Sept. 24, 2018: For Parts Plus Top Fuel driver Clay Millican, the 2018 fall weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park in the NHRA Mello Yello Series may be remembered for the one(s) that got away.
In a dramatic piece of foreshadowing, just as Millican appeared to be driving toward his second-consecutive No. 1 qualifier spot, points leader Steve Torrence swooped in like a thief in the night in Q4 to snatch it away under the St. Louis stars. That’s not a crime, mind you, and Torrence had plenty of witnesses on hand at the sold-out NHRA Midwest Nationals, who saw one heck of a head-to-head drag race Saturday evening as the Capco Contractors car jousted with the Parts Plus dragster all the way to the finish line.
Officially, Torrence’s crucial 3.765-second pass bumped Millican back to No. 2, despite the Parts Plus driver’s impressive 3.713-second run in the lane beside him. At a moment in the year in which every point counts to determine the 2018 Top Fuel champion, the Capco driver earned three No. 1 qualifier points and three bonus points, all while keeping the two Torrence-driven dragsters on opposite sides of the ladder all in one fell swoop.
Meanwhile, Millican, who picked up right where he left off at Maple Grove, kicked things off quickly Friday, grabbing three bonus points with an incredible 3.757 to cut Torrence’s lead to 48 points. The Parts Plus car’s 3.782, was the third-best in the session—just .004 second slower than Tony Schumacher, who was second-best in Top Fuel after the first qualifying stanza.
All-star sluggers Millican and crew chief David Grubnic, who teamed to reset the national e.t. in St. Louis last year, once again knocked the proverbial cover off the ball with a 3.692-second blast in the second “inning” of qualifying—their first 3.60 run since the Part Plus car ran a 3.697 on July 29. For the record, Millican now owns two of just three 3.60s recorded since NHRA instituted a new track prep policy. This latest 3.697 pass in Q2 earned the Tennessean three points, inching him closer toward Torrence, whose 3.777 was the second-quickest number in Q2.
Even Millican marveled over his Top Fuel team’s efficiency and consistency after the last session of Friday qualifying wrapped up. “That’s now nine consecutive runs where the Parts Plus car has been unbelievably quick. What the team is doing now is incredible. What’s cool about being at the back of the pack is that we can tune based on what the rest of the field is doing and that’s all bonus-point related.
“So, the previous run Grubby [Grubnic] said we could do more than what we did and so we were able to do that on this run to get those three points. Being No. 1 is great, but it’s really all about getting those three points. Last week, we got 11 points during qualifying and we’d love to do even better this time around and get 12.”
Millican ran a 3.628 at Gateway a season ago to grab the national record, which he still holds. Heading into St. Louis this year, Millican told reporters he wasn’t out to break that number during qualifying—no, the only numbers he had in mind were the No. 1 spot and the bonus points that came with it.
“Purely based on last week, I would say we’re peaking as a team—and at the perfect time,” he says. “To grab all those bonus points was huge, because instead of being three rounds behind, we’re only two. That’s a huge difference, and if we can be anywhere near that performance again, we’ll be all that much closer to Stevie [Torrence]. It’s almost like a game of ‘Pac-Man,’ and we want to gobble up as many points as possible.
Torrence, however, had similar ideas, and responded the following day in Q3 after failing to even crack 100 mph on either run Friday. In Q3, the points leader and the Capco Contractors team charged to a 3.786, leading the field when that session concluded.
The sold-out crowd was buzzing Saturday as the top two drivers in the Countdown lined up for Q4, and you know the result in that one: Torrence’s 3.765 edged Millican’s 3.713-second run to take command of the top spot heading into Sunday. There would be more theatrics to come from these two on the following day.
Although gutted by bonus points slipping through his fingers, Millican was very optimistic about his team’s chances to win it all—and the Parts Plus’s instincts proved to be correct.
On Sunday, Millican lit up Gateway with win lights all the way to the finals, highlighted by a huge win over his friend Antron Brown in E2, who has come on strong of late in his bid to claim another title.
Despite not having lane choice in E3 and dropping a cylinder along the way, Millican advanced to the finals with a 3.857 in the semis, eliminating Pat Dakin, who smoked the tires right after the hit.
That set the stage for the main event—the equivalent of the top two boxers in the world slugging it out on the big stage—as Millican lined up against Torrence in the finals for the first time in what could be the defining moment of a championship season for either competitor.
Although Millican’s Parts Plus car launched hard off the line, Torrence’s Capco dragster was just as powerful if not more, surging ahead in the early going. Although Millican was right there with Torrence the entire way, the Capco car held off the Parts Plus dragster to earn the team their second-straight win—when it matters most—with a margin of victory of just 0.0685 seconds or about 32 feet.
When the dust settled, Millican reached out to the fans who watched the thrilling live final and his online followers, who were on pins and needles following the team’s progress not only through his social media accounts but also via the Facebook and Instagram pages hosted by Parts Plus.
“It was a dog fight all weekend with Steve Torrence and the Capco boys, and we came up just a little short in the end. He got us in the finals, but we are going to keep digging with four to go in the NHRA Countdown!
It was a great weekend in front of the home crowd, and we broke away from Tony [Schumacher] in the points standings where we hold the No. 2 spot. We are super proud of this entire team—they held their own and then some!”
Millican’s fans need to hold on, too, when the wild ride toward a possible Top Fuel title in 2018 picks up again Oct. 4–7, in what should be an exciting shootout at the Fall Nationals at Texas Motorplex.
NHRA Top Fuel Point Standings (following St. Louis)