Belle Rose winner Annie Whiteley opened qualifying with back-to-back 5.49s – one at 269 mph (top speed to that point) and the other at 268 – but at the Gatornationals, where two-thirds of the field was in the .40s, 5.49s didn’t get you very far. In last-shot qualifying, two pair after A/Fuel driver Jasmine Salinas miraculously survived a horrifying over-the-wall 250-mph tumble, Whiteley shook and shut off, settling for sixth on the nine-car grid.

“It wasn’t that the car overpowered the track,” she said. “It was a weak shake, actually – the track was better than it had been all weekend, and the tires really grabbed. Plus, for some reason, the clutch didn’t wear evenly that time – it just wore on the inside. We still don’t know why.”

Prepping for a first-round showdown with Bob McCosh, whom Whiteley barely beat in the Belle Rose final and narrowly lost to last week here at the regional, the YNot Racing/J&A Service team realized that the rear tires had grown two inches in circumference, effectively changing the rear-end ratio and totally throwing off their combination. “We didn’t notice it until right before we went to the lanes,” she said. “And at that point, you really can’t just throw a brand-new set on there, can you?”

Stuck with the old tires and facing, for once, a faster-qualified car, crew chief Mike Strasburg had to make his best guess on the tuneup. He wasn’t far off. Whiteley left on McCosh and sped to a 5.52 at 269.40 mph – top speed of the entire round – but he tracked her down with a 5.49/268, crossing the stripe first by just 1/50th of a second.

“It’s frustrating,” said Whiteley, who has now raced McCosh at every race this year. “When the guys got down to the top end to pick me up, Mike told me, ‘The car’s not responding to anything I’m doing.’ We really haven’t struggled like this in a long time. I mean, 5.52 is all it would run.”