SUNDAY NOTEBOOK - BIG MONEY FULLER, TONY P. RUNS THE TABLES, GREG ANDERSON IS BACK
KING OF THE HOUSE - "Hot" Rod Fuller may have pocketed an estimated $200,000 after winning both the Technicoat Shootout on Saturday and the ACDelco Nationals on Sunday, but that's not why he was all smiles Sunday night.
"I come from a racing family," Fuller said. "We have this thing called the King of the House. Who ever does the best (in our racing), is King of the House. Well, my dad (Bob Fuller) just won the NHRA Division 5 championship in Super Comp. That's a big deal. My mom called me the other day and said, 'Well, everybody keeps bragging about you and how you might be one of the best racers in the world. But you're not even the best racer in the house.' She said if I double up this weekend, I can become King of the House again.
"My dad called me (after the race) and said, 'Well son, you're King of the House.' That's pretty cool to do that and have such a strong family that they get it."
Fuller may soon also be King of Top Fuel. He solidified his chance at winning his first POWERade Series title when he beat Doug Kalitta in the final. Fuller, with the win, now holds a 52-point advantage over second-place Larry Dixon and could clinch the title by advancing to the semifinals at the Auto Club Finals in Pomona, Calif. this coming weekend.
"I don't do this for the money; I don't do it for the glory," said Fuller, who used a 4.531-second run to defeat Doug Kalitta in the finals. "I do it because this is what I love and I believe in it and I believe in our sport, so for me to win both of these races and go into Pomona with a lead...I'm not an emotional guy, but it's pretty emotional."
Another final for Kalitta - Doug Kalitta continued his late-season charge here Sunday.
What just a few weeks ago appeared to possibly be the worst season of his career, the driver of the Mac Tools dragster has suddenly got fire the past two races.
Sunday was another case in point after Kalitta followed up his first win of the season three weeks ago in Richmond, Va. with a runner-up this weekend.
"Well, two finals in a row isn’t too bad," said Kalitta, whose run of 4.537 was nipped by winner Fuller's 4.531 in the final round. "We almost got a two wins in a row, but it just wasn’t meant to be today. I am still very encouraged by the way our car has been running lately. We are winning rounds and that feels great, to say the least."
Just another race - Larry Dixon could have been upset about losing in the second round here Sunday, which severely effected his POWERade Series title hopes. But the veteran, who won back-to-back series championships earlier this decade, preferred to take the positive approach.
"It's no different than any other event you lose (in the) second round," said Dixon, whose day ended with a second-round setback to eventual runner-up Kalitta. "That's it. We ran slow at the wrong time. If our car was running on the par with what we did in qualifying, we'd be fine. It didn't. It was our race to win, and we didn't do it.
"This whole thing is like a lottery, and there are only four lottery tickets. If you buy a lottery ticket and you pick your numbers, you can't lose sleep over it. You only have so many odds of winning or losing, and I have a one in four chance of winning the championship and until next Sunday, I still have a one in four shot."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - The POWERade Series title is now Fuller's to lose. He will bring a 52-point lead in the final event at Pomona, and would need to win just three rounds during eliminations to wrap up the title. If he advances to the semifinals, Dixon, who is 52 points back, would have win the race and set a national record in the process.
Brandon Bernstein and Tony Schumacher are 61 and 67 points back, respectively.
"I was informed that if we still used the old system, I would have wrapped up the championship tonight," Fuller said. "I know that and I know it deep in my heart. But I also know what NHRA is trying to do with this Countdown to One. You also have to look at the big picture. The selfish side of me says, 'Yeah, I wish I would have that championship.' But I'm a purest and I love our sport and I've seen the excitement level that this has created. It's not just here, but everywhere we go.
"To me, this is like the NCAA basketball tournament and the Final Four. You can be the best team going into the tournament and then lose first round. It's not fair, yeah, but it sure is exciting."
SECOND HELPING – Doug Kalitta has found his championship stride in the last two races of the season.
Kalitta, who won the previous NHRA national event in Richmond, Va., qualified second, his best qualifying effort of the 2007 season. He defeated a tire-smoking Urs Erbacher, Larry Dixon and Brandon Bernstein to reach the finals.
“Well, two finals in a row isn’t too bad,” Kalitta, a 45-year resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., said. “We almost got a two wins in a row, but it just wasn’t meant to be today. I am still very encouraged by the way our car has been running lately. We are winning rounds and that feels great, to say the least.”
FUN WHILE IT LASTED – David Baca scored his first round win since last October by stopping Cory McClenathan in the first round of eliminations.
Baca lost to eventual winner and teammate Rod Fuller in the quarter-finals.
“We were aggressive, flat out,” Baca said. “We were out there and I didn’t see him for the first couple hundred feet. I was ready to pedal, but they had a flawless run. They had low E.T. of the round, it was a great run and would have been tough to beat. It certainly wasn’t a lay down. I’ve owned my own cars for many years and you don’t want to hurt parts if the guy is running away from you. If he would have had trouble, we would have gotten back on it. Overall, it was a great weekend and it feels awesome to be back in a race car.”
EMOTIONAL WIN FOR PEDREGON - Tony Pedregon may have solidified his position to score a second POWERade Series title, but after winning Sunday's ACDelco Nationals, his thoughts were not on winning the Countdown to One, but rather on his late father - NHRA legend Frank Pedregon.
It was sparked by a visit from fellow team owner Jim Dunn.
"Jim Dunn came by our pit (during qualifying)," said Pedregon, who took a 91-point advantage in the points race after winning on a holeshot over Ashley Force in the Funny Car final. "It was a very humbling experience because he came over to our pit, which he never does, and shook my hand and said, "I hope you guys win this thing.' It took me back to when my dad used to race and all the people he raced with and all their sons they have. It really made me feel like I'm one of the fortunate ones to have made it from that group; that era.
"I look at guys like Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein and (John) Force...I was 10, 12-years-old when I watched these guys race at Ontario Motor Speedway and Orange County, so for me to be here, let alone still driving and owning a team, it's unbelievable."
Pedregon's drive to Sunday's victory was not. He caught a break when the other three Countdown to One entrants - Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi and Robert Hight - all lost in the first round. Pedregon didn't let this opportunity slip away. He first surprised a couple of tire-smoking runs in the first two rounds before beating brother Cruz Pedregon in the semifinals and Ashley Force in the final, winning with a 4.871 to Force's losing 4.829.
The win moved him 91 points ahead of second-place Scelzi, meaning Pedregon can clinch the championship by advancing to the second round.
"Things just fell our way," Pedregon said. "And in Las Vegas, if luck is on your side, so be it."
FUNNY CAR FIRST - Ashley Force, the leading contender for the Auto Club's Road to the Future Award, didn't score her first career victory here this weekend. But she did establish a Funny Car milestone by becoming the first woman in the class to advance to the finals.
"It's cool," said Force, who lost to eventual winner Pedregon in the nitro coupe final. "But I just happen to come along at the right time and do something that any other gal would have done if they had been competing.
"It's not anything to do with me, I just happen to be here this year with a great team, which gives me the opportunity to get to a final. Everybody wants you say, 'Oh, girls rule,' and all that stuff. And yes, I'm proud to be a girl, but I also know I wouldn't be here and make it to the finals if it wasn't for those eight guys who work on my car. I like being a gal, but I'm nothing without my team."
First-round blues - Sunday was not a good day for Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi and Robert Hight.
The veteran nitro coupe competitors all lost in the first round, which severely damaged their quests for the POWERade Series title.
The title now is Pedregon's to lose. But Hight, who qualified No. 1 for this event, is not ready to throw in the towel.
"Tony did a good job," said Hight, who lost to veteran Jim Head in the opening round when his Auto Club Ford Mustang lost traction near halftrack. "He (got) some breaks over there, but we (didn't do) a good enough job. We beat ourselves. Jim Head's tough, but he ran a 4.99 and we got beat. I look at it that we beat ourselves.
"You can't win championships, countdowns, anything like that when you beat yourself. We just have to do a better job. It's not over yet. We're going test here tomorrow and come to Pomona with all we got, and see what happens."
SHORT DAY FOR NEFF - Mike Neff, who made two 4.8-second and one 4.78 pass during qualifying, found out running eliminations can sometimes be a little more difficult than time trials.
Neff, making his Funny Car debut, suffered a first-round loss when the motor in his Castrol Ford Mustang let go just past the 330-foot mark, allowing Jeff Arend to cruise by for the win with a pass of 4.834.
"It was going to happen sooner or later," said Neff of the first-round loss. "I was really pumped up (for the round). But the next thing I know, it was spinning the tires and then bang.
