LAS VEGAS - Funny Car driver Johnny Gray craftily piloted his Big O Tires Dodge Charger R/T to the semifinals at the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and although the Service Central-backed team had loftier dreams for their primary sponsor's title event, the accumulated round wins preserved Gray's fourth-place position in NHRA's Full Throttle Series standings with just one race to go in the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Gray earned the No. 5 position in the starting line-up with a strong 4.089 at 313.22 mph qualifying best that brought three bonus points to the team as the best run of the third round of qualifying.
Round two was a head-to-head match with Don Schumacher Racing teammate Matt Hagan, and although Hagan nabbed a bit of an advantage at the hit of the throttle, Gray got a lucky break with a slowing 4.213 after Hagan struck the tires near the 660-foot mark.
The victory over Hagan placed him in the lane opposite another DSR teammate, Ron Capps, in the semifinals. Their pre-finals meeting was the sixth time the two have met on raceday this season, and it was Gray's seventh semifinals appearance of the year.
Four of his semifinals performances this year have resulted in a trip to the final round, and twice so far Gray has gone on to win the event - in Englishtown and Sonoma.
Gray held a small advantage in reaction time but the tires began to shake about 300 feet into the run and the Big O Tires Dodge was unable to recover. Capps zoomed ahead for a 4.08 to 6.25 victory and went on to win the event title.
"We were just a little too aggressive," said Gray. "We missed the tune-up a little bit, but you know what, Ron is running really good.
We had to run at him. We talked about the fact that we didn't in any way, shape, form or fashion want to go out there and do something stupid like smoke the tires, and we went out there with what we thought was about a 4.09 tune-up in our Big O Tires Dodge.
"The car left the starting line and started griping and grumbling. You feel it in the small of your back, like you're going down a dirt road. At that point, the tires are chopping, and you're hoping that it'll get back ahold and settle down.
But it just got a little too much tire temperature, and she finally just kept building power and steam 'til she came loose out there. It's one of those deals. We hate it, but it just is what it is."
"I think there is always a lot that you would do in hindsight," said crew chief Rob Wendland. "But we went up there trying to run fast.
A couple of little things happened, and it could have turned either direction because it was right on edge. Had it made it, it would have been pretty ugly for the NAPA team."
Although disappointed in the ultimate outcome of the race, Gray and Wendland were lifted by the collaboration of their extended Don Schumacher Racing family.
When crewmember Mathew Archer, the Supercharger specialist for the team, injured his back early in the day, members from other DSR teams pitched in to help as Gray continued to go rounds.
Brad Mason and Michael O'Guin from Antron Brown's Matco Tools team, Scott Okuhara from the Spencer Massey's FRAM/Prestone team, and Glen Huszar from Matt Hagan's Aaron's Funny Car team were among those who stepped forward to assist.
"All of the support was awesome," said Wendland. "It's very humbling to be part of such a great organization and have these kinds of resources available to us. It was really, really nice to have that support."
As for the future, Gray has not been mathematically blocked from ascending one more position in the standings, and at this point, the ambitious team would like nothing better than to finish the year in third place.
Gray's previous best finish was ninth in 2009 when he was competing in Pro Stock. In order to move ahead of Mike Neff in the standings, Gray would need an exceptional series of qualifying runs and to see the win light in every round on raceday, while Neff would have to stumble.
"We know it's a long shot, but this is a sport of greedy people," said Gray. "A couple of races ago, we wanted to hold on and be in the top five. But once we got into the top 5 we changed our wishful thinking.
"As for this weekend, we had a huge number of Big O Tires people here and just so much support. The NAPA and TBC Retail Group folks are great partners, and so not only did we get a lot of support from the Big O Tires folks, we got a lot of support from the NAPA folks, too.
It's just the best of all worlds here, and we had a lot of friends from back home here cheering for us. It was a great weekend, just not as great as we wanted."
Johnny Gray, NTB/Service Central Racing Dodge Charger R/T
Round one: Johnny Gray (4.110-second at 304.74 mph) defeats Tim Wilkerson (5.742, 122.99)
Round two: Gray (4.213, 299.46) def. Matt Hagan (4.601, 173.87)
Semifinals: Ron Capps (4.086, 311.92) def. Gray (6.256, 103.94)
|1. JACK BECKMAN||2,531||--|
|2. RON CAPPS||2,527||-4|
|3. Mike Neff||2,443||-88|
|*4. JOHNNY GRAY||2,323||-208|
|*5. Cruz Pedregon||2,307||-224|
|*6. Courtney Force||2,293||-221|
|*7. John Force||2,249||-282|
|*8. Robert Hight||2,249||-282|
|*9. Tim Wilkerson||2,241||-290|
|*10. Jeff Arend||2,211||-320|
|*11. MATT HAGAN||1,185||--|
Source: Don Schumacher Racing