and ready to go to the final round."
Said Langdon, "We've had a real good race car. We just didn't get it done. We've been to two straight final rounds but haven't won so that’s a little bit disappointing."
He said he and his car are "getting close to" his desired consistency.
"The Al-Anabi team is definitely making progress and headed in the right direction, and we feel really good about where we are. The last two races, both Al-Anabi cars have really been running very well. We’ve been qualifying well and collecting some qualifying bonus points. The cars have been qualifying in the top part of the field, and we’ve been low ET of some eliminations rounds. Those are the kinds of things we have to keep doing to get our cars climbing up in points. If we keep doing those things, the wins will come. It's just a matter of time."
Langdon opened his day with a 3.864, 318.84, just behind provisional leader Brandon Bernstein in the ProtectTheHarvest.com/MAVTV Dragster.
He said the goal early Friday was simply "to make it down the track. We've been making good runs. But we don't have that in-the-middle -- We either make a good run or we smoke the tires. We needed to get a little conservative. We needed to get a baseline.
"We accomplished that, but we saw a lot of areas we could improve on,” he said. "I think that showed on our second run."
As bad weather at Atlanta has extended the scheduled three-race stretch to a five-weekend grind, Langdon said he doesn't mind: "With the way our Al-Anabi cars are running, we are just anxious to get back on the race track."
Langdon's first test Saturday in eliminations will come from his former boss, Morgan Lucas, the No. 16 qualifier.
SHOCKING MOVE - When veteran NHRA tuner Lee Beard made his sudden jump earlier this week from the Rapisarda Autosport International Top Fuel team to Steve Torrence's Capco Contractors Inc. Dragster team, he called it "a tough decision."
Torrence regarded it as exciting: "Lee brings a different tuning style, and I'm excited to see what effect that has on the car. It makes me that much more excited to get back in there and go for a ride."
Deserted driver Larry Dixon called it a shock.
"I was extremely shocked by Lee's announcement to leave the RAI team," Dixon said. "We were just gaining momentum with the crew and the race car."
He said the team plans to move forward with its plans for the season.
"The team is fully committed to continue in the 2013 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series," Dixon said, "and we are scheduled to compete at Topeka next week. We are currently reviewing all of our options to make that happen."
The tour is finishing the rain-rescheduled Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals this weekend at Atlanta Dragway, near Commerce, Ga. It will move to Heartland Park Topeka for the May 17-19 NHRA Kansas Nationals.
Dixon, a three-time Top Fuel series champion, said of his Australian-owned team, "We have a solid base now to be competitive in the Top Fuel ranks. Further announcements will be coming shortly."
Meanwhile, Beard got a bit of a surprise Friday in his first time sending Torrence down the track -- tire smoke. Together they got that corrected, and Torrence claimed the No. 10 position for Saturday's eliminations of the race where he earned his first Top Fuel victory last year.
Torrence said Beard "made some changes to get us going in the right direction. I am pleased with that, but we still have a long way to go."
Saying he "can't wait any longer if we want to have a shot at the championship," Torrence announced April 30 he had dismissed crew chief Richard Hogan, who had helped him to three victories in five final rounds last season. Brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana had helped him last weekend at Atlanta.
As he returned Friday to Atlanta Dragway to resume the rain-postponed Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals, Torrence said, "We made the change because we need to try something new in an effort to get back into this championship hunt. The results so far this season do not reflect on the amount of hard work and talent this team has.
"I also want to be perfectly clear that this season's record does not reflect on Richard Hogan's skill as a crew chief. He is an amazing tuner. I have to thank Richard for all the work he did to help us put this team together and win three races in our first season. Unfortunately, this team is in a slump, and we simply needed to make a change. That is why Lee is coming on board."
Beard abruptly resigned Wednesday as Director of Racing Operations for the Rapisarda Autosport International team and said Friday about his new job, "I am committed to getting this team back on the right track. I'm not afraid to work hard."
It is the third position for Beard since last November, when he helped tune Cruz Pedregon to the Funny Car victory at the Auto Club Finals at Pomona, Calif. During the off-season, he and Pedregon parted company and Beard signed on to oversee the Brownsburg, Ind.-headquartered Rapisarda team.
Beard’s second tune-up Friday resulted in a 3.902-second elapsed time at 310.48 mph.
