Steven Whiteley stared down the pressure in a first-round matchup against the only driver ahead of him in the J&A Service Pro Mod standings, whipping feared Mike Castellana from one end of the track to the other in a must-win first-round showdown at the NHRA Summernationals.

“That round carried more weight than any round I’ve ever competed in,” Whiteley said. “The stakes were big – we all knew it going up there. I felt the pressure but I’ve also gotten to where it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside the car, because if you think about what’s at stake, you’re done. Once we rolled under the tower, I wasn’t thinking about anything but driving.”

At venerable Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., just 45 minutes from the heart of New York City, Whiteley drilled Castellana, usually one of the quickest-reacting drivers in Pro Mod, with a clutch .047 reaction time. Castellana was uncharacteristically late with a .103 and could only watch the J&A/YNot driver motor away for an easy 5.82 win that not only prevented Castellana from stretching his lead but cut into it. Castellana, a winner at Charlotte and Atlanta, nearly matched Whiteley’s e.t with a 5.85 but was never in the race.

“I never saw him, never heard him, nothing,” Whiteley said. “He’s a good dude, probably my favorite driver out there – good driver, doesn’t mess around on the starting line. That was a big race was big for us, no doubt about it. Mike was too far ahead for us to catch him this weekend, but there were a bunch of guys right behind us trying to take over second, and we held them all off.”

Cutting further into Castellana’s once seemingly insurmountable lead with a second-round decision over former Top Fuel driver Sidnei Frigo, Whiteley took the long way to a 5.91 victory. “The car moved around quite a bit that time,” he said. “I really had to do some driving on that one. We backed it down a little bit that time – maybe a little too much, actually – but it made it. For the semi’s, we had the tune-up a lot closer to where it would normally be, and the track said, ‘No way.’ It just kicked the tire off of it. I got back into it, but when I saw Rickie [Smith] off to my right, I knew I was done right there even if he blew up, and I lifted.”

Down 178 points coming into the Englishtown, Whiteley now trails the top-ranked Castellana by just seven rounds. “It’s going to take a while to catch him, but if we can keep cutting into the lead every time, we might just be OK,” he said.