Mired in the toughest stretch of her eight-year career just as the year winds down, Annie Whiteley bowed out early at the Dodge NHRA Nationals. In her penultimate start of 2019, at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where she’s enjoyed more success than at any other track (and more than any active Top Alcohol Funny Car has had anywhere on the circuit), Whiteley was out after a single round of eliminations.

Qualifying got off to a rough start when the YNot/J&A Service team, Las Vegas winners in both regional (many times) and national competition, blasted the tires just off the line for an abbreviated 9.12 at 119 mph and followed with an equally disappointing 8.75 at 109. Closing in on another Top 5 finish in the national standings but perilously close to not even qualifying, Whiteley and crew chief Mike Strasburg came through Saturday morning in last-shot qualifying.

Stuck in the first pair of that high-pressure session because of how far down on the grid she was at that point, Whiteley stepped up dramatically when it mattered most with a clutch 5.47 at more than 270 mph to skyrocket to the No. 5 spot. That should have assured her an imminently winnable first-round match with an opponent well down in the final order, No. 12. Instead, as has been the case a disturbingly disproportionate amount of the time this year – especially lately – she had to race someone who never should have qualified that low, pre-race favorite Chris Marshall, who, in three qualifying attempts, mustered a best of just 5.59.

In the first pair of the first round under the lights Saturday night, Whiteley drilled Marshall, consistently one of the best leavers in Top Alcohol Funny Car, with a reaction time literally twice as good as his – .076 to .152 – but blew the tires off and looked on helplessly as he sped away to a winning 5.46/265 while she coasted to a losing 13.54. “The guys had a whole new clutch pedal for me for this weekend and I really felt good up there,” she said. “I feel a lot more comfortable now, like I’m more in control, and I knew I had a good light, but when you go up in smoke in low gear there’s not a whole lot you can do.”