Even if Carl Edwards’ stock car sputters around the track at 20 mph during qualifying Saturday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series leader will be racing Sunday at Martinsville, Va. That’s because the top 35 cars in points are guaranteed spots in the 43-car lineup.
In drag racing, there are no such mulligans. If a driver isn’t fast enough to earn one of 16 spots in championship eliminations, then Sunday becomes a day of watching — or traveling — instead of racing.
Spencer Massey’s Top Fuel team experienced such a setback Oct. 15 at the NHRA national event near Phoenix. Instead of qualifying for the elimination finals, the 29-year-old native of Fort Worth, Texas, and his team were on the road to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for testing the next day to shake out the gremlins that can come at 300 mph.
In the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series, you go fast or go home. Or you go to test.
“I thought about (NASCAR) driving to Las Vegas,” Massey said this week. “It’s pretty much show up and run over there. Drag racing is that much tougher because you have to qualify. You can’t take it for granted. It’s one of the things that make our sport.”
Massey began the event at Firebird International Raceway as the points leader, 65 ahead of Antron Brown, his Don Schumacher Racing teammate. But when Massey didn’t make the finals, he fell to third with two events remaining, starting today for professional categories at the LVMS drag strip.
The Phoenix failure was surprising because Massey’s team had won the previous event at Mohnton, Pa., advancing to the final round for the third straight race. The win was his team’s fourth of the season.
Massey’s washout came at the worst possible time: during the season-ending, six-event Countdown to the Championship. NHRA uses the first 16 events of the year to determine which 10 drivers in each of four professional categories qualify for the championship runoff.
“It’s not a 22-race season deciding the championship, it’s a six-race season,” said three-time and reigning Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon, who won at Phoenix to move into second in points driving for Al-Anabi Racing.
“There’s a lot less margin for error in a six-race shootout. The 16 best cars race on Sunday. That’s how we roll in the NHRA.”
Dixon last failed to qualify for an event in the 2009 season opener with Al-Anabi, but rebounded to easily advance to the Countdown, where he finished second in the championship race.
Dixon said it was fortunate Massey had built a points cushion by advancing to the finals in the first three Countdown events.
“There are a lot of teams that would take (Massey’s) problems,” Dixon said.
Setbacks — and overcoming them — aren’t new to Massey. He was left without a full-time driving job last year after Top Fuel team owner Don Prudhomme lost sponsorship near the end of 2009 and shut down the team after that season.
Massey was selected the top NHRA rookie in 2009, posting two wins that season, including the Las Vegas fall event. He competed in only one event last year, but was hired by Schumacher for this season and has a 40-15 record in elimination rounds with four victories.
Massey finds a positive out of the negative outcome at Phoenix.
“We think we might have one-upped everyone else for Vegas,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of extra runs on this track under conditions we believe will be just like race day, so we might just have a slight advantage.”
Jeff Wolf is a freelance reporter. He can be reached at 702-406-8165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.