Brainerd, Minn. - With the way that the NTB/Service Central Funny Car has been performing this season, nitro pilot Johnny Gray felt he had a very good chance of defending the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals title he scored last season at Brainerd Int'l Raceway. Don Schumacher racing teammate - and eventual event winner - Ron Capps, though, had other plans, and their quarterfinals match ended with Gray on the wrong side of good fortune.
Gray had every reason to be confident: so far this year, he has collected two wins in three final rounds, and twice he has been the No. 1 qualifier - the driver and car have become a fearsome duo with crew chief Rob Wendland, assistant crew chief Rip Reynolds, and a very well-jelled team behind them.
During qualifying in Brainerd, the team rose to their potential and Gray raced to an exceptional 4.055 at 316.75 mph to reset the track record for speed and earn the No. 4 position heading into raceday.
In the first round of eliminations, things got tricky as Gray had his hands full and muscled through tire shake to beat Jim Head, who had his own share of traction troubles in the opposite lane. Gray's 4.65 bested his opponent's 4.91, and he advanced to the round-two meeting with Capps.
"That was a calamity of errors from the word go," said Gray. "I typically roll the car in just a little bit, and I rolled the car in just a hair too far and turned both [pre-stage] lights on. That kind of set the events in motion; I didn't drive the car real well, and then it dropped a hole."
With a cylinder out, Gray clocked a 4.199 at 297.55 to Capps' winning 4.112, 307.79.
"We just didn't make a very good run," he continued. "When we got back, we couldn't find any reason for it to have done that - but then we started checking the spark plug wires, and we think we found the reason: A bad plug wire.
"It is what it is, but we'll go on. When we get to Indy, hopefully I'll do a little better job driving and we'll have a little better luck in regard to all the things that can go wrong in a nitro car. We'll get back on the board here and back to going rounds and winning races. We didn't really show it this weekend, but the NTB/Service Central Dodge is a very good racecar."
The highlight of the weekend for Gray and his Service Central team could arguably have been the fact that they clinched their position in NHRA's Countdown to the Championship playoffs; last season, Gray was locked out of the competition but had a stunning car during the final part of the season. He finished 11th but would have had a true shot at the series title had he made the cutoff for the 2011 Countdown.
"The way this car runs and with the team I have, I had no doubt that we would be in the Countdown this year," said Gray. "I think we have a real good chance of staying right there near 4th in points, and if we can start the Countdown right around there, we've got as good a shot as anybody."
The final race of the regular season - and Gray's last opportunity to gain position before the playoffs begin - will be the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in less than two weeks time, Aug. 29-Sept. 3, 2011.
Johnny Gray NTB/Service Central Racing Dodge Charger R/T
Qualifying position: No. 4
Round one: Johnny Gray (4.653-second at 224.58 mph) def. Jim Head (4.913, 214.69)
Round two: Ron Capps (4.112, 307.79) def. Gray (4.199, 297.55)
Source: Don Schumacher Racing