Burkart still can't buy a break
Topeka, Sunday: Like a fighter who was winning his bout on points before taking a roundhouse to the chin, Phil Burkart never saw it coming. Both literally and figuratively, Burkart saw only a win in his future as he entered Sunday's eliminations at Heartland Park Topeka. He saw the flash of amber, reacted in what felt like standard fashion, then sped down the track to a clean and solid pass. He never saw Tommy Johnson, until just after the finish line when Johnson thundered by. He also never saw the win light, as it was on in Johnson's lane.
Burkart fought hard throughout qualifying, dealing with the same variety of midwestern conditions the rest of the class found itself wrestling with. Swirling Kansas storms danced around Topeka, swept through on occasion, and made racing a challenge for the entire group. To make it even more interesting, a rain-delayed late night session on Friday was completed as the clock neared midnight, and Burkart ended the day in the 13th spot with a 4.938 he posted during the first Friday run. On that pass, Burkart's CSK Toyota detonated a motor near the finish line, throwing two rods through the block and knocking the oil pan clear off the motor. It wasn't exactly pretty, but it worked.
On Saturday, Burkart made an even more important run, as his 4.951 was posted in the heat of the day. Those conditions were clearly more akin to what the teams would encounter at noon on Sunday.
"We had an oil leak problem on the final lap Saturday, and we all would have liked to have that run, but the 4.95 was a very nice lap for that time of day. We felt very confident on Sunday morning. The CSK red team was running well, we were running well, and on the ladder we were scheduled to meet up in the semi-final. I wouldn't have bet against us doing that. As a matter of fact, I was pretty sure it was going to happen."
On Sunday morning, Burkart first had to watch as his luckless teammate posted a 14-karat 4.860 as part of the first pair of Funny Cars. As nice as that run was (combined with Worsham's reaction time, it would have beaten every other first round winner,) it still lost. The snake-bit red team was still in search of a dose of antivenom.
A few pairs later, Burkart lined up next to Tommy Johnson and prepared to duke it out, aiming for his first round win since, believe it or not, Phoenix.
Both cars thundered away from the line, both stayed glued together in a side-by-side tussle which had the huge Topeka crowd on their feet, holding their ears and their breath. At the finish line, Johnson registered a 4.949 elapsed time. Burkart clicked the clocks with a quicker 4.927. There was only one problem: Johnson got there first, on a hole shot.
"Anyone who doesn't drive one of these things thinks it's just a matter of focus or paying attention or something really simple," Burkart said. "This is not a video game, it's the real deal. Believe me, it's such tiny fractions of a second, you don't feel it unless you're really asleep. I wasn't asleep at all, and I was staged a little shallower than he was, but to me it felt like I left right on time. I never really saw him, and I thought I won.
"After all we've gone through, as hard as the guys have taken each loss, this one just takes the cake as the worst way to end the day. I can't go back and get a do-over, I just have to tell the guys I'm sorry and we'll get them next time. It doesn't seem real, it doesn't seem possible, but there it is, in black and white. I never imagined this, didn't even consider it a possible outcome, but it happened. I never saw something like this coming."
But the roundhouse connected. Burkart is staggered, but not down. He'll take the standing 8-count and get back to the fight. This bout is a long, long, way from over.
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