Date published: May 11, 2012
25th annual O'Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Super Start Batteries, April 27-29, Houston
Jim Head turned in a strong qualifying effort with a 4.165 from his Toyota-bodied entry, then nearly pulled off an upset in round one when his opponent, Mike Neff, double stepped the throttle.
(Left) In his brief driving career, Mike Neff has won seven times in 18 final-round appearances. With the victory, he is also guaranteed a spot in the $100,000-to-win NHRA Traxxas Nitro Shootout in Indianapolis later this year. (Above) Neff, near lane, extended the winning streak of John Force Racing Funny Cars to six events to start the season with a final-round victory over Ron Capps. After an even start, Neff pulled ahead for a 4.23 win after Capps' NAPA Dodge smoked the tires.
Just nine class drivers have qualified for all six events this season, including Bob Bode, who earned his spot in the field with a 15th-best 4.252.
One of the most interesting story lines at the event was the round-one match between nitro rookies Alexis DeJoria, near lane, and Courtney Force. Both drivers had the best reaction times of their careers before Force pulled away for a 4.12 to 4.20 victory.
Robert Hight's bid to win a fifth straight title ended in the semifinals when he smoked the tires against Ron Capps. Hight, who had won 17 straight rounds before the loss, still enjoys a healthy lead in the standings.
(Left) Jim Dunn's normally strongrunning Tap It Brewing Co. entry suffered a setback when driver Todd Lesenko smoked the tires on several runs and did not make the field. (Below) Bob Tasca III has shown steady improvement through the first six races of 2012, and that trend continued at this event when he drove his Quick Lane Shelby to a 4.11 victory in the first round against 15-time champion John Force.
* "That was a heck of a string he had going. That's hard to do in Funny Car or any class for that matter. I'm just glad I could keep the string going for John Force Racing." - Mike Neff, on teammate Robert Hight's 17-round winning streak, which ended in Houston
* "I feel pressure, but that's just the business we're in. We're a top team, and we were built on winning. I feel it, but I don't get pressure from John [Force] or anyone else, just myself." - Neff
* "I'm excited to qualify for the Traxxas Nitro Shootout, but I'm also excited to get one of those 100-mph [Evo] cars they give to the winners." - Neff
* "The conditions were hot, but they were the same for everyone. Ron Capps made some nice runs, so he has a great car, and I see that Robert [Hight] is on my side of the ladder. Once you get to the second round, it's anybody's race, so we'll have to be ready." - low qualifier Cruz Pedregon
* "I'm looking forward to it because, as you know, we really don't like each other." - Alexis DeJoria's tongue-in-cheek view of the media-fueled rivalry with roundone opponent Courtney Force
* "That's more like it. This thing now feels more like a Lexus instead of an off-road truck." - Jeff Arend, after running a 4.138 to qualify No. 4 in his DHL Toyota
Cruz Pedregon, Snap-on Tools Toyota
Pedregon had the dominant car in qualifying, recording a 4.103 best that led to his 47th career No. 1 qualifying effort, but he almost didn't get to make the run after his Snap-on Toyota would not back up after the burnout. "I almost didn't run because the [expletive] reverser lever fell off in my hand," said Pedregon. "I threw it out the window, and [crew chief] Lee Beard didn't know what to do with it. I'm just glad we got it into gear because we really made a nice run. We should have run a 4.07 on that run, but it dropped a cylinder. I know the time is coming when we can run with anybody."
Jack Beckman, Valvoline NextGen Dodge
The longest active qualifying streak in the class, 87 races, ended at this event when Beckman failed to make the tough 16-car field. Beckman, who has been working with a new car and crew since the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals in Charlotte, appeared to be on his way to a solid qualifying pass in the fourth and final session but smoked the tires late in the run and slowed to a 4.75. "We really don't know why our car wouldn't go down the track without smoking the tires," said Beckman. "We've got some smart guys working on this and a great bunch working on the car. It's been baffling."
