Much about this year’s running of the Dollar General 4-Wide Nationals seemed a little off kilter and out of whack, beginning with a full rain-out on Friday which created a “get in or go home” pair of four-wide runs on Saturday. On Sunday, a rare 12:00 noon start added to the surreal nature of things, and as is always the case the final round was one where a driver could finish his day as the winner, the runner-up, or as one of two semifinalists, despite it being only the third round of the race.
For Tim Wilkerson, a good day was already in the bank when he pulled up to run in that third and final round, but a great day eluded him when tire spin caused him to finish third in the four-driver group. What could’ve been a win, or at least the equivalent to a normal final round, was instead a semifinal finish that was earned with the drama of a final.
After the washout on Friday, Wilk and his Levi, Ray & Shoup group joined the majority of Funny Car teams during Saturday’s first session, by failing to make a full clean pass. His 5.162 was nothing to write home about, but it still slotted him into the 11th position going into the second and final qualifying session, run in front of nothing short of an enormous crowd at zMAX Dragway. During that lap, Wilk found his stride and ripped off a 4.095 to go from the 14th spot (at the time) all the way up to the No. 4 position. In addition, he recorded the quickest run of the session and therefore picked up three bonus points. It was all good.
Only at the 4-Wides, though, can qualifying fourth nearly guarantee that you’ll run last in the opening round. With four “quads” of cars running in round one, instead of the standard eight pairs of two, the fourth group got final choice for position and, as expected, only the final slot was left. On top of that, the shortened qualifying program left the entire order in some disarray, with surprise No. 1 qualifier Chad Head earning every bit of the top spot, while other championship caliber teams were scattered all over the top 16. Speaking of contenders, Johnny Gray was the unlucky 17th driver here, as he failed to qualify. Wilk’s opening-round quad featured him, Del Worsham, Courtney Force, and Cruz Pedregon. Pick your poison!
“We saw the names in the quad with us and it was like ‘You’re kidding me, right’,” Wilk said. “You go low for the final session, move up to fourth, and it was like we had barely made the show and had to run three outstanding teams and drivers. And then you add in the part about knowing we’d also have to go last in the round, and it really felt like we didn’t get much reward for that run, but at least we had first lane choice so that was good.”
After Friday’s storms, a cool front moved through and made Saturday a delight, although partly cloudy skies and cooler conditions made Sunday a bit brisk and a challenge for tuners. Wilk chose Lane 1 for the first round, and this one earned no style points for anybody. All four cars failed to make a clean run, and a four-wide pedaling duel ensued, much to the delight of the crowd. Pedregon got across the stripe first, but Wilk was able to outrun Force and Worsham to grab the second position and advance.
Moving on to round two, Wilk’s quad included himself, Head, Pedregon, and Robert Hight. Once again, no favors. This time, however, Wilk didn’t need to pedal and he needed no good fortune. His 4.095 matched his qualifying effort and it propelled him into the final group as the winner of the round.
“We all messed up on the first one a little, and I was just lucky enough to get my car to the other end in second place, but ugly wins are still wins and I’ll take that,” Wilk said. “Our clutch program has been coming around, and this time we got it all to work together right in round two, and the car did exactly what I wanted it to do. That was a heck of a run, and once you get to that point you start to build that confidence and you know you have a chance. The final quad was going to be a big challenge, but we had as good a chance as anyone.”
That final group included Matt Hagan, the aforementioned Head (who clearly was having a stellar weekend during the first race at which he had ever qualified) and Blake Alexander, who was also treading in uncharted territory being this deep into a race. It was anyone’s game, and all four drivers had already posted good days. It was up to one of them to make it a great one.
Hagan was the man who did it, posting another fantastic lap (4.071) to take the win light, while young Alexander posted a solid 4.156 run to grab the runner-up position. The glass slipper finally didn’t fit rookie driver Head, who finished fourth in the group after early trouble. Wilk spun the hoops around the 330 mark, and finished third. The semifinal finish moved him from 12th in the points standings up to 9th, however, and it was a good day.
“We need to bust out of it and get a win here soon, but we made a lot of progress today and I’m happy with that,” Wilk said. “I was a little back-and-forth there as we were waiting to run, because the sun would pop out and it would heat right up, then a big cloud would move in and the temperature would drop. Maybe we missed the call on that, I don’t know, but we gave it our shot and I know a lot of people would trade places with us right now, so it’s good.
“This four-wide race is a crazy deal, but man the fans sure seemed to like it and we had great crowds when it wasn’t pouring rain on us. The funniest thing I noticed this time was that the two drivers and teams that advanced each round would kind of celebrate together down there at the end of the track. First, you get out of your car and you want to know if you were first or second, and then when you learn you are, and the other guy hears he’s moving on too, everyone hugs and high-fives down there. When you race one-on-one, that doesn’t happen. Kind of a neat deal, and like I said the fans sure seem to like it so that’s good. This track is massive, and we still just about filled it on Saturday, so there were a lot of people watching all this and feeling the noise and power of all that horsepower going down the track at once. We need to thank all of them for coming out, and thank the track staff for being one of the best there is. This place is world class, all the way around.”
The Mello Yello tour now heads directly to Houston, where qualifying will begin on Friday.
Team Wilkerson Racing
NHRA Nitro Funny Car