O’Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals
by Phil Burgess, NHRA.com
After a long day of rain delays at historic Troxel squared off in the final against Mike Neff. Both were looking for a first national event win in Funny Car, and after some starting-line drama, Neff’s Mustang fireballed at 400 feet to give the win to Troxel’s backpedaling 5.06. Schumacher defeated Larry Dixon in the Top Fuel final round, 4.555 to 4.958, to score his third win of the season, and Connolly defeated Greg Stanfield on a final-round holeshot in Pro Stock.
After a long day of rain delays at historic
Troxel squared off in the final against Mike Neff. Both were looking for a first national event win in Funny Car, and after some starting-line drama, Neff’s Mustang fireballed at 400 feet to give the win to Troxel’s backpedaling 5.06. Schumacher defeated Larry Dixon in the Top Fuel final round, 4.555 to 4.958, to score his third win of the season, and Connolly defeated Greg Stanfield on a final-round holeshot in Pro Stock.
After having gone seven races without winning a round in her Funny Car career, Troxel, a four-time winner in Top Fuel, won four in a row and became the 14th different driver and the first woman to win in both nitro classes. High drama ensued on the starting line when Neff’s crew was unable to get the Mustang shell lifted to rearm the clutch despite the best efforts of teammate Robert Hight and Ashley Force crew chief Dean Antonelli. Troxel had to pedal her car early and appeared doomed before Neff’s machine fireballed, no doubt due to the clutch problem.
"We shook the tires like that in the semifinals, too, and when I looked at the computer, I saw that the track was so tight that I probably could have pedaled it quicker, so I filed that away for the final," said Troxel. "I knew he was having troubles over there [before staging], and the only thing that crossed my mind was that I didn't win on a bye. I saw him out there on me, but I was reeling him in when he just disappeared.
“We were just so focused on getting some rounds, and we really needed to have it happen soon if we wanted to catch up to that top 10,” said Troxel, who entered the event 20th in points and zoomed to 15th with her performance in Bristol and back to within sight of a coveted top 10 position. "We’ve been saying for a few races that we had to do it soon because we struggled so much this season. I struggled as a driver, then we struggled with the tune-up and the car, so we’ve been putting in a lot of effort to get our new chassis out that we have to run in July so we don’t have to struggle again in July."
The final was the first between two drivers without a previous win in the class since Gary Clapshaw defeated Gary Densham in the 1995 Memphis final.
Troxel also had a wild road to the final in her ProCare Rx Dodge. On-again, off-again rain haunted the first round, which took about four and a half hours to complete after four separate stoppages, two of which came as Troxel and Tony Pedregon were just preparing to stage. After the first try was waved off, the teams went to their pits to cool their clutches and engines; after the second no-go, both teams retreated to their pits to change clutches and, with more delays between, actually made it back around in time to run at the end of the round.
She also won a historic matchup with Ashley Force, the first pairing of women in Funny Car eliminations. Although the victorious Troxel downplayed that angle of it, the history was not lost on those in attendance. In the semifinals, she defeated Jim Head, who smoked the tires at the hit.
Neff, the No. 1 qualifier for the first time in his first year, drove his Old Spice Mustang past Tony Bartone with a 4.87 and Ron Capps with a 4.82 before besting teammate Hight in a tight semifinal battle, 4.81 to 4.88. Neff’s appearance in the final, his second straight in his rookie season, marked the seventh time in eight events that the final round has included a John Force Racing Mustang.
“We were disappointed to lose those last two finals because we hadn’t been beaten in the seven before that, so it plays a little bit in your mind,” said Schumacher, “but those are the kind of races I like to win. You know that Dixon, like Doug Kalitta, is one of the best out there on the starting line, so you’ve got to sit up in the seat. He’s also one of the bad hombres out there who can pedal it, so I was very prepared for anything going on.
“As cold as it was, there was a lot of concern we’d fog up, and after seeing the two [Funny Car semifinalists] ahead of us blow the tires off by the Tree, it made it exciting. Bruton Smith built us a wonderful track here, and to have a Safety Safari who can prepare a racetrack after all of the rain we had and to run a number like we did, that’s saying something."
Schumacher crested a personal milestone with his 400th round-win when he beat up-in-smoke Hillary Will in the semifinals to reach his 75th final round and did it in convincing fashion with a 4.501, low e.t. of the meet, and a thousandth quicker than his low-qualifying time. Prior to Will, the U.S. Army dragster had defeated red-lighting Alan Bradshaw and J.R. Todd with back-to-back 4.51s.
The rain staggered the running of the Pro cars, so the Funny Car and Pro Stock finals were run after 10 p.m. ET, about 90 minutes after the Top Fuel final.
“We’re just thankful to have Charter and Lifelock or we’d still be on the sidelines,” said Connolly. “It makes you appreciate it a bit more. This is the same team we had last year, and we have such good chemistry. We might have brought the car out a little premature because it wasn’t running as fast as we thought it should, but we did some testing, and now it seems as good as our car last year.
“I’m just excited to be back out here with the folks and having a good time, and it’s wonderful to pick up points and have a good shot at making the Countdown to the Championship.”
Connolly reached the final with victories over Tom Hammonds, Greg Anderson, and, again on a holeshot in the semifinals, Ron Krisher, 6.75 to 6.72. Connolly's win was made even sweeter a little while later when his father, Ray, won the event's Super Gas title.
Stanfield, a former Sportsman season champ and winner in Pro Stock Truck, had been denied in five previous final-round appearances in Pro Stock. To reach the money round this time, Stanfield wheeled his Attitude Apparel Pontiac GXP past Jason Line, Mike Edwards, and, on a 6.75 to 6.74 holeshot, V. Gaines in the semifinals.
Pro Stock in Bristol was filled with upsets from qualifying, where world champ, defending event champ, and number-two points man Jeg Coughlin failed to qualify for the first time in 70 events, and on into eliminations. In the opening round, the trio of Johnsons – No. 1 qualifier Warren, son Kurt, the No. 2 man, and No. 4 qualifier Allen Johnson – exited in the opening stanza, all to tire shake. Summit Racing teammates Line and
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