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Thunder Valley Nationals: Millican's day finally arrives

Dave Ongie • Updated Jun 18, 2017 at 11:12 PM

BRISTOL – Clay Millican wanted no part of Father’s Day when he rolled into Bristol Dragway on Sunday morning.

After losing his son Dalton in a motorcycle accident less than two years ago, the emotions were still too raw. But as fate would have it, Father’s Day wanted a piece of Clay Millican, and now it will be a day the Drummonds, Tennessee, native will never forget.

Millican erased 19 years of NHRA futility by taking his underfunded dragster to the finals and knocking off the Don Schumacher Racing entry driven by Leah Pritchett to secure his first career Top Fuel victory at the NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals.

“I didn’t want people telling me Happy Father’s Day,” Millican said. “I didn’t even want to hear about it this morning. It’s a tough day for anybody that’s lost a child. But (Dalton) was riding (with us). He got us four win lights.”

Millican’s unlikely victory included wins over Brittany Force and Steve Torrance en route to the finals. At times, Millican wondered if he’d ever find his way to an NHRA winner’s circle after several close calls stretching back to his debut in 1998.

With his dominance in the IHRA fading further into his rearview mirror, Millican said he never gave up hope.

“I never questioned myself,” he said. “All I did was start working harder. I’ve been working harder right now than I’ve ever worked.”

Even though Bristol is about 500 miles from Drummonds, Millican has always considered Bristol Dragway to be his home track, and he was thrilled to win his first race in Thunder Valley. As he took the stage to accept his Wally, “Rocky Top” blared over the loudspeakers.

“I’m such a Tennessee boy,” Millican said. “I’m proud of the fact that everyone calls this my home race. We’re all about Tennessee.”

To put Millican’s win in perspective, it was big enough to upstage a thoroughly dominant day for Don Schumacher Racing in the Funny Car division. All four of Schumacher’s entries reached the semifinals with Ron Capps coming out on top to notch his fifth win of the season.

“We kind of picked a bad weekend to win, because we’re not going to be anywhere,” Capps joked during his post-race press conference. “But you cannot write a better chapter.”

Capps credited his crew chief Rahn Tobler for having the courage to go to a backup car after a disappointing pair of qualifying sessions on Friday night. The untested car ran well during the final two qualifying sessions on Saturday before plowing through Alexis Dejoria, Robert Hight and teammates Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman to lock up the win.

“Usually you go test, put some laps on a car before you go run it,” Capps said. “What a decision to make on a Saturday morning. Four runs on Sunday against four of the toughest cars – crew chiefs and drivers combined.”

In the Pro Stock division, part-time driver Alex Laughlin scored his second-career win by knocking off Bo Butner in the finals thanks to a perfect .000 reaction time.

Laughlin said he has been working with his team to get the car off the line faster, and those efforts paid dividends in a big way.

“That was cutting it close, but we did what we had to do,” Laughlin said.

Greeneville’s Allen Johnson has spent his entire career hoping to win a Pro Stock race at his home track. Johnson’s quest ended early on Sunday when he lost to Laughlin in the first round.

When the father-son duo of Shane and Tanner Gray visited Bristol Dragway recently, they both were hoping to get a chance to race against each other on Father’s Day.

When Tanner knocked off Greg Anderson in the first round and Shane beat Jason Line, the dream matchup came to fruition in the second round. Tanner got the best of his dad before bowing out against Laughlin in the semifinals.

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