On the strength of two absolutely killer qualifying runs at the NHRA U.S. Nationals, Annie Whiteley, who’s always performed well there but had never quite gone all the way, surged into the quarterfinals again this year. The J&A Service/YNot Racing driver, who’s staged for the Indy Top Alcohol Funny Car final three times (2013-15-16), the semi’s six times, and has never failed to win at least one first round, again went rounds on drag racing’s grandest stage.

The lengthy weekend got off to a promising start Thursday afternoon when Whiteley’s team, led by veteran crew chief Mike Strasburg, posted back-to-back 5.48s, both at exactly 268.92 mph, which ended up standing, for the second year in a row, for top speed of the entire event, including Jegs Allstars competition. After an aborted 11.43 on a final attempt cut short by low-gear shake, Whiteley still clearly held the upper hand entering eliminations.

Her first-round opponent: surprise 2020 Winternationals winner Aryan Rochon, who, after spending a couple weeks with the Sean Bellemeur/Steve Boggs/Tony Bartone juggernaut learning the ins and outs of running a top-flight Alcohol Funny Car team, presented a far greater threat than he would have just a month ago. Qualified 13 spots behind Whiteley, Rochon, who refused to lift in the first round at Atlanta and slammed into the wall at half-track, backed off this time when his car made a move around half-track and slowed to a 6.39 at just 166 mph. Going exactly 100 mph faster, Whiteley crossed the finish line well ahead of him for a smooth 5.52/266 win.

Opposite Andy Bohl in the delayed quarterfinals, in a rematch of the 2015 final, Whiteley was undone by traction problems and ultimately had to click it off to a disappointing 8.69 at 105 mph. Bohl had ignition problems but still moved on with a 5.64/263, shooting ducks all the way through low gear.

“We were all set up to run that round at 9:30 in the morning – that’s when they told us it was going to be,” Whiteley said. “The conditions were a lot better then than when we finally ran, and we kind of hem-hawed around about changing the transmission but didn’t. We probably should have. Right after we ran, Mike said, ‘I knew we should’ve gone back to that other ratio.’ “