"Still, this was a great weekend. This is a lot of fun. This is the most fun I've ever had drag racing."
THREE BIRDS, ONE STONE – Three Don Schumacher Racing Funny Cars rolled to the starting line during Sunday’s first round of eliminations. All three headed to the trailer after the round.
Gary Scelzi, the leading championship contender out of the DSR ranks, faced Cruz Pedregon in the opening stanza and both launched with nearly identical reaction times: .054 for Scelzi, .058 for Cruz. Scelzi held a slim lead until a loss of traction got the best of him.
Ron Capps, another one of the championship contenders, followed the lead of Scelzi and lost traction at half-track.
Jack Beckman, the only member of the trio to not qualify for the final phase of the championship battle, suffered parts breakage against Del Worsham.
"It seized the bearings in the blower drive," explained Beckman, "which happens like once every 15 years. The irony is we had the same problem that Robert Hight had in the same lane in the same race in the same round last year.
Tony Pedregon was the only one of four drivers qualified for the Countdown to make it past the first round. His winning performance today will clinch a title by merely qualifying next weekend in Pomona.
Ninety-one points separate Pedregon and Scelzi. The only glimmer of hope for him is to snatch the crown from Pedregon would be to win the event, set a national record, and pray that Pedregon does not qualify.
"We're going to Pomona to try to set the record and who knows?" said Scelzi, a Fresno, Calif., native. "Pomona is a great race track. You can haul ass there. We're going to go there and try to haul ass. We're going to go there probably more aggressive than ever, because that's what we need to do."
NOT FUN – Oildowns are always an unsettling situation for driver, especially when the clean-up is lengthy and they are next to run. That situation is multiplied when they are in the midst of the final phase of the championship countdown.
Capps had the dubious honor of being stuck in that situation. That didn’t make the lane choices any easier.
'When we rolled up, there had been two oildowns in front of us, and we were still OK after the MTS car had a problem in the left lane with the blower drive; there was a little bit of oil on the starting line," said Capps. "Ace had radioed back to me that it was OK, it didn't hurt the lane. And then of course in front of us we saw what happened with Mike Neff's car. There was a pretty lengthy cleanup. At that time we started looking at the right lane after most teams were picking the left lane.
"And so we swapped back to the right lane and with that lengthy cleanup Ace had time to go back and look at the left lane and decided he wanted the left lane again. That's what's great about this track, it's always pretty even. Of course, we had lane choice. You have to remember, you go up there, you sit in the staging lanes, and you have a setup that Ace puts in the car to roll up there - as do all the other crew chiefs - and then through those long cleanups weather conditions change. So, we just misjudged it. To be honest with you, looking at the computer, it's evident why.”
The waiting wasn’t the only problem for Capps.
"We weren't the only car that had trouble. In fact, two of the other Countdown guys didn't get down there (Gary Scelzi and Robert Hight were first-round losers as well). And the guys who did win the rounds barely got down the track and had to pedal it. There was a big change in the track, for whatever reason. We're not sure if they sprayed it differently, or what it was. I told Ace not to hang his head too low because up until the point of when the oildowns happened, the track was good, then after that nobody got down.”
AS IF THAT WASN’T ENOUGH - Capps entered this race under additional stress, as he and his family were forced to evacuate their home in Carlsbad, Calif., because of the recent California wildfires.
"Obviously, it was a tough week," he said. "I was at a photo shoot in Indianapolis for the NAPA people for the announcement we made here for 2008. We actually cut the photo shoot short (because of the fires) and they got me out of Indianapolis and home. My family had already had the mandatory evacuation, so we weren't sure what was going to happen. It was two days of wondering if you're losing everything that you hadn't grabbed out of the house. I was really hoping they would contain the fires and that we were going to be OK, and happily that's how it ended up before we even got here.
"I was so looking forward to getting to Vegas and getting my mind off of the fire and focusing on the race. And with the excitement the Countdown has created, we had so much media going on. So it was nice to get over here and get our minds off of the fires. Everybody did such a great job putting the fires out that I could come over here and race knowing everything would be OK at home."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Pedregon, who won his second race in the past three events, has all but locked up the title. He is 91 points ahead of second-place Scelzi and could clinch the title by winning in the first round next weekend. If he just qualifies, Scelzi, or Hight would have win the race and set a national speed record. Capps will be eliminated if Pedregon qualifies.
"I would be happy to have a one-round lead," Pedregon said. "It's a luxury to be going to the last race knowing we just have to qualify, because we have a car that always capable of qualifying. But, I know this sport and that strange things can happen. That's why, I'm not going to change anything. I refuse to. I'm going to talk to my guys and tell them that nobody has given us a check yet. My approach is going to be the same. We need to continue to do what we've been doing and that's what got us here."
ANDERSON RECAPTURES MOJO - Greg Anderson has said that his Summit Racing team has been up to par in recent national events. But he was all smiles after winning his first race of the Countdown to the Championship with a victory in Sunday's ACDelco Nationals.
Anderson, who had lost four times in the finals to Dave Connolly, recaptured that mojo when he defeated Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the finals, which put him 34 points ahead of Coughlin in the race for the Pro Stock title.
"We are not used to being the underdog," Anderson said. "But that's what we had to do this weekend. We've tested a lot, making a lot of runs, and I think that was the key. The car was flawless. The driver just was so-so, but the car was awesome.
"That's a result of all that testing and the work my crew put in. I can't describe the pressure you feel in this Countdown deal. There are four cars who are all capable of getting the win, so if you screw up, your championship is done.
"We didn't want that. We knew we couldn't come here and win the championship, but we could lose it. We didn't do that. We kept ourselves in the game and got it done."
CONNOLLY'S STREAK ENDS AT FIVE - Imagine if you'd won five races in a row and lost your points lead the next event. Do that and you'll begin to imagine how Dave Conolly felt today.
The Ohio native, hoping to become the first Pro Stock competitor to score six consecutive victories, saw his five-race win streak come to an end when he lost to teammate Coughlin in the second round.
Connolly, who beat Kenny Koretsky in the opening round, gave up a 0.027 advantage off the starting line, and couldn't catch Coughlin, whose time of 6.775 beat Connolly's 6.773.
"That wasn't the note we wanted to go out on," Connolly said. "I thought we had the better car. I might have driven to conservative and (Coughlin)
did a better job of getting down the track. It's unfortunate it went down like this.
"This team is very strong and we want to finish no worse than second. It will be very disappointing if we don't finish second after the season that we had."
Said Coughlin: "They've been on a pretty good roll. We definitely had our hands full. But we're getting more efficient and we have a pretty good race car now."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Anderson put himself in solid position to score his fourth title in five seasons. He moved 34 points in front of Coughlin and would only need to stay within two rounds of the Jeg's Mail Order team next weekend.
Connolly is 48 points back with Allen Johnson, who lost in the first round to Coughlin, is 103 markers behind.
"It's not over yet," Anderson said. "There's a long way to go. There are still three of us alive and it's going to be a dog fight (at Pomona)."
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
HINES CLOSES IN - This hasn't been the most consistent season for Hines. But like teams who win championships in other sports, the California native is doing his best when it matters most.
Sunday was another case in point as Hines advanced to his third consecutive final round and won the ACDelco Nationals when he defeated top-qualifier Chip Ellis in the final.
"The way this class is, to get out of here with a win, let alone the points lead is just amazing," said Hines, whose 7.073 run in the final easily beat Ellis' 7.144. "The team has just done an awesome job just figuring out the last few weeks what we need to do to even have a chance at winning a fourth consecutive championship.
"We've done our homework and we found enough. We came here and had a good bike. It was nice to get on a string, and we hit it at the right time."
SEEING RED - Pro Stock Motorcycle riders have suffered more red-light starts than another other professional category, and it was proven again during the first round of eliminations on Sunday.
Seven competitors left before the green light during the opening round, including three matchups that had both competitors jump the gun.
Top qualifier Chip Ellis was among the latter, but was able to advance because his first-round opponent - Michael Philips - left 0.71 seconds before Ellis let go of his clutch. Other first or worst beneficiaries where Matt Guidera and Geno Scali.
"I've said it before, and every other Pro Stock Motorcycle (rider) has said it," Ellis said. "It's so easy to red light here. Not just here, but every place we race at, because the motorcycles are the fastest reacting vehicles (on tour). That's why you don't see Top Fuel or Funny cars red lighting (as much). You try to hit that sweet spot, and that can be somewhat difficult."
Timing off - Karen Stoffer, who announced an extension of her sponsorship agreement with Geico Insurance on Saturday, had an early exit during eliminations on Sunday.
