Funny Car points leader Matt Hagan earned the No. 1 qualifying position Saturday at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis.
Shawn Langdon (Top Fuel), Allen Johnson (Pro Stock) and Hector Arana Sr. (Pro Stock Motorcycle) also will lead their categories into Sunday's 11 a.m. eliminations as No. 1 qualifiers at the 21st race of the season and the third of six playoff races in the NHRA Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship.
Hagan's stellar season continued as his Friday track record performance of 4.001 seconds at 320.20mph in his Magneti Marelli/Rocky Boots Dodge Charger gave the 2011 world champ his fifth No. 1 qualifying position of the season and the 15th of his career.
“I feel like yesterday was one of those deals where we set ourselves up where we needed to, and then today, you come out and try to work on race-day setup,” said Hagan, who will meet second-generation driver Daniel Wilkerson in the first round. “Today we missed a little bit early when it was hot out, and then it was just a little bit weak on the second session, but I've got all the confidence in the world in [crew chief] Dickie Venables. He's going to do a great job tomorrow, and we're going to turn four win lights on and hold up the trophy at the end of the day.”
During the four rounds of qualifying, Hagan increased his series lead from 51 to 63 over second place Cruz Pedregon, who qualified 10th and will meet local favorite Tim Wilkerson in a titan first round Countdown match up.
“Every lap counts,” said Hagan. “I mean, you're looking at small points. You're trying to pick up three points every time you go down the racetrack. My mentality is to just come out here and drive my race car and do what we know how to do and go down the racetrack and make it into a phenomenal weekend.”
Robert Hight will start second in his Auto Club Ford Mustang with his 4.022 at 315.64 and 15-time champ John Force qualified third with a 4.023 at 313.66 in his Castrol GTX Mustang. Force was quickest and second-quickest on Saturday, while his daughter Courtney, who will race Tony Pedregon in the opening round, was quickest in the last session with a 4.037 and second-quickest in the first at the controls of her Traxxas Mustang.
In Top Fuel, no one improved on Langdon's 3.761 at 326.40 from Friday either, so the Al-Anabi Racing driver used that effort to score his sixth No. 1 of the season, second in a row in the Countdown and 12th of his career. He will race Troy Buff in the opening round.
“The Al-Anabi team did an excellent job preparing the car for the four qualifying runs this weekend,” Langdon said. “The last run got a little bit overaggressive, but we're basically trying to go out there and trying to throw down to see what exactly it will hold. We were a little on the conservative side on the first three runs, but just trying to race smart and get those bonus points and get that points lead. We were able to accomplish that and get the No. 1 qualifier in the process and put ourselves in a good position for tomorrow."
With his two quick times from Friday and a second-best lap on Saturday, Langdon extended his Countdown lead to 13 points over second place Doug Kalitta. Spencer Massey, who qualified 14th, is 15 points back in third.
“Every point counts, so it's just little by little, one round at a time, and they'll add up in the end,” said Langdon, who entered the race tied at the top with Kalitta, and Massey was only two back in third. “It's just don't beat ourselves, that's the biggest thing. We just have to race smart. You can't go up there and try to do something that you're really not accustomed to or go up there and try new things. It's just keep doing what you're doing and just make the best decision possible and just race smart for the conditions.”
Tony Schumacher, who was second-quickest in the final session, will start second in his U.S. Army dragster with his Friday run of 3.782 at a track record speed of 327.74. Clay Millican, the only Countdown driver in Top Fuel yet to win a race this season, qualified third in his Parts-Plus dragster with his Friday effort of 3.786 at 322.27.
Countdown contender Steve Torrence used a Hail Mary run of 3.818 seconds to make the field in dramatic fashion on his final attempt Saturday, and his effort ended up being the quickest run of the session, which moved him to ninth in the field. He will face David Grubnic in the first round.
A mega first-round Top Fuel pairing that will have huge points implications will feature the first two Countdown race winners going head-to-head, as Charlotte winner Morgan Lucas will meet Dallas winner Kalitta.
In Pro Stock, Johnson earned his third top qualifying position of the season and 31st of his career with his Friday run of 6.512 at 212.29 in his Team Mopar Dodge Avenger. He will race Lucas Oil Ford Mustang driver Larry Morgan in the opening round.
“The conditions were great today and they did a really good job with the track,” Johnson said. “We gained 10 points on the frontrunners during qualifying and I hope we can take our Express Lube Dodge to the final and make up some more ground. I was not surprised to see our time from last night hold up because the conditions just weren't there. We have a really good combination so we just decided to work on our race-day set up. We treated today as a chance to test and tune for tomorrow.”
V. Gaines was second in his Kendall Oil Avenger with a 6.526 at 211.96 and Jeg Coughlin, who earned enough bonus points to move into a tie atop the series standings with Jason Line, will start third in his JEGS.com/Mopar Avenger.
Co-leader Line and regular season top seed Mike Edwards, currently third in points, will meet in a another blockbuster Countdown first-round showdown. Rodger Brogdon was the only Countdown qualifier who failed to make the 16-car field for eliminations.
Arana Sr. raced to his third No. 1 qualifying position of the season and 24th of his career in Pro Stock Motorcycle, speeding to a track record performance of 6.796 at 198.58 on his Lucas Oil Products Buell. The 2009 world champ will face Mike Berry in the opening round.
"This is just what our team needed," said Arana Sr., who moved to third in points with the qualifying effort, 20 behind points leader and son Hector Arana Jr. "We still haven't found the sweet spot, but we're getting better.”
Michael Ray qualified second with a 6.830 at 196.99 on his Sovereign-Star Racing Buell and the series second-place rider Matt Smith, who cut Arana Jr.'s lead to five points during qualifying, will start third on his Viper Motorcycle Company Buell with a 6.850 at 196.30. Arana Jr. qualified seventh on his Lucas Oil Buell and will race Jerry Savoie in the first round.