CONCORD - The later it got the faster it got Friday on the first day of professional qualifying for the National Hot Rod Association's Carolina Nationals.
Larry Dixon, driving one of the last two cars down the track at zMax Dragway @ Concord, took the No. 1 spot in Top Fuel qualifying with an elapsed time of 3.846 seconds to bump Cory McClenathan out of the top spot.
Dixon joined Frank Hawley in Funny Car, Kurt Johnson in Pro Stock and Matt Smith in Pro Stock Motorcycle atop their respective classes going into Saturday's final two rounds of qualifying, which are set to begin at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
With the weather expected to be hotter Saturday, certainly hotter than it was as the sun went down in Friday's second session, the top spots may not change hands. But there will still be plenty to watch in the final qualifying sessions because of who has not yet locked down starting spots for Sunday's eliminations.
Tony Schumacher, who has won the past six Top Fuel races, had a problem on his run Friday evening and did not make the top 12 after the first day. Only the top 12 can carry their times over and have them count as officials runs. Since there are only 17 Top Fuel cars entered, chances that Schumacher won't be in the top 16 after Saturday are minute.
John Force, Jack Beckman and Tony Pedregon, however, have a little more to sweat in Funny Car. All three are in the NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoff - Pedregon is the No. 2 seed in the six-race playoff that begins here - but none made the top 12 Friday.
Countdown participants Allen Johnson and Ron Krisher in Pro Stock and Angelle Sampey in Pro Stock Motorcycle also have to get into eliminations based on Saturday.
"So far, so good," Dixon said after he closed the day with his fast run. "Coming into a track that we have absolutely no experience with, we watched cars run and put a moderate baseline tune-up in."
Dixon went 3.910 seconds in his first run, which was third best, and then adjusted on that as darkness gathered.
"We were looking for a mid-3.80 and it ran a 3.84," said Dixon, who comes into the first race in the NHRA's Countdown to 1 playoff third in Top Fuel behind Schumacher and Antron Brown.
McClenathan is second in Top Fuel after running 3.863 seconds. Brown is third with Hillary Will fourth and Lincolnton-based Doug Herbert fifth.
Hawley said he is confident that his time of 4.072 seconds will stand up as the No. 1 time Saturday.
"Let's put it this way," he said, "I already shook (crew chief) Aaron's (Brooks) hand and congratulated him."
Hawley had the worst time among the 22 Funny Cars entered in Friday afternoon's first round, but came out first in the later session and put up a number nobody could top. Robert Hight actually matched the 4.072 elapsed time, but Hawley's top end speed of 307.16 mph was better than Hight's 300.33 mph and that is the tie-breaker.
"The track is wonderful," Hawley said. "And not just the facility and the grandstands and the suites and all that. The racing surface is really great and they've done a great job preparing it."
Ashley Force was first and her father, 14-time champion John Force, was second in the afternoon session. But in the second session Ashley ran 4.075 seconds to take the No. 4 spot. John smoked his tires and his 4.147-second run from the afternoon fell to 15th.
Kurt Johnson tested along with his father, Warren Johnson, here last week and built on that with a No. 1 Pro Stock run at 6.680 seconds.
"There's a bunch of fire-breathing dragons out there," Kurt Johnson said. "It's so close. ...You're splitting hairs out there."
Jeg Coughlin Jr., whose Cagnazzi Racing team is based in Mooresville, ran 6.684 seconds to take the No. 2 slot. Warren Johnson, the all-time Pro Stock winner with 96 victories, is third at 6.694 seconds with Greg Anderson fourth.
Smith, the defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion, holds the No. 1 spot in that class as the Countdown to 1 begins. He's been the No. 1 qualifier at each of the past three races and is two rounds away from extending that streak here.
"Humidity and wind really seem to slow the bikes down badly," Smith said, explaining why Friday's first round was better for most of the competitors on day one. Smith ran 6.952 seconds (at 192.08 mph) in the afternoon round and that stood up.
"This is a phenomenal place," Smith said. "I am glad to have a home track finally. The racing surface is so smooth. Both lanes are pretty equal. The right lane might be a touch better."
Chris Rivas is second going into Saturday's final two runs in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Eddie Krawiec is third and Andrew Hines, who's second in the standings as the Countdown starts, is fourth.