Worsham's exemplary lap not quite enough
Bristol, Sunday: Webster's defines the word "exemplary" as "commendable, worth of imitation." Del Worsham was perfectly exemplary in round one at Bristol, posting a solid 4.960 that put him right in the ballpark with the results recorded by first-round winners Ron Capps, Jim Head, Gary Scelzi, Mike Ashley, Cruz Pedregon, and even No. 1 qualifier Tim Wilkerson. The only problem for Worsham was that Wilkerson was in the other lane, running a 4.935, and what might have been a classic "comeback story" ended as a first-round defeat.
Coming off a brutal weekend in Norwalk, where Worsham not only fell in the opening stanza but also demolished a car and correspondingly large pile of parts, the Bristol event quickly positioned itself as a place where Worsham's figurative wounds would not be healed, but instead would have salt poured directly on them. Everywhere Worsham and his red Checker, Schuck's, Kragen team turned, they found more fluke trouble, more stress, and more frustration, beginning on Friday afternoon and not letting up until midday Sunday.
It all started with Q1, when Worsham pulled to the line to make a qualifying lap next to teammate Jeff Arend. As Worsham backed up from the burnout, his motor was popping, banging, and backfiring, causing him to shut off before making the run. Having to fix those problems (found with the push rods) while still getting back to the line as the second pair in Q2, just a couple of hours later, was no easy task, but the CSK group had the car back together and the problem solved a good 45-minutes before they were due in the lanes. At that point, when they fired the car to warm it up, they ran into a seized oil pump, and the squad had to madly thrash to replace that unit and the mag drive before 8:00. They made it to the lanes with but seconds to spare.
"We changed the whole valve train after the big explosion in Norwalk, and a problem with the push rods didn't really show itself until we did the burnout," Worsham said. "That really put us behind the eight ball, because we missed the first session completely and had to be up at the front of the line for the night session. We were short on time, short on data, and short on luck, all at the same time. We came far too close to not making a run on Friday at all, because the oil pump thing really set us back. We were thrashing to fix it and get it back together, and just barely made it.
"I've been doing this a long time, and I've seen just about every kind of problem you can run into with a race car, but I can't remember ever going through a spell like this. If it can break, or if it can cause something else to break on the race car, we've had it go wrong in the last couple of weeks. Had Friday not been so stressful and unbelievable, it would have been funny, because you can hardly put a team through what my guys went through, realistically. It was Murphy's Law at its worst. At least nobody got run over by the tow vehicle or fell off a scooter."
Having made it to the lanes for Q2, Worsham went on to post a solid, if not spectacular, 4.898, even though his car made an abrupt move on him near the end of the track. By the end of the session, he was sitting 14th and staring a pair of Saturday afternoon runs in the face.
On Saturday, a couple of the big hitters who had been behind Worsham were able to nudge him back to 16th by the time Q3 was completed, while the CSK driver was unable to improve on his previous time. Going into the final session, he found himself clinging to the 16th spot, while Kenny Bernstein, Ashley Force, and Team CSK running mate Jeff Arend were all behind him. Worsham would either have to improve in the stifling afternoon heat, or he'd have to dodge three bullets.
Dodge them he did, as none of the three were able to knock Worsham off his perch, and no one in the entire Funny Car class was even capable of running quicker than his 4.89 bump number. As it turned out, when Arend DNQ'd for the first time this year he handed over the consecutive qualifying streak to young Miss Force, who then DNQ'd no more than two minutes later, handing the streak over to, you guessed it, Del Worsham. Such a thing would have seemed utterly impossible when after Worsham failed to make the show at the first two races this season, but he has since made 10 in a row.
"Well, there you have the 2007 Funny Car class in a nutshell," Worsham said. "People were writing us off as dead and buried after Phoenix, and starting the year with two 'dinks' in a row was an awful way to get out of the blocks, but we always figured the DNQ thing would bite everyone, and now it has. Every single team in the class has missed at least one race, and the bums who started the season that way now have the longest streak. It's kind of ridiculous, but it's a perfect example of how tough it is out here.