"We really didn't have a place to start on the first lap," Torrence said. "We made changes in the direction we needed to go . . . and we made a good run. It was a good day. We were able to get prepared for the race."
Meanwhile, Dixon and his team owner, Santo Rapisarda Sr., and crew chiefs Santo and Tino Rapisarda have to prepare for a new phase of their season.
RAIN-DELAYED DROUGHT ENDER - Matt Hagan ended a 29-race drought from the top of Funny Car’s qualifying order by racing to the No. 1 position Friday at the rain-delayed Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway.
The 2011 Funny Car world champ powered his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Footwear Dodge Charger to a track record time of 4.067 seconds at 312.86 mph to claim his first No. 1 qualifying position since November 2011 and the 11th of his career. Hagan will open eliminations against No. 16 qualifier Tony Pedregon, a two-time world champ.
“I guess this is my first pole since my championship year, but I just look at (last year) as just a wash,” said Hagan, who finished 11th in points last season, missing the Countdown to the Championship playoffs. “I don’t even think about it anymore; it’s behind me. We’re looking ahead to bigger and brighter things with (crew chief) Dickie Venables and this car and this crew. My lights (reaction times) are great, and the car’s running great, and that’s a hard combination to beat when you put two and two together. The confidence just keeps building, but, like I said, without my guys busting their butts, it’s not happening. It’s a great feeling to be back up at the top, No. 1.”
ROOKIE FUNNY CAR DRIVER HAS INDY CAR CHEERING SECTION - While the IZOD IndyCar Series officials were in Southern California last month, watching Takuma Sato hold off Graham Rahal on the 11-turn Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach street circuit, they had an eye on Concord, N.C.
For at least a while that day, they were NHRA drag-racing fans. More precisely, they were Chad Head fans.
Head, qualifying for only the second time in his three-race career behind the wheel of his father Jim's Toyota Camry Funny Car, led the field for the Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals that Saturday. Then he advanced to the final quad -- officially registering a semifinal finish -- to thrill his cheering section a continent away.
Head served for a few years as Director of Operations for the elite open-wheel racing series that includes the Indianapolis 500.
"We were really happy to see Chad doing so well. We were keeping track of what was happening at Charlotte," Arni Sribhen, media relations coordinator for the IndyCar Series, said.
As he arranged for reporters to watch teams load their equipment onto a pair of 747 cargo planes at Indianapolis International Airport for transport to the recent race at Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sribhen said, "This is what Chad would be overseeing if he were with us still."
Head supervised the logistics for the IndyCar Series' race at Motegi, Japan.
And he might say that massive undertaking was easier than zipping to the top of the Funny Car charts at Charlotte, where he made his most recent appearance before this weekend's Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway. Despite navigating an extra-tricky qualifying task, one that proved especially difficult for some of the sport's most skilled racers, Head kept downplaying his achievement as he was quickest and as he kept moving to each successive elimination round.
His conversation all weekend went like this: "I've got to do a better job. I've got a long way to go. I'm just hanging on. I'm just lucky the car went straight. It's got nothing to do with me or with my ability. If I've got the ability and I can stay up with [his dad's] ability, then I'll continue. If not, I'll fire myself. "
Head said he's trying to ease up on himself but is struggling with that.
"I know -- I need to lighten up," Head said. "I'm never satisfied. I always worry that I've left something on the table. That's how I've always been."
Ultimately, he said, "If I can keep the car straight, not run stuff over, and pull the 'chutes at 1,000 foot, I'll be happy."
He should have been happy Friday at this rain-postponed Atlanta event. In only the fourth race he has entered, Head qualified in the top half of the field in the first Funny Car session, with an arrow-straight 4.167-second, 299.86-mph effort.
After the rain-blunted qualifying process ended with only two chances, Head remained No. 8 with an improved 4.110, 314.90. He'll have lane choice as he faces John Force in the first round of Saturday's eliminations.
A RIGHT WRONG TURN - Jon Capps had a unique pathway to Commerce, Ga., and a place in the provisional Funny Car field Friday at the NHRA Summit Southern Nationals.
“I took a wrong turn in Albuquerque,” Capps said with a smile.
Actually Capps made the right turn after talking off and on with team owner Paul Richards.
David Richards, Paul’s brother, was slated to drive last weekend when funding fell through for Capps.
