Looking over the line-up at the conclusion of qualifying for the AutoZone Nationals, teammates Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler knew they would have a tough assignment in the first round of eliminations. From his sixteenth starting position, Epler...
Looking over the line-up at the conclusion of qualifying for the AutoZone Nationals, teammates Chuck Etchells and Jim Epler knew they would have a tough assignment in the first round of eliminations. From his sixteenth starting position, Epler and his Bass Pro Shops/Matco Tools Camaro Z28 would face top qualifier and defending Funny Car champion John Force, while No. 11 Etchells, in the Sunoco/Matco Tools Camaro, was paired against long-time rival Gary Densham in a second Force entry. In each instance, the Etchells Racing pilot would be racing without the benefit of lane choice. In each case, the pairing reflected a rematch of the first round in Indianapolis three weeks ago.
Epler was looking to extend his personal win streak over the current Winston championship points leader, having won their last two encounters. However, any chances for a third victory quickly dissipated, as Epler experienced mechanical problems which eventually led to the loss of his blower belt.
"The way I see this weekend, it started with dropping a cylinder on our first qualifying run. Our best opportunity to qualify well was in the cool of the evening on Friday night, but we missed it due to a malfunction in the ignition system. Even though we were respectable in the heat and ran well enough to qualify, we were still a tenth off what the fast cars were running, and we couldn't quite find the way to make that difference up.
"We were spinning the tires at the top end of the track, which we tried to fix by taking fuel away from the motor. In our run against Force, it was very sluggish leaving the starting line, and before I knew it he was ahead of us by a car length. The final blow came when it lost the blower belt. It just wasn't our weekend.
"We're looking forward to returning to Chicago. We had one of our best runs of the season there in June when I ran my career best e.t. and we made it to the semi-finals. It's a great racetrack where we can learn how to go fast again, so this Bass Pro Shops team will be looking to catch the big fish there next week."
Meanwhile, team owner Etchells was looking to repay long-time friend and rival Densham for a loss at the most recent event in Indianapolis. Through the early parts of the race, the Sunoco/Matco Camaro seemed posied for the upset, as incremental times showed Etchells ahead of his rival. However, slightly before half-track, smoke coming from Etchells' back tires indicated a speed-robbing loss of traction, allowing his opponent to make up any deficit and drive on for the win."
"The Sunoco/Matco Camaro seemed to be on a pretty good run. Terry (crew chief Manzer) had said prior to the run that we would need a 4.95 to win, and there's no question looking at the computer that it was on that pace. This was a very tough racetrack, and we had one of our better qualifying efforts. We're starting to go down the track consistently, and would have done so in the first round if we had been conservative, but being conservative doesn't win races, especially against one of Force's cars.
"Just before he started the engine, he warned me not to let it get go to the right of the groove, because everyone who had smoked the tires. The car was trying to go to the left, and I kept fighting it to the right. I then got it off a little to the right, and when I cut it back to the left, the clutch locked up and it smoked the tires. It might have done that anyway, because it felt right on the very edge.
"Even with that, I believe our clutch program is getting better with every race. The car is as smooth as glass now, and in the last three races it's driven better. I think our problems arise from not knowing exactly where our boundaries are, but we keep learning more about it. Since Roland's (Epler crew chief Leong) arrival, they've taken different paths on their tune-up and really accelerated our learning curve. To be honest, this is how we'd like things to work at the start of the season, and it's just unfortunate that we're down to our last few races. Even so, we're going to make the most of it."