Heartland Park Topeka has something that Gray Motorsports driver Shane Gray and his NTB/Service Central Pontiac GXP just seem to love. Last year, the Denver, N.C.-based racer won the event in just his second season competing in the exceptionally competitive Pro Stock category, and at this weekend’s Dollar General NHRA Summernationals, Gray made up a lot of ground in the Full Throttle Series standings as he accumulated round wins and stopped just one short of the final.
Gray qualified his NTB/Service Central Pontiac GXP in the lucky No. 13 position with a 6.673 at 205.38 mph and was paired with No. 4 man Mike Edwards, a former world champion and quite a tough draw, in the first round of eliminations.
The Service Central Racing-backed driver did his job on the starting line and launched ahead of his competitor, .035 to .054, and his well-prepared Pontiac pulled its fair share of the weight the rest of the way down the quarter-mile racetrack to post the team’s best time of the weekend: a 6.596 at 208.94 mph to Edward’s 6.579, 209.65. The triumph would officially be recorded as a holeshot win.
The excitement of winning the round was somewhat foreshadowed by the realization that something had gone wrong in the engine compartment – and the team thrashed brutally to replace the bullet and make an extremely tight turnaround time.
Infused with adrenaline, they made the call for round two, where the battle was again won at the starting line when Erica Enders was out of the gate .003-second too soon and illuminated the red light. A little of that Topeka luck Gray had been hoping for fell his way in their meeting; he was uncharacteristically a bit tardy to launch and recorded a .078 reaction time.
He was back on his game in the semifinals, however, where the stage was set for a fight to the finish line with No. 1 qualifier Allen Johnson. Although Gray beat his challenger in reaction time, .028 to .036, Johnson was simply quicker to the last timer on the track for a 6.590 to 6.648 win.
“This is a heck of a lot better,” said Gray. “We surprised ourselves there that first round, but we were obviously very happy with the outcome. Then we got our lucky round against Erica. I did a horrible job driving, and we did not do a good job with the car – but every squirrel eventually finds a nut. That time, I was the squirrel that got the nut.”
It was a standout weekend after weeks of fruitless efforts for Gray and company, and their success in Topeka equated to a serious rise in the standings. Gray entered the event just outside the top 10 and jumped from 11th to 8th by Sunday afternoon.
“I’m getting my confidence back. The confidence comes with going rounds, and it’s been a while,” he said. “This weekend was really good for the morale of the Service Central team. Last year, we took the confidence that we gained here right on through to Englishtown, where we were the No. 2 qualifier. Hopefully, we can do something like that again.”