Then the rain washed out the original weekend, affording Capps more time to strike a deal with Qspex, an Atlanta-based, high-end glass lens manufacturer.
“This is their first foray into drag racing,” Capps said. “The vice-president of the sunglass company [Revo] was involved in the deal which used to sponsor my brother when he drove Roger Primm’s car. I sent an e-mail, which went around the chain, and I got a return e-mail from Kevin Bly who remembered my bother. Small world.”
Capps got into the field at 15th during the first session with a conservative 4.532.
“I’m a nervous wreck,” Jon Capps admitted. “I don’t want to hurt their parts and the conditions we had is when most everyone is swinging for the fence. The track was amazing with drivers running 4-teens, and we just wanted to get down the track. Sometimes little guys like us can go down the track and not worry about it and as long as we aren’t ignorant and shoot ourselves in the foot we should be fine.”
However, the team didn’t make the call for the second and final session and Capps could only watch as No. 16 and No. 17 qualifiers Jeff Arend and Del Worsham both leap-frogged him out of the field.
ABBREVIATED QUALIFYING – Twice this season professional qualifying has been limited to two days and two sessions. Essentially, Mother Nature has made the events in Atlanta and Charlotte qualify one day and race the next.
Though a challenge for the most seasoned tuners and their drivers, the abbreviated qualifying leaves little room for error.
“There’s a lot of pressure when you roll up there for that first run,” said Matt Hagan. “You go up there and smoke the tires, and when you have clouds in the area, well, it’s enough pressure to make the hair stand up on your neck.”
“The biggest thing becomes the importance of hitting it right on the first run,” added Ron Capps, who was sixth quickest in the first session with a 4.150. “It’s toughest on the crew chiefs because you are extremely limited on the data.”
The shortened sessions leaves the drivers prepared to do what it takes early on, if only to give their tuner a measure of data for the crucial final session.
“You gotta see how it is gonna act and be ready to slap the throttle and pedal if you have to,” Hagan added. “You have got to go to the other end, no matter what.”
“In the old days you’d qualify and race in the same day,” Capps recalled. “We’d go to Fremont Raceway, make two or three runs during the day to qualify, start eliminations at dusk and run up into the night.”
Those days might have been a race fan’s dream, but for Hagan, who earned the provisional No. 1, he’d prefer his full complement of attempts.
“Nah, not a fan,” said Hagan. “I love driving, so I want as many runs as I can.”
As tough as the prospect is for the fuel cars, Pro Stock No. 1 qualifier Mike Edwards contends his class has the greater challenge of finding the right combination in a limited time.
“Those guys are way smarter than the Pro Stock guys are,” Edwards said jokingly. “You pretty much know what to do but you never know when you only get two runs. You don’t want to go over the edge and in these cars, it’s easy to do. It’s nerve-racking, I can tell you that. No matter how fast you think you can run, you have to qualify.”
ATTABOY SHOE - John Force didn’t get the chance during the first weekend of the NHRA Summit Southern Nationals in Commerce, Ga., to congratulate a fellow team owner for an honor.
This weekend, he’s sending a note via the media to Don Schumacher.
“Congratulations,” said Force, in reference to the team owner’s induction into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame last weekend at Talladega, Ala.
“It’s a well-deserved honor, Don,” said Force. “You’ve worked hard and pumped a lot of money into this sport. You’ve built championship teams, and for that, congratulations.”
Though they might appear rivals of the highest order, Force says he has the utmost of respect for Schumacher.
“He’s a good man,” said Force. “I respect him for what he does.”
FAMILIAR FACES – With John Capps sitting out the final session, Del Worsham, the provisional No. 17 qualifier, who is driving Jeff Arend’s 2012 ride, jumped up to the No. 11 spot with a 4.172. Arend finished the day as No. 14 with a 4.211.
REVERTING TO FAMILIAR PATTERN - Mike Edwards' Pro Stock world is back in its familiar orbit.
After a hiccup at Houston that saw Jeg Coughlin halt his No. 1 qualifying streak at five races, points leader Edwards got back in his groove Friday at Atlanta Dragway, near Commerce, Ga.
That finally makes more No. 1 starts this year than car sponsors for the Interstate Batteries/I Am Second/Penhall/K&N/Contemporary Corvette Chevy driver from Coweta, Okla.
