By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com
Mike Ashley collected his long-awaited first Funny Car trophy at Heartland Park Topeka. Brandon Bernstein joined Ashley in the winner's circle of the 19th annual O'Reilly NHRA Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX and extended his recent dominance of the Top Fuel class Sunday with his third win of the last four national events, surging into the POWERade points lead in the process while Pro Stock kingpin Greg Anderson collected his fifth Wally of the year's first eight races.
Ashley, who last won a race at the 1997 U.S. Nationals in Indy, after edging surprise finalist Jim Head. Bernstein raced past good friend J.R. Todd, who was racing in his seventh Top Fuel final in 27 career starts. Runaway Pro Stock leader Anderson spooked three of his four opponents into red-light starts on the day, taking the easiest line to the podium.
Usually Bernstein and Todd are each other's biggest cheerleaders, but on this day they were rivals, if only for a few seconds, as they streaked down Heartland Park Topeka for the race title. In the end, Bernstein's rock-steady Budweiser rail was quick enough to turn on the win light as the 15-time national event winner crossed in 4.582 seconds at 320.51 mph to Todd's 4.667 at 299.86 mph attempt in his Torco Race Fuels dragster.
"It's tough to race J.R. because we're such great friends," Bernstein said. "Together with Eric [Medlen] we have spent a lot of time together and now with Eric being gone the bond I have with J.R. is even more special. Plus, he's a tough guy to race, so we're very happy to get the win.
"Tim and Kim have given me a good, consistent racecar to drive and it's so cool to drive a car that you know is going down the track every time. The key to winning a championship is key and although this year it will be extra important to be consistent at the end, it's nice to be in the lead because it's a reflection of how well you car is running. Usually the points leader is winning some races and we've been lucky enough to win three already this year."
This was the third final of the year for Todd, who is on his third crew chief of the young season. He fell to 2-1 on the year and 5-2 lifetime with a trophy on the line.
Bernstein started the day 23 points in arrears to "Hot Rod" Fuller and leaves town 56 points ahead. Fuller lost to Doug Kalitta in the first round.
Ashley qualified as the happiest winner on the property as he took turns hugging everyone he could find after climbing from his Torco Race Fuels Dodge Charger. The fast-talking New Yorker has had an excellent racecar lately, reeling off three No. 1 qualifying efforts in a row coming into this event. He finally punched through for his first win Sunday by beating Head, 4.896 at 310.70 mph to Head's 4.928 at 303.09 mph.
"I'm so emotional right now but I'll try to keep it together," Ashley said. "This has been such a journey and it all started a few years ago when [sponsor] Evan Knoll came to me and said, 'Let's do it.' We've been working towards this goal since then and Evan stuck with us through it all. This win is for all the dreamers out there. This is proof you can do anything you set your mind to.
"It feels good to get it done for Evan and everyone at Torco and Lend America. I've won a bunch of Pro Mod races and even a couple of championships but nothing compares to this feeling, nothing. We have a great car right now and I expect we'll be doing this more often."
There was high drama before the semifinals as top qualifier Robert Hight and his Auto Club of Southern California team struggled to get their Ford Mustang ready for the race. Hight suffered a big fire after the finish line in the quarterfinals and hit both retaining walls before coming to a stop in the top end sand trap. He was uninjured but his car was in shambles.
The entire John Force Racing operation scrambled to get Hight's car ready and they made it up to the starting line in time to race a very patient Head but had to shut the engine off before making a burnout when fluid was discovered leaking from the motor.
Hight still managed to trim his deficit to points leader Ron Capps from 121 to 53 points. Capps failed to qualify for this event, his first DNQ in 56 races.
Anderson is running so strong these days that his last three opponents all took shots at the Christmas Tree in an effort to gain some sort of edge on the three-time champion. It didn't help as all three men -- Tom Hammonds, Jeg Coughlin, and Connolly -- red-lighted by a few thousandths of a second.
"Dave and Jeggy had taken the momentum at the last race and it was important for us to answer back," Anderson said. "We've all worked extremely hard since St. Louis to swing it back this way and it appears we've got our hot rod back. I can't remember the last time three people red-lighted against me in the same day. It may not have ever happened. It's good to get in everyone's head a little bit.
"This win is dedicated to our great friends Donnie and Hollie Faulkner from Oakley. They lost their little baby a couple of weeks ago and I know this has been an awful time for them. We are thinking of them and praying for them."
Anderson has now won the last eight finals he's participated in dating back to last year's Indy win. He's 5-0 on the 2007 season and 48-21 in his career.
Cagnazzi Racing pro Connolly, who won the last race in St. Louis over teammate Coughlin, falls to 10-12 in his career but maintained second place in the standings.