MADISON, Ill. — In the span of three races Tim Wilkerson has moved five spots upward in the NHRA Funny Car points standings.
That’s how quickly things can change in the fast-paced world of the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, NHRA’s six-race playoffs.
Wilkerson pulled an against-all-odds move at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals just to qualify for the playoffs. At the two opening rounds of the Countdown, the driver-tuner of the Levi Ray & Shoup Shelby Ford Mustang has maneuvered his way from 10th to seventh in the standings.
He hopes to continue that forward trend at his “home” race this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park, which is officially returning to the NHRA schedule with the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals, Sept. 28-30. The race, round No. 3 in the Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship, will be televised on ESPN2HD.
At the playoff-opener in Charlotte two weeks ago Wilkerson grabbed the No. 1 qualifying position and advanced to the quarterfinals. He qualified second in Dallas and advanced to the quarters once again. Wilkerson feels some confidence heading home to St. Louis, a track where he’s had success in the past.
“I’m not sure we know how our past success will work here this time around,” Wilkerson said. “We’ve never raced here at the end of September before, so it’s going to be different. Seems like the St. Louis race was always one of those blistering hot deals, and we all remember the year they had to flood the track just to cool it off, so we’re all dealing with a blank page when it comes to this late-September thing. For us, though, you can’t help but feel the support and the good mojo our Wilk’s Warriors bring with them. You can feel that, for sure.”
Wilkerson, who lives about 90 miles north of the Gateway Motorsports Park in Springfield, Ill., will certainly entertain plenty of his Wilk’s Warriors as well as associates and guests of his sponsor Levi Ray & Shoup over the weekend. He is hoping for a bit of a home-field advantage and that’s always a plus for any team during the post-season.
“I call it more of a semi-home game,” Wilkerson said. “It hurt to lose this track but it’s great to have it back, and now that it’s a fall race it’s part of the playoffs, and that’s very cool. Like any racer who has a “home game” will tell you, the whole being-close-to-home thing is a double-edged sword. It’s great to have so many friends and backers around, but you also spend a lot of time answering calls for tickets and sorting all of that out. It’s all good though. It’s an easy road trip for my wife Krista and me.”
Wilkerson knows that he’ll need to grab a win at Gateway if he wants to keep trending upward in the standings. Series points leader Ron Capps has had two strong playoff races as well in his NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger. Other drivers who are standing in Wilkerson’s way are second place Mike Neff, who won at Indy and was runner-up in Charlotte, Snap-on Tools Toyota driver and two-time world champ Cruz Pedregon, Robert Hight, who drives the Auto Club Ford Mustang and Dallas top qualifier Courtney Force, 24-year-old rookie driver of the Traxxas Ford Mustang.
If anything, Wilkerson can draw inspiration from Hight, who won the world championship in 2009 from a 10th place starting spot in the playoffs.
“We have nothing to lose,” Wilkerson said. “We got in on the last day and we got in 10th. Worst we can do is 10th, so we’ll just keep the hammer down and we’ll keep going for it. We’ve gone from barely getting in 10th, to moving up to 9th, and now to 7th place as we get ready for Gateway, so at least we’re trending in a positive direction.”
In Top Fuel, playoff top seed Antron Brown charged back to the top of the standings with a victory in Dallas and is tied with Spencer Massey for the points lead. Seven-time world champ Tony Schumacher is 24-points back in third and the suddenly surging Shawn Langdon, who won the playoff-opener in Charlotte, is fourth overall in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster, 41 back of the leaders.
Allen Johnson raced to victory in Dallas in Pro Stock and takes a 93-point lead to St. Louis over defending world champion Jason Line. A couple of young drivers, Dallas runner-up and three-time season winner Erica Enders and Charlotte No. 1 qualifier and two-time season winner Vincent Nobile, are showing that they are both ready to claim a post-season victory. You can never count out past world champs Greg Anderson , Mike Edwards and Jeg Coughlin in the 200-mph factory hot rod category.
The Screamin’ Eagle Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson duo of Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines are still at the top of the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings, but Michael Ray broke their streak of victories in Dallas when he claimed his first career victory. Ray moved to fourth in the standings on his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell, just behind Hector Arana Jr., who was the top qualifier in Texas on his Lucas Oil Buell.