TOPEKA, Kan. (May 19, 2013) – For the first time in his career as a professional NHRA Funny Car driver, Johnny Gray is leaving a national event in sole possession of the points lead and hoisting the Wally for the second straight race. Gray, driver of the Pitch Energy Dodge Charger R/T and winner of the race in Atlanta just last weekend, scored the sixth Funny Car win of his career today with a final-round victory over John Force Racing's Robert Hight at the 25th annual NHRA Kansas Nationals.
The closing round at Heartland Park Topeka was familiar territory for the friendly rivals as it marked the fourth time that Gray and Hight had met in the final at a national event. Despite the fact that Gray had ousted Hight in the opening round at the most recent two races on the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series tour, the fact of the matter leading into the round was that Hight held a 3-0 advantage over Gray in finals.
The 60-year-old Funny Car driver from Artesia, N.M., was unfazed by the statistics, however, and raced ahead of a tire-smoking Hight in the last act after defeating Alexis DeJoria , 4.117 to 5.104; Del Worsham with a wicked-quick, low of the round 4.047, 313.66 to 4.115, 307.79; and Don Schumacher Racing teammate Jack Beckman, 4.055, to 4.104, in the first three acts. Gray's final time was a swift and strong 4.067 at a booming 314.90 mph.
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"This morning during pre-race, it was funny because Robert and I talked to each other and agreed that we were both pretty happy that we didn't have to run each other first round again," said Gray. "We've run into each other a whole lot first round here lately, and really, neither one of us ever want to run each other. That's a great team over there, Robert is a great guy, and I'm just as scared of him as he is of me. After the semifinals, we were both at the top end and I looked at him and said, 'I still don't want to run you.' Robert said, 'Well, I don't want to run you either.' We both went out there loaded for bear, and we made it, he didn't.
"The way it came out, my crew chief Rob Wendland gave me a racecar that ran real hard all day. You can win a lot of races off the intimidation factor, and my crew chief had her tuned up to where she was a little intimidating today. But Robert had a great racecar too – they just missed it a hair, and you know, Rob didn't. I owe it all to Rob, Rip [Reynolds, assistant crew chief], Ryan [Elliott] and the guys. I've got a great, great team. I just can't say enough about them."
The old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover" could well have been applied to the weekend in Topeka; the first day of qualifying was absolutely no indication of the greatness to come for the Pitch Energy Dodge. The team rebounded from two unstable passes with a pair of smooth hits on day two of qualifying that was highlighted by a brilliant 4.053 at 313.30 mph. Thanks to the improved performance, Gray earned a start from the No. 4 position – his best qualifying berth since the race in Las Vegas earlier this spring.
Now in what he has declared his final season of full-time racing on NHRA's tour, Gray has collected three wins so far this year in a car dedicated to his father, the late John R. Gray. For the Pitch Energy team, every step along the way towards the Countdown to the Championship is filled with serious motivation and intention.
"There is a whole lot of meaning to this season for the Gray family, but also for all of us," said Kansas-bred Wendland, now in only his second full season as a nitro crew chief. "We're here this year in recognition of Johnny's father, and Johnny is who he is today because of what that man instilled in him. For Johnny Gray to step up and run this car with his sister, Terry Chander, and to allow us to do what we love to do – well, it means everything to me and to this whole team. That right there makes you dig a little bit deeper, work a little bit harder, work a few more hours, and stay up a little later at night thinking about this racecar. We all want to do well because this is a very special year."
Following his semifinals defeat of Beckman, Gray moved up to second in the Mello Yello Series standings, and with the Topeka victory, he took sole possession of the Funny Car points lead for the first time in his career; Gray shared the lead with DSR teammate Ron Capps for one race following his win in Gainesville earlier this year.
"The run for the championship is still a long ways away," said Gray. "But if the same car keeps showing up and Rob keeps her running like she's running, we have as good a shot as anybody out here. That's a true fact. These guys are just giving me such a great car right now, I really can't screw it up. We're going to go back out there and just keep playing because we're out here having a great time."