"Look at it this way, Jeff and the blue team had a better two days of qualifying than we did, getting down the track more consistently, but they missed on the Friday night run and that cost them, just like it's hurt a lot of big teams all year. I still think we need to figure out a way to take some of the 'do or die' drama out of the Friday night session. It's just not right, the way it is now."
Speaking of Arend and his failure to make the show, the blue team driver did make two full passes on Saturday, but he nicked the right-side retaining wall during Q3, putting an NHRA equivalent of a NASCAR "Darlington Stripe" all down the side of the blue Impala. The car was barely damaged, but its vinyl graphics were mostly destroyed during the scrape, so the blue team dressed up some of the damage with blue vinyl and blue duct tape before running the body again in Q4. When they missed the field, Worsham elected to run on Sunday with the blue team's Impala, rather than his red Monte Carlo. Worsham destroyed his Impala in Norwalk, and has another one in the paint shop being readied.
"The Impala just suits our hot weather tune-up better, so we made the decision to 'borrow' it from the blue guys," Worsham said. "To do that, we had to get it fixed, so we brought in the vinyl wizard, John Chindemi, and he replaced just about all the graphics on the whole right side of the car. After that, we just swapped out my name and number for Jeff's and I was driving the blue CSK Chevy for the first time ever. In situations like this we've run some alternate bodies before, including a black car in Indy once, and an all-red car we called 'Big Red' for a couple of races a few years back, but this was the first time I've ever had the blue CSK body on top of my car."
Coming to the track on Sunday, it was clear the day was going to feature sunny skies and probably the highest temperatures of the season. The consensus among drivers and tuners was that tire smoke would probably be a major part of round one, but once the Top Fuel class kicked things off with a string of side-by-side passes, it was obvious the Bristol track was in supreme condition, despite the high temps. Worsham and Wilkerson pulled to the line as the second pair of Funny Cars, and by then they were each convinced they were in for a serious battle.
"I wouldn't have believed it if you told me the track would hold up this well, because it was really hot out there and the sun was beating on it, but man the Top Fuel guys just started ripping and we knew we had better be ready to outrun Tim, because it didn't look like it was going to be a pedaling deal. The Safety Safari did a great job on the track, and kind of worked miracles, I think."
Once back from their burnouts, Worsham and Wilkerson pulled their cars forward and lit the staging bulbs. At the time, it seemed as if the auto-timed amber lights took a remarkably long time to flash, and both drivers seemed effected by that as they each left the line with much slower reaction times than they typically post. Worsham did get away first, by 8-thousandths of a second, though, and both cars tore down the track in side-by-side fashion. Wilkerson was slightly quicker to half-track, but Worsham's car was running 2.39 miles per hour faster at the same point. From the starting line, it was impossible to tell who was in the lead, but it was also impossible to miss the fact this one was going to be decided by tiny margin.
At the stripe, Wilkerson took the win light by 17-thousandths of a second. Worsham's run was exemplary, and proved to be a big step forward for his team after the mayhem of Norwalk and the wild craziness of Bristol qualifying, but the one thing he didn't earn was a round win.
"It's frustrating, because we did what we were trying to do and we just got nipped," Worsham said. "We survived Norwalk, and we somehow got through qualifying here, and in the end we ran pretty well and made a very good lap for the conditions. We just got beat, and so did seven other guys in round one, and that's the brutal part of this sport.
"What this does, though, is really put all the bad stuff behind us, because we fixed the problems and came right out this morning with a good wire-to-wire lap. We needed that, and we need this confidence going into Denver. It's a whole new game up on the mountain, so we'll head west and we'll try to turn this loss into a big win up there."
Such a thing would be commendable, not to mention worthy of imitation.
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