- John Schwarb
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LAS VEGAS -- Ashley Force claimed her piece of NHRA history Sunday, only it was a sort of consolation prize.
The 25-year-old daughter of the legendary 14-time champion John Force left Las Vegas with the Funny Car points lead, the first time a woman has led the division. But a first race win remained just out of reach for the third time in her young career when Tim Wilkerson's Impala SS beat Force's Ford in the final round of Funny Car eliminations at the SummitRacing.com NHRA Nationals.
"It definitely made not winning a little easier, but you still want that first one," Ashley Force said. "We're just trying not to get anxious about it. Seeing some of these other teams and how good they are and how long they've waited to win, including my father, I'd really be a real snot if I got bratty about it.
"I'm just being patient and I know that as long as I don't think too much about it, continue to come out at the races and enjoying racing and being on my team, we'll get it one of these days."
The vast majority of an estimated 23,000 fans at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway ached for it, some even telling Ashley about the bets they had placed on her at local casinos. Ashley Force reached the final round at Vegas in the fall race last year, and for the second consecutive year was the only Force rooting interest in eliminations for the spring race. John Force failed to qualify, his first DNQ of the season.
But while Force had the fan support, Wilkerson owned the best dragster. The Springfield, Ill., native missed the top qualifying spot by .001 when his 4.850-second pass was bettered by Ashley Force's teammate Robert Hight late Saturday, then Wilkerson's was the best car come Sunday eliminations.
Wilkerson ran low ET in the first round (4.943 at 311.77 mph) to beat Jim Head, duplicated the feat in the second round (4.966 at 310.70) against Tony Pedregon, then survived at 5.179/286.25 against Ron Capps.
That hiccup allowed Force to grab lane choice for the final by virtue of her 5.137/287.66 win over Bob Bode.
The left lane appeared to be the better side, as Jason Line in Pro Stock and Cory McClenathan in Top Fuel won titles there, but Wilkerson made the right lane work and beat Force by over a car length, 4.962/292.58 to 4.993/313.95.
"It wasn't so obvious to me," said Force, also a runner-up last time out at Houston. "I had made it down in the right lane in qualifying. Wilkerson, he doesn't smoke the tires very often, his car can always get down hot sticky tracks, in warm weather. I was thinking we'd both get down the track or both go up in smoke together."
They both got down the track, with Wilkerson wearing the black hat in getting his first win since Sonoma in 2004 -- over John Force. His win was just as good a story, with his one-car team continuing to boast arguably the most consistent car in the division. Wilkerson has qualified in the top three with two No. 1s in four of five races, and he'll pull into Atlanta in two weeks second in the standings, five points behind Force.
He hushed the crowd at Vegas and will have to answer to his 16-year-old daughter Rachel, a huge Force fan, but this was still a sweet win.
"To race Ashley in the finals, you're racing John Force and however many crew chiefs are there now. To beat those guys makes me real proud," said Wilkerson, 47. "I would like to see Ashley get her first win, but I don't want to be the guy on that stand, I'll tell you that."
Someone is likely to be that guy soon. John Force made 75 Funny Car starts before getting his first win, and Ashley's only made 26. There's confidence in getting to three final rounds in that time, and now in owning a points lead.
"I never even knew it was possible to leave [Vegas] with the points, I was just trying to stick in the top 10," Force said. "I've been really happy with my 10th spot, maybe I need to be more of a go-getter or something but now we've got a taste of that first spot, we see it's not just the Robert Hights, the Capps, Scelzis and the [John] Forces that can do it. Maybe [crew chiefs] Dean Antonelli and Ron Douglas and I and my team, maybe we can do it too."
All that's left now is to be the last woman standing after a race.
John Schwarb is a motorsports contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
It's one down and one to go for Ashley Force. The daughter of 14-time Funny Car champion John Force is the first woman to ever lead the Funny Car standings. Next up? Closing out that historic first race win, writes John Schwarb.