St. Louis proves to be Gateway to surprises

Just when the NHRA season looked like it was going to settle into predictability, St. Louis came along to shake things up, writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: May 7, 2007, 5:05 PM ET
By Bill Stephens | ESPN.com

Just when the NHRA POWERade series appeared to be sticking to a familiar rhythm and settling into a steady pattern, the O'Reilly Midwest Nationals at Gateway International Raceway east of St. Louis scrambled up the picture.

With three drivers heading into the event with a chance to pick up a third consecutive victory, and one class entrenched in gender-exclusive predictability, who could have foreseen that the familiar was about to go away?

In Top Fuel, Brandon Bernstein came into St. Louis with the hot hand having won in Las Vegas and Atlanta. Rain washed out Friday's qualifying at Gateway but it slowed Bernstein down little as he headed into eliminations in the No. 3 spot, behind Rod Fuller (who Bernstein had relieved of the points lead in Atlanta a week ago) and Bob Vandergriff.

But in Round 1, some of the category's hardest hitters were taken out, including Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta -- and Bernstein. In fact, both Bernsteins, Brandon and his father, Kenny, hit major stumbles in the hometown of their longtime corporate partner, Anheuser-Busch. Brandon's opening-round loss compounded the DNQ his dad suffered in Funny Car qualifying.

And by the time the semifinals were decided, two drivers who were in the grip of a long national event win drought -- Cory McClenathan (Virginia '06) and Melanie Troxel (Spring Las Vegas '06) -- had ridden a combination of timely good fortune and miscues by the opposition to the Top Fuel final.

A tricky, 110-degree racetrack that few teams could completely figure out set up a suspenseful payoff round for Troxel and McClenathan. Troxel was able to finesse her dragster down the Gateway quarter-mile while Cory Mac lost traction at around 300 feet, giving Troxel her first event title of 2007.

"Today, we weren't the best car, but it's nice to come out here and have a weekend where breaks went our way," Troxel said. "[Crew chief Richard Hogan] did a good job of getting the car down the track. I think this is just what we needed to energize the team and start moving in the right direction."

That was Surprise No. 1.

In Funny Car, you really couldn't call Ron Capps' victory that big a surprise, since his Ed "The Ace" McCulloch-tuned Brut Revolution Dodge has been as consistent a race car as the class has seen this season. Only Robert Hight, who came into St. Louis on the crest of a two-race winning streak, has had a comparably consistent fuel coupe so far this year.

But Hight, who had qualified No. 2, got crossed up by a mechanical glitch in Round 1 and dropped his matchup to Cruz Pedregon, the No. 15 qualifier. With John Force finally getting a round victory -- his first of 2007 -- in the first, and his daughter Ashley also an opening-round winner, it appeared Hight's loss would be compensated for by the other two JFR Mustangs.

But John was upended in Round 2 by Del Worsham and Ashley was a semifinal victim of Capps. In the final, it was Capps and Worsham and with textbook consistency, Capps nailed down the victory at the track where he recorded his first career Funny Car win in 1997. The win helped Capps retain the POWERade points lead, now 121 over second-place Hight.

"I don't think people at home watching the TV show are going to realize how tough today was, this weekend really," Capps said in the winner's circle. "We had two qualifying runs, the fans didn't get to see us run Friday night, [because] it was dangerous [due to a high dew point and moisture on the track].

"And then the sun comes out today like our natural St. Louis weather should be, and when it did, I got happy. That's Ed McCulloch, my crew chief. There's a lot of crew chiefs on the grounds, but very few of those guys are real good racers and he's one of them. He was probably here in the old days at the old dragstrip that went in the other direction, I'm sure. He's got a lot of knowledge. I'm a lucky guy."

For the first time since two-time POWERade Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin and youthful sensation Dave Connolly became teammates at Vic Cagnazzi Racing to begin 2007, they not only escaped the frustration of seeing one of the Summit Racing Pontiacs in the final round, they actually took center stage at day's end by facing each other for the Gateway honors.

Three-time POWERade champion Greg Anderson was poised to win his third straight national event crown. He and his teammate, reigning champion Jason Line, swept qualifying coming into Eliminations 1 and 2, respectively. But Line was a holeshot casualty to rookie Justin Humphreys, the former Sport compact champion, in the first round while Anderson appeared to be cruising to that third consecutive win.

But Coughlin stopped Anderson with a .004 reaction time (.000 is perfect) and a 6.707-second, 206.20 mph to 6.690/208.77 holeshot shocker.

Meanwhile, Connolly was on his game throughout the day, with strong reaction times and a tuneup that was delivering potent elapsed times and speeds. That led to the all-Cagnazzi final, in which Connolly overcame a .016-second launch deficit to Jeggie and drove around him for a 6.663/206.99 to 6.695/206.64 win light.

Connolly made a hefty move in the points, moving to within 201 of leader Anderson.

"It was awesome winning," said Connolly, who qualified third and dominated eliminations by running the quickest elapsed time in each round. "I don't know who is happier: me, my dad [Ray, who won in the Super Gas sportsman class on Sunday], [sponsor] Evan Knoll or Victor Cagnazzi. There's nothing like a POWERade Pro Stock final when you are running a guy like Jeg.

"To get the car running like it did and go out there and outrun everybody like I did was incredible."

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the woman-opoly is finally over.

After watching Angelle Sampey and Karen Stoffer shut the men out from all three POWERade winner's circles in Gainesville, Fla., Houston and Atlanta to begin the year, Matt Smith picked up his first win of '07 and not only beat Sampey in the final, but ran the quickest elapsed time in category history (6.901) to wrap up eliminations. Smith's incredible ET was sufficiently backed up within 1 percent per NHRA rules to make it a new national record.

In Round 2, he beat Stoffer when she left too soon and fouled out.

Smith, the son of longtime Pro Stock and Pro Modified veteran Rickie Smith, earned the maximum number of points a pro driver can accumulate at a national event (138) by qualifying No.1, winning the race, and setting a new national elapsed-time record, thus moving him into the PSM points lead.

The rider he took the lead from? Stoffer, who he beat in Round 2.

"I won't lie, it was finally good to get past the women," Smith said after his third career win. "I was letting it nibble on me a bit in my head and I think it may have given me a little extra motivation today. But it doesn't matter who you have to beat to win on Sunday. It's the best feeling into no matter who's in the other lane."

No surprise there.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.

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