O’Reilly NHRA Midwest Nationals
by Kelly Wade, NHRA.com
Funny Car rookie Mike Neff finally collected his first round-win and made his first trip to the final round in the same day, but when Tim Wilkerson edged ahead of Neff after an incredible wire-to-wire race, he earned a victory at his home track and took the Funny Car points lead for the first time in his career. A drastic weather change created havoc for the Pro Stock cars, but there were other surprises in store for the doorslammers, including a final-round .144 launch for freshly returned Dave Connolly that sent well-tuned Kurt Johnson straight to the winner's circle and a dethroning of Team Summit final-round kings Greg Anderson and Jason Line, who have traded final-round showings every event this season. Andrew Hines raced ahead of a broken Matt Smith to win while recording his 16th Pro Stock Motorcycle pass in the sixes, and "Hot Rod" Fuller earned the Top Fuel Wally in a great side-by-side race with Tony Schumacher.
Funny Car rookie Mike Neff finally collected his first round-win and made his first trip to the final round in the same day, but when Tim Wilkerson edged ahead of Neff after an incredible wire-to-wire race, he earned a victory at his home track and took the Funny Car points lead for the first time in his career.
A drastic weather change created havoc for the Pro Stock cars, but there were other surprises in store for the doorslammers, including a final-round .144 launch for freshly returned Dave Connolly that sent well-tuned Kurt Johnson straight to the winner's circle and a dethroning of Team Summit final-round kings Greg Anderson and Jason Line, who have traded final-round showings every event this season. Andrew Hines raced ahead of a broken Matt Smith to win while recording his 16th Pro Stock Motorcycle pass in the sixes, and "Hot Rod" Fuller earned the Top Fuel Wally in a great side-by-side race with Tony Schumacher.
"I don't know what to tell you; the emotions are out of control," said Wilkerson. "It was all I could do at the other end of the track just to get out of the car. Thank you, this gets the monkey off our back. We ended up qualifying No. 1 a couple time this year and couldn't even get out of first round, so we're pretty proud of this deal. My guys are just doing a terrific job working on the car, and the track was good all day.
"We're sure happy to be here; I've never been in the points lead in anything in my life. We're really surprised to be able to tell you at this point of the year that we're doing this well. I hope when the new cars come out in
"If you lose your handle on what's going on with those cars, it's really hard to get it back. But just through tenacity and a lot of help from a lot of people out here, I don't think there's one crew chief in Top Fuel or Funny Car that hasn't helped me at one time or another with some stupid question I had. They're probably all kind of upset about that now, but we're happy about it ourselves. We're just doing the best that we can do."
John Force Racing rookie Neff pulled off perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend when he earned his first round-win in his Old Spice Ford Mustang and kept right on going, first defeating Funny Car newcomer Melanie Troxel, 4.904 to 4.920, then running down Troxel's teammate, Mike Ashley, with a 4.924 to Ashley's 4.959 pass. In the semi's, Neff made a clean pass next to his teammate Robert Hight, who took the starting-line advantage but shook the tires.
Force, the winningest driver in NHRA history, was looking to reach a great milestone at Gateway Int'l Raceway on his 59th birthday. All he had to do was qualify and win one round to earn his 1,000th round-win, a milestone that has never been reached in the sport, and he did just that when he deep staged for a first-round holeshot win over Ron Capps.
"I kind of had a chip on my shoulder from what happened to me last year," said Fuller. "Leading the points all year long and losing to [Schumacher]. It's a great gratification when you beat him. What can I say about David Powers Motorsports? Four finals in a row for us and three wins, that just tells you how strong this organization is.
"More importantly, this race meant two really big things for me. I wouldn't have gotten this opportunity without the death of Darrell Russell. A lot of people don't know this story, but Darrell was from Houston, and Chris, Burnell, and Gwen [Russell's brother, father, and mother] along with David Powers had the idea to put this team together because that's what Darrell wanted to do, was to have his own team one day, and when they did, they hired me. Part of the reason why they hired me was because Darrell was a Sportsman racer, and they wanted to come after a Sportsman racer. What an honor for me to get that call and to represent the Russell family and David Powers. This trophy is going to Chris Russell. I had to fight tears down there, because this really meant a lot to me.
