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First Test In The West Completed

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010

Cory McClenathan takes a bow after winning in the Northwest. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Cory McClenathan and Greg Anderson exited the 23rd annual NHRA Northwest Nationals Sunday evening as event champions, and the only players still standing in what looms as an historic race-within-a-race.

McClenathan posted his third Top Fuel victory of 2010 and Anderson won in Pro Stock for the second consecutive event, as both seek to become the first professional driver to win the National Hot Rod Association’s Western Swing twice.

McClenathan defeated Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown  – winner of the Western Swing in 2009 – in a close final at Pacific Raceways. McClenathan, driver of the FRAM Dragster, posted a 3.887-second run at 311.70 mph to beat Brown’s 3.909/308.92 pass in the Matco Tools Dragster. The margin of victory after their respective 1,000-foot passes was approximately 11 feet.

In Pro Stock, Anderson followed-up his victory at Norwalk, Ohio, two weeks ago with his second consecutive Wally via a quarter-mile pass of 6.599-seconds at 209.56 mph in the Summit Racing Pontiac GXP. Anderson easily bested Johnny Gray’s 6.626-second run at 209.43 mph in his NTB Pontiac GXP.

The other professional winner during the 14th race of the 23-event NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series tour was Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson. The defending Funny Car champion at Kent, Wash., Wilkerson also won for the second consecutive event.

Racing action was suspended when the death of Top Alcohol Dragster driver Mark Niver was confirmed before the Top Fuel and Funny Car finals.

Niver, 60, a veteran Sportsman racer from Phoenix, Ariz., suffered fatal injuries when an apparent malfunction of the braking parachutes on his car sent him into the catch net at a high rate of speed during the semifinals.  Competition subsequently was suspended and the local sound curfew extended two hours so racing could be completed.

NHRA and track officials issued a statement saying the incident was under investigation, while extending sympathy to Niver’s family.

En route to the money round, McClenathan dismissed Mike Strasburg, David Grubnic and Shawn Langdon while enjoying lane choice throughout the day.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking in the final,” said Cory Mac, alluding to the Western Swing implications. “Here is Antron and myself, (and) we’ve both won this thing. I want to be the first one to do it two times; that’s the biggest thing. I know that’s a lot to ask for, but at the time it’s like, ‘OK, one round at a time. You can’t get there until you win this one.’ That’s what we did.”

Only seven pro drivers have won the Western Swing, which will continue at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., July 16-18 for the 23rd annual FRAM-Autolite NHRA Nationals. The summertime tour concludes at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., near Denver, for the 31st annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals July 23-25. McClenthan swept the grueling  stretch in 1997.

“The FRAM guys did a great job today,” said McClenathan, who won the 34th race of his career. “The track was very tricky. There in the sun in the final was really tough. And because I’ve been here so many years I knew to put on the darkest shield you have and get up there and cut the best light (reaction time) you can.  (Crew chiefs) Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara and all the guys were just flawless this weekend. They really did a great job. In the heat we may not have had the quickest car every time but our car went A-to-B every single time out there. 
 
”Our teammate Antron, same thing with them. Side-by-side like that, I thought that was a pretty darned good final. So, for DSR and everybody on the team, I’m just happy and pleased.”

The victory also moved McClenathan around  DSR teammateTony Schumacher, the seven-time and reigning Top Fuel champion, into second place behind points-leader Larry Dixon of Al-Anabi Racing.

“It was so challenging with the conditions being so drastic here. It was pretty exciting,” Okuhara said. “Going toe-to-toe with Antron and staying with him down the track was great. He’s one of the best and Cory Mac is proving that he is right up there with those guys. He did a great job.”

Starting from the fourth position in Pro Stock, Anderson eliminated Greg Stanfield, Rodger Brogdon and point-leader/reigning world champion Mike Edwards before squaring off against former Funny Car pilot Gray in the final.

Anderson grabbed the lead by nearly eight-hundredths of a second and never looked back, using the quickest pass of the day to seal the 62nd victory of his career and third at Pacific Raceways. It also was the 24th time that Anderson has won consecutive races.

“It’s been an amazing two weeks,” said Anderson, a three-time world champion.  “I could not be prouder of how this Summit Racing team has been able to rebound from the struggles we had earlier in the year.  We could have self-destructed, but we didn’t.  We just kept our heads up and powered through it, and now we’ve won two races in a row.

“We made four good, smooth runs which were among the quickest in each round.  As soon as you get the race cars working properly, the driver becomes happier and _ presto _ you get results.  They gave me the confidence to do my job behind the wheel, putting us in a position to win this race.”

Anderson, who now has won consecutive races for the first time since 2008, credited the addition of Tommy Utt to work with crew chief Rob Downing as a key ingredient in his recent run of success.

“It just feels great to have a chance to go out and win a race,” Anderson said.  “I really haven’t felt this way in three or four years.  It’s pretty cool to be the only Pro Stock driver with a chance to sweep this year’s Western Swing. I was fortunate enough to do it back in 2004. It is a tremendous accomplishment with as different as these three tracks are.”

The Funny Car final was a near photo-finish with Wilkerson (4.221-seconds at 292.39 mph) powering the Levi, Ray & Shoup Ford Mustang to a narrow victory over Ron Capps (4.246/289.51) and the NAPA Dodge Charger team.

It was the third consecutive final round for the LRS Ford team and second straight win.

“We’re happy to be in the position we’re in and we seem to really come into our own in this kind of weather,” said Wilkerson, who moved around Ashley Force Hood of John Force Racing into fifth place in the point standings. “We try not to think about it or do anything to pull us backwards. Just go run the racetrack every round.”

Capps reached his second final round of the season and first in two starts with new crew chief John Medlen. The result moved Capps into seventh in the point standings. 
 
Capps and Wilkerson were even at 60-feet, after Capps launched first by one-thousandth of a second. But Wilkerson rallied to edge Capps by approximately six feet.

“The NAPA Dodge ran low ET pretty much every run today,” said Capps, who reached his 63rd career final round. “And I really felt like we earned it. To be honest with you, I felt like my gut was ripped out when my win light didn’t come on. 
 
”We knew Tim would run just as good, he wasn’t going to back down, and when I hit the gas the final round something in the car was vibrating. We’ll talk with John Medlen and Ace (former crew chief Ed McCulloch) and track down what it was. Whatever happened definitely slowed us down.”

Earlier, 14-time Funny Car world champion John Force dropped a tire-smoking pedalfest to Jack Beckman of DSR in the opening round when he crossed the centerline resulting in an immediate disqualification. Ironically, Force was in front of Beckman and possibly could have coasted across the finish line for the win.

“I knew it had a clutch problem before I ran,” said Force, driver of the Castrol GTX High-Mileage Ford Mustang. “I was just going to go up there and do the best I could. I put the top bulb out on Beckman. I was trying everything. We took off and I didn’t see him. I didn’t know he was having problems, so when I smoked the tires I got back in it. I crossed the centerline and Beckman goes to the next round.”

However, Force emerged as the first Funny Car competitor to clinch a spot in the six-race Countdown to 1, NHRA’s post-season for the top 10 drivers in each pro class.

“I’m glad to be in the Countdown,” said Force, a four-time winner this season. “Someone asked me if I was happy to be in the Countdown and was I going to take it easy now. I told them no way. I’m going to try and get as many points as possible. We want to have that top spot going into Indy. That is what we are going to fight for. We want all the points we can get.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, July 12 2010
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