Reading's mineshaft conditions make Countdown even more exciting

NHRA

Rain fell. Records fell. Some drivers' positions int he standings fell. But excitement was on the rise at the National Hot Rod Association's Auto-Plus Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa. In Monday's rain-delayed conclusion, the Top Fuel class continued its throwdown of national elapsed-time records and crowned a first-time winner whose numbers weren't part of that flurry. The Pro Stock class produced a surprise winner, as well.

Destination: Winners Circle - Khalid al Balooshi (Top Fuel), Mike Neff (Funny Car), V Gaines (Pro Stock), Pro Stock Motorcycle - Final round between Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec to be determined at Las Vegas during Oct. 26-28 Big O Tires Nationals.

Biggest Winners of the Weekend - Jack Beckman and Antron Brown. The two Don Schumacher Racing drivers leave Reading with the points leads, Brown in Top Fuel and Beckman for the first time this year in Funny Car. Brown extended his margin over No. 2 Spencer Massey to 104 points with only two races left. Beckman overtook Ron Capps when he defeated him in Monday's first round and has a has a 23-point edge on Capps and a 54-point lead on third-place Mike Neff, the Reading winner.

Biggest Loser of the Weekend - Spencer Massey, Top Fuel. After his Todd Okuhara- and Phil Shuler-led Prestone/FRAM Dragster crew recovered from two nasty engine explosions in qualifying, he lost in the first pairing of the opening round to Khalid al Balooshi. Just two races ago, he had a share of the points lead. Heading into Las Vegas for the penultimate race of the Countdown, Massey lost in the first round and slid from just 21 points off the pace to 104.

Breakthrough Winner - Khalid al Balooshi, Top Fuel. Pro Stock's V Gaines snapped a winless streak, but at least he had been to the winners circle before. Al Balooshi, who had won races and championships in other series, including the 2011 Pro Modified series, has had 20 frustrating races to start his Top Fuel career. But in a category and an event in which track and national records fell almost as often as raindrops, with Top Fuel E.T. stunners in the 3.71- and 3.72-second ranges, the Wally trophy went to this first-time winner who was advancing with 3.9s. Moreover, it went to the No. 9 starter, a non-Countdown participant who had won only seven rounds before this race. In fact, al Balooshi had lost in the first rounds at his first 12 races this year. He had promiseed week after aggravating week to keep trying his best in the Al-Anabi Dragster. Finally he broke through with a victory. The Los Angeles-based Dubai native gave crew chief Jason McCulloch and the team its first victory since they won the Phoenix race last October 16 with driver Larry Dixon.

Al Balooshi said he felt like this could be his lucky race after opening eliminations Sunday by ousting hot shoe Spencer Massey. Then he beat another upset-minded driver, Ike Maier, who had sent No. 1 qualifier Dave Grubnic home in the first round. In the semifinal, al Balooshi beat Al-Anabi teammate Shawn Langdon, who's in the thick of the Top Fuel title battle and had just set registered the fastest Top Fuel pass ever at 334.15 mph. Then al Balooshi had to face Antron Brown, the points leader who had raised eyebrows and lowered the E.T. mark to 3.701 seconds. He capitalized on Brown's tire-smoking challenge and won with a 3.910-second, 312.42-mph pass on the 1,000-foot Maple Grove Raceway course.

"I try my best, and I know everybody on the team tries his best. Finally I won the first one," al Balooshi said. "I have been waiting about this position for a long time. This is one of the small things I can give my team and [team manager] Alan Johnson. Every car is flying. Everybody's close. I'm happy to do this one. Man, from the beginning of the week, if you keep watching it, every car in the qualifying . . . is looking to break the record. Everybody's looking to run fast."

He said Al-Anabi Racing director of racing operations Chad Head called team owner Sheikh Khalid al Thani, of Qatar, "and brought me the phone at the finish line. I talked to him, and he was very, very happy. I am glad we could win this race for our team, but I am also very happy to win for Sheikh Khalid for all he has done for me and for giving me this opportunity."

Said Langdon, "He was a driving machine today, pedaling at the right times and doing a great job. I am really happy for him. We're not out of the championship mathematically, but now we need some help in these last two races to have a shot."

Hard-Luck Award Winner - Jason Line, Pro Stock. Who knew the KB/Summit Racing star and reigning champion would be considered a hard-luck driver -- at the race, no less, where he had low E.T. with the second-quickest time in Pro Stock history (6.482 seconds) and where he reset his own national speed record (214.35 mph)? Despite all his accomplishments at Reading, he lost on a holeshot to eventual winner V Gaines in the semifinals after his Camaro had trouble backing up from the burnout and in staging.

Up-Down Index - Drivers making improvements, drivers headed the wrong direction/having bad weekend

UP:

Jack Beckman - He's in the catbird seat now. But he needs to think about last season. He was in first place when he came to the penultimate race at Las Vegas but lost twice to teammates in the second round and finished second. To avoid deja-vu, he and his team need to take advantage of every opportunity in qualifying and in eliminations and not overlook any details.

Antron Brown - What could go wrong with a 104-point lead? Ask Spencer Massey? He was the man to beat when he failed to qualify at Phoenix last fall and had two races to make up for it. He fell short. Brown talked Sunday at Reading about the possibility that something disastrous could happen to him. Now he needs to make the "Law of Attraction" doesn't kick in on him.

V Gaines - The 65-year-old Lakewood, Colo., veteran Pro Stock racer broke a 111-race winless streak that dated back to February 2008. This first victory in more than four years was his fourth in 10 overall final rounds and his first victory in two finals this year. The Kendall Dodge Avenger driver won with a 6.515-second E.T. at 212.26 mph on the quarter-mile, as opponent Dave Connolly fouled out by one-hundredth of a second (.016). Gaines improved from ninth to sixth in the standings.