"The other thing is my mom hasn't been in great health. She's never seen me win Top Fuel, and she was down there at the end when I got out of the car. It's not about the money, it's not about the trophy, it's not about all this stuff, it's about when I got out of the car and she was down there and she had tears in her eyes. If it wasn't for my mom and my dad and all the sacrifices they made ...What a great day. If I look back on it, this takes all those six prior wins, puts them all together, and means more because I had my mom here -- and my dad -- and I got to embrace her at the end. I feel very, very blessed."
Fuller laid down consistent 4.530, 4.570, and 4.591 passes and advanced to the final round on three consecutive tire-smoking opponents: Cory McClenathan, who uncharacteristically smoked the hides right off the starting line; Dave Grubnic, who started from the No. 1 spot for the eighth time in his career, lost traction at about half-track; and Doug Kalitta, who was up in smoke from the 330 marker. In the final, Fuller drove the Cat digger to a winning 4.525 against Schumacher's 4.583 effort despite Schumacher's tenth-of-a-second starting-line advantage.
Reigning NHRA POWERade world champion and current points leader Schumacher drove the U.S. Army rail, under the guidance of crew chief Alan Johnson, to his fourth final-round appearance of the year. For Schumacher, a final-round showing at Gateway Int'l Raceway felt familiar; he won here in 2006 and runner-upped to Gary Scelzi in 1999. This weekend's runner-up falls in line with a season that has begun much better than the previous year, when Schumacher had five first-round losses prior to this event.
Schumacher started from the No. 2 position and took out Morgan Lucas in the first round in a side-by-side race, 4.531 to 4.604, before a second-round match with Alan Bradshaw, who struck the tires early. Schumacher lost traction a little farther down the track and got it back to turn on the win light but lost lane choice to semifinal opponent Hillary Will, who didn't benefit from a last-minute lane change and hazed the tires next to the Don Schumacher-owned dragster.
"It looked pretty tough out there," said Johnson. "There was a lot of tire shaking, and we've had our lifelong fill of tire shake for years. I think everybody just kind of underestimated the racetrack. The grind job they put on it is the same grind job they put on
"That's what it's all about. We just had a great day. It's brutal out there. Every run is a challenge."
Johnson's quick 6.581 in the first round beat Todd Hoerner's career-best 6.619, and jaws dropped when the margin of victory between Johnson and second-round opponent Jeg Coughlin was revealed to be a ridiculously close .0001-second. Johnson advanced to the final round easily when V. Gaines went red in the semi's, and in the final round, it was all K.J. when Connolly seemed to have experienced extreme distraction at the starting line. The last thing anybody expected was to see was notoriously quick leaver Connolly produce a .144 start, but the Charter Communications Chevy Cobalt camp revealed that the late launch was a result of a mechanical issue.
Connolly, the defending event champion, entered the event looking to make up a pile of points after missing the first five starts of the season and returning to the field last weekend in
"We tried a different engine on Friday, and it just doesn't seem to have as many ponies as this one has," said Hines. "We wanted to try to get back the No. 1 qualifying spot, and we put the engine back in yesterday and couldn't find the setup because it was making so much horsepower, throwing us for a loop. We might have gotten the No. 1 had we had a good 60-foot [time], but a win from the No. 3 spot still means a lot. We won from No. 1 in
"Four races and three finals and two wins, it's just a tribute to how good my team is. They like being on top, and they're giving me a motorcycle underneath me to be there a lot this year. It's so fun right now. There's a lot of work back at the shop for the guys, and they're just trying to dig and scrape and find anything they can to help us out. This is a perfect way to go into a month-off swing. It's going to be fun once we get to
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