Upset-Filled Final Qualifying Day Sets Stage for Big Changes in Eliminations

The 10th annual Torco Race Fuels Route 66 NHRA Nationals will take place without some of the biggest stars in the sport as championship contenders Brandon Bernstein, Robert Hight, Dave Grubnic, Whit Bazemore, and Mike Ashley all failed to qualify for this event. Saturday's heat also kept anyone from challenging the Friday leaders in the four professional classes, leaving Tony Schumacher, Gary Scelzi, Greg Anderson, and Andrew Hines with No. 1 rankings by their names.

Bernstein entered the ninth race of the NHRA season in the POWERade Top Fuel points lead but will most likely lose that spot during Sunday's eliminations. Robert Hight has arguably had the best Funny Car in the class this year but will leave Chicago with his first DNQ. Grubnic, Bazemore, and Funny Car's most recent winner Ashley, will join their beleaguered buddies on the sidelines.

Schumacher collected his fourth low qualifier award of the season and the 39th of his career with his Friday night pass of 4.462 seconds at 327.11 mph. The U.S. Army driver will open Sunday's eliminations against Mac Tools racer Doug Kalitta, who ended up 16th with a 4.596 at 317.57 mph.

"Today is another perfect example of what it's going to take to win the championship this year," Schumacher said. “It's not going to be the guy or girl that's running the best every week, it's going to be the one that screws up less than the others. We've finally reached a point where there are more good cars than there are spots in the field so almost every race we're seeing great teams missing the field.

"Our team is coming around. I know the time is going to come when we start winning races again and I hope that time starts tomorrow. Either way, I'm still having a blast, even with all the stress. I love my job and I would drag race every day if they'd let me."

Former Funny Car driver Scotty Cannon, he of the Mohawk haircut, made a successful return to NHRA racing by qualifying 13th with a 4.557 in his Torco dragster. He'll begin his quest for his first NHRA victory against No. 4 qualifier Bob Vandergriff Jr., who recorded his first 4.4-second pass (4.499) in Round 2.

Scelzi was joined by his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps at the top of the Funny Car ladder, giving their boss something to get excited about in front of his hometown fans and friends. Like most people, he couldn't improve on his rocket run of 4.736 at 330.96 mph from Friday evening. He has now earned 44 low qualifier awards in his career.

"It's not a very comfortable feeling when you only go down the track one time in qualifying," Scelzi said. "We had a vibration in the car today and we're not sure what's causing that. Hopefully we can find it before tomorrow because I know we have a car that's capable of running in the heat.

"This weekend was kind of a do-or-die deal with Friday night being the one session where you either get in or start praying. It's a very tough deal and it's stunning when you see some of the guys that aren't qualifying for these deals."

Capps' 4.755 at 326.87 mph in his Brut Test Drive Dodge Charger placed him second, while Monster Dodge racer Kenny Bernstein qualified third with a 4.759, his best qualifying effort since his return to the Funny Car class.

Scelzi will open against Bob Gilbertson (16th place qualifier at 4.861) in Round 1, while Capps squares off with Tim Wilkerson (15th, 4.833).

Anderson's 57th career No. 1 qualifying effort was his sixth of the season's first nine races. The Summit Racing Pontiac GTO driver will now try to win from the top spot for the fifth time, beginning with a race against first-round foe Tom Hammonds, who posted a 6.666 in his Cobalt. Anderson's numbers showed a 6.617 at 208.94 mph.

"That 57 times at No. 1 is a neat, neat stat," said Anderson. "I never thought I would be anywhere near there and every time you do it, it's really neat. It's a good thing I did it yesterday because I wouldn't have done it today. We didn't perform up to par today. We got beat in the King Demon Crown, and that was kind of a bummer, but we have to forget about that deal and get ready to race tomorrow.

"We have to a good package, we have a good hot rod, we just made a couple of mistakes today and I screwed up driving. The positive is that we're No. 1 qualifier in a tough, tough field. That's great, but that won't get you anything tomorrow. We have to perform No. 1 tomorrow and that's the goal right now."

Allen Johnson, who has averaged a very respectable fourth-place qualifying slot this year, curved his mean positioning up slightly here with a second-place 6.626 at 207.56 mph in his Dodge Stratus R/T. Third in the points, Jeg Coughlin Jr. is third on the ladder in his Cobalt with a 6.632.

Former crewman Craig Hankinson qualified for his first professional race as a driver, earning the 11th spot in his Boscoe HVAC GTO with a 6.651 at 207.15 mph.

Hines somehow managed to improve on Friday evening's 6.930 at 192.88 mph in the last session, clocking a 6.921 at 193.65 mph on his Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod despite ambient temperatures that were 13 degrees higher than last night. This was Hines' first pole of the year and 20th of his pro career.

"I'm completely impressed with that pass," Hines said of his final run. "The bike's responding to everything we're doing to it and our 60-foot times were strong again today. It's amazing how much those first 60 feet make or break your run.

"This Screamin' Eagle team is clicking at the right time. There are a lot of people from Harley-Davidson here today so it was cool to go even quicker than we did yesterday. We saw bike after bike in front of us running quick and I knew we had a chance to improve. The bike went nice and straight that run and if made a difference."

Hines will open against Michael Phillips, who held onto the final spot with a 7.075 at 191.08 mph on his Sharp Contracting Suzuki.

Current points leader Matt Smith moved up to second place with a 6.951 at 191.16 mph on his Torco Buell. Karen Stoffer followed Smith on the grid with a 6.951 at 191.13 mph. The Geico Motorcycle Suzuki rider has been the POWERade points leader after two of the first four Pro Stock Motorcycle races. Angelle Sampey also moved up in Round 4 with a 6.953 on her U.S. Army Suzuki.

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