Commentary

Wilkerson shaking up Funny Car as class legend John Force hits benchmark

Tim Wilkerson campaigns as a single-car owner/driver in the NHRA's Funny Car class. His second win of the season at Gateway on Sunday shows he's ready to run with the "big dogs," writes Bill Stephens.

Updated: May 5, 2008, 2:22 AM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

Last year, Tim Wilkerson failed to win a race or advance to a final round during the entire 2007 NHRA POWERade season. He batted below .500 with a 14-16 win-loss round record and finished 15th in the Funny Car standings -- the second-worst points showing of his 12-year professional career.

After seven national events in 2008, Wilkerson now leads the Funny Car points, and following his second victory of the year on Sunday at the 12th O'Reilly Midwest Nationals at Gateway International Raceway in Madison, Ill., just a few miles from downtown St. Louis, the humble, likable veteran from neighboring Springfield has easily become one of the hottest early-season success stories in the NHRA.

"The emotions are out of control," Wilkerson said shortly after defeating first-time finalist Mike Neff in the payoff round. "It was all I could do at the other end of the track just to get out of the car.

"It'll get the monkey off our back. We ended up qualifying No. 1 a couple of times this year and couldn't even get out of the first round. We're pretty proud [of this win]. My guys are just doing a terrific job working on my car, and the track was good all day."

In fact, Wilkerson has now qualified No. 1 four times in '08 but in each of those starts, failed to advance beyond Round 2 in eliminations. His first win of the season came in Las Vegas last month when he qualified second at the SummitRacing.com Nationals. In his 240 career starts, Wilkerson has racked up only 14 No. 1 qualifiers and seven national event wins, and has never found himself at the top of the POWERade standings -- until this season.

In the first round of eliminations, Neff's team owner, 14-time POWERade champion John Force, scored his 1,000th career round win by taking down Ron Capps on the same day Force was celebrating his 59th birthday. But the real celebration was found in the winner's circle where Wilkerson offered a simple dose of reality.

"We just have to keep our heads on straight and not let them get too big," said one of the few single-car team owners in the category who divides his time between driving his Levi, Ray and Shoup Chevy Impala SS and digging into the between-round maintenance.

"There's still a lot of racing left to go this year and we'd rather be leading the points in November than May. But we'll enjoy the ride and try not to get stupid out there. You can bet all of the other teams we're racing against haven't forgotten how to win so we'll just try to keep doing what we're doing."

And what they're doing is making up for years of taking on the "big dogs" and having to settle for B-list status. For Wilkerson, the tide is turning.

And so are the rip currents in Top Fuel.

Up until this past weekend, Antron Brown was filling the role of dreadnaught in his Matco Tools Top Fuel dragster driving for David Powers Motorsports, advancing to three consecutive final rounds, winning two, and moving to the No. 2 spot in the points. But on Sunday, teammate "Hot Rod" Fuller picked up victory No.1 for 2008 when he got past five-time POWERade champion and points leader Tony Schumacher in the Madison final, 4.525-seconds at 328.70 mph to Schumacher's 4.583/325.45. It was Brown who victimized Schumacher one week ago in the Atlanta final, beating the reigning series champion on a holeshot.

"Any time you beat Schumacher's [U.S.] Army car, you're fired up," Fuller said. "I've had a chip on my shoulder with the way things played out last season, so it does feel really great to beat them. How about this David Powers Motorsports team? Four straight finals with three wins are just awesome.

"I have to dedicate this win to two things. This is the fourth anniversary of the death of Darrell Russell. Darrell and his brother, Chris, partnered with David Powers with the idea of starting a Top Fuel team and they hired me. It was an honor to get that call to drive their car. I'm going to dedicate this win to the Russell family. I also had to fight tears at the top end because this was the first race my mom has seen me win in Top Fuel. She hasn't been in great health and when I got out of the car, she was in tears. If it wasn't for my mom and dad, I wouldn't be here. What a great day."

Pro Stock's "Big Three" in 2008: Greg Anderson, Jason Line, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. were spectators when the final round cued up late Sunday afternoon, opening the door for Kurt Johnson -- winless up until now in '08 -- and Dave Connolly, making only his second start of the year after sitting out the first five events of the season without a sponsor. KJ and Connolly squared off in the finale, insuring that this year's Midwest Nationals Pro Stock champion would be a first-timer for '08.

Connolly had an uncharacteristically slow reaction time, .144-seconds (.000 is perfect), and Johnson had better numbers at both ends of the quarter-mile as his 6.631/209.30 trumped Connolly's 6.651/208.78, paired with his .051 reaction time.

"It was pretty tough out there," Johnson said. "There was a lot of tire shake. … I think everybody just kind of underestimated the race track. It was exceptional for me. We ran a 6.58 this morning and it's hard to touch it after that, but we knew we had to make some changes. We changed the gears around; we changed the clutch around. The whole ACDelco crew just came together and we did what we needed to do."

So did Andrew Hines in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

After a dominating victory in Atlanta a week ago in which the three-time champion ran four consecutive sub-7-second runs on race day, Hines, the No. 3 qualifier, repeated that incredible performance at Gateway, finally getting past reigning champion Matt Smith in the final with his eighth straight 6-second pass in eliminations (16 overall counting Atlanta and Madison qualifying), 6.882/194.13 to Smith's faltering 8.089/114.02.

"The V-Rod's just going straight, making good runs," Hines said. "It's the same engine we ran in Atlanta. We tried a different engine on Friday and it just didn't seem to have as many ponies as this one. We wanted to get back the No. 1 qualifying spot and we put the engine back in yesterday and just couldn't find the setup because it was making so much horsepower here in St. Louis.

"It was throwing us for a loop … but winning from the No. 3 spot, that still means a lot. Three finals in four races and two wins, it's just a tribute to how good my team is."

Bill Stephens covers the NHRA for ESPN.com.

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