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Herbert makes Countdown with victory in Reading, other Cinderellas ousted
Top Fuel veteran Doug Herbert defeated "Hot Rod" Fuller in Wednesday's rain-delayed final of the 23rd annual Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals to earn the final spot in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship. Funny Car racer Tony Pedregon, Pro Stock ace Dave Connolly, and Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Matt Guidera also scored big wins in the last regular-season race of 2007, and Cinderella hopefuls Del Worsham, V. Gaines, and Chris Rivas came up short in their bids to make the Countdown fields.
In the biggest race of the event, Herbert launched with a stellar .039 reaction time and zoomed down Maple Grove Raceway in 4.526 seconds at 323.43 mph to take the win over a backpedaling Fuller, who ran a 4.709 at 324.98 mph. Pedregon got lucky when John Force fouled out at the line in the Funny Car final, winning with a 6.061, and Connolly drilled Kurt Johnson at the Tree and never looked back, taking his fourth with a 6.643. Guidera's win over Angelle Sampey, who hit the 1,000-foot cone, was the first of his career.
Once as low as 16th in the points, Herbert spent 15 of 16 races this season outside the POWERade top 10. He entered this event knowing that he needed to win the race and have former eighth-place racer Dave Grubnic advance no further than the quarterfinals. Remarkably, both things happened when Grubnic lost a close race to Morgan Lucas in round two and Herbert scored his first victory in almost three years, a span of 65 races.
"Wow, nothing like a little drama, huh?" Herbert said. "I was ready for this race. It was the biggest round of my life, and I didn't want to have any regrets. I was ready, the Snap-on Tools team was ready, and we went out there and got it done. Everyone did a great job, and there were no mistakes made. Most of my guys have never won, so it's definitely a huge boost for all of us. The mood is sky high over here.
"The Countdown to the Championship was designed to bring extra excitement to the sport, and it's definitely done that. Grubnic is my buddy and I hated that it knocked him out, but he already called me to say congratulations. Now if we can get our act together, we can make a real run at the championship. There is no team as fired up as this one, I promise you that."
Fuller will enter the next phase of the playoffs -- the Countdown to Four -- as the top racer in the category. He'll be joined by Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon, Brandon Bernstein, J.R. Todd, Bob Vandergriff Jr., Whit Bazemore, and Herbert. This select group will have four races to make the four-man Countdown to One that will decide the 2007 world champion.
Force posted a quick 4.792 at 320.10 mph in the final, but it was all for naught as his -.038 red-light start gave the win to former employee Pedregon. Q Horsepower racer Pedregon made a leisurely 6.061-second pass at 151.99 mph to score his second win of the year and 34th of his career.
Del Worsham's dreams of making the Countdown to the Championship ended in the semifinals when he was beaten by Pedregon, 4.789 at 318.99 mph to Worsham's pedaling 5.772 at 200.38 mph. The end result was that Jim Head held on to the eighth and final playoff spot in Funny Car. Head lost in the first round of this race when he crossed the centerline after leading Pedregon most of the way down the track. He eventually hit the retaining wall in the shutdown area but was unhurt in the incident.
The eight racers eligible for the Funny Car world championship, in order, are Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Force, Pedregon, "Fast Jack" Beckman, Mike Ashley, Gary Scelzi, and Head.
After eliminating Gaines from Countdown consideration in the semifinals, Connolly powered to his 13th victory by defeating Johnson in the Pro Stock final. Connolly was sharp at the starting line, leaving with a .005 to .050 advantage, before racing away from a tire-shaking Johnson to win with a 6.643 at 207.43 mph in his Torco/Seelye Wright Chevrolet Cobalt to Johnson's 6.857 at 206.80 mph in his ACDelco Chevrolet Cobalt.
"The weekend was long, but it kept me pumped up and it just made me want to win a little bit more," Connolly said. "It was well-needed, too. Nothing against our partner over there, Jeg Coughlin, but he had an early exit in the first round and you know this being the last race before the Countdown, we had to go to the final to pass him by one point in the standings. We did that, and the win over Kurt was just icing on the cake because he's been running strong all weekend.
"Those 10 extra points are going to be pretty valuable for these next four races because there's a lot of guys running good and we needed those points."
Connolly's win moved him around teammate Coughlin into second in the final regular-season standings. He'll join Greg Anderson, Coughlin, Allen Johnson, Jason Line, Kurt Johnson, Warren Johnson, and Larry Morgan in the quest for the championship. Morgan made the field by 11 points.
Guidera and Sampey were side by side for most of the way down the track in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final, but Sampey's U.S. Army Suzuki was slowly drifting toward the centerline. Not wanting to lift, she tried to coax it back into the center of the lane but clipped the 1,000-foot cone, which is an automatic disqualification. Guidera took his first NHRA win with a 6.971 at 188.02 mph on his Mohegan Sun S&S Cycle Buell V-Twin.
"My team is unbelievable," Guidera said. "Mohegan Sun brought in Rick Maney, and it's been five races that we've been getting to know each other, and we're finally starting to jell.
"It was a big waiting game the whole time. First of we struggled with qualifying right off the bat. In the first round of qualifying I backed out of the beams and then we came back for the second run and my bike wouldn't fire. So we were going into Saturday not even in -- not a good way to start out the weekend.
"Then everything went pretty good, we went our career best on Saturday qualifying. The first couple rounds Monday were great. I had a career-best on the first lap and then backed it up and went even quicker in Round 2. Both passes were 6.90s.
"We pretty much knew the rain was going to come, we didn't think it was going to hold out that long actually. I thought we were going to call the race and maybe move it somewhere or delay it for another week or take it to Indy or something like that but I guess they planned on racing come hell or high water on this deal."
Matt Smith, Andrew Hines, Sampey, Karen Stoffer, Chip Ellis, Eddie Krawiec, Peggy Llewellyn, and Craig Treble are the eight riders who will fight for the 2007 world title.
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