Edwards used a shortened qualifying format to his advantage and will lead the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals field for Saturday's eliminations with a 6.583-second elapsed time at 210.57 mph on the quarter-mile at Georgia's House of Speed.
"We definitely stumbled there in Houston, but we came out and made two good runs. We were being conservative," Edwards said, concerned that the class had only two chances to show their best performances. "You've got to get down the racetrack to get qualified.
"You pretty much know what to do," he said, "but you just never know. When you get two runs, you don't want to go over the edge. And it's so easy to do. It's nerve-wracking, I can tell you that. It leaves no room for error.
"No matter how fast you think you can run," Edwards said, "you've still got to qualify and get your name above that line."
Then, allowing himself just a wee bit of satisfaction for earning his sixth top-qualifying spot in the season's first seven races, Edwards said, "We did good. The Interstate Batteries / I Am Second Camaro is running flawlessly. Step one is complete -- to make sure we qualified. You do not know have nerve-wracking this situation is where you only have two chances to qualify.
"We made a solid hit the first run, and bettered that just a bit on the second run. Now I hope we can put four solid runs together tomorrow to get our second NHRA Wally of the season. Hopefully we can run good tomorrow and have a long day."
He said he and his team "feel real good about how we ran. We feel like we can run a little bit better. So that makes us feel even better. If we run like we know we can, we hope to help strengthen that lead and give us the nice boost we need before the summer months."
Edwards, the 2009 series champion, will face six-time champ Warren Johnson in the opening round of eliminations Saturday.
He said he had an idea his No. 1 grip would last through the final qualifying session Friday.
Calling himself "apprehensive . . . positively apprehensive," as in "cautiously optimistic," Edwards said he "felt good about our chances."
Thinking back to the previous race, at Houston, he said some of the events there at Royal Purple Raceway were out of his control and that had the weekend had the benefit of the traditional four qualifying sessions he believes he would have fared better than No. 2 in the order.
He's first again, although Coughlin is a close second in the lineup at 6.590, 209.75.
Eliminations are scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Saturday.
STANFIELD SAYS BRING IT ON, EAGER TO CHALLENGE CHAMP - MAVTV Camaro Pro Stock driver Greg Stanfield didn't flinch Friday when he saw that as No. 12 qualifier he must face current champion Allen Johnson in Saturday's opening round.
He just said, "I like my draw first round. I like the champ. We'll see what happens."
Unlike eight other Pro Stock drivers, Stanfield didn't get to make a run last weekend -- the decisive downpour resumed just as he was pulling into the water box. However, he seems to think that might have worked to his advantage.
"It looks like the cars that ran last week are struggling. The track could be totally different," he said.
Stanfield has his own concerns, though.
"We're struggling with it through the middle of the racetrack and the bumps," he said. "We'll work on our shock package and see if we can smooth it out. I about lost it at the top end on that last run. I feel confident we can pick up a couple of hundredths. We've just got to get it out of it."
He and brother Mike have put a fresh engine into the Camaro, and Stanfield said he's hoping that will help him capitalize on his recent gains. He advanced to the semifinals at the previous race, at Houston, to move back into the top 10 in the standings.
Of the engine, he said, "I think it's going to be good. It's not geared exactly right, but we're going to tune on it. I think we can close the gap up. If we can get within two (hundredths) of them, we'll make it a run."
Eliminations are set for an 11 a.m. start Saturday.
LOOKING FOR A BREAK - Larry Morgan said he and his Lucas Oil/MAVTV Ford Mustang team "have been putting in a lot of work and had more than our fair share of struggles. A win or two tomorrow would do us all a lot of good." Getting a first-round triumph over Ohio "neighbor" Jeg Coughlin would make it sweeter, he said. During Friday's qualifying sessions, he broke a valve in the engine before the final-chance run. He ended up 15th on the grid, glad to have had a time for the previous, otherwise-doomed weekend.
"I could have just shown up for Saturday's eliminations," Morgan said. "It might have been smart to do that. Thank goodness I ran well last weekend. As for his engine, he said, "I'll pull the heads off and take a good look at it. I might be able fix it here. If not, I'll pack it up and send it back to the shop [in Newark, Ohio, near Coughlin's home at Delaware, Ohio] and fix it there." Morgan sad Coughlin "is my neighbor from down the state. It sure would be nice to beat him and claim a little bragging rights."
