Date published: May 18, 2012
32nd annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, May 4-6, Atlanta
(Above) For the third straight race, the final came down to John Force Racing vs. Don Schumacher Racing, but this time the outcome was reversed when Ron Capps defeated Robert Hight for his first win of the year. (Left) Capps celebrated with his entire NAPA crew after he stopped Hight to earn his first Atlanta Wally and 34th of his career.
Ron Capps clocked a 4.16 in the semifinals that not only earned him an easy win over a tire-smoking Jeff Arend but also lane choice for the final.
Courtney Force's team gave the rookie plenty of reasons to smile during the weekend. She had three good qualifying runs, including a pair of 4.1s, and her 4.13 was the second-quickest run of the opening round.
After struggling through qualifying and making the show on his final pass, Johnny Gray's team found the right combo for the first round, posting a 4.125 against Bob Tasca III that stood as low e.t. of eliminations.
(Above) The tightest race of eliminations was the opening-round match between Courtney Force and Jack Beckman. Force got to the stripe first by a mere .006-second in the 4.13 to 4.16 match. Mike Neff, who failed to qualify, wasn't the only John Force Racing team to struggle during the weekend. Boss John Force (left) also had a challenging outing, qualifying in the final session and exiting in round one. Though her weekend ended in the opening round, Alexis DeJoria (right) showed great promise in qualifying, making four complete runs. Her 4.196 average in qualifying was the third best in the class, behind Cruz Pedregon and Ron Capps.
* "That's four No. 1s out of seven races. Jimmy Prock has definitely got a handle on this thing. He can go from any kind of conditions and move around and change around and just make it run, make it go down the track." - Robert Hight
* "All we really have to do is pick up our 60-foot time. We're giving probably two or three-hundredths away to the fast guys, and if we can pick that up, then we're right there with everybody else." - Jeff Arend
* "Everything that we were trying to accomplish we did, and as a matter of fact, it even went a little better than what we anticipated. We came into the weekend knowing that it would take four laps to get our NTB/Service Central car back to where we needed it, and it took four laps. Now, we have our car coming around, and things are looking pretty good." - Johnny Gray, who ran low e.t. of eliminations, 4.125, in round one
* "The car was doing just about everything I asked it for three straight runs, and I thought we were well within the bounds of having a safe but good tune-up in it, but apparently, we're still knuckleheads because it never had a chance. It took a while for it to really smoke them, but looking at the driveshaft graph, it was easy to see that it was in trouble from the step." - Tim Wilkerson, after smoking the tires in round one
* "Two weeks ago, I would have been really disappointed with a first-round loss, and after having my perspectivebutton reset when we didn't qualify last week in Houston, this is a firstround loss we can swallow." - Jack Beckman, after getting edged by Courtney Force, 4.13 to 4.16, in the first round
Robert Hight, Auto Club Ford
Though his team used the first run on Saturday to test a few things, which resulted in tire smoke, Hight gave a preview of what was to come on race day during qualifying, putting three strong times on the board, including a 4.10 that earned him the No. 1 starting position. On Sunday, Hight, like final-round opponent Ron Capps, had an almost-bracket-like consistency with a pair of 4.16s to open eliminations and a cylinder-dropping 4.19 in the semi's. That streak ended in the final when Hight hazed the tires. "If it hadn't dropped a cylinder in the semi's, we may have been able to get lane choice and put [ourselves] in the right lane, and it would have been a little better, but it wasn't meant to be," said Hight. "[There's] nothing to hang our heads about here. We've had a great season. We'll just keep going."
Jeff Arend, DHL Toyota
Arend earned his second straight semifinal finish and did so with a car that made full pulls on almost every attempt. "We had a great weekend," said Arend. "It was just kind of a follow-up from Houston. We were running good there. We made six competitive runs down the track before we smoked the tires, and it was kind of the same thing here. We had pretty competitive runs in qualifying and then in rounds one and two. Against Ron Capps, we didn't tune it up. We just tried to run .18 or .19 again and see what he did."
Jim Head, Head Racing Toyota
Though he advanced to the semifinals, his best outing since Phoenix last October, Head left the event with a high level of frustration created by an inconsistent car that often smokes the tires, as it did in two of the three rounds on Sunday. "We've had a whole new combination as of last fall, and I'm struggling mightily with my new combination in the clutch management," said Head. "When the track's cold, it will run good. We ran really good in Gainesville and got really excited, but it's been smoking the tires ever since. We are struggling on hot tracks."
