At the Denso NHRA Nationals, Annie Whiteley didn’t do what she has so many times before at the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – win – but she did take a big step in the right direction after the first-round loss at the Phoenix season-opener. Whiteley, the defending Top Alcohol Funny Car champion at this event, pounded out solid runs in two of three qualifying sessions, including a 5.58 at nearly 265 mph, her best run of the season, en route to a quarterfinal finish.

“Let’s just say it was an extremely tricky track,” said Whiteley, whose YNot Racing/J&A Service team was one of just two top-half qualifiers to survive the wild, wide-open first round. “When that many people struggle to figure out the track in the same round, you know something’s up.” No. 1 qualifier John Lombardo, No. 2 qualifier and many-time Las Vegas winner Tony Bartone, and No. 3 qualifier and national points leader Doug Gordon all were gone after one round, with Bartone’s backpedaling 5.82 the best run of the bunch. Whiteley, who qualified No. 4, backpedaled to a 6.20 to hold off Chris Marshall, who had upset her in the first round of eliminations here last fall.

Whiteley was off the line first with one of the best reaction times of her career, a near-perfect .004, and got the car under control enough to pull away from Marshall’s all-over-the-track 6.37/238 with a 6.20/252. “It spun the tires early, but I didn’t know where he was,” she said. “You have to be quite a way behind to see the other car, and I never did see him, so just I kept trying.”

She had no such luck in Sunday’s second round of eliminations against eventual winner Terry Ruckman, the only other driver from the fast half of the field (No. 5) to make it out of the first round. While Whiteley fought to keep her car off the wall, Ruckman was long gone with a 5.58, his best run of the weekend and low e.t. of eliminations. Whiteley steered back into the groove, chased him down until there was no way she could catch him even if he broke, and coasted to a 6.18 at 217 mph.

“Nobody wants to lose, but Terry’s a good guy and he’d never won a national event before,” said Whiteley, who hails from the same hometown as Ruckman, Grand Junction, Colo. “All in all, it was a decent weekend. We figured out a few things with the car and my reaction times. The whole team has been working to figure out something for my lights, and I think we got it. We kept repositioning my [throttle] pedal and repositioning it, and I’m a lot more comfortable now. I don’t have to bury my foot against the can anymore, it just feels a lot better, and that has me kind of excited about the rest of the season.”