Robert Hight, Auto Club Ford
Hight's incredible early-season run, which included four straight victories in Phoenix, Gainesville, Las Vegas, and Charlotte, ended after 17 consecutive win lights when he smoked the tires against Ron Capps in the semifinals. "It was quite a ride," said Hight. "If you look back, it is almost May, and this streak started in February. To have the kind of success we had over those months is awesome. This is just the beginning of the season. I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed we didn't tie the all-time record, but it is pretty cool having Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, [John] Force, and even Cruz Pedregon say the nice things they did to the media leading up to this race. Those guys gave us all a lot of credit for what we did in this era."
Jeff Arend, DHL Toyota
After reaching the final round at this event the last two seasons and banking a victory in 2011, Arend continued his successful run at Royal Purple Raceway by qualifying No. 4 and reaching the semifinals with wins over Matt Hagan and Tim Wilkerson. According to crew chief Jim Oberhofer, the Kalitta Motorsports team's success at this event is simply a case of divine intervention. "We have a good tune-up for this track, but that changes a lot from year to year, so I'd prefer to think that it's just Scott Kalitta looking down on us," said Oberhofer. "Scott won his first Funny Car race here in 1989, and ever since then, this place has been special. There are a lot of good memories here."
Ron Capps, NAPA Auto Parts Dodge
Although he would have preferred to win the race, Capps was about as happy as he could be after a strong performance from his Rahn Tobler-tuned NAPA Dodge. He qualified second with a 4.107, just four-thousandths behind leader Cruz Pedregon, and advanced to his 72nd career final round with three straight 4.16-second passes against Bob Bode, Courtney Force, and Robert Hight. "The car runs what [Tobler] says it's going to run," said Capps, whose dream weekend ended when he smoked the tires against Mike Neff in the final. "In the final, it launched fine but then made a hard move to the right, and I brought it back, but it started to spin the tires. Once I saw Neff ahead of me, I just coasted. I was really surprised. This NAPA Dodge had been like driving a Chrysler 300."
Alexis DeJoria, Tequila Patrón Toyota
Although she came up a bit short in her highly anticipated round-one match against fellow rookie-of-theyear contender Courtney Force, is was hard not to notice how much DeJoria and the Tequila Patrón team have improved since making their nitro debut last September in Dallas. DeJoria went to the finish line in three of her four qualifying runs and even picked up a bonus point with her 4.18 blast Saturday afternoon. On race day, she had the best reaction time of her career, a .067, and ran a competitive 4.20 but was behind Force's 4.12. "We hurt the engine on that run, but I'm not sure we could have beaten a 4.12," said DeJoria. "We put on a good show, and I'm definitely feeling better about my reaction times."
Gary Densham, Plueger Racing Dodge
Whenever Densham shows up at an NHRA Full Throttle event, there's a strong possibility that he's going to take a qualifying spot normally reserved for one of the tour's regulars. That happened again at this event, where Densham, who was driving Steve Plueger's Dodge, qualified on the bump with a tirehazing 4.49. "We went to Phoenix with this car and ran 4.30s, and we figured with a little tweaking we could go .20s, but we just never got a handle on it," said Densham. "I have a little bit of a hand in the tune-up, but it's mostly Steve Plueger and his guys. I actually feel like I sold heroin to my best friend because when we have a little success, we can't stop coming out here. I just can't quit until I'm too old or too broke, and that hasn't happened yet."
Tony Pedregon, K-LOVE Chevy
Though he's still looking for his first win light of the year, things are definitely looking up for two-time world champion Pedregon and his KLOVE team. In danger of not making the tough field, he powered to a strong 4.19 on Saturday afternoon that placed him solidly in the 11th spot. "At least now I feel like we're going down the right road," said Pedregon. "I've always had faith that it had to turn around at some point, and now, I think it's starting to."
Courtney Force, Traxxas Ford
Seventeen events remain in the 2011 season, and ballots will not be cast for another six months, but if voting were held today for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award, it would be hard to imagine someone other than Force winning it. The youngest member of the John Force Racing team remains solidly in ninth place in the standings after a quarterfinal finish at this event. She nearly reached the semifinals following a close 4.16 to 4.17 match against Ron Capps. "I saw him right out my window," said Force. "I was really holding on and hoping for that win light."