NOBILE, Okla. -- At the second-to-last event of the 24-race Lucas Oil regional series, former Super Gas national event champion Aaron Tatum, who had raced only four times all year and hadn't won a round, went the distance in Top Alcohol Dragster, and John Lombardo kept his national championship hopes alive and wrapped up the Central Region title with a victory in Top Alcohol Funny Car.
Tatum, who DNQed at his first three races this season - the Tulsa regional and both the national and regional events at Topeka - and was ousted in the opening round at Dallas in his only other start, managed a 5.80 in the final to take out upstart James Stevens, who smoked the tires right off the line and slowed to an 8.90. Stevens, who competed just three times this season, has improved every time out: he was beaten in the first round at Denver, barely lost in the semifinals in Topeka, and earned his first final-round appearance here with wins over Michael Manners in round one and defending event champ David Brounkowski in the semifinals.
Tatum, an Oklahoma City homebuilder competing at his home track, qualified eighth in the eight-car field with a 5.61 and ran a consistent 5.60 in the opening round to upset No. 1 qualifier James Thompson, who, like every driver Tatum faced all weekend, smoked the tires not far off the line. Randy Meyer did it in the semi's, shutting off to a 9.03 and falling to Tatum's long-gone 5.47, his best run of the weekend. Meyer, who won the Richmond event and reached at least the semifinals at his last five regionals, finished second to Gord Gingles in the Central region for the second year in a row.
Lombardo, who won the Central Region championship in a landslide with a 10-3 win-loss record, got the best of one of the tougher Top Alcohol Funny Car fields anywhere this year, qualifying No. 2 with a 5.64 behind Cordova winner Dale Brand's 5.62. Outgoing 2012 Central Region champ Kirk Williams and Scott McVey ran 5.68s for the No. 3 and No. 4 spots, respectively, and Steve Griboski produced a career-best 5.69 for fifth. Kris Hool was sixth with a 5.71, steady Lance Van Hauen seventh with a 5.81, and six-time event winner Mark Billington anchored the field with a 5.84. Wayne Butler (5.89), Billy Davis (6.05), and Bryan Brown (6.86) missed the cut.
All four winners ran at least a mid-.60 in the opening round, starting with McVey, who hit a 5.64 against Griboski, who lost traction immediately. Lombardo set low e.t. to that point in a 5.59 win over Davis, who was in as an alternate for Van Hauen. Hool and Williams were side-by-side into high gear in the best race of the round when Williams' engine went south and he slowed to a 5.73 at just 224 mph while Hool pulled away with a 5.65. Brand then reclaimed low e.t. for good in a 5.58 win over Billington's 5.87.
With a consistent 5.65, McVey came from behind to upset Brand, who slipped to a 5.72 in the first semifinal match. In the other, Lombardo and Hool left simultaneously, then Lombardo powered ahead in the mid-range for a 5.61, 260.94 (top speed) decision and reached the final round for the fourth time in five regional starts in 2013.
Lombardo's NAPA entry fought for traction in the final, but not as hard as McVey's car, which shook so hard the parachutes fell out. Lombardo scored for the second year in a row at Noble with his slowest run of the weekend, a 5.79 that was enough to clinch the regional title and leapfrog over Dallas winner Shane Westerfield for second place in the national standings behind Frank Manzo, whose semifinal loss at Reading, Pa., kept him from padding his lead.
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