With a runner-up to John Lombardo, who had never beaten her in national event competition, Annie Whiteley just missed a third win and second national event title early this season. At the Heartland Nationals at sprawling Heartland Park Topeka, where she had laid down multiple 5.40s and some of her best reaction times of the season, she went up in smoke off the line in the final and lost to Lombardo’s sub-par 6.26.
Whiteley took the lead for about 15 feet in the final with a clutch .047 reaction time, then went up in smoke, pedaled until the car was such a bucking bronco that there was no point in continuing, and coasted to a 9.22 at 111 mph. To compound the frustration, Lombardo, who earlier had made the third-best run in class history, 5.398, was pedaling for his life in the other lane, eventually recovering to win with an E.T. that would lose virtually any round at any race all year.
It was a disappointing end to what had been a great weekend. Whiteley and the YNot team reached the final round for the third time in 2017 by knocking off top-ranked Shane Westerfield in the semifinals in one of the closest races of all time. “Shane’s about the last guy I’d ever want to race,” Whiteley said of Top Alcohol Funny Car’s top-ranked driver. “He leaves on everybody. When he wasn’t already ahead of me, I actually thought, ‘I must have had a decent light – I don’t see him’ somewhere in low gear. I heard how close it was later but I never saw him the rest of the way.”
Westerfield was right there, falling to Whiteley’s 5.47 at 269 mph with a 5.44 at 272. Margin of victory: .0002 (1/5000 of a second). It was even tighter than her .0019-second MOV over Lombardo in the Gainesville semi’s that ended up being even more important than this round was, a rare two-for-one: as the winner, she got a single for the Gatornationals title when opponent Dan Pomponio was unable to return from a blown engine in the other semi.
Whiteley, who ended up No. 3 in rain-shortened qualifying with a 5.48/270 and erased Brian Hough in the quarterfinals with an outstanding 5.43/273, was grateful to still be around after the first round. Granted a first-round bye when Jeff Jones was unable to return after destroying an engine on an explosive, fiery qualifying run, she suffered some engine damage of her own, blowing up well before half-track and coasting to a 7.65 at 104 mph. “We had to change everything,” she said. “We didn’t end up winning, but the guys fixed everything and had the car running better on Sunday than it already was.”