Stoffer, who has two wins and came into the event in seventh place, was timed out and disqualified prior to a first-round encounter with U.S. Army rider Angele Sampey, Sampey, making a single run, then took the round with a 7.084.
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Hines moved 39 points ahead of second-place Ellis with Sunday's victory. Ellis would have to advance two rounds further than Hines to get around him for the championship, meaning Hines can win title No. 4 by advancing to the finals.
"It's pretty stressful," Hines said. "We've never happy with the second part of the countdown. If they didnt' have it, we'd be 90 points ahead and sailing into Pomona.
"But we've run well there and we're just going to try and continue that and repeat."
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – FULLER WINS ON CONTROVERSIAL DAY, HIGHT FLIES HIGH AND CONNOLLY RULES AGAIN
FULLER WINS SHOOTOUT - The first four events of the Countdown to the Championship haven't been good for "Hot" Rod Fuller. But that changed a bit Saturday after the former Super Comp competitor scored the biggest victory of his young career - winning the $100,000 Technicoat Shootout.
Fuller, who comes into this event second in the Countdown to One, used a slight reaction-time advantage to beat Melanie Troxel in the final of the Top Fuel special event, beating Troxel to the finish line as his 4.527 edged Troxel's 4.526.
"My team told me they needed me," said Fuller who used 0.23-second advantage off the line. "They said we have a good race car, but we really need to you today. I said, 'Don't worry, I got your back.'
"It's good to come through for your team."
Fuller also believes that Saturday's success could translate into a victory in Sunday's ACDelco Nationals, the first event of the Countdown to One.
"I know I have a lot of confidence now," Fuller said. "My team is all smiles and we're excited. We're going to come out here and try to do what we did today. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be. But in my mind, I think it's meant to be."
Fuller also had a response for any doubters who have noted he's struggled somewhat during the first four races of the Countdown to the Championship.
"I had a competitor tell me that I'm Cinderella and it struck midnight," he said. "But I'm a West Coast guy, and it turns midnight a little later out here."
BACA'S SUCCESSFUL RETURN - It's like David Baca hardly missed a beat.
The Top Fuel veteran, who hadn't competed for a few seasons when he was asked to drive the MATCO Tools dragster for the final two races of the season, appears to have made a successful return, qualifying fifth for Sunday's race with a 4.532-second pass.
"I'm just so fortunate to be able to drive this car and work with (crew chief) Lee Beard," Baca said. "This fulfills a dream I've had for a long time, so to have the opportunity to drive this car at the last two races of 2007 and help "Hot" Rod Fuller win the championship is definitely a dream come true."
MULDOWNEY HOSPITALIZED - Top Fuel legend Shirley Muldowney, who was at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Friday, was hospitalized Saturday after complaining of possible food poisoning.
"There just doing some observation and tests," said John Muldowney, Shirley's son. "They just want to check her out.
"We thought originally it was food poisoning and (the doctors) thought there might be some other issues, but maybe the food poisoning might have triggered that. But like I said, they are just doing some tests."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Neither of the final four can meet before the semifinals, with Schumacher and "Hot" Rod Fuller on the top side of the bracket Brandon Bernstein and Larry Dixon on the lower half.
Schumacher, who has lost from the No. 1 hole seven times this season, faces another tough opening round, when he will face Doug Foley. The former IHRA competitor qualified No. 16 with a 4.597.
"We haven't any luck all weekend, maybe it will change Sunday," Foley said. "Hopefully, we can step up."
WEIGHT WATCHERS – If your name is Tony and you race at Las Vegas, bypassing the scales after a good run isn’t a recommended action. Last year Tony Pedregon had a 4.79 run thrown out and that caused him to DNQ after 114 consecutive starts. Pedregon complained that he was conducting business as usual.
Tony Schumacher said the same thing Sunday as he bypassed the scales after beating Melanie Troxel in the second round of the $100,000-to-win Technicoat Shootout. NHRA officials denied that claim and disqualified the defending world champion and reinstated Troxel.
Schumacher alleges that he stopped and offered to weigh.
“There’s a green light and a red-light at almost every track scales that we race at,” Schumacher said. “After we passed the scales, I got out to do the number one deal and Rich said, ‘Hey you passed the scales.”
“We had been 40 pounds over all day and I said, ‘There are my guys, if you want to weigh them, then grab them and weigh. Graham Light asked me why I passed the scales and I told him that I had told Rich to grab my guys if he wanted them to weigh.”
Schumacher said there was no one at the scales asking him to stop.
“I challenged Graham to show me in the rule book where it says we have to stop when there is no one there to stop us,” Schumacher said. “We usually stop once or twice on race day – never more than that and I’ve won a lot of races. Four rounds – I’ve never stopped four rounds in one day, ever.”
According to the NHRA rulebook, there is no rule per se but there is a rule on page 186 that mandates the car with driver must weigh 2,250 pounds. The burden of proof then falls on the team to prove they are within the guidelines.
Torco’s CompetitionPlus.com discussed the issue with a random sampling of teams and half said they stopped purposely after every winning run to prevent the likelihood of a Schumacher-like situation while others admitted they posted winning runs before without stopping at the scales.
Schumacher said his situation was a case of no one was proactive from the scales to require them to weigh.
“Graham would like to think you stop after every run, but if that’s the case then why do you have a green and a red light,” Schumacher asked. “You stop when you make a good run and you stop when you run fast and you stop when the NHRA asks you to stop. You don’t stop four runs; just ask every team out there if they do.
“They didn’t wave us by – they didn’t ask us to stop. They didn’t ask us to do nothing. We passed the scales, why didn’t they come and get us.”
Schumacher alleges that he witnessed Cory McClenathan beat him and bypass the scales only to reprimanded with a warning.
Senior VP–Racing Operations Graham Light said there is no gray area in this situation.
“The rule says clearly that a car must weigh 2,250 pounds after each run and that would indicate the only way you are going to know is to stop and weigh,” Light said. “If you do a survey in the pits, including sportsman runs, you will find that if you have a run that is better than the previous run, you stop unless instructed by an official. That’s the way it was back in the ancient days when I raced.”
Light said all four winners in the first round of the Technicoat Shootout weighed. Throughout the event, he said Schumacher was the only winning team that didn’t stop at the scales.
“Every round, every winner was weighed,” Light said. “It is the responsibility of the team to stop at the scales and weigh. There was no one down there waving people by. If that was the case, they would have waved Hot Rod Fuller by after he won. It’s a well known fact if you win a round then you stop at the scales.”
Troxel’s team was notified shortly upon returning to their pits they should prepare to race in the final round. Schumacher’s disqualification was conveyed in time for them to prepare to race Hot Rod Fuller in the final round.
“I felt that we were beat by Alan Johnson and Tony Schumacher,” said Troxel assistant crewchief Lance Larsen. “They outran us and did a better job than us, they beat us. The rules do say you have to stop at the scales. Apparently, they didn’t stop. I wasn’t there to see that. All I know is when someone comes to you and says you can run your car for $100,000, I am going to get my car ready.”
Troxel said the incident had to be tough for Schumacher and the Army team, but the rules are the rules. Her assessment is that the NHRA had no other choice but to enforce them.
“It really didn’t have a lot to do with us, we both went up and ran our race,” Troxel said. “They bypassed the scales and while it has to be frustrating to them, as a competitor I applaud the NHRA for being consistent in the rules and their punishment. That’s the rules and they have thrown people out for bypassing the rules before. I know that has to be a tough pill for them to swallow. The NHRA did the right thing. They had no choice. They had to be consistent with the rules.”
Team owner Don Schumacher said today’s enforcement of the rule wasn’t a matter of being consistent with the rules.
“They took a win away from us because other teams want to whine about the Army car,” Schumacher said. “A competitive team complained that we took ballast out of the car. A lot of teams take ballast out of their cars in the staging lanes to balance the car. That’s what you have ballast for. This car was 40 pounds overweight.
“They NHRA said they were going to put a red light and a green light at the scales to cut down on the confusion. There’s no light down there and the guy driving the tow vehicle wasn’t stopped. Tony has won 40 races and he hasn’t stopped at the scales four times on race day.
WILL WON'T ON SUNDAY - For the first time since she turned professional in 2006, Hillary Will, driver of the KB Racing LLC-owned, Kalitta Motorsports-managed Support Our Troops and Families Top Fuel dragster, missed the field for the and will not be part of the elimination program tomorrow.
Will’s best run of four qualifying passes at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was an elapsed time of 4.625 seconds, good for the No. 17 spot.
Will had qualified for 44 consecutive races.
“It kind of surprised me that we didn’t make the show because over the past two years we have been consistent and made every race,” said Will following qualifying. “It has happened to the best of the best this year and now it happened to us. This team has been together for two years and we’re not going to get down. We’re going to go to Pomona (Calif.), start a new streak, and end the season on a high note.”
