After advancing to the final at three of the past four races and qualifying No. 1 at every one, defending champ Annie Whiteley had an off weekend at the Route 66 Nationals in Chicago. She qualified the J&A Service/YNot Racing Funny Car a strong third but went up in smoke immediately in the first round against nemesis Shane Westerfield.

“It didn’t make it far at all that time,” said Whiteley, who coasted to a 21-second time and crossed the finish line at just 73 mph. “[Crew chief Roger Bateman] told me that there was nothing I could have done because the car went up in smoke so early.”

Until then, Chicago was shaping up to be another solid outing for Whiteley, who won the first national event of her career at this here vent last year and was runner-up recently in Houston, Denver, and Tulsa, barley losing the last two. Bateman delivered the perfect setup in the second qualifying session and Whiteley wheeled the car to the provisional No. 1 spot with a 5.65 at 256.99 mph. She improved to a 5.64, also at 256 mph, in the final session and eventually settled into the No. 3 spot.

Everything seemed to be in order for yet another late-round finish when Whiteley left on time with a solid .073 reaction time  and Westerfield smoked the tires early. But as in their final-round matchup in Houston, he was able to recover and win with a subpar time in the 6.30s while she could only idle helplessly down the track.

“It was a bummer for sure,” she said, “but that’s why there’s always another race.”