Dixon, Tasca, Line, Arana score Gatornationals wins
Bob Tasca III followed his first career Professional pole position Saturday with his first career Pro final and then his first Pro win before a packed house at the Gainesville Raceway during the 40th annual ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals. The race is the third of 24 on the 2009 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series.
There were more firsts of a different nature as 44-time series winner Larry Dixon won his first title as a driver for Alan Johnson in Top Fuel, and, with his Pro Stock Motorcycle win, Hector Arana earned the first points lead of his career. In Pro Stock, Jason Line backed up his Winternationals triumph to extend his points lead.
There was little doubt that the potent combination of two past world champs, Dixon and Johnson, would yielded race wins, and the two wasted little time. After a disappointing DNQ at the rain-shortened season opener, the two sealed the deal at the year's third race by defeating Cory McClenathan in the final round, 3.89, 311.05 to McClenathan's traction-plagued 4.57 pass.
"I know how hard it is to make these cars go down the track, but they make it look easy. It's an a amazing group. Alan Johnson is a genius and Jason McCulloch is working right underneath him, and I'm happy for him to get his first win. I'm also happy for sheik [team co-owner Sheikh Khalid Bin Hamad Al Thani] and to be able to get his first win the third race out. I'm honored to be driving the car."
Dixon, in his first season driving for Alan Johnson and the new Alan Johnson/Al-Anabi team, qualified No. 1 with a 3.886 then bettered that number in round one with a sizzling 3.882 to beat fellow former Gatornationals champ Doug Kalitta. Dixon followed with a 3.86 to trailer Morgan Lucas and a 4.09 to beat last year's runner-up, Brandon Bernstein. Dixon's run would have been much quicker had not the blower belt broken; fortunately for Dixon, Bernstein had already smoked the tires. Dixon's final-round appearance was his seventh at Gainesville Raceway and the 84th of his career.
McClenathan opened his Sunday with a 3.92 to beat local favorite Michael Gunderson, then defeated Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher, who had won the last two Gatornationals with Johnson tuning. Both drivers had to pedal their throttles after losing traction, but McClenathan's Todd Okuhara- and Phil Shuler-tuned Fram dragster chased down Schumacher for the win. In the semifinals, Cory Mac ended the Cinderella bid of second-generation racer Bobby Lagana Jr., whose Tire Kingdom dragster previously had upset No. 2 qualifier Spencer Massey and Phoenix winner Antron Brown. Not only has McClenathan never won the Gatornationals in his prolific career, but until this year, the 34-time national event winner had never even reached the final round here.
Tasca defeated good friend Tony Pedregon to claim his first career Funny Car Wally, driving around Pedregon's better leave to take the win with his Motorcraft/Quick Lane Mustang, 4.20, 280.72 to 4.53, 210.90.
"To qualify No. 1 and beat Tim Wilkerson, John Force, and Tony Pedregon to win your first race, it's just awesome. It's a tribute to the whole program. Today is a culmination of 27 races and we've had our struggles as a team, including me as a driver. We're just determined to do well, and I can assure you that this won’t be our last trophy. We have a championship-caliber program."
Tasca guided his Chris Cunningham-wrenched Ford to a series of steady if unspectacular passes to the final. He rode a pair of 4.19s to beat Jim Head and teammate Tim Wilkerson; the win by Head in round one was by a whisker-thin .004-second. He then used a semifinal 4.17 to best 14-time season champ John Force to reach the final. Tasca had appeared in four finals in Top Alcohol Funny Car, where he had two career wins.
Defending event champ Pedregon, who had not won a round in the season's first two races, reached the Gatornationals final for the second straight season with his Dickie Venables-tuned Quaker State entry. Pedregon beat two-time Gatornationals champ Ron Capps on a first-round holeshot, 4.19 to 4.16, then slid to a 4.23 win against Del Worsham. In the semi's, the 67-time finalist ended Matt Hagan's bid for his first final-round appearance on a tight 4.160 to 4.161 that was only close on the scoreboard after Pedregon's four-hundredths quicker launch.
Line, last year's runner-up here to Jeg Coughlin, went that finish one better and did it on a holeshot over Allen Johnson, 6.614, 209.20, to Johnson's 6.607, 209.01, to win by a fender. The title is the 17th of his Pro career.
"The guys did a good job because we did not have the best car this weekend. I was thinking to myself before the weekend started, the guy who drives the yellow car, Mr. Coughlin, very seldom does he win having the best car and we need to do the same thing because you're not going to have the best car every weekend and you'll have to step up some other part of it, and for me, it's the driving part. I'm doing the best I can and I thank the guys for working with me at the shop because they really do try to help me."
Points leader Line, who also won this year at the season-opening Winternationals, reached his 36th career Pro Stock final with the Summit Racing GXP with a string of low 6.6-second passes. After beating former world champ Jim Yates in round one with a 6.605, Line zipped past Kurt Johnson with a 6.612 and upset-minded Rickie Jones with a 6.617. Earlier in the day, Jones had defeated low qualifier Mike Edwards on a holeshot.
Allen Johnson, racing on his mother Revonda's birthday, looked strong in reaching his 15th career final in the Mopar-sponsored Dodge with a pair of 6.61 passes but dodged a bullet in the semifinals when his car got loose on the launch. He fought for control then chased down Greg Stanfield, who had the misfortune to lose the engine – and his significant lead – at the top end.
Arana, a 19-year veteran of the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, scored his second career NHRA national event win by defeating the low qualifier, Matt Smith, in the final round, 6.97, 191.40 to 7.13, 185.51 after Smith's bike faltered on the top end.
Arana's Lucas Oil Buell, which carried him to his first career win just last season in Norwalk, Ohio, was the bike to beat all day. After qualifying No. 2, Arana sped to a 6.935 in round one, which was low e.t. of the meet, to defeat Junior Pippin, but needed a break to light the win lamp after a tardy .186 light. Fortunately for him, Pippin's bike bogged just after his holeshot launch. With new life, Arana steamrolled to passes of 6.942 and 6.981, both the quickest of the round, to beat reigning season champ Eddie Krawiec's Harley and Shawn Gann. Arana also gave up a big lead to Gann after a .120 light but was able to run him down to win by .0016-second.
Smith, in his first race aboard the NitroFish Suzuki for Don Schumacher Racing after campaigning his own Buell the last two and half seasons, raced to his second Gatornationals final and the 21st of his career from the No. 1 spot he captured on Friday. Smith, the 2007 event runner-up, defeated red-lighting Ryan Schnitz in round one, then ran 7.02 and 7.03 in the middle rounds to best 2005 Gatornationals champ Steve Johnson and former three-time world champ Andrew Hines, the 2004 event winner.
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