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS - Robert Hight's been here before.
But after being a year older and year wiser and after watching his 2006 championship run go awry here last year, Hight believes he's ready for the challenge this time.
He's proved it so far, taking the top spot with a stout 4.763.
"I'm excited," Hight said. "The only thing I don't know is what's it going to do when we win this race, win this championship. John may jump up and down and he may hurt himself some more. But we're going to definitely going to take that chance."
But Hight knows it won't be easy.
"There are no easy rounds," Hight said. "I hope my teammates can help me out and take out some of the competitors and pave the way for me to win this race, or at least go some rounds tomorrow. That's the main thing for this Countdown.
"We want to win, but honestly if you were to go to the semifinals at these last two races, you'd probably win the championship. We're going to work with our crew chiefs, and we're going to get this thing."
It's four for four for Force - All four John Force Racing entrants qualified for the 16-car field. Hight led the way, taking the top spot. But he's joined by No.7 Mike Neff (4.784), No. 11 Phil Burkhart Jr. (4.809) and No. 13 Ashley Force (4.819).
"This is a feat in itself," Hight said. "We had a meeting over in our pit area and John was screaming at the top of his lungs, talking about how proud he was on what they did. Putting Mike Neff in a car and qualifying first time in the car and with John Medlen back and all he's had to deal with, just everything we've been through this year, to all come here and qualify....it's a successful weekend.
"Whatever we do tomorrow, that will be icing on the cake."
SURPRISE, CAPPS SWITCHES TO NAPA - Don Schumacher Racing finally made official Saturday what most drag racing enthusiasts have known for months - that Funny Car veteran Ron Capps will fly with NAPA blue and gold next season.
NAPA replaces Brut, which will switch from primary sponsor to an associate backer.
"This is so huge," Capps said. "I spent my years growing up in a local NAPA store. You watch their involvement in every other motor sport, and they are always first class. When Don was talking to them, I got real excited. It was hard to keep it a secret. I've seen the car for the last couple of months, and it's been hard (not) to tell someone.
"I'm excited. NHRA, POWERade...this sport is on the way up. I think this tells the fans and the public a lot about our sport when a company like NAPA comes in, especially at this level."
That seemed to be the on-going theme during the announcement, which included opinions from Schumacher, Capps, NHRA president Tom Compton and NAPA's Larry Samuelson. Capps also said that TV ads with NASCAR Winston Cup's Michael Waltrip are planned for next season.
"This is a major, major step," Schumacher said. "Not just for Don Schumacher Racing, but for NHRA.
"We have been talking to (NAPA) for several years, and I'm glad to finally bring them here."
IF I HAVE TO EXPLAIN - There's an old bumper sticker phrase that suggests, "If I have to exlain, you wouldn't understand it." That's how Capps feels when it comes to explaining the drama of the Countdown to those not involved in it.
"It was another one of those weekends," said Capps, who is on the same side of the ladder as two of his Countdown competitors: No. 1 in points Tony Pedregon (qualified No. 2) and No. 2 Gary Scelzi (qualified No. 3) "Obviously, the Countdown has created so much excitement, and you can tell by us drivers. Everybody's counting points and seeing who qualified where and who's going to run who. It's hard to explain the drama of this Countdown to someone who is not in our shoes. You live your whole life wanting to do this.
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Hight appears to have the lucky draw after his top-qualifier award puts him on the opposite of the draw from fellow Countdown to One competitors Tony Pedregon, Gary Scelzi and Ron Capps.
Pedregon and Scelzi qualified second and third, respectively, meaning they will not meet before the semifinals.
Capps, who faces Phil Burkart Jr. in the first round, could face Scelzi, who meets Cruz Pedregon in the opening round, in the second round.
CONNOLLY SEEKING HISTORY - Forget about the Countdown to One, Dave Connolly has another reason to be excited about Sunday's ACDelco - history.
Connolly, who has already equaled Pro Stock legend Bob Glidden with five consecutive victories in one season coming into this event, can be all alone in the record book if he can get No. 6 today.
"We're already in such a great group, what with (Greg Anderson) and Bob Glidden," said Connolly after taking the top-qualifier award with a 6.725. "But if we could pick up No. 6 tomorrow, that's something to shoot for. But we're just going to try and do what've been doing at the last five races. But you never know what can happen up there. There's that red light on the Christmas Tree and there's always someone in the other lane. (The four of us) are going for the championship, but there's 12 other guys who want to win the race. So, I know they are not going to go up there and play dead."
LINEUP WORKS FOR COUGHLIN - Jeg Coughlin Jr. would have liked a better qualifying performance Saturday. But he couldn't argue with today's Pro Stock lineup, which will see the former champion squaring off with Allen Johnson in the first round. Coughlin and Johnson are two competitors in the Countdown to the Championship. The winner also could get point’s leader Connolly in the second round.
"When game day starts, I'm ready to go," said Coughlin, who qualified No 9 with a 6.752. "I said coming in that I felt we needed to win this race to stay alive for the championship.
"The way the ladder turned out we might not need to win the whole race but we certainly need to beat Allen and Dave. We've given up a round to Dave because he out-qualified us, so we have to make that up by beating him. It's an all or nothing day for us."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Anderson looks to have the advantage going into today's eliminations as fellow Countdown to One competitors - leader Connolly, Allen Johnson and Coughlin - all qualified on the same eliminations ladder.
Johnson, who qualified eighth, and Coughlin, who is ninth, will face each other in the opening round. The winner could meet Connolly in the second round. Connolly first must defeat Kenny Koretsky in the opening round.
"The way we've lined up, it's going to be pretty exciting," Connolly said. "If we get by first round, we could face either Allen Johnson or my teammate, Jeg Coughlin. This Countdown to the Championship is supposed to create a lot of excitement and that's what it's done."
BIG TIME - Greg Anderson has a lot on the line this weekend being one of the four cars remaining in the championship battle.
“This is a really big weekend; I mean, really big,” said Anderson following the last round of qualifying. “I’m pumped up and ready to go.”
Anderson saved the best for last, running an elapsed time of 6.731 seconds in the fourth and final qualifying session.
Starting from the No. 3 position, the Duluth, Minn. native, who now lives in the Charlotte area, will square off against two-time Pro Stock champion Jim Yates, who qualified No. 14 (6.757 seconds).
Anderson’s other competition in the final segment of the Countdown to 1 finished qualifying as follows: Dave Connolly (No. 1), Allen Johnson (No. 8) and Jeg Coughlin (No. 9).
At The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Anderson has five wins in seven final rounds since 2003. At the fall race, he has won twice – in 2003 (over Kurt Johnson) and 2004 (over teammate Jason Line). He was runner-up to Kurt Johnson in the 2005 fall edition. He’s also won three-times here at the spring race. Earlier this year he won the SummitRacing.com Nationals over Jeg Coughlin. In 2003 and 2004 he won over Kurt Johnson and in 2005 he was runner up to Dave Connolly.
PRO STOCK BIKE
SEEKING THE FIRST - Qualifying hasn't been difficult for Chip Ellis this season, winning has.
Ellis, who scored his fourth consecutive pole with a top-qualifying effort here this weekend, hopes to change that. And he believes his found the answer to his less-than-stellar performance on Sundays.
"It's not going to be easy (to win Sunday)," Ellis said. "I'm just going to go out there (Sunday) and just try and focus on riding the bike. Riding that bike is easy to me. But that starting line, for whatever reason, has plagued me all year.
"I know I have a great bike. I should have four or five wins with it, so my goal tomorrow is to just try and stay focused, try to stay in my little space. I'm just looking forward to it and hopefully I can get my first win (of the season)."
GEICO'S BACK FOR MORE - Pro Stock Motorcycle veteran Karen Stoffer announced Saturday that she has reached a three-year deal with Geico Insurance to extend its sponsorship agreement.
"I really excited we can do this," said Stoffer, who qualified ninth with a 7.110 for Sunday's eliminations. "My trailer has a new look; my bike has a new look. I'm very excited."
Geico also announced that it has signed a marketing partnership with NHRA. The agreement will include promotional opportunities for Geico at all POWERade Series events.
"This is a great opportunity for us to extend our brand," said Bill Brower, Geico director of advertising. "It's the perfect chance for us to show people our other products. NHRA drag racing is the perfect fit."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Three of the PSM final four qualified among the top three for Sunday's eliminations.
"I guess that's why we're all in the countdown," Ellis said. "These are the fastest bikes out here. I'm glad NHRA has done what they've done with this countdown. I wouldn't have a chance to be in it, if they didn't, and Matt Smith would be running away with it."
