Boy, Johnny Gray wanted that win, and the way things were going over the course of the weekend at the 43rd annual Toyota NHRA SuperNationals at historic Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, it sure seemed like it was a possibility.
Throughout qualifying, Gray's Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car was strong and stable, recording straight and clean passes of 4.08, 4.11, 4.02 and a 4.04 that was the quickest of all the floppers in the final session.
For raceday, No. 3 qualifier Gray drew class veteran Jim Head as a first-round challenger. With instruction from his crew to stage the car in a manner that would finesse the quickest e.t. possible, Gray gave up some in reaction time but made it to the finish line first, 4.119 to 4.151.
The quick e.t. meant that he would have lane choice over multi-time champion John Force in the second round, and it came in handy as Gray raced to the finish line first for a 4.09 to 4.16 victory and lane choice over Force's teammate Robert Hight in the semifinals.
It was simply Johnny Gray's day, with car and driver both doing their part. In the semifinals, Gray got to show his stuff on the starting line and launched ahead of Hight to score a rewarding holeshot win, 4.09 to 4.08.
The final round was a head-to-head match with Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps, a big time threat throughout the weekend as the No. 1 qualifier who made the quickest run in Funny Car history - a 3.96 - during qualifying and would be attending his fifth consecutive final round. Capps, who beat Gray in the final at the Big O Tires NHRA Nationals in Las Vegas last fall, had lane choice in the final but smoked the tires and Gray raced to a 4.078 at 314.39 mph to take the trophy.
It was the second victory for NTB/Service Central Racing driver Gray; last year he claimed his first win in a nitro Funny Car at the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, but that weekend there was something - or, rather, someone missing. This time, Gray's wife Terry was in attendance to celebrate the win with him.
"This is extremely special because Brainerd was a bittersweet victory for me," said Gray. "I love that I won, and I love that we won for the team. But without her there in Brainerd, there was a huge void. My heart was kind of half-happy. Today it's real happy. My sister Terry was here, my son Shane and daughter-in-law Amber, my grandsons Taylor and Tanner - and I wish my youngest son Jonathan and his family could have been here, but I talked to him on the phone, and everyone is just so happy. Yes, this win was a real, real special win."
With the SuperNationals title, Gray qualified for the Traxxas Shootout, a special bonus event for the Funny Car drivers that will be contested at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, and he is fourth in the Funny Car standings.
"This team - my crew chiefs Rob Wendland and Rip Reynolds and all my guys, they just gave me a great race car all weekend. What can I say? That NTB Service Central car is just awesome. We're really looking forward to the next race."
Gray will be back in the driver's seat in just a couple of weeks at the Thunder Valley NHRA Nationals in Bristol, Tenn., June 15-17.
Johnny Gray, NTB/Service Central Funny Car Final qualifying position: No. 3 Round one: Gray (4.119 seconds at 309.20 mph) def. Jim Head (4.151, 301) Round two: Gray (4.090, 309.84) def. John Force (4.162, 304.80) Semifinals: Gray (4.091, 311.13) def. Robert Hight (4.084, 307.02) Final: Gray (4.078, 314.39) def. Ron Capps (5.358, 160.71)
FUNNY CAR FULL THROTTLE STANDINGS 1. Robert Hight, 857; 2. Ron Capps, 700; 3. Mike Neff, 615; 4. Johnny Gray, 558; 5. Jack Beckman, 543; 6. Cruz Pedregon, 477; 7. Bob Tasca III, 451; 8. John Force, 438; 9. Courtney Force, 429; 10. Jeff Arend, 388; 12. Matt Hagan, 342