SEMIFINAL MANIA CONTINUES FOR STRONG-RUNNING WILK On any given day, you might just be semiserious, or semiconscious, or perhaps even semi-coherent, any of which might put you into semi-retirement. To be a semifinalist at an NHRA national ...
SEMIFINAL MANIA CONTINUES FOR STRONG-RUNNING WILK
On any given day, you might just be semiserious, or semiconscious, or perhaps even semi-coherent, any of which might put you into semi-retirement. To be a semifinalist at an NHRA national event, however, is an outstanding result and a very good thing. Doing it three times in four races (and four times total, so far, in this season that is nine races old) puts one in elite company, and despite the feeling of semi-sadness over not yet advancing to a final round, Tim Wilkerson is 100 percent pleased with his Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Mustang. There's nothing "semi" about it.
Here, on the first truly hot weekend of the '09 season, crew chiefs and drivers were dealing with ever-changing and consistently challenging conditions, but Wilkerson seemed able to find the right balance most of the time. While making all four qualifying laps and three laps on Sunday, he also took on the added workload and additional stress of overseeing his son Daniel's NHRA nitro Funny Car debut, even going so far as to rush back to the starting line on a scooter to be present and able to assist on Daniel's laps. It was a bit more than semi-stressful.
Throughout qualifying, all of the teams were having difficulty adapting to the soaring track temps, so the Friday late session became a fairly critical exercise for all involved. Wilkerson was stuck running at the front of the pack in that session, after smoking the tires on the earlier afternoon lap, and even though his 4.257 was good enough to land him in the critical top 12, it was a far cry from what the top teams were running just minutes later. Once the sun was off the track and the air was cooling, much quicker runs were possible, and Wilkerson ended up having to settle for the No. 12 spot on the grid, after having been in the top half of the field at five of the previous six races.
On Sunday, Wilkerson knew he'd be facing off against the man who won the championship on the season's final day in '08, Cruz Pedregon. Instead of seeing it as a rematch or a chance at revenge, he simply saw it as a very tough first round.
"Last year is last year, and last week is last week," Wilkerson said. "All I knew was that we had a very big battle against a very good team in round one, and it was a real tough assignment for all of us. It seems like every first round is like a final these days, but this one was for sure, so we went up there hoping to put a good number on the board so that we could, at the very least, hold our ground in the points deal right now."
Wilkerson entered this race 7th in the Full Throttle points, but the group of drivers right behind him and on his tail included Pedregon , John Force, Mike Neff, and Robert Hight. That foursome would have anyone looking over their shoulder, so Wilk's opening-round race was a critical one, here at the race that marked the halfway point in the regular season. In the end, this one was a true success, and over early.
Wilkerson posted a fine 4.251, which was slightly better than his qualifying time, but he also saw the win lights before he reached the finish line, as Pedregon jumped the start and fouled out by .028 of a second. Aside from the red light, Wilk's 4.25 was right in line with the best runs of the round, and it set him up for yet another race against Del Worsham, who came into this event with two straight race victories, each of which included close wins over Wilkerson along the way.
"Now on this one, I was thinking of last week, and the week before too," Wilkerson said. "I don't know what it is, but Del and I have been having these amazing tight races for years, and it seems like every time we race each other one of us gets his heart yanked out. He's done it to us at two races in a row, and this time I just felt like it was probably our turn, if only because the math was starting to add up against him. He was going for his 10th straight round win, and his third win over us in a row, and those streaks can't go on forever. I just felt like this was our best chance to beat him in a while, and I really thought if we could get by him, we might win the race."
Wilkerson did get by Worsham this time, running another clean and strong lap and posting a 4.264 while Worsham battled traction problems. The math, this time, did seem to add up in Wilk's favor, but the ladder offered him no respite and no assistance. Ashley Force Hood, who has qualified No. 1 at the last two events, was the opponent in the semifinal. There's that prefix again. Just to be semi-redundant to once again bring up the point, it was Wilk's third semi in the last four races.
The LRS driver did his part at the tree, grabbing nearly four hundredths at the flash of amber, but a dropped cylinder, his first of the day, slowed him to a 4.392, and Force Hood drove around him for the win with a 4.263. The margin of victory was six hundredths of a second, and Wilk's day was done.
All in all, it was a weekend to be happy about, and the result not only moved Wilkerson up one more important notch in the standings, into 6th place, but also added some valuable separation to his lead over the aforementioned pack of contenders on his tail. Wilk is now 94 points ahead of Neff, who sits in 11th, looking to bust into the top 10. It was also a weekend to be proud, watching his son run with the big boys, out-qualify him by four spots, and show much more poise and skill than most pure rookies could ever aspire to display.
There was nothing really semi about it, except the final race position. And that's a good thing.