By Ken Roberts

Photos by JR Compton

MADISON _ John Force (Funny Car), Mike Salinas (Top Fuel), Erica Enders (Pro Stock) and Matt Smith (Pro Stock Motorcycle) will be the No. 1 qualifiers when eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday in the eighth annual AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway.

The race is the second of six in the Countdown to the Championship.

On Saturday during the last two rounds of qualifying, Force, Salinas and Smith were the three drivers who jumped to the pole position.

Smith reached the top spot during the third qualifying run, while Force and Salinas climbed to the top on their final qualifying pass of the day, while Enders was able to maintain the top spot she earned Friday night.

Funny Car

Force, 70 of Yorba Linda, Callifornia, had been fifth after Saturday’s third session before reaching the top on his final run of the day. He ran a 3.842-second lap at 334.40 miles per hour.

Force will race No. 16 qualifier Terry Haddock on Sunday in the first round of eliminations.

“I didn’t think it would run better than an (3).85,” he said. “But we were trying to step it up. I thought we were knocked out of the top half (of the bracket). (Crew chief Brian Corradi) said what the car would do and it did it.”

Force is trying to become a 17-time world champion. He has 151 victories during his illustrious career and now 159 poles. This is his fourth pole of the season. He has two wins.

A scary moment during the final session came when Tim Wilkerson’s car exploded just before the finish line sending the body flying in the air. Wilkerson, of Springfield, Illinois, was able to climb out of his topless car which started on fire before the NHRA Safety Safari team was able to put the flames out.

“I really didn’t feel anything,” he said. “It just kind of half-ass laid over, then bang. First time that’s happened to me at least that far down the track.”

Top Fuel

Mike Salinas, 48 of San Jose, California, was the pole winner on his final qualifying run Saturday with a time of 3.687 seconds at 330.55 mph.

It is Salinas’ fifth pole of the season and sixth of his career. He has two victories this season and two for his career.

While Salinas may have a fast car, he gave all the credit to crew chief Alan Johnson. Johnson has 16 NHRA championships and 132 Top Fuel wins.

“The car was really smooth and really fast,” he said. “And it has a lot more in it. We’re not hurting parts and I think we’re going to have a really fast car for race day. I look forward to it.”

Pro Stock Motorcycle

Smith, 46 of King, North Carolina and the defending race and world champion, earned his fourth pole of the season and 35th of his career with a run of 6.801/198.93 mph on during his third qualifying session.

“Our confidence is really big,” said Smith, whose EBR bike broke a transmission during his final run on Saturday. “We’re coming into this race knowing this is one of our better tracks.

“I really like this place. It’s a good track. It’s a lot of bite. You can really get after it at times. Track always has a lot of bite.”

As for his transmission: “we’ll get it fixed for Sunday.”

Pro Stock

Enders was the only driver to maintain her top spot Saturday after winning the provisional pole Friday evening when she 6.580/207.15. She bettered herself on Saturday going 6.552/209.85 mph.

“Going into Sunday I have the baddest hot rod on the property,” Enders said. “My guys just keep battling through all the hard stuff. I’ve gained their confidence and their swagger back and in turn it gives me mine.

“It’s just been really fun to crawl our way back to the top. It’s been a very challenging couple of years.”

It is Enders’ second pole in succession, second of the season and 21st of her career. She is still looking for her first win of the season. In fact, she’s only won twice in the last four years.

“I’m thrilled to have a great race car underneath me and we’re ready for race day,” she said.