With one low 5.50 after another at the NHRA SpringNationals in Houston, Annie Whiteley turned in her finest performance since she dominated Top Alcohol Funny Car racing last summer with four final-round appearances and two wins in a five-race stretch.

The J&A Service/YNot racing team opened qualifying at Houston’s Royal Purple Raceway with a 5.51 for the provisional pole, improved to a 5.50-flat to lock down the No. 1 qualifying spot for good, and breezed into the semifinals with another 5.50 that held for low e.t. of the entire event and another 5.51 that stood as low e.t. of the second round. “We tested at Dallas before this race and the car was perfect, and it was the same thing when we got to Houston,” said Whiteley, whose suffered back spasms all weekend and had to be lifted gently into the cockpit before each run. “It’s great to have the car running like this again – it just gives you a lot more confidence.”

A nearly identical 5.52 in the semifinals wasn’t quite enough against veteran Steve Gasparrelli, who rebounded from .100+ reaction times in the first two rounds to post a .042 line and got to the finish line first with a slightly slower 5.54. It was the only reaction time and the only run Gasparrelli had all weekend quick enough to hold off Whiteley’s hard-charging Camaro on the top end.

For the YNot team, it was a doubly painful loss because, due to a bizarre set of circumstances, that semifinal match against Gasparrelli turned out to be the de facto final. With an odd number of cars in the field, the other semifinalist, Brian Hough, had a bye into the final, but a crank-trigger problem on the burnout silenced his engine and knocked him out of the race even though there wasn’t a car in the other lane. “I saw them pushing him off the line and thought, ‘OK, this is the final. Let’s get it done,’ but I didn’t quite get it done,” said Whiteley, who refused to use back pain as an excuse.

Despite that disappointment, crew chief Mike Strasburg and the YNot team have a car that can contend with the only two drivers who topped them in the 2015 national standings, Winternationals winner Jonnie Lindberg and Gatornationals champion John Lombardo. “We’re back where we belong,” said Whiteley, whose next race is the Denver regional in June. “We’re going to test between now and then, so we should be ready for anything when we come back.”