Ellis appears to have the advantage going into Sunday. He is on the opposite of the ladder from fellow Countdown to One entrants Andrew Hines, Smith and Peggy Llewellyn.
"There's really no benefit to it, I don't think," Ellis said. "You guys might think it from a media perspective, but not me."
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FRIDAY NOTEBOOK - FORCE RETURNS; SCHUMACHER RULES AND HUMPHREYS SURPRISES
FORCE RETURNS - John Force, injured in a horrific crash at Dallas in late September, made his first appearance at a national event here on Friday. His Funny Car stable was also back at full force, as Phil Burkart Jr., who is subbing for the 14-time champion, and Mike Neff joined teammates Ashley Force and Robert Hight.
Force, who still has trouble just getting in an out of a passenger car, received a standing ovation during the first session.
"It's been kind of an emotional day," said Hight, who is also Force's son-in-law. "It's really good to see John Medlen (Neff's crew chief) out there. You know it's got to be tough for him. And then to see John Force out there...I can guarantee you that nobody loves drag racing more than (Force). I was in the hospital with him, and that's all he talked about.
"He loves this. Everything is about drag racing. This is the best therapy he could have - being out here with these teams, the fans, and the competitors, who are like family. That's going to be the best thing to get him back out here. He'll fight this and be back next season."
Force, who is still confined to a bed back in his motor home, said he came back for one reason.
"I had to be there. My little baby (Ashley) was out there," Force said. "And Guido (Antonelli, Ashley's crew chief)."
Force also admitted that he re-injured his foot during rehabilitation and may have surgery again, most likely on Monday.
VIVA LAS VEGAS - Tony Schumacher just loves Las Vegas, and it has nothing to do with the glitz and glamour of Sin City.
It has everything to do with The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the success he's enjoyed here in recent years.
Schumacher’s love for the desert community continued Friday as the three-time POWERade Series champion took the provisional pole with a 4.482 at 327.59 mph. His performance clearly backed up his victories at this track in each of the past three seasons.
"I wouldn't trade my race car, my crew chief (Alan Johnson), my team at this race track for any other," Schumacher said. "They are just extremely good at this race track. Alan Johnson spent a lot of time testing, and I'm comfortable with what we have."
Schumacher began Friday's late session out of the qualifying field, but the U.S. Army team once again stepped up to the plate and pulled its way to the top of the field.
"I just tried to be a machine," Schumacher said. "That particular run was huge. You don't want to go into the (Technicoat) Shootout out of the field. I want to go into tomorrow and forget about the race on Sunday and have fun. That's what we are going to be able to do."
Schumacher, knowing of the top-qualifier jinx, also jokingly rooted to be bumped off the top spot. Even though he knows the importance of qualifying No. 1, he's lost in the first round from that hole seven times this season.
"When you're standing on the podium at the end of the year, it could be just by a few points," he said. "And it could be by qualifying No. 1 more than anyone else. It might just be by a few points, but it could make the difference."
BOBSLEDDING VS. FUEL RACING - Morgan Lucas, who is in fourth season in Top Fuel, has the unique perspective of having competed in both nitro drag racing and slicing through the ice in a competitive bobsled.
The native Californian, who will compete in Geoff Bodine's NHRA vs. NASCAR Bobsled Challenge in January at the Olympic Sports Complex in Lake Placid, N.Y., also had the perfect description of what it feels like to compete in both racing sequences.
"It's real exciting," Lucas said of bobsledding. "You have to be one step ahead (in bobsledding). When you get by one turn, you have to be ready for the next one."
And driving a Top Fuel dragster?
"You just hang on," Lucas said.
Career best for Erbacher - Switzerland's Urs Erbacher qualified 12th with a career-best 4.594 at 326.48 mph.
"It's just unbelievable," Erbacher said. "To run that fast in the dark, it's crazy."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - All four Final Four competitors qualified in the top half of the field, with Schumacher making the only 4.4-second run with his 4.482 to take the No. 1 spot. Points leader Larry Dixon is third at 4.534 with Robert Fuller (4.558) seventh and Brandon Bernstein (4.561) eighth.
BRING IT ON - Robert Hight knows all about the top-qualifier jinx for the fuel classes. But he's willing to take his chances after the native Californian took the provisional pole with a stout 4.763 at 322.58 mph.
Hight was one of five competitors to run quicker than 4.8 seconds. He was joined by No. 2 Tony Pedregon (4.770), No. 3 Jack Beckman (4.782), No. 4 Mike Neff (4.784) and No. 5 Jeff Arend (4.799).
"It's exciting," said Hight, who stayed ahead of his Countdown to One competitors. "I know not many guys have won (from No. 1), but I'll take my chances. Honestly, I'm not sure it will hold up (Saturday). But if it's better conditions, we could probably step up ourselves.
"I want to stay No. 1 and I want to beat the odds and win from the No. 1 spot. We did win here in April, so it would be pretty exciting to come back here and win again."
Hight, who also knows he can't afford any mistakes over the final two events, said crew chief Jimmy Prock played it very safe on Friday.
"We had to get (it qualified)," said Hight, who smoked the tires and was on the outside looking in prior to Friday's late session. "We didn't want to go back to the hotel and have to worry about trying to qualify (Saturday)."
Hight also said he plans to make both qualifying runs Saturday. Force, who is making his first appearance at a national event since being involved in a horrific crash at Dallas in late September, hinted that if his four entries are in the field, he might order them to sit out a session.
"I don't know anything about that," Hight said. "I know I'm running tomorrow. He's going to have to beat me up to keep me out of the car. We need all the runs we can get for race day. I don't know what's going to go on, but I suspect you will see four Ford Mustangs (on the track)."
SUCCESSFUL NEFF DEBUT - What's the quickest way to success in Funny Car?
Join John Force Racing.
Force, who hit home runs in giving driving opportunities to Tony Pedregon, Eric Medlen and Robert Hight, appears to have come up big again with rookie Mike Neff.
The former crew chief for 2005 champion Gary Scelzi made a solid nitro coupe debut qualifying fourth with a 4.784 at 326.40 mph. He was just as impressive in the first session, running a 4.896.
"It felt good just to get it down the track," Neff said. "I'm just trying to keep it in the groove.
"(Those were) good runs for us. I'm really excited to just get it down the track (on the first two runs). John (Medlen) has done such a great job with the car and the tune-up. Right now, I just need some runs that go down the track, so John is keeping the set up a little soft. But we're real excited about (the first two runs)."
Ashley gets hot - Mike Ashley, who has struggled the past two events with one DNQ and two first-round losses, caught fire Friday. It just wasn't the type of hot he was wanted.
The veteran qualified seventh with a 4.815, but his Dodge Charger caught fire near the top end. He was unhurt during the incident, exiting through the escape hatch.
"It was good to 1,200 feet," Ashley said. "It just blew up. That (4.81) was ok, but we were looking for a (4.78). We'll just have to come back (Saturday)."
ROWAND GOES HOT RODDING - Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Aaron Rowand, who lives in Las Vegas, is the guest of Funny Car veteran Tommy Johnson Jr. this weekend.
Rowand, who played high school baseball near the NHRA offices in Glendora, Calif., said he will limit his association to the sport as a spectator.
"I'd probably kill myself (if I drove)," Rowand said. "But I'd like to do it. I've been dying to come out. I met Tommy last year and he invited me to come out. It's quite unbelievable. I'm enjoying it."
Countdown to One Update - If the first day of qualifying is any indication, the battle for the Funny Car crown may indeed be decided by the final run of the season.
There was very little separation on Friday as all four qualified in the top 8. Hight's 4.763 topped the field, but points leader Pedregon is second at 4.770 with teammates Scelzi and Capps sixth and eighth, respectively.
SHOWING HIS MIGHT - Justin Humphrey's isn't a finalist for the Auto Clubs Road to the Future Award for nothing. He showed it Friday, scoring the provisional pole in Pro Stock with a solid 6.750.
"This is so exciting," Humphreys said. "We've had so many gremlins bite us this year. It's taken us a while to get back on pace, but bringing Bob Glidden onboard has really been a huge help. He and (team owner) Richard Maskin have more knowledge together than anyone else out here. We're already excited about next year."
Humphreys is also finding it hard to believe that he's actually working with one of the sport's legends - Glidden.
"It's just so surreal," Humphreys said. "I grew up watching drag racing and watching him, and I was always a Ford guy. He's just been like a second dad to me. I learn so much every day, I feel very fortunate."
He also feels very fortunate to make the smooth transition from the NHRA Sports Compact Series to the big leagues of the POWERade Series.
