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Lucas leads list of overdue semifinalists

When he qualified No. 1 Saturday for the NHRA's Tire Kingdom Gatornationals, Top Fuel racer Morgan Lucas said he feels at home at Auto-Plus Raceway.

"I feel like I'm walking in my front door when I'm here," the GEICO / Lucas Oil Dragster driver said. "It's a very comforting track."

However, his Sunday-morning experience in the first round of eliminations might have him feeling like a stranger. Lucas almost was ushered out the door.

His parachutes popped out early in his meeting with No. 16 and equally hungry Brady Kalivoda. Luckily for Lucas, Kalivoda struck the tires of the Warrior Racing Dragster on his side of the track. Lucas, dragging his parachute down the right lane, won with an unlikely 4.69-second clocking at 173 mph.

He survived the mishap and by the time rain interrupted the action after two rounds, Lucas found himself one of four long-overdue semifinalists who'll duke it out Monday morning.

Lucas hasn't won in 24 races, not since the 2011 season-opening Winternationals. He'll face Doug Kalitta, who's seeking his first final-round appearance since the 2010 fall Charlotte event (29 races ago) and going for his first victory in 32 races (since the July 2010 Denver event).

The other semifinal will pit fourth-year Top Fuel racer Shawn Langdon, who's looking for that first victory, and veteran Tony Schumacher, who's eager to ditch all the talk about his 25-race drought.

But earning the No. 1 qualifying berth for the second time in three races has propelled Lucas to the Top Fuel prominence that has eluded him in his previous eight seasons. So he's getting much tougher, although his talk Saturday night focused on settling down, making a pie, and icing on the cake.

That shouldn't fool anyone. Lucas has shown he has organized the team, polished his skills, ironed out any problems, dusted off his driving prowess, and swept away the competition.

He earned the sixth No. 1 qualifying position of his career, with a track-record 3.766-second pass and later Saturday a 326.56-mph speed that improved the track speed mark.

"I can honestly say this is the best race car I've ever had," Lucas said. "It's something to get into -- you can't wait to hop in and drive the thing. It makes you better, because then you can focus on your driving and not worry about the thing blowing up or doing something stupid.

"Yeah, we've had a couple of problems this year, but it's been mainly due to freak parts failures. It's not something I have to wrap my head around because it's some thing that somebody's doing wrong," he said. "This team is outstanding. All the credit has to go to them. They have the hard job. It's so much fun to be part of this team."

Yes, Lucas did talk about settling down. He became engaged after the Phoenix race to longtime girlfriend Katie Pallone, and he called leading the field for the 43rd running of this classic "the icing on the cake."

Said Lucas, "After getting engaged to my longtime girlfriend, Katie, it's just been an exciting couple of weeks for us. She has meant so much to me and she has gotten so involved with what we're doing out here. She likes it. She loves it, actually. She gets more excited for the first round than I do. It's a cool thing to know you’re going to be spending the rest of your life with somebody who loves doing what you do and has a passion for it just as well. On top of that, she's a talented and beautiful and awesome lady.

"If we could win," he said, "that would just be an awesome indication from The Man Upstairs that we were meant to have some success in our relationship."

He's getting some pretty obvious indications that he and his teammates are meant to have some success in their business relationship.

"I think we've had all the ingredients in the fridge. We just didn't know how to make the pie, if you know what I mean," Lucas said. "We just didn't know how to put it all together. That's what [crew chiefs] Aaron Brooks and Rod Centorbi brought that to the table."

Someone figured out the recipe, and it didn't involve dumping any ingredients and finding new ones. They had everything the pantry all along, it turned out.

"The same core group of guys is there, the same guys we've been racing with for the past three or four years. Everybody wanted to point fingers at the team, but realistically, leadership starts at the top," Lucas said. "That's the crew chief and assistant crew chief and even people above them: me and my dad. We have to make some tough decisions about hiring and firing and things like that. But the crew chiefs, they're the ones who make the decision on the car: how it's put together, who's on the team . . . I feel like we've got a great group of guys who work well together. And they have a common goal."

With Lucas leading the pack Saturday and his stablemate, MAV TV Dragster driver Brandon Bernstein starting fourth, they are achieving the success they wanted.

"The cars are completely assembled identically. That's the first time we've ever had that [with his two-car team]," Lucas said. "To have the No. 1 and No. 4 cars in qualifying, that's a big deal."

His struggle for the past few years is one he is beginning to understand in a big-picture sense.

"Everything does happen for a reason," Lucas said.

Then, with a touch of sarcasm, he said, "Last year, when I had the joyous experience of tuning the car for six races, it makes you appreciate a lot of things. But one of them is having the time to spend concentrating on your job. Obviously, driving the car is the fun part. But you have to be able to not be distracted to be good at your job. You kind of have to reinvent yourself, but at the same time, it makes it easier. You've got so much ambition and motivation. . . . And you're not weak link on the team. I don't want to be a weak link."

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