In the shadow of St. Louis’ looming landmark along the Mississippi River, the National Hot Rod Association renewed some its arch-rivalries Sunday at the inaugural AAA Insurance Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Antron Brown out-muscled the Top Fuel points lead from Don Schumacher Racing teammate Spencer Massey. Ron Capps saw his Funny Car advantage dwindle, as one of his DSR teammates, Jack Beckman, beat another DSR brother, Matt Hagan in the final. Allen Johnson lost to Erica Enders in the Pro Stock final round but kept his points lead. And two familiar faces were in the Pro Stock Motorcycle showdown, as class leader Eddie Krawiec beat Vance & Hines teammate Andrew Hines at Madison, Ill.
BROWN-MASSEY BRAWL CONTINUES - In the showdown between the Nos. 1 and 2 in the standings and the Nos. 1 and 2 qualifiers at Gateway Motorsports Park — in the rematch of the previous Sunday’s final round at Dallas — in an all-Don Schumacher Racing pairing — Antron Brown won the tug-of-war for the points lead. Brown leads Massey by only 21 points as the Countdown shifts this weekend to Maple Grove Raceway, near Reading, Pa., for the Auto-Plus Nationals.
“We snuck off with that win,” Brown said. “That was a tough battle against our teammate Spencer. That FRAM car has been tough all year. And to get a win through them is one of those incredible, hard feats,” Brown said. “It’s definitely very, very competitive, and these guys aren’t playing anymore. It was a stressful day where we matched up against some great competition. It’s great to have six wins, but right now they’re all in the past. We need to go back to the shop and get focused on these last three races. It’s just so competitive out here — and this point race is going to go down to the last race.”
Massey said, “We’re doing exactly what we need to do, and that’s go rounds. That’s two final rounds in a row for us, and you can’t go wrong with that. Antron’s team is just kicking butt right now. It’s going to be a dogfight all the way down to the end.”
BECKMAN IN SWEET SPOT - Jack Beckman is a realist, and he has been saying recently that his only chance for a Funny Car championship depends on going rounds in his Valvoline NextGen Dodge Charger and for his points-leader teammate Ron Capps to lose early in races. Both happened Sunday as Beckman claimed his career 15th victory and third of the year and Capps lost in the quarterfinals. No. 2-seeded Beckman sliced his deficit from 96 points to 30.
“This wasn’t do-or-die, but it’s getting pretty close. It’s nice to know that we have a car that can challenge for the championship,” Beckman said, acknowledging Sunday’s results made up for losing to Capps a week before at Dallas by four-thousandths of a second. That, he said “hurt a lot, but today went a long way towards healing that. All we want is a fighting chance going into Pomona [the season finale].”
Beckman benefited from over-eager teammate Matt Hagan’s mistake in the final. Hagan, vowing to salvage something from this championship season gone south, launched way too early. Said Beckman, “I heard noise, saw the red light come on, and saw the big DieHard logo from Matt’s car. We have a big respect for that car. Over the last four races, it might be the best-running car on average.” Hagan, runner-up to Bob Tasca the weekend before, explained his gaffe: “I was just antsy. We’ve been to a couple of finals now and I was just trying to make something happen. Our guys have been working so hard and I’m really proud of how this team has turned our season around lately. I was really just trying to give them a little something to show for it, and I may have tried a little too hard.”
PRO STOCK PAYBACK - In a rematch of their final-round race a week before in the AAA Texas Fall Nationals, Erica Enders paid back her friend Allen Johnson by beating him on a holeshot. She earned her fourth victory in the past 10 races and the fourth in seven final-round appearances. It also was her second final-round triumph over Johnson in five events. She beat him in August at Brainerd, Minn. With that, Enders moved into third place, cutting her deficit to 126 points. Johnson leads Jason Line in the standings by 109 points, and Enders is 17 points behind Line as the fourth race of the six-event Countdown — the Auto-Plus Nationals — awaits this weekend at Reading, Pa. Johnson was going for his sixth victory in his ninth final round of the season.
