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Firebird DNQs Throw Curve At Coundown

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 16 2011

Spencer Massey showed his disappointment after failing to make the Top Fuel field in Phoenix. (Photo courtesy of the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series)

An inability to solve two days of extreme track conditions in the desert left NHRA Top Fuel points-leader Spencer Massey and veteran Funny Car driver Ron Capps stunned after both failed to make their respective 16-car fields at the close of qualifying Saturday for the 27th

annual NHRA Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway.

Massey’s DNQ  – his first during 2011 – put a major dent into the 65-point lead he had fashioned over Don Schumacher Racing teammate Antron Brown heading into the 20th of 22 events on the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series schedule. Meanwhile, Capps’ streak of having qualified for 105 consecutive races also came to an end in Chandler, Ariz., effectively trailering his title chances.

Sunday’s event is the fourth in the NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, the six-race playoff that will determine world champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle. For the record, no eligible driver who has failed to qualify for any one of the Countdown races has gone on to win a world championship.

That’s a sobering stat for Massey, who was unable to coax his FRAM/Prestone dragster into the 16-car field during Saturday’s two rounds. Massey opened qualifying Friday with tire-smoking 1,000-foot runs of 6.501-seconds and 8-seconds in extreme heat – air temperature nearing 100 degrees and track temps exceeding 130. He followed with traction-challenged laps Saturday of 4.422-seconds and 9.442-seconds.

“It seems like from the first run to the last run, the car was wanting to run like it was at

Spencer Massey may have smoked his championship hopes in Phoenix. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Maple Grove Raceway,” said Massey, alluding to the most recent Countdown event in Reading, Pa., two weekends ago. “The drastic changes in track conditions from Maple Grove to here might have thrown us a curve.” As it was for all competitors, the track-temperature swing between Pennsylvania and Arizona was more than 65 degrees with an air-temperature swing of 52 degrees and a 3,000-foot differential in altitude.

That combination confounded Massey co-crew chiefs Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler. Racing in the left lane, Massey’s car immediately smoked its rear tires at the launch of his fourth attempt opposite Morgan Lucas. “We’ve got some issues, obviously,” Okuhara said during an interview in the pits on ESPN2. “It should have went down the racetrack, and we’ve got to find out what’s wrong here. We’ll figure it out.”

Massey began the Countdown with a final-round loss to Brown in the fourth annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Concord, N.C., on Sept. 18. The following weekend, Massey advanced to the finals of the 26th annual AAA Texas NHRA Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, his home track. Bob Vandergriff Jr., who is not among the 10 Top Fuel drivers eligible for the Countdown, posted his first career victory in the final. Massey, however, exited Texas with a seven-point lead over Brown. Massey scored his fourth victory of 2011 in the rain-delayed final at Maple Grove on Oct. 3.

“We’re kind of scratching our heads,” said Massey, who defeated Del Worsham of Al Anabi Racing on a holeshot in the final at Maple Grove. “We just couldn’t seem to tame the beast, which was very unusual for this great team. They have been so good at getting this hot rod

Ron Capps was not smiling after Funny Car qualifying at Firebird. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Christa L Thomas)

from A to B without any drama – we even went 40 rounds without smoking the tires at one point in the season.

“There may be some ‘little bug’ somewhere so we’ll go over everything and figure it out. Obviously, it hurts us tremendously because if we would have qualified we could get more points, we could’ve gone some rounds and had a shot for winning the race – which would have helped us out in the points. “

As it is, Massey’s lead will be down to 35 points over Brown and 46 over Worsham when eliminations begin Sunday at 2 p.m. (EDT). Larry Dixon (Top Fuel), Cruz Pedregon (Funny Car), Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Jr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) locked up poles on Saturday. The finals will be televised on ESPN2 beginning at 7 p.m. (EDT).

“We won’t even be in Phoenix for Sunday’s race because we’re heading to Las Vegas to test on Monday and get ready for those last two Countdown races,” Massey said. Round 5 of the Countdown, the 11th annual NHRA Las Vegas Nationals, is scheduled for Oct. 27-30 at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The season-ending 47th annual Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals will be run Nov. 10-15 at Pomona Raceway.

“I’m still optimistic about our situation,” said Massey, a 29-year-old resident of Fort Worth, Texas. “This is just one race. Regardless of what happens, we’ll still be in the thick of things in the Countdown. Now this is just going to bunch everybody back up. We might lose our points lead and that’s just the name of the game. I want to be the team which wins the championship despite a DNQ in the Countdown.”

Capps, meanwhile, declared his title hopes finished after his qualifying streak ended in a new NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger R/T fielded by DSR. Capps began the weekend sixth overall, 90 points/four-plus rounds behind teammate Matt Hagan. It was the first DNQ for Capps since Heartland Park Topeka, Kan., in 2007. Two-time Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon also failed to make the field. Jack Beckman, Capps’ DSR teammate, now owns the current Funny Car qualifying streak at 79 consecutive races.

“Our guys worked their tails off getting this new car, which was put together after our last race, down the track under these extreme conditions,” said Capps, a three-time title runner-up. “I’m devastated for (crew chief) Tim Richards; I hate to see him this frustrated as he tried to get it to work. It was a difficult two days. We knew we had to get down the track, that’s why I pedaled it in today’s first round.”

Capps’ opening lap of 4.618-seconds at 266.58 mph landed him in 16th place after three rounds. But a 6.217-second pass in the final session was not quick enough to overtake two cars which had passed him earlier. Friday’s sessions ended with runs of 7.575-seconds and 6.372-seconds, respectively.

“Frustrating, but we’ll figure it out,” said Capps, a 46-year-old resident of Carlsbad, Calif. “These guys are the best and Tim’s great. Realistically, this probably ends our chances at this year’s championship but we’ll continue to fight. This will help make our team stronger, for the final two races of the season and for next year. And we will be a force next year.”

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

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 16 2011
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