Quietly putting together a solid season with one late-round finish after another, Annie Whiteley kept the ball rolling at the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, always one of her favorite tracks. Fourth in the standings and third in final qualifying coming into eliminations, she moved first with a .052 light and charged ahead of bucks-down upstart Charles McLaws and second-generation driver Will Martin in the first round, advancing easily with a 5.49/267 over McLaws’ 5.62/257 and Martin’s 5.60/260.

With three or four cars on the track at the same time, it isn’t necessary to “win” – to reach the finish line before every other car – in the preliminary rounds. You just have to finish in the top two, but Whiteley had the best reaction time and the best E.T., leaving first and easily outdistancing the others despite her unfamiliarity with (and barely disguised disdain for) her new two-step.

“With this thing, I still have to tell myself not to go up on the throttle when I’m pre-staged,” she said. “I did it the old way so many times, muscle memory still tells me to start revving it up to 7,000, and I really have to go out of my way stop myself from doing it again.”

Whiteley’s new setup proved to be her undoing in the semifinals, where she lost to eventual winner Sean Bellemeur and Hunter Jones in a race not nearly as close as the E.T.s alone would indicate. Bellemeur ran a 5.50, Jones a .51, and Whiteley a .52, but Bellemeur and Jones hit the Tree while she, clearly distracted, did not. (McLaws finished a distant fourth with a 5.72.)

“I was late going down on the throttle that time,” Whiteley explained. “At this point – I’m still learning – I have to get in there [stage] first. If you get in first, you have more time to get set. I used to just barely have to let go of the brake and the car would roll in [to the staged beam], but with this two-step, I have to move the clutch pedal to get the car to roll. I have to think … and up there, thinking is the absolute last thing you want to do.”