Matt Hagan, Aaron's Dodge
For the first time this year, Hagan put together a string of consistent runs that led to one of his better starting spots and a round-win on Sunday. Hagan made four full passes in qualifying, including a best of 4.14, and in the opening round, he ran a 4.22 to defeat Alexis DeJoria. It was just Hagan's second round-win of the year. Unfortunately, his chances ended against teammate Ron Capps in round two due to an unknown mechanical problem. "We had a problem with the engine, but nothing showed up on the computers. It's a mystery," said Hagan. "You know, we got better this weekend, but we're still not as strong as we should be."
Cruz Pedregon, Snap-on Tools Toyota
After some earlyseason hiccups, Pedregon's team has put together a series of strong outings that have indicated he will be a contender this year, and that continued at this event. Pedregon recorded four 4.1s in qualifying, the only driver to do so, and his 4.159 average on the four runs was the best of any driver (Ron Capps was second with a 4.162 average). Pedregon carried that performance into the opening round when he posted a 4.14 to defeat rival John Force, but his team overpowered the track in the second round and lost to Jim Head.
Daniel Wilkerson, Summit Racing Equipment Ford
After running a conservative 4.28 to open up the weekend, Wilkerson's team struggled through the rest of qualifying, and the second-generation Pro nearly missed keeping his perfect qualifying record intact, just getting in in the last session. "We were having clutch issues with it, just too out of control, and then when we found the problem, we were afraid we had the motor backed down too far to even run decent," said Wilkerson, who smoked the tires against Ron Capps in the first round. "We kept slowing it down and slowing it down through three runs, trying to keep it from smoking the tires, but by the time we fixed the clutch, the tune-up was in the car. I was afraid it might go but might go too slow. Luckily, it went right on down there, and we ran quick enough to get in."
Bob Bode, Stupid Fast Racing Chevy
Bode struggled throughout qualifying and barely (and he would admit luckily) made the field in the 16th spot. Things opened oddly when an incorrect setting on the throttle stop led to an unusual burnout. Despite that, Bode was able to do what he set out to do on the run, getting down the track with a 4.29. On the second attempt, Bode's car dropped a cylinder, and in Q3, the team set up with too much blower causing the car to smoke the tires immediately. Bode's team went conservative on the final run and got the car all the way downtrack but was unable to improve on the 4.29. Bode lucked out when Mike Neff, in the pair behind him, was unable to better the mark, giving Bode the final spot in the field. On Sunday, the team knew they would need to step up to have a shot at beating No. 1 qualifier Robert Hight, and the end result was tire smoke, though crew chief Walt Przybyl says the car was close to making it.
Tony Pedregon, K-LOVE Chevy
Pedregon earned his first top-half starting position since Seattle last summer, and he looked really good on his way to it. Before smoking the tires on his final qualifying attempt, Pedregon ran a pair of 4.1s and a low 4.2. Unfortunately for him, Pedregon's first-round run against Jeff Arend was more in line with that final qualifying run with his car spinning the tires midway through. Pedregon says the car's inconsistencies at times this year have primarily been caused by the clutch welding up when it goes one to one with the driveshaft speed. Overall, though, Pedregon feels his performance at this event is a turnaround for the team. "We're getting better," said Pedregon. "We don't have the results that we'd like, but these things take time. The car seems to be responding to what we're doing to it. Our problems really haven't been us tuning the car. There have been a lot of different things that we've really had to pull together. We've made some good progress, and now it's time for us to make that next step."
Mike Neff, Castrol GTX Ford
After experiencing the high of winning the previous weekend in Houston, Neff's team hit a low when they were unable to qualify. Neff was unable to get his Mustang to the end of the track fully under power on any run, but it wasn't entirely due to a missed tune-up. For example, on his final run, Neff appeared to be well on his way to making the field when a mechanical malfunction derailed him. "We are running good enough to qualify, and then this cap for the spool where the barrel valve slides in, the snap ring or something, basically it unplugged the barrel valve while the fuel was in it, so it lost all the fuel and ran lean and popped the blower," said Neff, whose last DNQ was in Dallas in 2008. "It was running alright. It wasn't going to be anything earthshattering. It was going to qualify."