"The biggest reason (most Sports Compact competitors) don't cross over is financial," Humphreys explained. "There are four or five guys who could come over here and race. Matt Scranton proved it early this year. It’s just a money thing."
CONFIDENCE BUILDER - Greg Anderson has been the dominant Pro Stock competitor over the past four seasons, winning three consecutive POWERade Series titles before finishing second last season.
But even the best needs a little confidence now and then. And Anderson, who has been unable to match the performance of Dave Connolly the past five races, got a little mental edge during the opening qualifying session on Friday, beating Connolly on a head-to-head run. Anderson scored a 6.788 compared to Connolly's 6.790.
"It's been a long, long time since we've done that," said Anderson, referring to the fact that he's lost his past three meetings with Connolly. "It was just qualifying, but we'll take it. It was a good run, but there's more in it. We'll have to go back and get more aggressive."
Connolly got the final laugh of the day, beating Anderson in the second session with a 6.754 to qualify No. 2. Anderson is fifth after improving to a 6.766.
"The track kind of bit us in the first round," Connolly said. "We made some changes and we're pretty happy the way it ran in the second session."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE - Connolly, who has won the past five races, had the best day of the Pro Stock Final Four, qualifying second with his 6.754. Anderson is next at No. 5 with fellow Countdown to One entrants Allen Johnson (6.766) and Jeg Coughlin (6.790) sixth and 11th, respectively. If the race was held Saturday, Coughlin would race Johnson in the first round, while Connolly and Anderson would be on opposite sides of the eliminations ladder.
PRO STOCK BIKE
LET'S RACE SATURDAY - Chip Ellis has had no problems qualifying this season. The Georgia native has qualified in the top five during 13 of 16 PSM-contested events, including consecutive poles at the past three races. But now he'd like to transfer that performance to race-day success.
"I know if we could race on (qualifying days), I would win every race," said Ellis who is closing in on his fourth consecutive top-qualifier award after scoring a 7.045 run at 188.96 mph on Friday. "The guys just give me a great bike. It's tough out here. But I'm ready. I feel this weekend we can get it done.
"It's nothing physical. This game is all mental. Like I said, everyone on this team has given me a great bike the last half of the year, and I haven't done my job. But now it's time to start doing my job."
His team has already shown it can do its part. Crew chief George Smith even predicted what the Drag Specialities Buell would do on Friday.
"My crew chief George Smith called it," Ellis said. "He said it would run a (7.05), because he always tells me what it's going to run. He was wrong this time, but in a good way."
SLOW START - This is not the way Andrew Hines wanted to start the most-important weekend of the 2007 season. However, the three-time champion, who is third after running a 7.102 at 187.60 mph, knows that there's always tomorrow.
"There were a lot of things wrong with that run," said Hines, who slipped to third despite running the same E.T. and speed of No. 2 Hector Arana. Arana gets the second spot because he obtained the number first, per NHRA rules. "We have a lot to improve to get ready for (Saturday). We just have to come out swinging."
PRESSURE FREE WEEKEND - This is a pretty easy weekend for three-time POWERade Series champion Angelle Sampey. She doesn't have to deal with any championship anxiety after failing to qualify for the Countdown to One, and while she would prefer the former, having a pressure-free weekend is a good consolation.
"My start wasn't there," said Sampey, who is sixth with a 7.153 after the first two rounds of qualifying. "That took some (horsepower) away. But it's just the first hit. We don't have anything to lose this weekend, so we're going for the win."
COUNTDOWN TO ONE UPDATE- Friday's qualifying didn't do much to separate the four PSM entrants still eligible for the Countdown to the Championship. Ellis, who began the week No. 4 is currently No. 1 with leader Hines in the field at No. 3. The other two Countdown competitors - No. 2 Matt Smith and No. 4 Peggy Llewellyn - are No. 4 and No. 5 in the qualifying list after one day.
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THURSDAY NOTEBOOK – GETTING READY FOR THE LAST PHASE
PLEADING THE FOURTH – Tony Schumacher has a lot riding on this weekend’s game – a fourth consecutive world championship to be exact.
Schumacher enters the 22nd race of the year holding third-place in the standings, 20 points removed from leader Larry Dixon. Schumacher, who hails from Chicago, will be squaring off with Dixon, Rod Fuller and Brandon Bernstein over the next two weeks to decide the world championship.
“That’s a tough group right there,” he said. “They’re all great drivers with great crew chiefs and great teams. We’ll have our work cut out for sure, but we’re definitely up for the challenge. We need to win another championship for our soldiers.”
In Las Vegas, Schumacher will be hoping the mechanical woes that he suffered through the last three events are a thing of the past.
“You can never predict when part issues are going to happen, but we do pray that we’re done with them,” he added. “I don’t want to hear anymore about broken barrel valves, busted valve springs or cylinders going out. It’s about time that we have a fast, flawless race car.”
DOUBLE DUTY - A three-time winner at The Strip, Schumacher will be doing double duty this weekend. He will also be participating in his ninth Technicoat Top Fuel Shootout.
“Even though our main objective is to win the race as it relates to the Countdown to One, we definitely want to get another Shootout victory,” said Schumacher. “Putting aside the big money that’s on the table, when you win this event you know that you have beaten the best of the best.”
Schumacher, who is the event’s No. 1 seed, will take on eighth-place qualifier, Cory McClenathan, in Round 1.
LIVING IT UP, FRIDAY NIGHT – Never has Friday’s qualifying meant so much for Brandon Bernstein.
“We will hold our breath on Friday and hope we get qualified in the top half of the field. If we’re not, then we’ll have to worry about qualifying for Sunday’s event and racing the Technicoat Shootout all at the same time on Saturday.
“Best case scenario is to get two good, quick, consistent runs in on Friday and be ready to rumble on Saturday in the Shootout.
“This will be our fourth Shootout start. We finished runner-up in our first race, but we’d sure like to win one. The Cowboys (Technicoat’s Bob Coffman and Glen Williams) have been friends of our family for a long time and they’ve been involved in our sport for many years. We would enjoy sharing a few Budweisers with them in winner’s circle!”
Bernstein’s very first professional race was the Shootout in February of 2003. It was a starting position earned by his father, six-time NHRA world champion, Kenny, in the race that was scheduled to run at the season-ending race of 2002, the year of his retirement. Rain forced postponement until the season-opening event in 2003. Because Kenny had retired, the rules allowed Brandon to take his place.
“I was really pumped for that race,” said Brandon. “I was just a rookie but I had a great team behind me. We still have Tim and Kim (Richards) at the tuning helm and they’re doing a spectacular job.
“So far this season we’ve won five events, which is a season best for us. Of course we could add on to those event wins with a little Las Vegas luck.”
DRAMATIC TURNAROUND – Vegas can make or break aspirations. J.R. Todd is betting on a reversal of fortunes.
“We have had some bad luck this year and I don’t think it could get any worse,” said the 2006 NHRA rookie of the year. “We want to turn it around and what better place than Vegas to change your luck?”
Todd will have two chances to reach the winner’s circle this weekend. He is one of eight drivers in the hunt for a $100,000 payday in Saturday’s Technicoat Shootout.
“This is the first time I qualified for the Shootout and I am really looking forward to it,” he said. “I finally get to race for $100,000 in one day. That’s pretty exciting. The car has run really well in qualifying at the past couple of races but we just haven’t put it together on race day. We just seem to struggle on Sunday for some reason. Hopefully we can get that worked out this weekend.”
TOUGH CROWD - Dave Grubnic and his Kalitta Motorsports Top Fuel team will have some extra, if not intimidating, incentive to do well at this weekend.
World-renowned mixed martial arts champion Dan Henderson will represent Endothil-CR and Oxydrene at the event and will join “Aussie Dave" and his team at The Strip during that time. Henderson owns more major tournament titles than any other athlete in MMA history.
The reigning Pride Welterweight world champion and two-time Olympian, Henderson, 37, made MMA history on Feb. 24 when he knocked out Wanderlei Silva to claim the Middleweight world title. Henderson is the first athlete in major MMA competition history to hold two weight-division crowns simultaneously.
Grubnic will drive the Endothil-CR/Oxydrene Top Fuel dragster during Saturday and Sunday’s races, including the special event Technicoat Top Fuel Shootout. The dragster will assume its normal electric blue and black Zantrex-3 colors during Friday’s competition.
MIXED EMOTIONS - Two races, two opportunities to claim a Top Fuel victory – that is what the 2007 NHRA POWERade Series campaign has come to for Clay Millican and Evan Knoll’s RATT – Back for More Tour team.
Is Millican happy as his first full season of NHRA competition is about to reach its conclusion?
