But for the want of two plastic screws....
Brainerd, Sunday: Del Worsham knew he had his hands full with Tim Wilkerson in round one. Wilkerson's LRS Chevy has been increasing its performance for weeks, and the veteran driver is never one to let a lap get away easily. Worsham knew his Checker, Schuck's, Kragen Impala was going to have to run well, for the full 1,320, if he were to stand a chance of advancing.
We will never know what the outcome might have been, only what it was, and when Wilkerson pulled ahead in the last 300 feet, Worsham's day was over, his hopes for a spot in the Countdown severely damaged, and his attitude was sour. And it all may have come down to a pair of plastic screws.
"The burst panel, in the middle of the hood, is held on with plastic screws," Worsham said. "You want them to strip off easily if there's any kind of blower problem or engine backfire, so that the panel will come off and the pressure will be released. On our run, we were out there running pretty well, and apparently the two back screws sheared off, and the panel was bouncing up and down. That caused a drop in the amount of air that could get into the blower, and we slowed down.
"We didn't know what it was until we got back to the pit and looked it all over. I figured we just missed on the tune-up a little and were soft at the top end, because I could definitely feel the car slowing down, rather than charging hard to the end. I can't remember this ever happening before, but 2007 has been a year where a lot of things I've never seen before have managed to pop up."
Getting to that first-round date with Wilkerson took some doing in Brainerd, as Friday and Saturday qualifying were beset by uncommonly hot conditions. Worsham aced his test on Friday, running two solid laps on a hot slick track, and he ended that day in the No. 5 spot, based on his Q2 run of 4.909. On Saturday, when rain was in the forecast but never materialized, Worsham stepped up to a 4.867 in Q3, before smoking the tires on the final pass. The Q3 run was a big improvement over Friday's effort, but it came during a session in which almost everyone was stepping up, and Worsham actually slid down to the No. 10 spot after the run.
After smoking the hoops on his final pass, Worsham seemed to be locked into that 10th position, but when Tommy Johnson upset the proverbial apple cart with a last-run 4.863, Worsham was knocked back one more spot, to 11th. The difference would play into the eventual outcome in a couple of ways.
First off, Johnson had been behind Worsham on the qualifying sheet, and would therefore have lost one POWERade point to the CSK driver in their mutual hunt for a Countdown slot. Instead, he matched Worsham's 2-point qualifying result. Secondly, it altered Worsham's first-round opponent from Scott Kalitta to Wilkerson. Kalitta, as it turned out, smoked the tires in round one (running Worsham's teammate, Jeff Arend.)
Worsham and the rest of the Brainerd contingent awoke on Sunday morning to a blue sky and 58 degrees, which made most of the weekend's previous tune-up calls obsolete. It would clearly be a much quicker lap, with the cooler temps and less-humid air, but how much quicker was the subject of crew chief guesswork.
As the third pair, Worsham and Wilkerson pulled to the line aiming to run very low 4.80s. At the flash of amber, it was the pumped-up Worsham getting away first, by a hefty 31-thousandths, and as the pair of Chevrolets pounded down the Brainerd pavement, it looked as if Worsham's opening jump would hold up, until he mysteriously slowed at the finish just as Wilkerson powered cleanly to 4.809. Those plastic screws had come into play. At the stripe, Worsham's 4.875 came up just short, as in "side-by-side". In addition, Tommy Johnson won his first round match (though he would go on to lose in round two) and that 20-point accomplishment, combined with the extra point he earned on his last qualifying shot, moved him one point ahead of Worsham on the points sheet, with 688 points to Worsham's 687.
In another important match-up, Jim Head also lost in the first round, meaning Worsham had narrowed the deficit between himself and the 8th-place driver, but only by one point. Worsham will head to Reading 84 points out of the 8th spot.
"We're not out of it completely, but this means we basically have to win the race in Reading next weekend, and when your fortunes are finally down to the point where you have to win the last race, you're in a tough spot. So many little things got together on us this weekend, it kind of makes you scratch your head, but we'll go to Reading and do everything we can to make it up. We'll do everything we can, for the rest of the year, to win every race we enter.
"And like I said, I don't know if we would've beaten Timmy, but with the edge at the tree I only needed a 4.84 to do it, and we were definitely up there with a tune-up we thought would match his 4.80. If there's a bright side, it's that a whole bunch of things, all them much worse, can happen when a burst panel comes loose. If the front two screws had sheared, the panel would have ripped right off and might have damaged the hood or the windshield. But, the absolute worst thing that can happen is having the burst panel fly straight back and lodge itself in the injector. When that happens, the throttle is hung open and bad things happen. All we did was lose an important race, rather than lose the race car, but you have to wonder what's going on when two plastic screws end your day."
The term "you have to wonder" may be Del Worsham's biggest understatement of the year.
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