Epping, N.H., July 9, 2018: For Parts Plus/Great Clips driver Clay Millican and Team Matco’s Antron Brown, it had been a tale of two teams having very different seasons heading into Sunday’s opening elimination stanza in front of a sold-out crowd for the NHRA New Hampshire Nationals at New England Dragway.

Fresh off another record-breaking No. 1 qualifying run at Norwalk, Millican returned to Epping, where he dominated back in his IHRA days, fully expecting to continue his winning ways in what has been the Parts Plus driver’s breakout season in the NHRA’s Top Fuel ranks. Meanwhile, three-time NHRA Top Fuel World champion Brown was looking for a spark to reignite what has been a disappointing year filled with frustrating 1st-round losses and only one final-round appearance, which ended in a four-wide defeat at the DENSO-sponsored Las Vegas event in April.

It seemed the narrative for each driver would remain the same on Friday night after Millican rebounded from a rare Q1 strikeout to connect with a solid line drive straight down the groove in the second round of qualifying. The Parts Plus/Great Clips dragster roared off the line, and Millican kept it hooked up to leapfrog momentarily into the No. 1 spot with a run of 3.778@328.14 mph under the stars that was nearly as beautiful as the New Hampshire sky.

Millican’s Q2 incremental times: 60ft-0.840 sec.; 330ft-2.147; and 660ft-3.039@284.69 mph. By the end of the session, Millican had slipped to fifth, with two more chances to go for his seventh No. 1 qualifier of 2018 on Saturday.

On the other end of the spectrum, Brown’s woes continued Friday night, hazing the tires in Q1 and Q2, putting the Matco driver at risk of a DNQ. Brown, who arrived in New Hampshire as a consecutive Epping finalist two years running, finally showed signs of life in Q3. Despite dropping a cylinder early, a determined Brown stayed the course and laid down a solid-if-unspectacular 3.974@276.58 mph to crack the field at the No. 11 spot.

Despite the fact Millican has been earning No. 1 qualifiers like clockwork of late, Stringer Performance crew chief David Grubnic maintains the team’s first goal of every race weekend this year remains unchanged: qualify in the top five, with No. 1 simply being icing on the cake.

Changing weather conditions warmed up the track quickly Saturday, leaving most teams scrambling to figure it out. And with Grubby feeling confident Millican’s number would hold up to keep the team slotted fifth, he elected to focus on raceday prep Saturday rather than aggressively attempting another record-breaker.

“We’re less concerned with No. 1s and more concerned about race wins,” Grubby explained to the media early Saturday morning. “We’re going to evaluate these conditions and see how hard we can push it, but I believe it’s more important to focus on what we need to do to win Sunday at this point.” Despite the focus on race-day responsibilities, Millican had a quirky mishap in Q3 that rarely affects the Parts Plus team nowadays: a chute malfunction that ended his run early, an anomaly in what has been a storybook season thus far.

In Q4, Grubby was simply looking for the Parts Plus dragster to complete a run, and the ex-driver-turned-crew-chief got that and more. Millican closed Saturday qualifying with a nice-looking pass in the Parts Plus dragster: a 3.874@326.08 mph, which was the third-quickest of the session.

Millican would indeed remain in the fifth spot, while Brown took a step back, smoking the tires in Q4. The former champ was relegated to the No. 12 qualifier slot, sending the Matco car toward a showdown with the Parts Plus dragster on Sunday.

Nonetheless, Millican knew full well not to take Brown lightly. “Antron is still Antron, and he’s had our number more times than not in the past. We felt we had to come out aggressive because Antron and the Matco team really had nothing to lose. And for us, the weather conditions seemed to be right to show what this Parts Plus car can really do.”

Millican appeared to have all the momentum as the two drivers lined up, with FOX Sports announcer Dave Rieff wondering aloud when Brown would get finally back on track and salvage his 2018 season.

Meanwhile FOX racing analyst Tony Pedregon sang the praises of the versatile Parts Plus Top Fuel team and their ability to run quick in any kind of conditions. But those preconceived notions went up in smoke at the hit for the Parts Plus car.

Despite Millican’s best efforts to pedal it, the popular Parts Plus driver couldn’t get it to hook back up and never threatened to take the lead. Brown started to haze the tires as well but managed to stay with it and coasted to victory.

That much-needed win light seemed to awaken a sleeping giant, as Brown proceeded with an unlikely yet impressive march to the finals for the third straight year before losing a close one to his buddy Steve Torrence, who strengthened his grip on the No. 1 spot in points.

Although Millican picked up bonus points in qualifying, the Parts Plus team’s early exit cost them a spot in the standings, dropping from second to third, with Tony Schumacher overtaking Millican for the No. 2 ranking.

The Parts Plus team will regroup during the upcoming off-week and prepare for the Western Swing, starting with the Mile High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway, July 20–22.

“I’ve always looked at heading to Denver’s Thunder Mountain as simply surviving—that is, getting out of there with most of your motor intact. Denver is by far the hardest place to tune a racecar for by far,” Millican explains. “But I believe in this team so much, and we ran really well there last year. We’ve come a long way since then as a team, so we’ll be ready to aim for that mountaintop by the time we roll into Denver.”

2018 Top Fuel Point Standings

1. Steve Torrence, 1,086; 2. Tony Schumacher, 896; 3. Clay Millican, 881; 4. Leah Pritchett, 820; 5. Doug Kalitta, 801; 6. Antron Brown, 717; 7. Terry McMillen, 679; 8. Brittany Force, 634; 9. Richie Crampton, 522; 10. Mike Salinas, 506.