MADISON, Ill. (Sept. 30, 2012) - The Service Central Racing Funny Car team and driver Johnny Gray arrived at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis with a very specific goal for their NTB/Service Central Racing Dodge Charger R/T: go rounds and gain points in pursuit of their first Full Throttle Series Funny Car world championship.
After impressively fine-tuning a few out of sync issues in the clutch management system and with the chassis, the team came out strong at the inaugural event at Gateway Motorsports Park. Gray made three fast laps during qualifying and only forfeited one session to misfortune and tire smoke, but the surrendered round on Friday evening provided optimum conditions for the field and was prime for going quick.
Although the Service Central team made exceptional passes on Saturday - their NTB-themed Service Central Dodge was the quickest of all the Funny Cars in the early session with a 4.126 at 307.09 mph - they were unable to gain ground on the higher qualified cars and ultimately earned a start from the No. 11 position that came with a very undesirable first-round match with Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps.
After beating Capps in the final round at the SuperNationals in Englishtown this summer, Gray fell twice to his compadre on raceday prior to eliminations at the Midwest Nationals. This time, however, Gray and his crew felt that they had an improved hot rod and a true shot at beating the points leader. Loss of lane choice, though, affected them greatly. Gray was first to leave with a swift .064 reaction to his challenger's .086, but a stunning low of the round 4.07 popped up on Capps' scoreboard, and Gray's respectable 4.16 sent the team home far too early.
"We were in a no-recovery situation after missing the run on Friday night," said Gray. "Because of that, we ended up with Capps in the first round - and the bottom line is that we got our butts handed to us. We were trying to run a 4.10, and we were disgusted that we didn't, but it turns out that wouldn't have won it anyway. Capps just made a real good run. I believe it's pretty unrealistic to think that we could win the championship now, so we're shifting our ambitions. We need to make sure we get this Service Central car in the top 5."
Although the 2012 championship is still mathematically possible with three races left in the Countdown, Gray and his team, led by crew chief Rob Wendland, would need to climb a near insurmountable mountain from the No. 8 position and reel in a whole bunch of good fortune to realize their collective dream.
"There is no doubt about it, there is a certain amount of luck involved in this sport," said Wendland. "I feel that the .07 that Capps ran in that lane was fairly lucky; they were getting all the goodie out of it, that's for sure, and they took a big risk to get it. But they took that risk because they were running against us.
"Johnny did a great job driving today, and he did a great job driving all weekend. Throughout qualifying we did well as a team - except for the run that was the most important, the Friday night run. It's disappointing. If you're not disappointed, your heart isn't in it. But we just have to look forward to what we can do for the rest of the year. We'll have to break a couple of hearts to finish in the top 5, and it might be the hearts of a couple of our teammates, but it is what it is. We each have a responsibility to our individual sponsors, and we're out here to win for Service Central."
This season, the Service Central team has won two events in three final rounds and been the esteemed No. 1 qualifier twice. After a bit of a stumble at the first race of the season, Gray has maintained a position in the prestigious top 10 in the Funny Car standings all year long, and he is assured a top 10 finish for the fourth time in his career (he finished 10th in Funny Car in 2002 and, as a Pro Stock driver, was 9th in 2009 and 10th in 2010).
"Of course we were disappointed today," said Artesia, N.M.-based Gray. "But next weekend we will be running the Alex's Lemonade Stand body on our Service Central car in support of the Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation, and I will have the pleasure of visiting with a group of kids battling cancer at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Thursday. You know, that kind of puts things into perspective. Getting bumped down in the points doesn't really mean much when you see what those kids are dealing with.
"We're going to go on to Maple Grove and do the best we can while we concentrate on helping those kids. It's hard to be too disappointed when you've got that to look forward to."
The next event on the Full Throttle Series schedule is the Auto-Plus NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Oct. 4-7, 2012.
Johnny Gray, NTB/Service Central Racing Dodge Charger R/T
Qualifying position: 11th
First round results: Ron Capps (4.072-second at 309.20 mph) defeats Johnny Gray (4.162, 307.09)
ON ESPN2 (all times ET, subject to change)
Sunday: Eliminations, 8-11 p.m.
UPCOMING FULL THROTTLE EVENTS
Oct. 4-7, NHRA Nationals, Reading, Pa. (Philadelphia area)
Oct. 25-28, Big O Tires NHRA Nationals, Las Vegas
Nov. 8-11, Auto Club of Southern California NHRA Finals, Pomona, Calif.
UNOFFICIAL FUNNY CAR POINTS
(after race 20 of 23 in St. Louis)
1. Ron Capps 2361
2. Jack Beckman 2331
3. Mike Neff 2262
4. Cruz Pedregon 2202
5. Tim Wilkerson 2197
6. Courtney Force 2180
7. Robert Hight 2179
8. Johnny Gray 2149
9. Jeff Arend 2148
10. John Force 2143
About Service Central
Service Central® is the automotive service offered exclusively at Tire Kingdom®, NTB-National Tire and Battery®, Merchant's Tire and Auto® and Big O Tires®. Available at more than 1,300 locations, the certified ASE technicians use state-of-the art equipment to provide quality service.
About TBC Retail Group
Headquartered in Juno Beach, Fla., TBC Retail Group, Inc., a subsidiary of TBC Corporation, operates more than 900 tire and automotive service centers under the brands: Tire Kingdom®, NTB - National Tire and Battery®, Merchant's Tire and Auto Centers®, Midas®, and SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up®, along with nearly 1800 franchised Big O Tires®, Midas and SpeeDee Oil Change & Tune-Up® stores. TBC Retail Group employs more than 500 associates at its headquarters and approximately 10,000 associates nationally. To locate a store, call 800-NEW-TIRE. TBC Corporation, headquartered in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is the largest marketer of automotive replacement tires through a multi-channel retail and wholesale strategy.
About Don Schumacher Racing
Don Schumacher Racing, headquartered in Brownsburg, Ind., consists of seven professional NHRA teams: in Top Fuel, the U.S. Army dragster driven by seven-time world champion Tony Schumacher, the FRAM/Prestone dragster of Spencer Massey and the Matco Tools dragster of Antron Brown; and in Funny Car, 2011 NHRA Funny Car champion Matt Hagan in the Aaron's Dream Machine/Mopar Dodge Charger R/T, Valvoline NextGen Dodge piloted by Jack Beckman, the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge of Ron Capps and the Service Central Dodge of Johnny Gray. DSR has won 195 NHRA national event titles and nine world championships.
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