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GAINESVILLE -- Tim Wilkerson was the only Ford Funny Car driver who didn’t enter the first round of Sunday’s 41st annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals with the lane choice option at Gainesville Raceway. As it turns out, It didn’t matter.
When all was said and done Sunday afternoon, Wilkerson was the last driver standing, his Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang sitting in the winners’ circle while teammate Bob Tasca III, his final round victim, was left to lament the one that got away.
Wilkerson, whose Florida resume prior to Sunday consisted of a single No. 1 start in 2004, turned no heads Saturday with a 4.114 second 1,000 foot run that left him No. 9 in the qualifying order, the only Mustang driver not in the quick eight.
By contrast, the race appeared to set up perfectly for John Force Racing, Inc., which dominated the season’s first two races.
As the No. 2, No. 5 and No. 6 qualifiers, respectively, reigning Full Throttle Champion Robert “Top Gun” Hight, Ashley Force Hood and points leader John Force wouldn’t have opposed one another before the semifinals and, based on February performances, there was every reason to believe there was a better than average chance of getting all three JFR Fords to the penultimate round.
This day, though, it would not happen. Force Hood, whose Castrol GTX Ford Mustang was paired with the Dodge of Melanie Troxel for the second straight race, lost a tire-smoking “pedalfest” in the very first round. Her teammates would survive just one round more.
Force, the 60-year-old drag racing icon who had won seven times previously at Gainesville Raceway, couldn’t duplicate a first round 4.087 from his Castrol GTX High Mileage Mustang and lost to Ron Capps. Hight, who lost the No. 1 qualifying spot to Matt Hagan on a top speed tiebreaker, fared no better against Tasca and, suddenly, that was it for the JFR Mustangs although obviously not for the overall Ford effort.
While Tasca was marching confidently toward what he hoped would be a repeat victory in the Quick Lane/Motorcraft Mustang, Wilkerson quietly was making his way up through the opposite bracket. His biggest win was a second round conquest of Hagan who, in round one, recorded the fastest speed in Funny Car history, a national record-setting 316.15 mph effort in the Die Hard Batteries Dodge.
Still, when Tasca eliminated Capps and the NAPA Dodge in the semifinals, earning the choice of lanes for the final, his second straight victory in the Florida classic seemed to many to be a foregone conclusion. No one bothered to tell that to Wilkerson.
Relegated for the third time to the lane considered most troublesome, Wilkerson managed to put together a solid 4.097 at 303 mph that easily handled Tasca’s trouble 4.192 at just 287 mph, the result of a dropped cylinder.
“We put a cylinder out in the finals,” Tasca recounted. “(That’s) one of the gremlins that you face. I knew it was out because my Mustang was almost in the wall. I had the steering wheel turned all the way to the right and I just hung on to keep it straight.”
“We did have a good day today,” Wilkerson said. “I’m not going to say we were world-beaters, but we made some pretty darn good runs to keep them on their toes.”
The final round result sent both Ford drivers up the ladder in the latest driver standings. When the tour moves on to Charlotte, N.C., for the NHRA 4-Wide Nationals on March 28, Tasca will be fourth in points and Wilkerson eighth, both trailing Force, who managed to get out of Florida with his lead intact. Hight is tied for fifth and Force Hood, who has yet to advance beyond the second round, ninth.
“We had to switch motors this weekend and (the two) were just a little different,” Hight said. “We scuffed a few pistons (but) we’ll figure it out. If we would have had our stuff together, we could have run 4.04 or 4.03 easily.
“We haven’t hurt this much stuff in a long time. In the second round (against Tasca), we just smoked the tires (lost traction),” he explained. “It was just one of those deals. We’ll (just) learn from it and get better. I am excited to go to the next race and race four wide in Charlotte. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing one, two or three cars, you just have to get there first. We haven’t been doing that yet in this Auto Club Mustang, but we’ll get her back (on track).”
As for Force Hood, she will simply write off the 2010 Gatornationals as an unfortunate experience and go on.
“On my run, I still don’t know what I would have done differently,” she said. “I am not beating myself up about it. Usually, it’s the runs where you wish you would have done something differently that bug you. That run was just a collection of things that happened that made my car upset.
“It just didn’t want to go down the track. Melanie’s car didn’t want to get down there, either (but) she was able to recover hers quicker. So, we’ll just go on to Charlotte.”
Despite the loss of traction and a wild move toward the center line that ultimately forced her to abort, Ashley didn’t characterize the run as one of the wildest she has endured since turning pro in 2007.
“That run was not as crazy of a ride as everyone thinks,” she said. “A ton of people have been asking me about it. I’ve had pedalfests before where you feel like you are getting sideways. I don’t remember it being that bad (this time). I think I’m either getting used to that or, since it was down on power, it (just wasn’t as violent as the times before.
“I felt like I was coasting, even though I was on and off the throttle. It didn’t feel that crazy inside.”
Final round results from Sunday’s 41st annual Tire Kingdom Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway:
FUNNY CAR – Tim Wilkerson, Springfield, Ill., Levi, Ray and Shoup Ford Mustang, 4.097, 303.78, def. Bob Tasca III, Cranston, R.I., Quick Lane/Motorcraft Ford Mustang, 4.192, 287.17 mph.
TOP FUEL – Tony Schumacher, Long Grove, Ill., U.S. Army dragster, 3.797, 322.04 mph, def. Antron Brown, Brownsburg, Ind., Matco Tools dragster, 6.632, 101.17 mph.
PRO STOCK – Jason Line, Troutman, N.C., Summit Pontiac GXP, 6.580, 210.14 mph, def. Mike Edwards, Coweta, Okla., Penhall Company Pontiac GXP, 6.556, 211.16 mph.
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE – Eddie Krawiec, Englishtown, N.J., Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson V-Rod, 6.899, 195.68 mph, def. Shawn Gann, Stoneville, N.C., Master Cam Buell, 6.908, 194.21 mph.
PRO MODIFIED – Kenny Lang, Grande Pointe, Manitoba, Canada, 1953 Chevrolet Corvette, 5.908, 243.68 mph, def. Michael Gullqvist, Hasselby, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1968 Chevrolet Camaro, foul.
TOP ALCOHOL DRAGSTER – Duane Shields, Boulder City, Nev., A/FD, 5.362, 267.27 mph, def. Darren Nicholson, Mission Viejo, Calif., TAD, 8.334, 114.93 mphl.
TOP ALCOHOL FUNNY CAR – Frank Manzo, Morganville, N.J., 2006 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 5.475, 265.33 mph, def. Mickey Ferro, Stamford, Conn., 2010 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, 5.498, 262.44 mph.
COMPETITION – Arnie Martel, Tewksbury, Mass., 2007 Pontiac GTO, def. Glen Treadwell, Sorrento, Fla., dragster.
SUPER STOCK – Pending.
STOCK – Pending.
SUPER COMP – Pending.
SUPER GAS – Pending.