The final race of the 2012 season of NHRA Full Throttle Series Drag Racing has arrived, and for Service Central-backed Funny Car driver Johnny Gray, the season-closer presents one last opportunity to rake in points in his best statistical season to date and post what is guaranteed to be his best finish yet in the nitro category.
"We really had a car that was capable of winning the championship," said Gray, who will pilot the Service Central Funny Car with a Big O Tires scheme at the NHRA Finals. "We blew it in the first three races of the Countdown and got a little bit lost at exactly the wrong time, but now we're back to having a car that's competitive. We're fourth right now [in the standings] with this awesome Big O Tires/Service Central car, and we need to do everything we can to try to hang onto that."
Although it is mathematically possible to move into the No. 3 position if there is a strong falter by third-place Mike Neff and an exceptional performance for the Service Central branch of the Don Schumacher Racing group, Gray concedes that a move up is unlikely at this stage. Even so, there is no argument that the Big O Tires Dodge has been on an upswing as of late, rallying back from three early exits with back-to-back top half qualifying efforts, a trip to the money round at the rain-delayed Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals in Reading that boosted him from eighth to fourth in the standings, and a semifinals finish at the Big O Tires Nationals in Las Vegas.
And now, Gray gets to wrap it all up with a return to Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, where he made his initial foray into nitro racing behind the wheel of his own car in 2000 at the season-opening Winternationals.
"I always like closing out the year in Pomona," said Gray, who also tuned his own car in the early days and throughout his career. "It brings back memories of coming out here and trying to qualify that first time. We did qualify, and we qualified well on one good run. We never got down the racetrack the rest of the weekend, but it sure gave me a taste for this. Pomona is where I got hooked on nitro."
At last year's final event of the season, Gray, hot off of three consecutive final-round appearances, qualified the Service Central Dodge in the No. 6 spot and went to battle with a trio of John Force Racing cars during eliminations. A charging Gray snapped up a victory over John Force with a low-of-the-round 4.090 and then took out Neff with a 4.10 that was one of the quickest of the quarterfinals. Gray was first off the starting line with a respectable .068-second reaction in the semifinals, but when he struck the tires about 100 feet into the run, Robert Hight was able to move ahead for the win. This year, Gray has planned a better outcome to send his team into the off-season with a jumpstart on a solid run in 2013.
"It's been a bittersweet year for us, and we go to Pomona with the championship out of reach," said Gray. "But we won two races, and we're planning on winning three. If we can finish right around fourth in the points, we can still say we've had a great year."
Don Schumacher Racing