CONCORD - There are several intriguing match-ups in Sunday's first round of eliminations at the inaugural National Hot Rod Association Carolina Nationals. But it's the name missing from those pairings that was the big story Saturday.
"It hurts," 14-time Funny Car champion John Force said after failing to qualify. "I want to be part of it. ...It's just hard for me."
Force came into Saturday needing to be one of the four fastest in the day's two runs. He was in the first Funny Car pair down the track in the early session, but his elapsed time of 4.157 seconds left him 17th - one spot out of the 16-car eliminations.
By the time he ran again late in the afternoon, the track temperature at zMax Dragway @ Concord was about 125 degrees. Force knew he was in trouble, and his run of 4.162 seconds did him no good. He wound up missing the show by two spots.
"We had the same opportunity as everybody else," said Force, who has now failed to qualify only 16 times in 513 career NHRA starts. "We just didn't get the job done."
Force also failed to make eliminations at the U.S. Nationals two weeks ago. The last time he failed to qualify for consecutive races was when he missed the final race of the 1981 season and the first race of 1982.
There was no change at the top of any of the Powerade Series divisions on Saturday. As expected, speeds posted in the cooler conditions in Friday's second session stood up and left Frank Hawley No. 1 in Funny Car, Larry Dixon atop Top Fuel, Kurt Johnson in the No. 1 slot for Pro Stock and Matt Smith first in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Hawley, who qualified first with an elapsed time of 4.072 seconds, was last the No. 1 qualifier in an NHRA event in 1991 when he drove a Top Fuel car. His last top Funny Car start came in 1983. He has five Funny Car and two Top Fuel wins, but none since 1991.
Hawley runs a limited schedule. His runs a drag racing school that thousands of drivers, including many racing here this weekend, have gone through since 1985.
"It's exciting to be No. 1, but we haven't had a consistent performance over the past two days," said Hawley, who hasn't made a full 1,000-foot pass under power outside the quick run Friday. "We've had some mechanical problems and we hope we can put them behind us. As rewarding as it is to be the No. 1 qualifier, on race day you start over."
Hawley will face Tony Pedregon in Sunday's opening round. Pedregon squeezed into the field as the No. 16 qualifier, but he's second in the Funny Car standings as the Countdown to 1 begins. Points leader Tim Wilkerson qualified No. 13, pairing him with Ashley Force - John's daughter - in the first round.
The Funny Car driver to watch Sunday could Jack Beckman, one of those Hawley taught at his school. Beckman had to race into the show Saturday, too, and did it easily with a run at 4.118 seconds in the early round that got him up to 11th. He came back with a 4.129-second pass later in the day that was the fastest in the heat of the day, in conditions much like he'll face Sunday afternoon.
"I think we're going to be in great shape," said Beckman, who faces Jim Head in the first round.
Dixon ran 3.846 Friday night to qualify first and backed that up with passes at 3.887 and 3.997 seconds Saturday. He'll face Doug Foley in Round 1 and then, if things work out this way, points leader Tony Schumacher in the quarterfinals.
"One at a time," said Dixon, who's third in the standings behind Schumacher and Antron Brown, who is the No. 3 qualifier here. "That's a ways away for both of us."
Schumacher ran 3.879 seconds in the first round Saturday and 3.880 seconds in the second after being out of the show when the day started. That put him at No. 9 and he'll face David Grubnic Sunday as he tries to extend his streak to 25 straight round victories and goes for a seventh-straight Top Fuel win.
The first round in Pro Stock features a race that could have championship implications, with Greg Anderson facing Dave Connolly in the No. 8-No. 9 match-up. Both drive for teams based in Mooresville, and Anderson is first in the Countdown standings. Connolly is sixth, but comes in off a win at the U.S. Nationals and has been one of the hottest drivers in Pro Stock lately. If he could take out Anderson in the first round, that would be big.
"Why not start against Greg right away?" Connolly asked. "We have a great shot to make up a lot of points."
The Anderson-Connolly winner get Johnson, provided the No. 1 qualifier gets past No. 16 Vinnie Deceglie, in the second round.
Smith stayed on top in Pro Stock Motorcycle, where the qualifying drama centered on Angelle Sampey. A three-time champion on the bikes, Sampey had never failed to qualify for an NHRA race - a string of 179 races.
She went into her final pass Saturday with that streak on the line, however, before nailing a 7.056-second run that puts her No. 10 in the lineup and in a first-round match-up with Karen Stoffer.
"I don't know what's going on," she said. "I have a fast motorcycle, but we have had these little stupid mechanical glitches. Whatever it was went out again at the finish line. We have it, I promise we have it and we're going to show it soon."