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Sep 10, 2012 - 08:40 AM
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2012 NHRA: Johnny Gray Drives NTB Big O Tires Dodge To The Semifinals At Historic US Nationals
Posted by: newsla on Sep 10, 2012 - 08:34 AM
2012 NHRA: Johnny Gray Drives NTB Big O Tires Dodge To The Semifinals At Historic US Nationals
The honor of racing at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals is seldom lost on a driver, and it has been said that no trophy case is ever really complete without a Wally earned in Indy. Service Central-backed Johnny Gray, pilot of the NTB/Big O Tires Dodge, is in the midst of a banner year, and the Artesia, New Mexico-based Funny Car powerhouse came to Indianapolis determined to leave his mark on the event so richly steeped in historic moments and pursue the coveted title that was well within his reach.


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Once before - with a 2003 runner-up to Tim Wilkerson - Gray had come quite close to completing the task, and he was determined to take it one step further and right into the winner's circle at this season's running of the U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, but Wilkerson was again the one to halt his quest, this time in the semifinals.

Mother Nature had her say in the outcome of the race as well, and completion of the widely anticipated event was postponed for one week when pouring rain drenched the originally scheduled slot. Gray and his devoted and well-jelled team simply took a step back and regrouped in preparation for vastly different conditions.

"The delay of the race didn't have any effect on us what-so-ever," he said. "We know the potential of our Service Central Dodge, and we knew we had just as good a shot as anybody else to win this thing. But when it came down to it, we just weren't able to make it happen."

Gray was second quickest on the first day of the qualifying for the event, and he was situated in the No. 9 spot when the final qualifying session came to a conclusion. The veteran drag racer who has competed in seven different NHRA categories over the course of his career was unfazed when he laid eyes upon the eliminations ladder. His first-round match was to be with one of the most notable Funny Car drivers in the NHRA Full Throttle Series: John Force.

Force took a small advantage off the starting line but soon lost traction in a big way. Although Gray also forfeited e.t. when he ran into trouble of his own downtrack, the damage was done for Force, and Gray got the win light with a 4.591. For Gray, the victory would result in a second-round match with Force's daughter - rookie Funny Car pilot Courtney Force.

Once again, it was Gray with the starting-line advantage, and this time the Rob Wendland-tuned NTB/Big O Tires Dodge sailed smooth and straight down the racing surface as the younger Force hazed the tires early and had to shut off. The 4.128 at 306.26 mph that appeared on the scoreboard in Gray's lane was good for lane choice against Wilkerson in the semifinals.

Fired up and ready to run for it, Gray had to muster a dose of patience as he waited for his opponent to move into place and set the tree in motion in their afternoon meeting.

"I was on the high side with the clutch out and waiting way too long," explained Gray. "When it was time to go and I hit the throttle, it dropped a cylinder. But hey, that's just racing."

Nine days of anticipation and dreaming of the U.S. Nationals crown came to a close just one round shy of what could have been the fourth final of the season and 15th of Gray's career as he fell back to a 4.23 to Wilkerson's 4.14.

"I can't be too upset about it," said Gray. "You know, we leave here fifth in the points with the Countdown to the Championship starting next week in Charlotte. That's a pretty good position to be in, and the Traxxas Shootout was postponed, so we've got that to look forward to in Dallas. There are a lot of really good, positive things on the horizon for our Service Central Dodge. We were struggling with the car a little bit, but we think we've found what was plaguing her - and now the car shows real signs of grandeur. I'd be fibbing if I said we weren't extremely excited about the rest of this season."

Johnny Gray NTB/Big O Tires Dodge Charger R/T
Qualifying position: No. 9
Round one: Johnny Gray (4.591-second at 199.58 mph) def. John Force (no time)
Round two: Gray (4.128, 306.26) def. Courtney Force (4.611, 183.92)
Semifinals: Tim Wilkerson (4.145, 295.53) def. Gray (4.235, 288.21)

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