Clay Millican Plays His Cards Right En Route to 10th No. 1 Qualifier at Las Vegas But Finally Folds to Countdown Ace Steve Torrence

Las Vegas, October 28, 2018: In front of a full house with thousands of automotive professionals worldwide in town over Halloween weekend for AAIW (Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week), Parts Plus driver Clay Millican put all his cards on the table Friday night in an effort to keep his spot at the table in the ultimate poker game: the NHRA 2018 Countdown to the Championship at the Strip.

No bluffing—although the deck was slightly stacked against the native of Tennessee, the Parts Plus Top Fuel driver came out in the early position in Friday night’s qualifying session with aces high, running a car so quick, it was downright scary—no tricks.

After running a 3.850 in Q1, the Parts Plus driver and his modern-day riverboat gambler David Grubnic kept their cards close to their vest but came up with the winning hand to go from No. 8 to the No. 1 spot to close out Friday qualifying.

As if that didn’t get your attention, what happened next surely did, as the Parts Plus dragster’s engine let go once again with a huge fireball, a rarity for this team. Millican’s red-hot Q2 incremental times: 60-ft–0.829 sec.; 330-ft–2.104; and 660-ft–[email protected] mph.

Millican’s Q2 number was enough to smoke the rest of the competition through qualifying, with his [email protected] mph earning the poker-faced Parts Plus team their 10th No. 1 qualifier of the season—that’s compared to just two top spots last year. After his top number held up on a scorching Saturday afternoon, Millican marveled over his team’s efficiency in qualifying yet jokingly bemoaned the lack of yellow hats hanging in his closet.

“It’s just crazy that our car has been this good for so many races in qualifying,” Millican says. “The Parts Plus car goes really quick, and I’ve probably told you this six of the 10 times that I’ve hit No. 1—my green-to-yellow-hat ratio is still way too off. The yellow hats pay money—the green ones don’t.

“We came into Saturday with a plan. Our first pass, a 3.75, was backed off just to make sure that we didn’t have any problems after the blower explosion yesterday. The last one was definitely to see what we could do with the sun on the racetrack. That was actually the same supercharger and short block that was in the car from the explosion

Over Halloween weekend, Millican had a terrifying thought: this is a horrible year to be in the championship hunt, given points-leader Steve Torrence’s scary-good unprecedented run of four straight victories to open the Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“Any other year we’d be in the thick of it with a runner-up, two semis, and a second round,” Millican says. “There’s not much we can do. They [Torrence and Co.] have been unbelievable. What they’ve done is incredible. I’m proud of him and his whole team, but we’re having a heck of a year and definitely want to finish as high as we possibly can. Whatever that position is, I want it to be as high as it could be. If that’s second place, it’s second place. That would be my career best finish in NHRA.”

Millican, who recently returned to Memphis International Raceway (MIR) to help instruct B.R.A.K.E.S. classes, won five Top Fuel championships in IHRA competition, including several triumphs at MIR. However, Millican’s best NHRA Top Fuel finish is sixth, which is where he finished last season and in 2013 as well.

As Grubby had deadpanned earlier in the week when facing the media, Millican says the team entered the weekend to gobble up points and have a blast to the end—all the way to Pomona.

“Grubby definitely has the hard part of this deal trying to get those three points every run,” Millican points out. “My job really starts on Sunday—qualifying is just absolute fun, the ultimate roller coaster. I just need to stage the Parts Plus car nice and shallow, and keep it straight going down the racetrack.

In other words, Millican says all he wants to do the rest of the year is “stomp on that loud pedal” and see how it plays out.

“Of course, our goal is 100 percent to get those three bonus points and because we were at the back of the pack because of being No. 2 in points he was judging the tune-up based on the way the other cars were running. The only car we had to worry about was Steve Torrence.”

Grubby did his best to ensure things played out very well in qualifying with a clever plan, though he kept Millican in suspense like a Hitchcock film to the end. “Our group of guys are incredible because we normally have a target. Grubby normally comes to me and says, ‘We’re trying to run ‘x.’ But Friday, Grubby came to me and said, ‘I can’t tell you what to expect out of the car until we’re about to start it.’ I’m like, ‘Ohhh, maannnn….’

“By that time, Grubby had primarily programmed the car to do exactly what he wants. But last-minute adjustments can be stressful, as a car is being pushed toward the starting beams and a burnout is about to be performed. It’s a testament to the trust Grubnic has in his crew that they can pull it off. Obviously, none of this matters if you don’t do well on Sunday, but at the end of the year those six points could be the difference between being a champion or not being a champion. That’s what we want to be: champion.”

Millican certainly drove like a champion heading into Vegas, but could he continue his winning ways on Sunday in the desert, with the stakes so high? You bet—the house. Millican wasted no time in eliminating Greg Carrillo, who was only lining up in his fourth pro start. Still, the scrappy driver seized the starting-line advantage Sunday, before Millican ran him down by the time they hit the Christmas tree, and the Parts Plus driver never looked back for the win.

Millican would have a tall order in round two, as he received his marching orders to do battle on the dragstrip with the Sarge—Tony Schumacher and his U.S. Army car.

This time, the Parts Plus team was forced to fold early when Millican dropped a cylinder right at the hit and then pitched a blower belt, while Schumacher went on to have his quickest pass of the weekend for the win. Meanwhile, Torrence went on to win his fifth-straight win to clinch the 2018 championship.

“Well, when I said we came here to have fun, this isn’t what I had in mind,” Millican says, only slightly joking. “In all seriousness, though, I’m so proud of this team—not only for the 10th green hat, but also for putting me in position all year to get those yellow hats and those shiny trophies.This is something I would have never dreamed of. So proud of what this team has done all season long.

“I hate to say, ‘We’ll get ‘em next year, but…look out!’ What an incredible year for Parts Plus and all our manufacturer partners and the membership—the support has been tremendous. And it isn’t over yet. I’m looking forward to riding another roller coaster in Pomona and having some fun in the California sun.”

For Millican, the next race track is always the happiest place on Earth.

NEXT RACE

Auto Club Finals
Pomona, Calif.

11.8–11.11