Little known part-time racer Joe Hartley is the surprise Top Fuel leader at Heartland Park Topeka Friday after opening qualifying with a stunning 4.518 at 323.12 mph. The unsponsored driver from Portland has more DNQs than race day starts in 56 career attempts but on this day he's the top performer, joining Funny Car heavyweight Robert Hight and Pro Stock points leader Greg Anderson on the leaderboard.
Friday's action was trimmed by on-and-off rain showers. Only one round of nitro and about a round and a half of Pro Stock made it into the books. But the start of the 19th annual O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX wasn't without fireworks as three track records were set. Mike Ashley powered to a top speed of 327.11 mph to set an HPT track record in Funny Car, while Anderson's 6.709 at 206.48 mph set both ends of the Pro Stock mark.
Blowing past the likes of four-time champion Tony Schumacher, current points leader "Hot Rod" Fuller, and the rest of the stout Top Fuel field, Hartley was the talk of the pits after what was easily the best run of his career. Even Hartley was surprised when he climbed from his rail at the top end of the racetrack.
"I can't believe it," the 30-year-old Hartley said. "We were hoping for a low 4.60 so to go almost a tenth of a second quicker is really exciting. It snapped the front end up right away and just went straight down the track nice and easy. The smooth ones are definitely the quickest ones and that one was very smooth."
After four first-round losses in a row, Schumacher hopes a quick start here will help him shake off his current clump. His 4.529 at 303.09 mph in the U.S. Army dragster placed him second overall.
David Powers Motorsports teammates Whit Bazemore (4.534) and Fuller (4.566) followed in third and fourth place, respectively.
Hight hasn't qualified lower than second on the elimination ladder all year and he looks strong again here, racing his Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang to the top spot with a 4.754 at 320.66 mph.
"It felt great to get back in the car after that long break," Hight said. "I'm happy to be here and happy to be driving this car. Evidentially, [crew chief] Jimmy Prock didn't take a vacation because the car was perfect.
"It nosed over right in the lights and it felt like I lifted but it appears the gears chewed the teeth off the blower belt. At least it held together until then."
Riding a streak of three top qualifying efforts in a row, Torco Dodge Charger R/T racer Ashley remains very quick, running his 4.794 at 327.11 mph to finish the day in second place. John Force also ran a 4.7-second pass, ending up third with a 4.796 at 302.28 mph in his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford. Daughter Ashley Force was ninth after a 4.902.
Points leader Ron Capps, Kenny Bernstein, and Tony Bartone all failed to qualify Friday.
As the first professional-level cars on the track, many Pro Stock drivers complained of a lack of rubber on the starting line, but Anderson managed to launch well enough in Round 2 to post his 6.709 at 206.48 mph.
Round 1 leader Kurt Johnson slipped to second with a best of 6.744 at 204.85 mph in the ACDelco Chevrolet Cobalt. He didn't make a second run. Dave Connolly, the most recent winner on tour, is third with a best of 6.749 at 204.45 mph in his Torco Chevy. Team Mopar teammates Allen Johnson (6.760) and Richie Stevens (6.761) follow in fourth and fifth place.