Perennial title contender Annie Whiteley has always excelled at her home track, winning the Central Regional in 2018, making three other final-round appearances (2014, 2015, and 2019), and qualifying No. 1 three years in a row (2014-16) and four times overall, including last year. But this year, picturesque Bandimere Speedway, on the easternmost ridge of the Rocky Mountains in suburban Denver, wasn’t kind to Top Alcohol Funny Car’s most successful female driver ever. As has happened all too often since her season-opening victory in Belle Rose, La., the weekend ended in a frustrating first-round loss, her fourth in a row in NHRA competition.

Though just hundredths of a second from the pole, Whiteley qualified mid-pack and was unceremoniously bounced first round of eliminations in the most infuriating possible manner: on a holeshot. Heading into last-shot qualifying with a best of 5.76 at 253 mph, she guided the J&A Service/YNot Racing Top Alcohol Funny Car to a straight-as-six-o’clock 5.75/254 to lock down the No. 4 spot.

All around her were other national event champions running in the 5.70s in the thin mountain air: incoming national points leader Doug Gordon (5.71), 2017 world champion Shane Westerfield (5.72), former national winner Kris Hool (5.79), and 2020’s third-ranked driver, Brian Hough, who just missed the .70s with a 5.80-flat. Upstart Kyle Smith also ran a 5.75, but he was four-thousandths of a second quicker than her 5.758 with a 5.754 that earned him the No. 2 position and a much more favorable first-round matchup with Steve Macklyn, who was about a tenth and a half slower than them.

Whiteley, as she always seems to do, got just the wrong opponent in the always nerve-wracking opening round – Hool, who sometimes red-lights, but, when he’s on his game, can cut a light with anybody. Against Whiteley, he did. And, naturally, he made his quickest and fastest run all weekend right then. After an excellent .037 reaction time, Hool had it all the way for a 5.78/249 win over her slightly quicker 5.75/256, which held up for top speed of the meet to the very end, when Gordon tied it in a 5.69 final-round win over Westerfield.

“I just can’t cut a light at this track,” Whiteley said. “Same thing at Belle Rose. At Belle Rose, it’s because they have to back everything down so much to make it down the track that the car won’t move off the staring line. Here … I don’t know what it is.”