Enders said she told Johnson that this time it was her turn to win. “We’ve had a really consistent hot rod. It wasn’t the fastest one on the property today, but it was definitely consistent, and that’s what counts on Sunday,” she said. “I’m really proud to race my bud in the final but even more proud to stand in the winners circle. It’s a total team effort, and I can’t thank my guys enough. I say it week in and week out, but they’re the reason I get to do this. I knew we were a little bit behind, performance-wise, in the final, and I needed to step up to the plate. I couldn’t let ‘em down.”
Johnson — who is poised to record his 300th round-win this weekend — said, “We sort of struggled all weekend. The Mopar Dodge Avenger team is leaving here with about 20 more points than we came with, with three races left, so we can take that away.” Johnson and team stayed in St. Louis to test.
KRAWIEC BACK IN RHYTHM - Eddie Krawiec won for the seventh time, over no-surprise runner-up Andrew Hines, in an all-Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson final round. Krawiec advanced through two rounds on red-light fouls (against Steve Johnson and Chip Ellis), then Hines jumped the gun in the final. Krawiec stretched his lead in the standings to 33 points over closest competitor Hines.
SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT - Tony Schumacher, the master of electrifying 11th-hour miracle passes that win championships, said Sunday evening, “I always say God has a plan. And maybe His plan for this year is for it to come down to one run for the championship.” The U.S. Army Dragster driver is 83 points behind leader Antron Brown and 62 behind second-ranked Spencer Massey – both his Don Schumacher Racing teammates — as the tour moves to Reading, Pa.
“There are 12 rounds left for us in the season, and we have to win everything we can,” the four-time winner at Maple Grove said. “It’s going to be a huge challenge. because every time we race, we seem to bring out the best in our competition. We brought it onto ourselves by winning that many championships and races.”
His father and boss, Don Schumacher, said, “Antron and Spencer have started to pull away from the group.” Only 21 points separate them. Said Tony Schumacher, “Our only hope is that my teammates don’t get too far ahead of us.”
ENDERS AMONG RACING’S ELITE - Erica Enders carried the NHRA drag racing banner in Driver of the Year Award third-quarter voting, following newly crowned IZOD IndyCar Series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay and NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points leader Brad Keselowski. Enders received two fist-place votes in this phase of balloting for the prestigious prize that honors motorsports in the United States. “It definitely proves how our season has really come together since the first win in July. It definitely says a lot for the hard work and consistency we’ve had,” she said.
BUDDY ON THE SPOT - The Pro Stock surprise of the weekend was young Buddy Perkinson. He was surprised as much as anyone that he would substitute for Mark Martino — and drive the DeSantis Crane Service Pontiac GXP to the No. 8 starting position and beat veteran V Gaines on a holeshot for his first round-win.
Perkinson was at home at Prince George, Va., Friday — the day after his 21st birthday — when Cagnzaai Racing crew chief-driver Dave Connolly phoned him at 8:15 a.m. and told him Martino had a tragedy in his family and asked how soon Perkinson could arrive in St. Louis. Perkinson, who had not raced in NHRA competition since last November, found a flight, and he said, “next thing you know, I’m here. I think I was here about 15 minutes, maybe 10, just enough to put the seat belts in the car and go to the lanes. He said he didn’t worry, because “It’s steering wheel and two doors, you know? A car’s a car. Every one is different, but it’s still a car.”
STOUT NUMBERS - Jason Line set the low E.T. and top speed of the meet (and both ends of the track record) among Pro Stockers with his No. 1-qualifying performance of 6.496 seconds and 213.47 mph. Line’s reaction: “All in all, pretty darn happy to have a starting spot here at St. Louis. Last time I was here I didn’t get one. So this place does not necessarily have fond memories for me. Maybe this will be one.” He made it to the semifinals.