Their meeting will be the first time since the 2010 Winternationals that Morgan and Coughlin have squared off in eliminations. Morgan won that day and reached the semifinals. "I had a lot of good luck that day," Morgan said. "Hopefully we'll be able to get around Jeg tomorrow and have a similar result. Winning a few rounds would do a lot for me and everyone else on the team."
FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - RAIN IS TOP QUALIFIER ON THIS DAY
THE GOOD OLE DAYS - Jason Line smiles when he reveals how he turned down his first NASCAR job offer. The offer came from Joe Gibbs Racing in 1998.
Line’s talents as experienced engine dyno operator, efficient with the brand the Gibbs team had purchased, caught their attention. He came highly recommended to the NASCAR team by the dyno manufacturer who felt Line would be a good ambassador.
Line quickly learned when a NASCAR team job is offered, it’s almost a given acceptance follows. This certainly would have been the case if Line were a southerner.
Line, a drag racer from Wright, Minn., was so immersed in drag racing and so far removed from oval track racing, he could only count the number of NASCAR drivers he knew on one hand.
“He asked me if I wanted a job, and I thought about it and said … nah,” Line said. “There was a silence on the other end and it was as if he was offended.”
This offer came five year after Line won his first drag racing championship while racing in Stock eliminator a 1970 Buick Gran Sport.
“It was a good job and I enjoyed working there,” said Line. “I worked there when Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart.”
And in much the same fashion as his unfamiliarity with southern racing etiquette, Line didn’t know either driver. Probably his largest transgression was not in knowing Ricky Rudd.
“I honestly didn’t even know who Joe Gibbs was before they hired me,” said Line. “I still remember my first week on the job, everyone would go into Joe’s office to watch qualifying on television. I was sitting there and one of my co-workers said, ‘that’s Ricky Rudd,’ and I asked is he any good? He just looks at me like I’m the biggest idiot he’s ever met in his life. And he goes, ‘good at what, arithmetic?”
All I knew was I offended him by even asking such a stupid question, so I just kept my mouth shut after that.”
Line learned a lot of other lessons at Joe Gibbs Racing, a lot of which has benefitted him since returning to drag racing with Ken Black Racing’s Pro Stock team. He’s won two Pro Stock championships.
“They had very good processes in place to make their program better,” said Line. “Things were very refined and they had a good methodology for refining things. I learned a lot from a lot of things. But drag racing is still very different that cup racing, maybe not as much as we should have but maybe a little bit.”
TORRENCE GETS TEMPORARY FIX - Steve Torrence only wants to get through this weekend, and then he’ll sort out the aftermath of his personnel changes in the days leading into the Summit Southern Nationals outside of Atlanta. For now, he’s defending his event title under the direction of the Lagana Brothers, Bobby and Dom, serving as co-crewchiefs.
Torrence released Richard Hogan on Monday evening earlier this week.
“Bobby and Dom are gonna help us make it through the weekend,” said Torrence. “Once we get through the weekend, we’ll make the decision as to where we will move from here. These guys have run their stuff for a long time and to watch them, you’ll know they haven’t burned their stuff up a lot. We have some time after this race to figure the direction we are going.”
The decision to go with the Lagana Brothers, Torrence feels, provides the opportunity for his team to remain in baseline mode without getting too off-center in the interim.
“We have two guys who know how to walk the line,” Torrence said. “You always want to have guys in there who respect your stuff. And that’s one thing I respected about Richard. We are just going to try and maintain that to make it through the weekend.”
Torrence, who won his first career Top Fuel event last year under the guidance of Hogan, said his decision to release the veteran tuner was one he agonized over.
“It was one of the hardest business decisions I ever made,” admitted Torrence. “Richard is a very, very close friend of mine. I really don’t have a lot to say about it. It really hurts me to do that, but it’s business and I think Richard understands that. I understand it too. It’s just the way that it is.”
JONES ENJOYING PRO STOCK RIDE - Racing in NHRA’s Pro Stock ranks in 2013 was the last thing Rickie Jones had on his mind.
Last season, Jones ran in the American Drag Racing League in the Pro Nitrous class. He finished third in the points and won two races at Houston and Bristol.
