February 27, 2014 — team report — photo courtesy Dave Connolly — CHANDLER, AZ — Pro Stock competitor Dave Connolly has a reputation as a notoriously quick leaver. In drag racing, that’s a very powerful tool, and the Mooresville, N.C.-based driver had his not-so-secret weapon on full display on Sunday at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Phoenix.
Connolly, the driver of the Gray Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro, earned a start from the No. 7 spot at the desert facility on the basis of a best time of 6.565 at 210.77 recorded during qualifying. The position drew out a very compelling ladder for race day, but the challenge thrilled the second-generation drag racer.
“I told Shane [Gray, teammate] yesterday, you get up for days like this,” said Connolly, who was slated for a first-round match with Jeg Coughlin Jr., an accomplished driver whose abilities are almost universally respected. Connolly and Coughlin were also once teammates.
Their round-one meeting was chosen as ESPN’s Marquee Matchup, a race singled out as “one to watch.” ESPN also invites fans to vote for the driver they think will win the match; Connolly had the people’s vote, 54% to Coughlin’s 46%, and he did not disappoint. The Elyria, Ohio-native drag racer left the starting line quicker than Coughlin by .009-second and made the second-quickest pass of the round, a 6.551 at 211.30, to definitively shut down his opponent’s 6.993, 163.91.
With the victory came a second-round meeting with Erica Enders-Stevens, the driver he was crew chief for in the most recent three seasons before returning to the seat as a full-time driver himself this year.
Connolly held nothing back and clocked a killer .017 paired with a 6.561, 211.10 to take down his former driver, who was .054 at the Tree and 6.61 at the finish-line stripe. For the first time this season and in only his second race back in the driver’s seat, Connolly advanced to the semifinals.
Waiting for him there was former champ Allen Johnson, but the fearless Connolly was fired up. His reaction time was again superior, but a .012 to Johnson’s .061 simply couldn’t carry the load whenhis Chevrolet slowed to a 6.62. Johnson, the eventual event winner, got the win with a best of the round at 6.55.
“It was definitely a tough ladder today, but it just makes you get up on the wheel a little bit,” said Connolly. “We just missed the setup a little bit in the semi’s, but those are the things that you just learn from and move on. The first two rounds were definitely gratifying for the whole team, and I’m not going to jinx us, but I feel like we made big strides here this weekend, especially with Shane’s car.”
Connolly leaves Phoenix in the No. 5 position in NHRA’s Mello Yello Pro Stock points standings.