Arend's day ends early, by an eyelash
Topeka, Sunday: After the completion of his first-round race against Scott Kalitta in Topeka, Jeff Arend might well have broken out his best Agent 86 "Maxwell Smart" impression just to say the words, "Missed it, by THAT much." As happens so often in this high-powered sport, the final result of the Arend/Kalitta match-up was decided in the lights, with Arend charging hard, but the Checker, Schuck's, Kragen blue team driver needed a 1,325-foot race track, and dragstrips are only 1,320 feet long.
The Topeka race is often hampered by weather, no matter when it's scheduled on the calendar, so losing a qualifying lap or two is by no means unprecedented. This year's race was no exception, as the late run on Friday was delayed and pushed back, then nearly happened, before being cancelled altogether. The net effect was a jumbled qualifying ladder, as many of the sport's big hitters missed their chance at glory on Friday night. When Saturday featured two warm-weather sessions under the sun, it became difficult for those who hadn't run well in session No. 1 to do anything about their situation. Fortunately, for Team CSK, Arend and the blue team did well in session No. 1.
During that first lap, when every team was doing little more than taking educated guesses at what the Heartland Park track wanted, Arend tore down the track to a rock-solid 4.873, and that run was, in the end, good enough for a top-half position in the No. 8 spot. Saturday's runs were still important, in terms of perfecting a Sunday tune-up as well as settling the final field, and although the blue CSK squad was not able to negotiate the full 1,320 they were also part of the majority, as few teams could find the answer. Two of the cars that never managed a full pass belonged to Ron Capps and Tony Pedregon, who came into this race as two of the four drivers who had made every race field this year, along with Gary Scelzi and Team CSK's own Arend. The field of survivors, who have escaped the bite of the dreaded DNQ bug was, summarily, cut in half.
"That was pretty huge for us, because everyone and their brother was picking us to be the next team to miss a show," Arend said. "The on-line poll they ran had 60 percent of the voters naming us as the most likely next victims, and that was like 11,000 people who voted that way. I thought it was funny, at first, but our guys really took it seriously. They felt like they'd been dismissed as pretenders or something, and I'm not kidding when I say they were pretty mad about it. We made it our mission to get in the field here, and I think the guys felt some payback when we got in and two of the other four guys didn't. It wasn't anything against them, they're great racers and every one of us respects them totally, but it was about the pride our guys have and how they felt about the poll.
"Of course, the goal then was to win the first round, because we're also just outside the top eight and the clock is ticking for the Countdown playoff field. I spent a lot of time listening to my co-crew chiefs, Marc (Denner) and Chris (Cunningham,) and everyone felt like we had a very good plan for round one. We wanted to run a solid lap, but there was no intention to jump all over it or try to run low E.T. of the event."
Running as the final pair in the first round, Arend had already seen his teammate, Del Worsham, run his best lap of the weekend, but he also saw Worsham's strong lap come up short.
At the tree, Arend maintained his stellar reputation as a "leaver" by getting away from the line nearly 2-hundredths quicker than Kalitta, and the two cars powered with strength past the 330-foot mark. Just before half-track, Arend's CSK Impala SS began to spin the tires, just a fraction of a second before Kalitta's car appeared to suffer mechanical problems in the other lane. Both drivers pedaled their cars, but the advantage Kalitta had, by the virtue of suffering his problems slightly later, seemed to spell the difference.
"It really surprised all of us when it drove into spin out there," Arend said. "It was not a wild tune-up, it was designed to be very safe and get from A to B, but it spun the tires out there and Scott started to pull away. Just then, in my peripheral vision, I could see him having problems, and I was reeling him in. We were both doing the best we could, and I was hauling him in like a prize Marlin at the end, catching up like he was standing still. I know you've heard this line before, but we just ran out of race track.
"These tracks have been 1,320 feet long since Day One, and we didn't quite have enough room to catch him. I was under power and catching up, but we didn't make it. The whole thing was very disappointing, after we mastered the challenge of getting well into the race field."
These fuel coupes are 8,000 hp cars, breathing fire and shaking the ground. They produce so much power and torque they seem to be nothing less than beasts, on the loose and nearly out of control. And yet, so very often, these heart-pounding races come down to mere inches. And when that's the case, half of the participants involved find their days to be ended, by the narrowest of margins.
Jeff Arend missed it by THAT much.
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