NEAR-PERFECT, WILK COMES UP JUST SHORT It began on Saturday. On a day in which all racing was in genuine peril due to inclement weather in just about every part of Virginia except the area surrounding Virginia Motorsports Park, Tim Wilkerson...
NEAR-PERFECT, WILK COMES UP JUST SHORT
It began on Saturday. On a day in which all racing was in genuine peril due to inclement weather in just about every part of Virginia except the area surrounding Virginia Motorsports Park, Tim Wilkerson put together two of his best qualifying laps of the year, wedging his way into a party the front-runners for the championship might have believed to be "invitation only."
In Q3, he blasted to a 4.093 to move up to the No. 2 spot on the sheet. In Q4, as the scoreboards all but exploded with massive runs, Wilkerson had fallen back to the 7th spot before he ran but he came right back with an even-better 4.052 to firmly plant himself in the midst of a gaggle of Schumacher Racing and Force Racing teams, in the No. 4 spot. Back-to-back, the twin runs certainly matched any other single performance effort on the year, and they signaled that the Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang might be back.
"Let me tell you about Saturday," Wilkerson said. "It started out looking like we might be in trouble with the weather. Then, they had issues with the rubber coming up after it had rained overnight, but the Safety Safari did one of their best jobs ever getting it all fixed. By the time we ran, the rain was moving out, the cloud cover stayed, and the air was getting better and better. It was like running downhill out there, and we were determined to get after it and not be afraid to fail.
"We put two fantastic laps on the board, and even still I could look at the computer and see where we could've done better, so I knew we had a good handle on it and there was more to play with. Still, qualifying that high but having to race Cruz sounded like one of those 'bad racing luck' deals. We just analyzed the track on Sunday, ran against the lane, and figured we'd let the chips fall where they may."
Sunday dawned cool and sunny, but the same stout race track the racers had enjoyed on Saturday was still in play. Wilkerson and his crew were calm, focused, and confident as the first-round date with the '08 champion neared.
Running in the right lane, Wilkerson got a jump on Pedregon at the tree, and this race was over quickly. Wilk's 4.064 nearly matched his best qualifying run, and was easily the best e.t. in the round, as only Ron Capps' 4.085 came close. It was a trend that was, fortunately, going to last for a while.
In round two, the task got tougher as title contender Robert Hight was the opponent, with all the might and knowledge of John Force Racing (JFR) on his side. Wilk again took the right lane, with his lane choice, and this time the two drivers left nearly together, with Hight grabbing a microscopic 5-thousandths edge at the tree. Again, though, it was Wilk running low e.t. of the round, posting a 4.097 on a slightly hotter track, while his opponent faded and fell behind in the other lane.
It was then on to the semifinal, where yet another JFR car offered the opposition. This time, it was Mike Neff, and this time Neff got a sizable jump at the tree, bouncing out to a 17-thousandths advantage at the start. The lead was short-lived, however, as Wilk made up the difference by the 60-foot marker, and then pulled away for a third straight win, with a third straight low e.t., clocking in at 4.106 to Neff's 4.159.
In the final, Del Worsham was the opponent, and Wilkerson seriously considered swapping lanes.
"I think they were pretty even, really, and by that time the sun was starting to go down and the left lane might've been a little better," he said. "First off, you've got a lot of sun in your eyes over there in the right, and secondly with the sun setting to the left of the track, it would be setting on the left lane first, so we thought about it pretty hard. After we got to the lanes, though, we just couldn't make that call knowing we'd just run three near-perfect runs in the right. You move over to the left for the final, and if anything goes wrong you think you're a numbskull and so do a huge grandstand full of people."
Running again from the right, and running for his third win on the season (as was Worsham), the "Tim & Del" show was fairly strong at the lights, with both drivers leaving well but Worsham grabbing a quick hundredth. Wilk, however, began to charge and the cars appeared to be dead-even for the full first half of the track, before odd flame patterns and a ton of smoke began to appear from the LRS car.
The Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby lost traction, flashed a quick fire under the hood, and the win-lights went on in the left lane, where Worsham and his Al-Anabi car earned every bit of the victory with a 4.091.
"We must have hurt a piston very early in the run, maybe even on the burnout, for it to be that bad that soon," Wilkerson said. "It finally got so bad it blew an oil line off, and it made a pretty big mess, to tell you the truth. We spun in our own oil for a bit, and it did flare up, but the worst part is that we hadn't so much as nicked anything all weekend, and we were on a string of some pretty good runs, all in a row, but we couldn't seal the deal.
"We ran great here, and we gained a heck of a lot of confidence. Of course, when you get that far you can taste it, but his time Del and his bunch yanked the dinner away and we messed up on our side. Still, it did us a world of good in the points, and even though we still have a big mountain to climb, I think we're in the game. Two races to go, and we just need to keep winning rounds."
Wilkerson moved up to the No. 5 spot in points, and is now 82 points (a bit more than four rounds) out of the top spot.
"The problem is, we can't race all four of the other drivers in the first round, so we need some help from some other teams to knock them out of there so we can make up ground," Wilkerson said. "It's not all in our hands, in other words. We're going to need some help, but the bottom line is we'd have been leaving here completely out of it had we lost in the first or second round. We're still in it."
And running strong.
Two weeks off now, and then Las Vegas and Pomona will put a wrap on the 2009 Full Throttle season.