Championship Drag Racing


Mac Tools U.S. Nationals
Indianapolis, Ind.
(August 27-September 1)

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Mac Tools U.S. Nationals
Sunday
Dramatic final qualifying sessions set field for Monday's final eliminations

by Phil Burgess, NHRA.com

Qualifying for the 54th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals wrapped up in a fury of speed and drama Sunday at O'Reilly Raceway Park at Indianapolis, setting the fields for Monday's final eliminations at the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series' biggest race of the season. Matt Smith took over the qualifying lead in Pro Stock Motorcycle with a strong run Sunday morning, and Allen Johnson also improved to hold onto his Saturday top spot in Pro Stock. Larry Dixon in Top Fuel and Tony Pedregon in Funny Car also held onto their Saturday lead as the nitro cars struggled as a group and improvements were few and far between in the heat.

Qualifying also was highlighted by the trio of battles for the final berths in the Countdown to 1 playoffs that begin after this event, and the incoming drama only ratcheted up as the result of qualifying.

 
Larry Dixon

Dixon
's 3.841, recorded Saturday night, was unchallenged throughout the day as no one came within three-hundredths of the three-time U.S. Nationals Top Fuel winner and his Don Bender-tuned U.S. Smokeless dragster. Dixon's final pass of qualifying, a 3.896, was the second-best pass of a session held in eliminations-day-like conditions, but what concerned him was the guy who had the best run, six-time Indy winner Tony Schumacher.

Reigning season champ Schumacher was behind the curve all weekend after smoking the tires on his first two qualifying passes but put together the best run of the final qualifying session, a 3.877, to jump from eighth to sixth place in the standings. Schumacher has only qualified outside the top four on four occasions this year but qualified ninth in Englishtown and still won that event.

"I think the planets and everything are back in order again," said Dixon of his biggest rival this decade. "But we donít have any control over their car, so we'll just go out there and do our best and see how the chips fall.

"That run just now was our only run down the racetrack in the day, so that was nice; yesterday we put a cylinder out, and earlier today, we pulled the tires loose. We got the car calmed down, but it had some unbelievable early numbers, so we're working on it. Obviously, the big prize is tomorrow, and that's what we're all focusing on, but weíve done as much as we can so far, and we'll see what we can do tomorrow."

Cory McClenathan, the first-day leader and another former Indy winner, finished second with his Fram dragster with a 3.852 and was followed on the sheets by Hillary Will, whose KB Racing/K2M dragster has been consistently strong all weekend. Brandon Bernstein, who qualified his Budweiser dragster fourth, is seeking his first U.S. Nationals win, as is Will. J.R. Todd, also without an Indy Wally to his credit, took the fifth spot, just ahead of Schumacher.

Morgan Lucas failed to qualify for the Top Fuel field, locking Kalitta Racing teammates Dave Grubnic and Doug Kalitta in the playoffs. Lucas, who needed to at least qualify to keep his hopes alive of passing either Grubnic or Kalitta, came to the line early in the final session two spots outside the field but smoked the tires. Troy Buff ended up in the 16th and final spot with a 3.968 and will oppose Dixon in round one.

Veteran Pat Dakin, who retired from competition after a blowover in October 1998 at the national event in Topeka, returned to the cockpit earlier this year to renew his license and then qualified in his only race this year at the biggest event of the season with a last-ditch 3.94 in Mitch King's dragster.

 
Tony Pedregon

There were few improvements in the Funny Car field Sunday as the top 11 positions remained unchanged, including the No. 1 qualifier, Pedregon, whose Q Racing Impala claimed the No. 1 spot on the basis of his Saturday evening 4.073. Pedregon's 4.18 in the final session was one of the best runs of the round and also one of the few to make it down the right lane.

"That last run we made, there will be similar conditions tomorrow, maybe a couple of degrees cooler, is very encouraging to me," said Pedregon, whose top spot is his third of the season. "We wanted to get down the track. It's one thing to run low e.t. in the evening when the conditions are good, but we're not going to be racing in that.

"It seems like we're shining at the right time," said Pedregon, whose great career does not yet include a U.S. Nationals triumph. "It's been a work in progress, and it's coming around. I feel good about tomorrow."

Brother Cruz, who won the NHRA U.S. Smokeless Showdown, held after the conclusion of Pro qualifying, remained No. 2 with a 4.107 in the Advanced Auto Parts Solara to make it a special day for the family. He was followed on the ladder by another former Indy winner Gary Densham, rookie Mike Neff, and 2006 winner Robert Hight. Melanie Troxel qualified sixth, her best outing since Denver.

Rookie Matt Hagan, who made his debut two weeks ago in his Shelor Solara with a non-qualifying effort in Reading, entered the final session on the bump spot at 4.208 and resisted the charges of, among others, former Indy winners John Force and Gary Scelzi, both of whom failed to make the field. For Force, a four-time Indy winner, it's his second straight DNQ at the Big Go.

