Author: Benson, Candida
Date published: April 15, 2011
I'm definitely not going to call the rookie of the year battle over just yet - it's still way, way, way too early in the season to even think that - but if Vincent Nobile keeps performing the way he did in Las Vegas, it's going to be really hard for the other newcomers in contention for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award to knock him off the front-runner perch where he is firmly planted. Nobile was downright impressive in Las Vegas, qualifying in the top half for the first time, cutting better lights than all his opponents, and hitting shift points on a well-running car that was keeping pace with the best cars in the class. And, if I hadn't witnessed it with my own eyes, I would only need to look at the comments from his more-experienced colleagues to come to that conclusion.
I had multiple people within the Pro Stock ranks comment to me about Nobile, and the common theme was that he is already a great driver who is only going to get better as the years go on. Though some of these comments came my way after I mentioned Nobile's name first, many were unsolicited. One such instance was when I talked to Greg Stanfield about the odd end to his day in the semifinals: Last year's Indy winner and No. 2 points finisher spent almost as much of our interview talking about Nobile as he did talking about himself.
"Vincent's a good driver," said Stanfield. "He's doing real good, and they've got a good team over there."
Mike Edwards also complimented Nobile during his post-race winner's interview (his comments can be found in the Pro Stock Quotebook on page 32), and Allen Johnson, who provides engines for Nobile, also had nice things to say about the driver who beat him in the second round.
"The kid is doing great," said Johnson. "It's a joy to watch him do well, and it feels good to have our Mopar/J&J engine in the final round. I think in the next couple of races if we can get on opposite sides of the ladder, you'll see us both in the finals. If we can both get up there in the top five, it'll start to get fun."
Las Vegas is but one race in a very long season, but, like his fellow drivers, I was quite impressed with Nobile. The SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals was the first race at which I covered Pro Stock this year, so I just met Nobile at the beginning of the weekend, but after talking with him several times throughout it, I believe he has a bright future. There is the tangible proof in the final-round showing and the driving that got him there, but there are other intangibles that will help make him a star. He's a nice, well-spoken, and down-to-earth kid who is easy to talk with, all big pluses because those attributes are quite important to sponsors and the media. He also appears to be able to keep his cool under pressure, though he later admitted to me that some of his "coolness" in Vegas was just shock and disbelief at getting as far as he did. To me, Nobile seems to be the whole package, and I, for one, am excited to see what he does next. He's certainly added another level of excitement and interest to the Pro Stock class.
Perhaps the reason that Nobile came across as calm, cool, and collected as he did in Las Vegas was because of the crazy atmosphere around him. The team's pit is always high-spirited and filled with excitement, but the final-round showing took that and multiplied it by at least 100. There were tears of joy and laughter and a little bit of good old-fashioned craziness thrown in (the good kind of crazy, of course). It was quite an atmosphere, and honestly, you couldn't help but be swept up in it and walk out of the pit area with a huge smile on your face. Very cool stuff, indeed.
And among that bunch, no one was more excited than Nobile's parents, particularly his dad, John, who last year stepped out of the seat of the family's team car so his son could get seat time at a few races. John is an emotional guy by nature, and the happenings in Las Vegas only heightened that. I'm guessing that even as I write this a couple days later, the huge, beaming, proud smile that John was wearing Sunday in Vegas is still plastered on his face.
Another pit area that had a buzz of excitement and joy on Sunday was that of V. Gaines. Gaines has had a very tough start to the year - he lost in round one in Pomona and did not qualify in Gainesville - and for the better part of the weekend, it looked as if that would continue in Las Vegas. Gaines struggled to get his car down the track during qualifying, and he entered the final session as the one driver not in the field. His team put forth a valiant, last-ditch run that placed him 13th in the 16-car field. That alone probably would have been sufficient for Gaines to leave Nevada feeling as if the weekend was perhaps a good one, or at the very least not a disaster.
I spoke with Gaines Sunday morning before the first round, and he didn't flat-out tell me he expected to lose that opening-round match with Ron Krisher, but I believe he felt as if that was what awaited him.
"We've got a demon in the car, and the only way we got in was by Band-Aiding it," Gaines told me. "[Saturday's run] definitely wasn't pretty, but it got us in. We're happy to be here Sunday, but boy, oh, boy. The last three races last year, it seemed like we couldn't do anything wrong. The first three this year, we can't seem to do anything right."
I'm not sure if Gaines is yet on the right path and has that pesky demon out of the car, but his semifinal finish certainly gave the team a morale boost, and, more important, more runs to try to get a handle on what is plaguing them. I don't think the level of excitement in Gaines' pits was as high as that in the Nobile camp, but I think it would be fair to say there wasn't a happier semifinal finisher in the place than Gaines.