Morgan Lucas -- His progressive weekend in the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster ended in the second round as Antron Brown beat him and swiped the national E.T. record from him, to boot. But Lucas concentrated on the positives. "It's our first year together as a unit, and I'm really impressed with what our crew chief Aaron Brooks has done," he said. "This puts our championship hopes pretty far out of reach, but there are two more opportunities out there to win races and move up in the standings. But do you know what? We held that record for one day, but that's one day longer than we'd ever had it before. That's cool to know that we have rock solid proof that this GEICO car has to potential to run with anybody. It felt great to make the kind of passes we made this weekend."

DOWN:

Spencer Massey -- His car is plenty fast, he's plenty talented, and his crew chiefs are plenty smart. But he's farther and farther behind. His hope lies in the words of Antron Brown, his chief rival and DSR teammate: "Spencer has a car, and their team is capable of going out there and wining. " Moreover, Brown said, everybody counted Massey out after his team's Phoenix DNQ last year with two races left, "and they came to the last race of the year two or four points out of first place because they came right back the first race after that [at Las Vegas] and won it. That's how strong that FRAM car is."

Tim Wilkerson -- The Levi, Ray & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang owner-driver worked his way up from 12th to fifth during the past six races (and from 10th to fifth in the Countdown). But his failure to qualify at Reading mathematically eliminated him from championship contention. Wilkerson took it in stride. "We'll go to Vegas and Pomona and do everything we can to win those races so that we can finish as high in the points as possible. No heads are hanging here. We still have nothing to lose. And you know, I went over to Johnny Gray's and met a little boy, just the cutest little kid, and he has inoperable brain tumors. That puts everything in a different light. So we didn't make the field at this race. That's tough to take, but it's really nothing when you put it in perspective."

Most Notable Qualifying Occurrence - Top Fuel display of power in Saturday qualifying.

- Morgan Lucas set the Top Fuel national elapsed-time record but qualified second. His 3.733-second pass at 330.96 mph in the GEICO/Lucas Oil Dragster eclipsed Del Worsham's run of 3.735 last October at Maple Grove Raceway. The 3.760-second, 326.95-mph run he used to take the provisional No. 1 spot Friday night is within the mandated one percent required to validate the record. Once the event ended and the record was official, Lucas received 20 bonus points for the achievement.

- However, Dave Grubnic qualified No. 1 in the Rocky Boots Dragster with a quicker E.T. than Lucas' -- one that tied the quickest ever in Top Fuel history -- but isn't a national record. His 3.728-second E.T. matched Spencer Massey's run this June at Englishtown, N.J. While Grubnic's time did reset the track E.T. record, he didn't make a run that backs up his mark as the record. - Doug Kalitta ran alongside teammate Grubnic and posted the sixth quickest and second fastest in the history of Top Fuel (331.45 mph) in the Kalitta Air Dragster but started Sunday's eliminations from the No. 4 position.

Most Notable Elimination Occurrence - The flurry of quickest-in-Top-Fuel-history passes. By the end of the event, the national elapsed-time record had been lowered four times, with Antron Brown firing the final salvo at 3.701 seconds. But Morgan Lucas, Dave Grubnic, Shawn Langdon, and Brown had combined for a total of five E.T.s at this event that were quicker than Del Worsham's 3.735-second run here last October that had been the national mark. Lucas and Grubnic had posted their times in qualifying. During eliminations, Brown, Langdon, and then Brown traded the distinction. Even Funny Car winner Mike Neff said, "We haven't seen conditions like this in quite some time. You saw the dragsters, and that was really impressive. It was really awesome to watch. What those guys were running is just unbelievable. That showed you what the conditions were like out there." Antron Brown used the quickest run in Top Fuel history, a 3.722-second elapsed time, to beat quarterfinal opponent Morgan Lucas.

First-round upsets: In Top Fuel - Khalid al Balooshi d. Spencer Massey, No. 16 qualifier Ike Maier d. No. 1 qualifier Dave Grubnic. In Funny Car - No. 15 Todd Lesenko d. Cruz Pedregon.

Memorable Quotes of the Weekend

"This is Disneyland out here." - Top Fuel driver Shawn Langdon, referring to the spate of 3.7-second elapsed times in the opening round, after several record-setting performances during Saturday qualifying

"Anybody who likes that is an idiot." - Jim Head, rejecting a comment that his pedalfest alongside Alexis DeJoria was a thrilling way to begin Funny Car eliminations

Down the Road - Oct. 25-28 Big O Tires Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

At The Back Gate - Ron Capps recognized that crew chief Rahn Tobler was a smart mechanic who has turned around his Funny Car career. But he has learned recently that Tobler is more than wrench-twister or computer-data interpreter. "He's just, he's like an onion, man," Capps said. When he has peeled back the layers, he has discovered that Tobler gets in his zone when he's listening to West Coast hip-hop and gangsta rap. "It actually calms him," Capps said. "It's funny -- it really puts him in a good place when he's got his hip hop on and he's talking about his racing." Their ritual has become meeting with assistant crew chief John Collins and the crew Saturday night after qualifying. Said Capps, "We sit down. We debrief. And his favorite playlist is playing with hip hop. And he knows everything about it. I'll say, 'Well, who's this song?' And he'll say, 'Well, this song here's 50 Cent or . . . 'Snoop.' Snoop's his favorite. Whatever -- he'll tell you what album it is." They pop the cork on a bottle of wine. "You're able to sit down and reflect about what we did. He brings all the guys in, and we talk about everything and it's really been neat." # # #

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