After qualifying No. 1 at the Denver regional for the third year in a row, perennial title contender Annie Whiteley was out early for the first time ever at this event. While husband Jim Whiteley and son Steven were 1,500 miles east racing their Pro Mods in Bristol, Tenn., Annie lost traction in the first round for an upset loss to No. 8 qualifier Nick Januik, 5.88 to an up-in-smoke 7.23.

“I probably didn’t make it two feet,” she said. “No idea what happened. There wasn’t any use in trying to run him down because I never got a chance to build up any momentum. It was fine in every single round of qualifying. We tested before the race, and it was the same thing – two for two, no problem.”

Whiteley’s J&A Service/YNot Racing team had never failed to reach at least the semifinals at breathtaking Bandimere Speedway, carved into the eastern ridge of the Rocky Mountains. She was runner-up the past two years and paced the field again this year with a 5.74 blast in Saturday qualifying.

Sandwiched between the matching 5.81s of upstart Bill Bernard and eventual winner Kris Hool at the conclusion of Friday qualifying with a 5.81 of her own, Whiteley pounded out a 5.74 – the same e.t. that made her No. 1 in 2014 – for the No. 1 spot. Behind her on the ladder was one heavy hitter after another: recent Chicago regional winner Jay Payne, national points leader John Lombardo and former national event champions Jirka Kaplan, Nick Januik, and Grand Junction, Colo. neighbor Terry Ruckman.

Denver was the first of five races in a six-week span. Up next is Norwalk, Ohio; followed by Woodburn, Ore.; Seattle; Brainerd, Minn.; and the big one, U.S. Nationals at Indy, where Whiteley has two runner-ups in the past three years.