“Yes and no,” he answered. “We want to get our first NHRA win before the year is over and we have two chances left, so we’d better hurry up and get it done.”
The popular drag racing veteran will be very relieved when that time comes, and he admits to “being disappointed we haven’t won one yet.”
“We have been close before, but we haven’t performed the way we should have.” Millican continued. “We are constantly working on it -- doing ordinary things extraordinarily. That’s what (Indianapolis Colts) coach Tony Dungy says in his book that he tries to do.
“We just have to perform.”
REMEMBERING COOKIE - Cory McClenathan will have more than his usual motivation for winning this weekend. Cookie the Cocker Spaniel, his regular traveling companion for the past 17 years, didn’t make the trip from Lake Havasu City, Ariz. Failing health and old age caught up with the cute dog earlier this week, forcing McClenathan to have her euthanized.
“That was a very difficult thing for me to do,” McClenathan said, “but I feel fortunate to have had her with me while I was driving my trailer to the races. She was a great travel companion and one of my best friends. That’s why I want to win the race for her.”
TAKING THE LONG WAY HOME - Mac Tools and Kalitta Motorsports racer Doug Kalitta will unveil a special one-race-only paint scheme for this weekend.
After riding motorcycles from London to New York in the Long Way Round in 2004, film actor Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman decided to take another iconic adventure, this time traveling the Long Way Down through Europe and Africa. The 15,000-mile adventure began in May of this year in John O’Groats, Scotland, and recently finished at the most southern point of South Africa, Cape Agulhas.
Mac Tools partnered with McGregor and Boorman for their historic and treacherous journey by providing the adventurers with a supply of its world-renowned hand tools to aid them with everything from simple maintenance to large repairs. Boorman will be on hand to see the Mac Tools/Long Way Down dragster take to The Strip in Las Vegas.
“What a thrill this is going to be,” Kalitta, a 43-year-old resident of Ann Arbor, Mich., said. “For everyone at Mac Tools and our Kalitta Motorsports team, this is very exciting. I am a big motorcycle fan and a big fan of Mr. McGregor’s films. Their trip sounds like a lot of fun. Maybe we can give them and Mac Tools another thrill by guiding our Mac Tools/Long Way Down dragster to the winner’s circle in Las Vegas.”
Mac Tools and Kalitta Motorsports will also welcome some very special guests to the event in Las Vegas along with Boorman. Two-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser Jr., TV personality and world-famous custom hot rod designer and builder Chip Foose, X Games star and TV personality Carey Hart, custom motorcycle builder Jesse Rooke, and Steve Harwell, lead vocalist of the rock band Smash Mouth, will be in attendance during the weekend.
READY AT THE TOP – Tony Pedregon heads into this weekend’s final phase of the drag racing playoff top ranked. He also heads into the event with plenty of momentum.
Pedregon, a three-time NHRA national event winner this year, benefited from the October 17-18 test session at The Strip. His 4.733 blast during Wednesday’s test was close to the track e.t. record, a 4.728, set in 2006 by the late Eric Medlen.
“We feel we’re as ready as we can be,” said Pedregon. “It gives us confidence that we tested on the same track that we’ll race on next week. We ran a 4.733 and a 4.760 at the Las Vegas test session and we made several other runs with a planned, early shut-off. We gathered enough data to help us with our qualifying and race day tune-ups. We are hoping for good conditions because we know that the track will be good, despite the weather conditions.”
THE OTHER SIDE OF SCELZI - Gary Scelzi is busy with parental and team owner duties.
"You know what?" he said, "I'm working on (son) Dominic's stuff (Restricted 600 Mini-Sprint). We raced last Saturday, and my midget (with driver Michael Faccinto) is going to race on Saturday in Vegas. I'm going into Vegas with the same approach we had when we went into Virginia: go there and try to qualify in the top half of the field. Hopefully, my nerves won't go to pieces until Sunday. And, hopefully, we won't wait until the last qualifying session to get in.
"We'll be a little less dramatic," added the driver of the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T who didn't make the field at the last event in Virginia until the final qualifying session, then went on to win his fourth season event and move into second from sixth in the standings. "I've been in these situations so many times, fortunately, that fate is fate. It's either going to happen or it's not going to happen. So you just go in there and you try to treat it like another race. We all know that's not going to happen, but I'm not going to worry about it until the time comes to worry about it.
"Right now we're in Vegas, (wife) Julie and I and the kids (Dominic and Giovanni) are going to spend some time and see a show. We have a baby sitter coming out and Julie and I are going to spend a couple of days in Vegas and go to dinner with friends. We're just going to have a good time and try to relax and I'll worry about all that stuff come Friday."
ANY GIVEN SUNDAY – Ron Capps feels that Sunday in Las Vegas is going to determine how teams approach next weekend’s event in Pomona.
"It's going to be so interesting to see what happens on Sunday,” said Capps. “Because what happens on Sunday is really going to dictate on what everybody's approach is going to be for Pomona. You just need to have a decent, if not a great, weekend in Vegas to take some pressure off going into Pomona. And obviously to win Vegas would be just unbelievable. We're looking at just qualifying well and trying to get some rounds under our belts in Vegas and try to do as well as we can in Pomona. But, right now, you can't even be thinking Pomona."
HONEY-DO LIST - He's won three races this year in the Torco Race Fuels Dodge Charger, qualified No. 1 five times, set track records across the country including running the fastest speed ever in a Funny Car - 334.32 mph at The Strip in Las Vegas, and he's even won the sport's biggest event: the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. In fact, aside from not having the opportunity to race for the Funny Car championship, Mike Ashley has accomplished everything he wanted to this year except one thing: win an event while his wife Mindy is with him at the event.
"My wife Mindy is coming with me and we're leaving the kids at home, so the weekend will be like a honeymoon for us,” Ashley said. “I'd love to hand her a golden Wally [event trophy] in the Winner’s Circle Sunday evening, because she has been right beside me for so long - she more than anyone deserves it.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAD - Ashley's father, Ken Ashley, will be joining him as well, and, according to the younger Ashley, his father has not witnessed an NHRA event-winning performance in person either.
"I love my dad, and I want him to know the excitement on the starting line when we win an event," he said. "There's nothing like it, and my dad has been there for me, too, shouting directions and helping me always improve. He's a huge reason I am the way I am today."
MORE ASHLEY HAPPENINGS - Joining Ashley’s team for the weekend will be NHRA Safety Safari staff member Jimmy Ledbetter and his wife Brenda who will be renewing their wedding vows Friday night in the hospitality area. The Ledbetters were married in Las Vegas five years ago, and, although his job is with the NHRA, she has never attended a national event.
"I've been keeping up with Mike's career since he won the Championship in Pro Mod and debuted his Funny Car in 2005, and Angelo, Mike's team manager, and I have been friends since the Las Vegas Race in 2004," Ledbetter said. "I told Angelo about what were trying to do this year for our anniversary, and he and Mike just took off with it. Both Brenda and I are really excited to do this, and, to share it with Mike and his team really means a lot to both of us."
Ashley said, "This is one of the things I love most about drag racing - it's a huge family. Family is so important to me, and to be able to be a part of this special event for Jimmy and his wife is a real privilege."
The wedding ceremony will be conducted on Friday after nitro qualifying.
NOT ON HIS LIST OF FAVORITES – Jack Beckman doesn’t like being called names. Since the advent of the Countdown, one nickname has made its way through the publicity fraternity.
"Boy, I hate being called a spoiler," said Beckman, a two-time winner this season in three final rounds and fifth in the standings. "That's a tough moniker to have attached to you. What it means is you're not running for the championship any longer.
"It's going to be interesting. John (Force) got Mike Neff licensed, and if Neff drives this weekend, and John puts Jeff Burkart in his car, he's going to have effectively three blockers for Robert (Hight, third in points), including daughter Ashley. There's a good likelihood our DSR Funny Cars of Gary Scelzi (No. 2) and Ron Capps (No. 4) will meet in eliminations in the next two races and they're fighting for everything.
"If we meet them, our goal for our sponsors is to get that trophy at the end of the day. It's going to get real interesting. And (No. 1) Tony Pedregon has his brother Cruz, who is not in the Countdown, as a potential blocker."
THE VEGAS FORTUNE - Kenny Bernstein has won three times since the inaugural race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2000.
Bernstein is casting an optimistic eye this weekend, hoping that might be the site of his 70th victory. After all, he won the first race at The Strip in 2000 and followed it with a defending victory in 2001. He won the ACDelco fall race in 2003 the final year of his tenure at the wheel of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel car.
THREE-TIMER – Greg Anderson has it all figured out.
