Chris McGaha wasn't intimidated by lining up Saturday against two-time series champion and early qualifying leader Jason Line – or strong-running veteran Larry Morgan – or rapid rookie Drew Skillman at zMAX Dragway's NHRA Four-Wide Nationals.
The Harlow Sammons of Odessa Camaro driver knocked Line from the top spot and will lead the Pro Stock field for the second straight race, thanks to his career-quickest pass, an elapsed time of 6.474 seconds at 213.70 mph in the quarter-mile. It's also his second consecutive No. 1 start at this event.
Line, who made his quickest and fastest run of the season (6.481/214.18) and set the track speed record, is second in the line-up.
"We really stumbled onto what we were looking for at Phoenix in the semifinals when we almost crashed," McGaha said.
What he and his team discovered almost a continent away is paying off now, he said: "It's led to all this performance gain."
He said he takes some satisfaction in showing that while he vaulted into serious contention last year by purchasing the proven equipment of perennial contender Mike Edwards, he can make his own modifications to the program and still be the strong runner he was in 2014.
McGaha reminded that Edwards, who has stepped back from team ownership and driving, is helping Line and Greg Anderson and the KB / Summit Racing team. "He's having to race his own stuff. I wonder if he'd take the same deal at this point," the West Texan said.
But McGaha isn’t smug at all.
Asked if he expected such a performance surge this early in the season, he said unhesitatingly, "Absolutely not."
He said, "You’re always working for it, but you never expect it to be there. Then when it's there, you're like, 'OK – When's lightning going to strike and go the other direction' because it will eventually. It always does."
McGaha, Line, and Skillman were the only Pro Stock racers to post 6.4-second passes Saturday, although No. 4 Anderson is close behind at 6.502. The dearth of 6.4s surprised McGaha, he said.
"We had it figured people could go mid-(6.)40s. We really did. The numbers were there. But our problem was the track was green to us all," McGaha said. "None of us had ever been down it, except a few guys in Lane 2, but I think we all were very conservative and holding back."
In his mind, too, was the dangerous condition of the track during the Carolinas Nationals there last September. The event finished at Texas Motorplex, near Dallas, a huge blow to zMAX Dragway owner Bruton Smith's pride and pocketbook. The track quickly atoned for the situation with a repaving job to this facility Smith dubbed "The Bellagio of Dragways." And the surface has been redone with special care. But McGaha said most of the racers didn’t know what to expect.
"I was pretty nervous," he said of his approach to the track, especially after persistent rain washed out everyone's chances to qualify at either of the two scheduled runs Friday. "I had to go in the lane I went down the last time I was here. I think it was going through all of us' minds, because even Jason Line made a comment to me about it. It was definitely on all of us' mind."
McGaha will meet surprising No. 16 qualifier Erica Enders-Stevens, the reigning class champion, in Sunday's first round of eliminations, along with No. 8 Shane Gray and No. 9 Buddy Perkinson. The quickest two will advance to the semifinal round in the non-traditional format of this event.
Enders-Stevens, who experienced tire shake and aborted her first-session qualifying attempt, had problems with her Elite Motorsports Camaro entry immediately in her final chance. She brought the car to a stop about 100 feet off the starting line and was pushed off the track.
"You cannot take that lightly," he said of the Elite team and Enders-Stevens and their car. "Any minute it can change," he said of her fortunes so far this weekend, adding "especially with the potential those guys have."
Said Enders-Stevens after qualifying, "We started the year with a brand-new RJ Racecars Camaro, and it's going to be the next big thing, no doubt about it. But we just haven't figured out how to match the car and our Elite horsepower to the new tire and fuel the NHRA is making all of us use. We did OK in the first few races but decided to switch back to the car we won the championship with last year, because we just know it so much better. She does what we ask her to do every time. The thought is that our learning curve will be shorter."
Enders-Stevens knows she happened to be lucky because this field had only 16 entrants, but she said, "You definitely don't want to put yourself in this position. But if any team can get it together overnight and make a difference tomorrow, it's this group of guys right here. We've been through it all, and this is just another chapter."
But if Enders-Stevens, Gray, or Perkinson ever try to anticipate what an opponent might do on race day, they might be a little confused or concerned this weekend. McGaha has sent mixed signals because of the mixed bag of conditions they all have to navigate this weekend.
He said his car "has potential to go faster. The computer says, 'Yes, you can go more.' " In the next breath, he said, "We're also going to play it safe." Seconds later he conceded that on race day, "you got to go up there and win."
The drama begins Sunday with a 1 p.m. (ET) start to eliminations. The Pro Stock class should begin running sometime around 1:45 p.m.