Temperature changes keep drivers guessing heading into final rounds at Thunder Valley

Dave Ongie • May 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

BRISTOL, Tenn. — The more the track conditions changed, the more things stayed the same atop the speed charts at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway on Saturday.

With track temperatures soaring to 122 degrees under the afternoon sun, there was little grip to be found on the 1,000-foot strip of concrete and asphalt nestled in Thunder Valley. The heat resulted in little movement on the final day of qualifying, and the top times posted by Ashley Force Hood (Funny Car), Cory McClenathan (Top Fuel) and Mike Edwards (Pro Stock) on Friday night were never challenged.

Now the focus turns to adjusting for track conditions that could be very different on race day. Today’s forecast calls for temperatures in the low 60s with enough cloud cover to keep track temperatures cool.

“Somebody said it was going to get colder tomorrow, which we’re all hoping for,” Force Hood said. “But you’ve got to see how much the track will take.”

The only major shakeup came in Top Fuel, where Terry Haddock laid down a monster pass of 4.036 seconds in his fourth and final qualifying run to move into 14th position. The pass knocked rookie Spencer Massey, who is currently eighth in points, off the bump spot and out of the field.

Robert Hight also raised some eyebrows in Funny Car by missing out on his first race this season. Hight entered the day 14th fastest but was passed by Andy Kelley, Jeff Arend and Jerry Tolliver, making him the only John Force Racing entry to miss the field.

“They don’t pay us to perform like this,” Hight said after his final qualifying attempt. “This car will be in contention for the championship, I promise.”

Force Hood certainly knew what her teammate was going through after failing to make the show here two years ago. She said the fact that she qualified first Saturday showed just how luck can change in racing.

“I know it’s frustrating for those guys and we feel for them,” Force Hood said. “Funny Car is just such a competitive category and we love that it’s like that, but when you’re on the outside looking in, it’s the toughest spot to be in.”

Force Hood will face Andy Kelley in the first round of Funny Car final eliminations today, but she stressed that track condition will be more important than who she’s lined up against.

“I really cannot think about who we’re racing in the other lane,” she said. “The track does not care who you’re racing — the track only cares about what it’s going to give you that day.”

In other notable first-round matchups, John Force will square off against Jack Beckman and points leader Ron Capps will face Bob Bode.

In Top Fuel, McClenathan said he’s counting on a solid performance to help him go deep into today’s eliminations.

“Our car is very consistent,” he said. “You’ve got to race A to B to beat us. We may not have the quickest car all the time, but we’re always right in the hunt with everybody.

“It kind of forces their hand because they know they have to run good and be ready at the starting line.”

McClenathan will face Michael Gunderson in the first round while Brandon Bernstein will take on Joe Hartley, Tony Schumacher will square off against Haddock and points leader Antron Brown will tangle with Troy Buff.

Edwards is pleased to be the No. 1 qualifier in Pro Stock, but he knows he needs to shake off some bad luck he’s experienced lately on race day.

“I think I’ve got as good a chance as anybody,” he said. “I’ve struggled a little bit with my driving on Sunday, but hopefully I can turn that around.”

Edwards will see David Beckley in the first round. In other first-round action, points leader Jeg Coughlin will face Ronnie Humphrey, Jason Line will battle Rickie Jones and Greeneville native Allen Johnson will face off against Larry Morgan.

Final eliminations are scheduled to begin today at noon.

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