Johnny Gray came to Brainerd International Raceway sitting on the bubble for qualifying for the Countdown to the Championship.
Gray left BIR still on the bubble, but with reason to celebrate as he captured his first career national title with a winning pass in the final elimination run over Ron Capps.
“We’ve won in everything but a fuel funny car, and we really wanted to win a race,” said Gray. “I’m 58 years old and don’t have a lot of time left. It feels great. I wish my wife were here. She’s in Florida but she told me I would win if she didn’t come. I may not let her come anymore.”
Gray won with an elapsed time of 4.113 seconds and a speed of 307.02 miles per hour. He had just enough to beat Capps’ time of 4.134 seconds, running at a speed of 307.37 mph.
“With what they did in the last round, the guys gave me a hot rod,” said Gray. “I tell you that I stole something off the tree there. I owe it all to the crew chief.”
The weekend did not start out on a good note for Gray as he had to shut down his engine before his first qualifying run.
“Our first qualifying run we got an O ring in the fuel cylinder system,” Gray explained. “So I did my burnout and it sounded pretty trashy, and by the end of the burn it sounded like it was ready to spit parts out on the ground. I elected to shut it off and it was a good thing. It would have been real loud.”
In round one of eliminations, Capps ran the low ET with a time of 4.115 to defeat Jim Head. Top qualifier Matt Hagan defeated Tony Pedregon, and Melanie Troxel defeated Jack Beckman in a minor upset.
Cruz Pedregon was one of the big movers on Saturday, jumping to the No. 2 spot with a qualifying run of 4.140 on his last run of the day.
Cruz Pedregon explained the he felt the time was there if his engine could keep running at full capacity.
“We knew that their wasn’t going to be a huge window to run down Matt Hagan’s time, but I was looking to be between a 4.12 and a 4.15 and I felt like if we could run that and keep eight cylinders we would be good,” Pedregon said of his qualifying run on Saturday.
Gray started Sunday in the No. 7 spot and defeated Jeff Arend in the opening round. Gray then scored an upset win over Cruz Pedregon in round two. Gray ran an ET of 4.198 to Pedregon’s time of 4.499.
Capps won on a hole shot over Mike Neff, and Matt Hagan just kept rolling along with a victory over Melanie Troxel.
Bob Tasca III defeated Tim Wilkerson to set up a battle between the No. 10 and No. drivers in the Countdown to the Championship with Tasca III and Gray squaring off against each other.
In the semifinals, Don Schumacher’s two drivers came away victorious with Capps and Gray each getting wins.
Capps won with an ET of 4.137 to Hagan’s ET of 4.145. Gray ran a time of 4.159 to Tasca III’s time of 4.198.
Gray leaves Brainerd knowing that he has a shot in Indianapolis to make it in to the top 10. He also said that after visiting kids in the hospital in Denver when the NHRA made a stop, spinning your tires or making it into the countdown are not the most important things in life.
“We’ll go to Indy and do the best we can,” said Gray. “Basically if Tasca III has some bad luck we have a chance, but if he runs like he is capable of we are pretty well done.
“But we are going to have a good car next year. About all I can do is think back about these guys that crucified me when we didn’t have a good car, and we’ll see if we can run their chance at the championship.”