In her first official outing since the COVID-19 pandemic brought NHRA drag racing to a standstill, defending event champ Annie Whiteley just missed back-to-back titles at the Texas Motorplex, dropping an ultra-close final-round bout against the toughest possible opponent, 2018-19 Top Alcohol Funny Car world champ Sean Bellemeur.

“It feels like it’s been a year since we were at the track,” Whiteley said, “and I’ll admit it – I was a little nervous. The whole routine … ‘Am I going auto remember everything?’ You don’t know till you do it. But once they started the car, it was like, ‘I got this.’ ” She definitely did, qualifying No. 2 with a 5.52 at 268.60 mph en route to yet another final-round appearance on the all-concrete Motorplex surface.

Masked like everybody else in the oppressive Texas heat, Whiteley’s YNot/J&A Service team, led my crew chief Mike Strasburg, headed to the line for the first round against former national event finalist Steve Burck. They slowed to a still-good 5.58/267, but it was more than enough to subdue Burck’s 5.70/259 and set up a semifinal showdown with early season points leader Doug Gordon.

That one went much easier than expected when Gordon got caught looking at the tach as his car inched from the pre-staged beam to the staged beam while he was trying to figure out why the throttle pedal wouldn’t move. (The blades froze up in the injector.) Gordon was still looking down when the tree came on, and Whiteley was long gone with her quickest run of the weekend to that point, a 5.51/268, for a surprisingly easy round-win, her fifth in a row at this event. “He went to bring the RPMs up and was trying to get the blades to open and didn’t realize he’d bumped in and lit the light,” she said. “When he looked up at the Tree, it was already on.”

A couple hours later in the final, Whiteley cut her best light of the day and made her best run all weekend but still fell just short of the vaunted Bellemeur/Boggs/Bartone juggernaut, which got the best of by far the best race of the entire event, 5.494 to 5.496. “The tire was just stuck to the track or we would’ve run better,” she said. “It was a good race. We both had .960 60-foot times and when I got down there – I never look over in the other lane – I was saying, ‘Come on. Did we, did we?’ We came so close to winning – I never saw him – but even though we didn’t quite win, it was still nice just to be back at the track.”