Rockingham Spring Nationals final summary

MILLICAN MAINTAINS TOP FUEL STRANGLEHOLD AT ROCKINGHAM DRAGWAY Billes, Spiess, Thomas Among Other Winners in IHRA Spring Nationals ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Clay Millican extended his remarkable winning streak at Rockingham Dragway Sunday, getting a...

Billes, Spiess, Thomas Among Other Winners in IHRA Spring Nationals

ROCKINGHAM, N.C. - Clay Millican extended his remarkable winning streak at Rockingham Dragway Sunday, getting a free pass to his eighth straight Top Fuel victory at the Carolina track when Rick Cooper was unable to answer the final round call in the 35th annual IHRA Spring Nationals.

Although he was unopposed in the final for the second straight year, the veteran from Drummonds, Tenn., recorded his quickest run of the weekend - 4.667 seconds at 307.02 miles per hour - on his final trip down the quarter mile course.

Other Sunday winners included track record-holder Al Billes of Barrie, Ontario, Canada, who upset No. 1 qualifier Quain Stott of Columbus, S.C., in Pro Modified; Steve Spiess of Manhattan, Ill., who won an all-Chevrolet final in Pro Stock; and Mark Thomas, who earned his third consecutive Spring Nationals title in Funny Car, this one at the expense of Melinda Green-King of Norfolk, Va.

The Top Fuel victory was Millican's 39th in the IHRA series and his second of the current season, but it was anything but routine.

"I love this place," Millican said of the track on which he now has won 24 consecutive rounds of racing. "We had a good day, points-wise, (but) this was a Mike day (a reference to crew chief Mike Kloeber). I literally got to just go down the track.

"We were on some rocket ship rides, but the IHRA is very serious about their oildown penalties so we were very serious about not oiling down the racetrack.

"Steve (Rockingham owner Steve Earwood) may own the deed to this place, but Mike and I have paid a lot of light bills and mortgages. This place is like unbelievable."

Until the semifinals, however, it looked like Cooper's racing teammate, Doug Foley of Sewell, N.J., might end Millican's domination. Foley, who won three times last season, twice beating Millican in the final, qualified No. 1 at 4.657 seconds and, in the first round, virtually duplicated that performance with a time of 4.658.

Nevertheless, his day ended against Cooper when the 7,000 horsepower engine in his hybrid gave up halfway down the racetrack. Cooper didn't get even that far in the final. His car didn't even leave the starting line, duplicating last year's result when local favorite Danny Dunn of Mooresville, N.C., was left sitting at the line.

For Spiess, his second IHRA career victory came on a track that in the past had not treated him kindly. In fact, after earning his first tour victory at Darlington, S.C., in 2000, he came to Rockingham and crashed his car.

 "This track has never been really good to me till this year," Spiess said.  "I'm happy that
Steve fixed the shutdown area.  It's a lot more comfortable at the other end.   It's a great
facility.  I love the crowd and everything else about it.
 "We gambled this morning," admitted the No. 10 qualifier.  "We had been running some new stuff
that I thought was good and we went back to the old stuff.  I didn't know where the clutch was
going to be or nothing.  We got lucky.  It was very consistent.  And fast."

Spiess took out Jerry Haas of Fenton, Mo., in the money round, making the chassis builder a runner-up for the second time in his career, 18 years after he lost to Roy Hill at the IHRA World Nationals at Norwalk, Ohio (1987).

Although Billes won for the second straight time at The Rock, building on his victory in last October's World Finals, it was his first IHRA tour victory with engine builder and car owner Jim Oddy as the successor to retired 2000 series champion Fred Hahn.

This one, which came at the expense of No. 1 qualifier Quain Stott of Columbus, S.C., stamped Billes as the favorite to win the 2005 championship, especially in light of the early-season problems encountered by reigning champion Mike Janis of Lancaster, N.Y., who has yet to qualify for a tour event.

Neverthless, it almost was a lost weekend for the Canadian who, after Friday's qualifying session was rained out, missed the first session on Saturday.

The upshot was that he went into the last qualifying session Saturday not in the 16-car starting lineup.

"We were soft, very soft," Billes said of the setup in the Corvette which is programmed to give way to a new 2005 Dodge Stratus in the near future. "We hoped to run a 6.30 and actually ran a 6.31 (in qualifying). We just wanted to get the car down the racetrack.

"We've had good fortune at this racetrack," Billes continued. "Quain was so consistent and ran so well, but we just kind of stepped up (in the final)."

Thomas made the most of the opportunity he was presented when two-time reigning points champion Rob Atchison, winner of he season-opener at San Antonio, Texas, was beaten in the first round for the second straight year.

"The car's fast," Thomas said, "(and) it's not hurting anything. It was a good weekend for us."

Despite Atchison's problems, Thomas said the points race is far from over. In fact, the five-time former series champion (1990, 1991, 1992, 1994 and 2001) predicted that the new eight-car lineup will make the championship chase a lot more interesting.

"Once you get qualified, the eight-car field is great," he said, "as long as you're one of the eight guys. T'he only real adjustment you have to make is not chewing your fingers to the bone during qualifying.

"Once race day is here, you've got really tough races every round. I really like it. I think it's neat. Any one of those eight cars can win the whole thing (and) that will make a really interesting year.

"I'll predict that sometime over the course of the year one of the op cars, whether it's me or Rob, will not qualify for a race. Maybe all of us. We've got a lot of good competition (and) I think it's making excellent racing."

Also booted to the sideline early-on, along with Atchison, was No. 1 Pro Stock qualifier and new track record holder Frank Gugliotta of Mt. Airy, Md., whose Ford Mustang slowed by a tenth of a second in a round one win over Larry O'Brien's Dodge Stratus before losing to the Chevrolet of chassis builder Jerry Haas in the quarterfinals.


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Series Drag
Drivers Mike Janis , Fred Hahn , Mark Thomas , Clay Millican , Quain Stott , Al Billes , Jerry Haas , Doug Foley , Steve Spiess , Frank Gugliotta