“At the end of the season last year we really didn’t have any goals for 2013,” Jones said. “We were actually going to take the year off. We pretty much had our car sold at the end of year and most of my nitrous operation sold. The team was owned by dad (Rick). We were just going to take a year off.”
The Jones family also owns the Quarter-Max chassis & racing components and RJ Race Cars, Inc., business.
His thought process changed when Rick Jones’ friend Mark Stockseth called around Christmas time.
“Mark is the main guy who has really been behind us and getting me back in the car,” Rickie said. “He is a longtime friend and supporter of our race team. He called my dad and asked if we would be interested in running a part-time NHRA Pro Stock deal and we were like, ’heck yes.’ Mark called Richard Freeman, who had all the equipment, the engines and the car and the truck and trailer and crew, and he basically put a deal together for me to drive for them.”
According to Rickie, the original plan was to compete in 10 races for Freeman’s Elite Motorsports team. The team then decided to add the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals June 14-16 in Bristol, Tenn., to its schedule and earlier this week the team made the decision to compete at the Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals this weekend in Atlanta.
“After we ran so good last week (at Houston), Mark Stockseth talked to Richard Freeman and the two of them got together and they decided to go ahead and send us to Atlanta to see what we can do down there,” Rickie said. Summit is a supporter of us and I’m excited to go to Atlanta for one of their races.”
Jones has only run three NHRA national events this season at Gainesville, Fla., Las Vegas and Houston, but he is still 15th in the point standings.
“This season has been great so far,” Jones said. “We have only made like 20 run totals on the car before Atlanta and it is pretty amazing to have the performance we have had.”
Jones qualified No. 11 at Gainesville and lost in the first round to V. Gaines, but bounced back at Vegas, qualifying No. 4 and advancing to the second round before losing to Erica Enders-Stevens. In Houston, Jones qualified No. 9 and beat Gaines in round one with a stout 6.565-second time before losing to Jeg Coughlin in round two.
“We have been running well and everybody has been doing a great job,” Rickie said. “My dad Rick is the crew chief for my car and back in Charlotte (April 19-21) he started to help Shane Gray.”
Freeman is supplying the engines for Jones through his Elite Performance company based in Wynnewood, Okla. Gray began the 2013 season with a completely different engine package and recently he formed an alliance with Freeman.
“He owns half of my inventory and I own half of his,” said Gray about the arrangement with Freeman. “We are a 50-50 partner with him to make motors. This started about four races ago.”
Gray’s team operates out of its shop in Denver, N.C. Gray came to Atlanta seventh in the Pro Stock point standings, fresh off a runner-up finish at Houston. This is a great team effort,” Rickie said. “Shane and Johnny (Shane’s father) are great people and they are a great family and it is nice to have them as part of our team as well. We both run the same engines and we work really well with Shane’s crew chief Justin (Elkes).”
Rickie also was quick to thank others who have been a key to his 2013 success.
“I definitely have to thank Nick Ferri, who is our engine builder at Elite Performance, and Carl Foltz, who does our intakes and manifolds,” Rickie said. “They have done an excellent job getting us horsepower to run at the front. I also want to thank Cindy Bailey of Bailey Trucking, Gene Hector of Small Block Mafia, and CP-Carillo for supporting us. It is hard to thank everybody all at one time because there are so many people who help us.”
Following Atlanta, Rickie said he also will be driving the Elite Motorsports Camaro May 17-19 in Topeka, Kan., NHRA’s next national event.
“We are still trying to decide that,” Rickie said about his schedule for the remainder of 2013. “We are definitely performing better, and maybe better than we expected. When we came out here and we knew we would have a little bit of a learning curve but it has come around really quick. I feel like I have a top five car for sure and when you have a top five car you can win any race when you pull in the gate. That’s makes it really exciting.”
Rickie Jones actually has had prior success in the NHRA Pro Stock class, finishing 16th and 10th in the point chase in 2008 and 2009. Jones has yet to win an NHRA Pro Stock national event, finishing runner-up three times.
“This is actually the first year where we have had power to run in the top five,” Rickie said. “It has really rejuvenated my dad and me. We should be winning races. There is nothing holding us back. We have every piece of the puzzle we need to win and we just have to put it together. I just want to thank God for the blessings in my life and the opportunities that He has given me. Even if I never win a race, just to have this opportunity is my childhood dream. I couldn’t be in a better, happier place right now.” - Tracy Renck