Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler entered the fourth and final qualifying session for the Matco Tools Supernationals in an unenviable position. The team had struggled to find the right combination to tame the unusually tricky Raceway Park surface on...
Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler entered the fourth and final qualifying session for the Matco Tools Supernationals in an unenviable position. The team had struggled to find the right combination to tame the unusually tricky Raceway Park surface on their first three attempts, and as result, only Epler's 5.06-second elapsed time was among the top sixteen required to make Sunday's final eliminations.
Chuck Etchells was the first to run, and responded with his best pass of the weekend at 5.002 seconds with a top speed of 291.13 mph. Although this temporarily placed the Sunoco/Matco Tools Camaro in the field, it came at the expense of his teammate. In addition, Etchells' position was also extremely vulnerable to being bumped out. Ironically, it came down to Jim Epler to decide his boss' fate, as his Toys R Us/Matco Camaro was one of the last cars with a chance of removing Etchells from the field. Epler quickly answered any questions by ending his boss's weekend with a solid 4.941 second, 310.48 mph pass. This slotted the Phoenix, AZ native 15th, and set the stage for a first round match-up with No.2 qualifier John Force.
Team owner Etchells offered a realistic assessment of the weekend's events.
"I have to be fair to (crew chief) Terry Manzer in this situation. The car had a mechanical problem on Friday night's run and again this morning, which was the result of our depleted crew. We're short of people right now as we try to get the second car back up and running again, and this created a major oversight in the car that cost us both those runs.
"Tonight's run was the first one we made with the 2001 Camaro body, and there's no question it has a tremendous amount of additional downforce. It ran well beyond the 330 clock on pace for a 4.90 pass. However, just after half-track I felt it nose down a bit, and it was gobbling up a piston. At about eight or nine hundred feet it was spraying some oil on the tires and sliding around, so I knew it was over. Had we been able to make those other two runs, I'm fairly confident we'd be in the show right now.
"The situation we've been in has put us behind the eight-ball. While our competitors have spent the last five months making progress, we've been fighting just to hold neutral. We know we're not in the run for the championship, and a Top Five finish is probably not realistic. But there is still a lot of racing left, and we're going to make the most of it. Therefore, we have to run these cars as hard as we can and make every run count.
"We're looking at putting the Sunoco/Matco Camaro body on Jim's car for tomorrow, because it's a better body. But the bottom line is we're making progress. We now have a baseline tune-up where the car will go down the racetrack, which is better than we were two weeks ago."
Jim Epler, meanwhile, was both pleased and disappointed.
"I didn't think a 5 flat would hold up, and it was important to have at least one car safely in the show, so I had to go out and do my best for the team. I feel bad because I'd like to have both Chuck and myself racing tomorrow, and I would have been just as happy if it was Chuck instead of me, but we did what we had to do for all our sponsors.
"We've been running our car a lot, so we know it a little bit better. After smoking the tires at half-track in this morning's session, and then looking at the data from the run, we felt that if we made two little changes to our Toys R Us/Matco Camaro it would run a 4.94 or .'95. That's all we tried to do, so I'm happy that it did. Based on that run, I think we should be able to take about five hundredths off our time in the first round tomorrow, and even a little more than that should we use the 2001 Camaro body.
"Right now what we need to do is get better quick and catch up to the leaders. We're not really in a points race, although we want to get ourselves in the Top ten. Our focus is running with the top cars out here. I'll have a 2001 body of my own starting in Chicago, so the sooner we figure it out the better."
Epler also took time to talk about his rainbow-hued Toys R Us Camaro, which debuted in Englishtown this weekend.
"The Toys R Us paint scheme has been a bigger hit that I thought it would be with the fans, and its cool to see the cars for sale here in the Northeast. However, as I told the guys at the top end, I did have to tell Geoffrey (the Toys R Us giraffe) to toughen up a little bit. He was acting a little soft, so I had to show him what this fuel Funny Car racing really is, and he stepped it up tonight. He's now Geoffrey the 300-mph giraffe!"