 
Allen Johnson

Johnson held onto his Pro Stock top spot from Saturday by improving on his 6.657 with as 6.634 in Sunday's first qualifying session, and it was a feat he needed to stay on top as Mike Edwards also stepped up to a 6.647 that put the former Indy winner in the second spot. The No. 1 spot in Johnson's first Indy pole and the fifth of his career.

"The track was at its best this morning, and coming up there, we knew we could run a .64," said Johnson. "My crew chief, Mark [Ingersoll], said he didn't know if we should go for it or not, but when Edwards went .64 right in front of us, we knew he had to go for it. Mark said later that [Edwards' run] was the best thing that could have happened for us.

"Doing anything good here to get your name in the record books is special, and being able to do it for Mopar and Dodge and my dad and the team makes it just awesome. It's everyone's dream to win Indy, and if I could do that tomorrow for my dad and family, it would be awesome, right up there with winning the championship."

Jason Line held onto the third position with his Saturday 6.661 while three-time former Indy winner Jeg Coughlin leapt four spots to fourth with a 6.664. Saturday's fourth-ranked driver, reigning season champ Greg Anderson, dropped three spots to seventh as he was passed by Kurt Johnson (6.666) and Ron Krisher (6.667). By qualifying for the field, Krisher locked up the ninth of 10 spots in the Countdown to 1 playoffs.

Greg Stanfield, who currently holds the final spot in the Countdown field, struggled all weekend, and when he was unable to bring his car to the lanes for his final attempt due to breakage, he failed to qualify, leaving the door open for Warren Johnson, who now needs to reach the final round Monday to bump Stanfield from the last berth. W.J. set top speed in qualifying at 208.33 mph.

Johnson's final qualifying pass of 6.691 tied for the third quickest run of the session; unfortunately for Johnson, the best run belonged to his first-round opponent, perennial nemesis Dave Connolly, whose presence in the Countdown top 10 booted W.J. out of the final berth three races ago.

Rickie Jones, Steve Spiess, and Vinnie Deceglie all qualified for their first U.S. Nationals fields, in the 11th, 15th, and 16th spots, respectively, while perennial POWERade Series qualifiers V. Gaines and Jim Yates and the expected-to-be tough third KB Racing car of Rob Mansfield missed the show. Gaines actually matched bubble sitter Deceglie's 6.689 pace, but his 206.51-mph trap speed was slower than Deceglie's 206.67 in the Mountainview Tires Stratus.

 
Matt Smith

Smith's 6.932 in the morning session moved his Nitro Fish Buell past Saturday leader Hector Arana and gave the defending POWERade world champ his fifth pole of the season and a boost into Monday's racing, where he will be seeking his second Indy crown.

"This has been a good track for me", said Smith, who won this race in 2006 and also has was runner-up last year and also in 2005. "We've been tuning on this motor, which is a new one for us because we were saving it for this race, and it kind of threw us some curveballs, but we finally got it.

"We always seem to do well when we're the No. 1 qualifier, and it's important in our class to be No. 1 because we have a lot of red-lights."

Smith has claimed four of his five wins this season from the No. 1 spot but what was more exciting about Smith's blast was that it bumped Arana, who is in 11th place just behind Karen Stoffer for the final Countdown playoff berth, down to the No. 2 spot, and set Arana up for a first-round match with Stoffer, who serendipitously qualified 15th. When the two meet in Monday's first round, the winner will make the playoffs, the loser will not.

"We haven't made a decent pass all weekend; we've been fighting an electrical problem and we've swapped motors three times," said Stoffer. "The goal for a tonight is a massive teardown to find the glitch and come out and rock the world tomorrow. We've faced taller mountains than this in the past. We'd like to have had a spot in the Countdown locked up earlier, but if it has to be this way, at least it's in both of our hands, which is a good thing. We canít blame it on anyone else or ask for help from anyone else. It's just going to be Hector and I up there. It's going to be great for the fans."

Arana, who is pitted next to Stoffer, appeared less than thrilled with the matchup. "I'm just going to take tomorrow one run at a time and my job, which is to win," he said. "It doesnít matter who I race in the first round, really, but I didnít need any extra pressure in the first round. The bike is there, the tune-up is there, so I feel great and confident that the performance is still there."

Ringers Gloves Pro Bike Battle runner-up Andrew Hines, still looking for his first Indy win, locked up the third spot with his earlier 6.969 while Chris Rivas improved from a best of 6.977 to 6.970 in the final session but remained in the No. 4 spot. Former Indy winners Steve Johnson and Angelle Sampey and Battle winner Eddie Krawiec round out the seven drivers to dip into the six-second zone.

Johnson and defending Indy winner Craig Treble, who qualified ninth, locked up their berths in the Countdown to 1 by qualifying for the field.

Michael Phillips was the lone rider to bump into the field in the final session, his 7.072 exactly matching the earlier number run by Shawn Gann, but Phillips' Suzuki got the final spot based on his superior speed, 190.11 to Gann's 188.86. Phillips draws low qualifier Smith in the first round.



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