“The trick to winning the Countdown to the Championship is getting by three drivers and doing it in two races,” said Anderson, the three-time NHRA POWERade Pro Stock Champion Anderson, from Mooresville, N.C. “It’s like that John Force TV show; it’s reality, baby. You can’t live on what you have done in the past. It’s the here and now – the next two races.
“We tested at Vegas recently and hope we learned something while we were there. We had a pretty happy Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac hot rod there at least. We’ll go there this weekend and see. Just when you think you have this deal figured out something else throws you for a loop. We’ve had a couple of hiccups lately, made a few mistakes, but we can overcome those things.
“Everybody’s says (Dave) Connolly has this thing wrapped up and he certainly has been on a tear but if that be the case then we don’t need to waste everybody’s time running the rest of this Countdown. We’re planning to show up and I’m almost positive that so are Jeggie (Coughlin) and Allen Johnson. I don’t think anybody has thrown in the towel yet. I know we haven’t.
“We know the road to the winner’s circle at both Las Vegas and Pomona (Calif.) and if we execute the way I know we are capable then we have a chance to be in front at season’s end.”
At fall race at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, he has won twice – in 2003 (over Kurt Johnson) and 2004 (over teammate Jason Line). He was runner-up to Kurt Johnson in the 2005 fall edition. He’s also won three-times here at the spring race. Earlier this year he won the SummitRacing.com Nationals over Jeg Coughlin. In 2003 and 2004 he won over Kurt Johnson and in 2005 he was runner up to Dave Connolly. If you’re counting, that’s five wins in seven final rounds since 2003.
NO SURPRISES – Jeg Coughlin, Jr. knows what to expect headed into the weekend. Just 20 points, or the equivalent of one round of racing action, out of the points lead, this event will be a pivotal race for his JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt team.
"It's very exciting to be a part of the final phase of the Countdown and to have made both cuts so far," said Coughlin, a three-time Vegas winner. "It's huge for our team owners, Victor and Brita Cagnazzi, to have both of their cars in the final four. Now we need to finish this deal off and try to win them the championship.
"We certainly have two great chances to win. Dave has won the last five races in a row and is considered the favorite at this point to take the title. At the same time, we have the exact same equipment and team behind us on this side of the pit and we'd like to think we have a shot as well. The fact they re-stacked the points again puts us right back in the game. It should be an unbelievable two weeks of racing."
With three wins in six final-round showings this year, Coughlin has already shown he has the tools to get the job done. His low qualifying effort at the tour's last stop in Richmond, Va., also points to the fact his JEGS.com Cobalt will be up to the task.
MY TITLE, MY DEFENSE - Richie Stevens Jr. isn’t in the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock title chase, yet he continues to fight for every round win. Heading into this weekend, the Louisiana native is looking to defend his event title and aid teammate Allen Johnson in his championship bid.
“Our motivation is good,” said Stevens, who is currently ninth in the points standings. “Really, I’m focused on A.J.’s car and trying to get him into that championship spot and get him where he needs to be. I’m going in as the defending event champ and it would be nice to win the race and obviously that’s my goal. It would be nice to make a name for myself and make sure I have a seat next year.
“Being that I’m not a contender in the Countdown, the ultimate goal would be to qualify on the opposite side of the ladder [as AJ] and possibly draw one of the other three guys in the Countdown in the first round and possibly take them out. But it’s so hard to just qualify in the field, much less to jockey for position. I guess we just have to hope for the best and hope that I end up racing Jeggy [Coughlin], Greg [Anderson] or Dave [Connolly] in the first round.”
PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE
WINGING IT - Andrew Hines is taking the new NHRA points format all in stride. The three-time defending NHRA POWERade Pro Stock Motorcycle champion doesn't exactly know what to expect in the last two events of the season, but he is comforted by one fact: none of his competitors do either.
Hines is tied with two other racers, older brother and crew chief Matt Hines and Angelle Sampey, as the only riders in NHRA history to win three consecutive titles. If Hines can win the championship this year, he will be the first rider in NHRA history to win four consecutive crowns.
He may also have a leg up on the competition headed to this weekend's race. Not only is Hines the defending series champion, but he won the national event in Las Vegas last year too, beating GT Tonglet in the final round. It was his first Las Vegas victory. Hines also has one No. 1 qualifying position there from 2004.
"It's great to be part of the first Countdown," Hines said. "Leading the points going into the final two events of the season helps too. That's what we were aiming for. The only downside to the Countdown that I can see so far is the added pressure it's put on all of the teams involved. Everyone has just two races to earn the championship and that's a lot of pressure for anyone, no matter what you've done in the past. Our team has been working to find new ways of managing the Countdown, deal with the pressure and prepare for the races."
Hines knows that if anyone can win a championship, it's the guy riding a bike prepared by the Screamin' Eagle/Vance & Hines Motorsports crew.
"Last year we had a 26-point deficit going into Las Vegas and we won the championship," Hines said. "This year we have a 10-point lead and the experience it is going to take to be competitive with all the pressure.
"We're a championship caliber team and that has shown more this year than any other because we struggled so much at the start but were still able to fight our way back. The team has so much experience and they make it easier to get out there and ride the motorcycle. Hopefully the year ends the same way it did last year and we find a way to win another championship."
LEADER OF THE PACK - Matt Smith goes into Vegas second in the POWERade Pro Stock Motorcycle points, but is hoping to change all that on Sunday. With only 30 points separating the top-four riders and at 20 points a round, Smith knows it’s anybody’s chance to take the No. 1 spot.
Finishing in the fifth position last year in the POWERade points was Smith’s highest position ever at the end of an NHRA season, so he knows this year he will better that career mark.
“I have literally only been out here for a few years,” said Smith. “I mean, I have run every other kind of motorcycle class there is to run and won championships over there, but I have never had the success I am having right now. We took a chance and went out on our own this year with the backing of Evan Knoll and Mark Stockseth, and it just worked out for us. No matter what happens I am extremely happy with how the year has turned out, but we are going to do all we can to bring home this championship.”
PREPARATION - Chip Ellis prepped for this weekend’s event by racing his NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle-legal Buell in the AHDRA's Pro Gas class; Ellis qualified No. 1, set the track record, set the AHDRA record, ran the all-time low e.t. for a gasoline V-Twin, and won the race.
"It was a great event," said Ellis, who piloted the G2 Road King in Street ET in addition to the Pro Stock Buell. "We had a lot of fun and the bike ran awesome."
"We got to visit our friends and customers and help them with their projects that we've been involved with all year," said G2 co-owner George Bryce. "We also wanted to prepare the Drag Specialties team for the NHRA's Countdown to 1."
JET-SETTER - Peggy Llewellyn will carry new associate sponsor DynoJet Research into this weekend’s event.
"I'm really happy with the deal," said Robert Vlcek, president of DynoJet Research Incorporated. "This is a win-win partnership for us both. Our products will help them in the further development of their engine program. They've proven that they know what to do with the right tools and will be excellent representatives for DynoJet Research."
"I'm exited about DynoJet coming on board in time for Vegas and the Countdown to One," said Llewellyn. "Their products lead the field and we look forward to carrying their name into the winners circle."
"We welcome DynoJet aboard for the remainder of 2007 and all of 2008," said team owner Karl Klement. "Our priority for next year is to develop new engines and make more horsepower, and this partnership gives us the opportunity to do more and better research to reach our goals."
HOW SHE CELEBRATED - Peggy Llewellyn and the team earned their spot in the Countdown by dramatically winning the last race in Dallas.
"I celebrated for a week and went out to dinner a lot," said the personable and photogenic Llewellyn. "My dad had me up at his motorcycle shop meeting with his customers and posing for pictures with my trophy. He said people were calling and coming by before the shop even opened Monday morning after the win!
"I did a couple of interviews, and then I went back to my normal routine of working out five days a week, updating my website, and going through fan mail. Now it's back to packing up and racing."
It can't be overstated what an achievement it is for this team, in Llewellyn's first full year on the tour and Klement's first year as an owner, to be winners and championship contenders with only two races left in the season. Llewellyn, who's previously only been to the Las Vegas track as a spectator, is now the show. "Everything is so new and exciting," said Peggy, who seems to be calm under the increased pressure of her success.
JUST ONE WIN – Antron Brown would merely like to end his 2007 season with at least one win in hand.
“You have to go back to my rookie year in 1998 to find the one and only season I was winless,” he said. “I’m determined to not let this be my second winless season.”
Throughout his nine-year professional career, Brown has always managed to finish among the top 10 in points. That’s a streak he’d like to see continue.
“I’m in 11th, but I’m only 33 points out of 10th,” he added. “We’ve been running a lot better of late, so I’m confident I can move up a spot or two before we close it all out in Pomona (Calif.).”
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