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Fuller Holds on for Top Spot; Hight, Anderson, Smith also Maintain Leads

By Rob Geiger,

Defending Memphis champion "Hot Rod" Fuller held onto the No. 1 position in Top Fuel through Saturday's heat to claim the second low qualifier award of his career with a 4.575 at 318.54 mph. Fuller will lead fellow low qualifiers Robert Hight (Funny Car), Greg Anderson (Pro Stock), and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) into Sunday afternoon's elimination action at the $1.6 million O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals, the 17th of 23 races on the $50 million POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Fuller actually posted his run of record Friday night but it held through Saturday's two rounds. Hight and Anderson followed the same pattern, with Hight riding his Round 1 pass of 4.849 at 297.75 to the Funny Car pole and Anderson using his early 6.742 at 203 mph to top Pro Stock. Only Smith managed to get quicker in the heat, dipping to a 7.060 at 188 mph to lead the bikes.

Although the Top Fuelers' final session went into the twilight hours, all attempts to unseat Fuller from his top spot came up short, giving the defending event champion his second career low qualifier award. The feat is worth $4,000 from Budweiser.

"They're saying it's bad luck to be No. 1 qualifier but I don't believe that stuff at all," said Fuller, who together with Hight will try to become the first nitro driver to qualify No. 1 and win the race this year. "Drag racing is drag racing. Weird streaks like that happen from time to time and that makes it exciting but I don't think it's a jinx. It's more coincidence than anything.

"It's been my experience that there are certain tracks that certain drivers always do well at for whatever reason and Memphis is one of those tracks for me. I like the heat, I grew up in it, and I have a real level of comfort here. I feel like this is my home track and I want to protect it."

The U.S. Army freight train had to settle for a No. 2 start here after Tony Schumacher posted a best of 4.578 at 321.35 mph. He still gained five points on championship leader Doug Kalitta, who qualified 10th with a 4.678 in the Mac Tools rail. Kalitta's lead shrinks to 76 points heading into race day.

Melanie Troxel, who was tied for second with teammate Schumacher at the start of the event, qualified fourth with a 4.638 in the Skull Shine dragster and falls two points back into third place. Brainerd winner Brandon Bernstein of Team Budweiser is third on the ladder here with a 4.605.

Bob Vandergriff Jr. earned the 16th spot with a 4.762 at 295.66 mph in his UPS dragster, bumping out Mach 1 Air Services pro David Baca, who will not race for the first time this year.

Hight was joined at the top of the Funny Car ladder by teammates Eric Medlen and John Force, making for the seventh 1-2-3 qualifying effort for Team Force. Hight and his Auto Club Ford teammates get the glory this time with their seventh $4,000 Skoal low qualifier bonus of the year.

"We've got two streaks to end now," Hight said. "The No. 1 guy not winning deal and also the fact we've never won as a team when we've qualified 1-2-3. Let's just get both of those behind us at one time.

"Anyone can win this thing. The guys that don't make a lot of horsepower, when it gets hot like this, that just plays right into their hands because they know we have to pull it back. And it's plenty hot. I've never been so hot in my life. I was trying some glasses tonight to see the Tree better and I had to throw them out because they fogged up and got covered with sweat. It's miserable in the car."

Medlen, who started the day outside the qualified field, improved to second with a 4.862 at 303.00 mph in his Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang. Force followed with a 4.876 at 303.43 mph in his Castrol GTX Ford.

Ron Capps, who has led the points since the second race of the year, made the cut in his last attempt, running a 4.950 Saturday night in his Brut Dodge Charger R/T to secure the 13th position. He's lost in the first round at four of the last five races.

Anderson's 6.742 at 203.83 mph from Friday's opening round held but he did get a serious last-minute challenge from Mike Edwards, who posted a 6.750 Saturday evening to lead Day 2 action. Nevertheless, Anderson bagged his first Memphis pole, his ninth low qualifier of the year, and the 49th of his career. It's worth $3,000 from King Demon.

"Our goal is to get as many points as possible in qualifying and to try to get Jason [Line] on the other side of the ladder," Anderson said. "We accomplished both of those things, so Plan A is done. Now we need to get through another awesome field of cars and try to get another win for this race team.

"The depth of this class is unbelievable. Every week there's somebody new stepping up, and to be the No. 1 qualifier as many times as we have up against this group is really something. We'll have to hit the target tomorrow because the track is very tricky and you can't get too far off either side of your tune-up or you're in trouble."

Edwards' Young Life GTO team had to settle for second but considering what they ran in the heat, they have to be excited about race day. Line, Anderson's teammate and the current points leader, stayed third despite improving to a 6.760 in his Summit Racing Pontiac GTO.

Six-time NHRA champ Warren Johnson struggled mightily until the last session when he jumped up to 10th place on the grid with a 6.780 in his GM Performance Parts Pontiac. He'll open against his nemesis Dave Connolly, who qualified seventh with a 6.768 in his Skull Gear Cobalt.

PiranaZ's Greg Stanfield was the final qualifier with a 6.793. Mark "Cowboy" Pawuk, Ron Krisher, and Erica Enders failed to qualify for this event.

As improbable as it was, the track record in Pro Stock Motorcycle did get lowered in Saturday's heat as Friday leader Smith fine-tuned his late-night set-up to squeeze another .026-second out of the track in Round 2. His 7.060 at 188.02 mph earned the Torco Buell V-Twin rider just the second Ringer's Gloves $1,000 Low Qualifier award of his career.

"Today was pretty impressive," Smith said. "Putting up a 7.06 in that heat was something, and I even clutched it early. If I had run it out I would have put up a 7.04 or something. "The plan for tomorrow is to not push the Tree but just try to have decent lights, like .020s or .030s, and then run 7.06, 7.07, or 7.08 every round. If I do that and someone beats me, well, then they deserve to win. But if I can actually do that then I like our chances."

POWERade points leader Antron Brown also improved in the second session, leapfrogging his way to second with a 7.083 at 187.05 mph on his U.S. Army Suzuki. Brown's teammate, Angelle Sampey, was next with a 7.090, while back-to-back series champ Andrew Hines followed a thousandth of a second back with a 7.091 on the Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rod.

Smith will open against final qualifier MB Precision's Mike Berry, who posted a 7.186 at 184.57 mph on his Suzuki.