NHRA TORCO NATIONALS - EVENT NOTEBOOK
SUNDAY NOTEBOOK – KALITTA’S REDEMPTION, SCELZI’S WILD SATURDAY NIGHT AND CONNOLLY THE CLEAN SWEEP ARTIST
GLAD TO BE BACK – Please understand that it has been a long season for Doug Kalitta. The season might not have felt so long had it not been for a successful 2006.
Today’s victory over Melanie Troxel represented Kalitta’s first since last season’s Memphis national event. The triumph kept intact a personal streak of winning an event each season dating back to 1998.
“I was wondering if we were going to get the win today to keep our streak going,” Kalitta said. “We’ve had a pretty tough year this year and we have Jon Oberhofer and he’s doing a great job. The guys are doing a great job. We have Dick LaHaie and Connie Kalitta – we have a lot of great guys working hard to make our car run good. Today, we all came together.”
The victory represented a tough day in the office for Kalitta as he edged teammate David Grubnic in the first round and followed that up with a convincing win over Larry Dixon. Though the numbers didn’t show it, his semi-final pedal-fest was a complex victory over a surging Doug Foley.
“We got some breaks today and we got the wins when we needed to,” Kalitta explained. “This is a great place to win at.”
This weekend’s victory represented the 30th of his career in 53 final rounds. He said winning in this class is not an easy proposition, no matter how easy he might have made it look last season.
“Whenever you can beat these guys it’s great,” Kalitta said. “Every race is tough. You look at the ladder and it is like Pro Stock. There are no easy ones here. This was a great win and thanks for Mac tools supporting us through the drought we’ve had.”
THEY’LL PAY ATTENTION NOW – Doug Foley announced that he was planning a full-time NHRA POWERade tour in 2008. However, the NHRA and their Top Fuel contingent didn’t pay much attention.
Nevermind the fact that he’d nearly won an IHRA championship and only a serious crash and injuries sustained prevented him from that.
Foley came out and qualified top-half twice in the last five events. Still there was no recognition for the third-year Top Fuel dragster driver who runs a drag racing school in New Jersey.
Sometimes a driver has to jump up and slap down a Countdown to the Championship finalist to get their attention. Foley not only took out Hot Rod Fuller in the first round, but also knocked down Brandon Bernstein in the second round to claim his fifth semi-final finish in twelve outings this year. He also has a quarter-final to his credit.
“They only focus on the Countdown cars, which I understand that,” Foley said. “At the same time, they have to get past us to keep their momentum going. We’re in test mode now because we are trying to do well for Evan Knoll next year. Right now we are getting round wins to build momentum.”
Foley’s name isn’t event listed in the NHRA’s public relations statistic department. His existence is recognized very little in that aspect. That suits Foley okay for the time being because he can still pick off unsuspecting front-runners.
“I think these guys have a bulls-eye on them,” Foley said. “We have quite a few wins against Fuller and Schumacher now so I don’t think they take us lightly any more – not that anybody does any more. We’ve done a good job. When we first came out, I don’t think everyone was really sure what to think of us. Now that we have five semi-finals to our credit, I think they are aware of us. This is an understaffed team. There are only four full-time crew members on this team and they are beating teams with ten.
“Next year when we add those extra people it is going to be even better.”
THE 400 - Cory McClenathan joined select drag racing company Sunday with his first-round victory over J.R. Todd in the Torco Racing Fuels Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park. It was the 400th round win of his nearly 16-year career.
"That is quite a milestone," said McClenathan, of Lake Havasu City, Ariz. "And it puts me in good company with the likes of John Force and Kenny Bernstein. I really didn't pay much attention to how many round wins I had, but this quite an accomplishment."
THE CURSE REMAINS – Tony Schumacher just can’t get a break when it comes to the first round from the top qualifying position. He lost five times in the opening round as the top speed.
Schumacher figures it was another mechanical malfunction that led to today’s shortcoming.
“Something went wrong on the car or maybe we are just dragging that number one qualifying anchor,” Schumacher said. “It left soft, dropped holes, and I’m guessing it lost a coil. It spun the teeth right out of the belt.”
Schumacher said there is no longer a margin for error.
“All year long was the time to lose a race,” Schumacher said. “So now is not the time to lose a race. We have four rounds remaining. That is not the time to lose. There are no mulligans left at this point in the game.”
ANOTHER SATURDAY NIGHT … – Gary Scelzi had a tough Saturday night.
And, the complexity of the evening was not really his fault.
Blame it on the television.
Scelzi went back to the hotel about 9 PM and was planning to call his family. Then he decided to shower because he felt it would help him to sleep better.
Scelzi made the call and then watched television before falling asleep at 9:30.
Scelzi said he woke up at 10:30, then watched 11:30 pass and eventually turned off the television well past midnight. He kept watching the clock and before he knew it, 3:30 AM had come and gone.
“I fell really good and asleep and the alarm went off about two hours later,” Scelzi said. “I woke up and I felt a little under the weather. I was starting to get a cold and my nose was running. I took a shower and then took two benedryls.”
Scelzi called his wife this morning and explained to her that he couldn’t figure out why he was tired and couldn’t get going – totally ignoring the fact he’d been up all night.
“I don’t normally take anything on race day and then it hit me,” Scelzi said. “I said, ‘You dumb ass – you’re falling asleep and now you’re going to be sleepy come first round.”
That’s okay because Scelzi had a counter-measure.
“I was already crummy on the lights, so I figured that would make me even worse,” Scelzi said. “So I drank some coffee and then I panicked and said, ‘Great, now I am going to be over-amped.
“When I won in Memphis I didn’t feel all that great, so I hope in Vegas and Pomona I feel like hell.”
SMOOTH OPERATOR – Scelzi’s panic was unnecessary because his crew was a calming factor.
“It was a great day and [crew chief] Todd Okahara made all the right calls,” Scelzi said. “Okahara has been great and I don’t want to forget that it was Mike Neff who got us here. I don’t ever want to forget that. I will help him in any way I can to drive a Funny Car.”
Scelzi said Okahara is the third of three professional crew chiefs he’s had in his career dating back to Alan Johnson.
“Each one of them I love dearly,” Scelzi said. “Before the final I told Todd that we were already in the top four, so let’s go after the second spot. I told him, ‘Let’s hop this thing up and see how quick it will go you little coward.”
Lesson number three for Scelzi. Never call your crew chief a coward when he can add power to the car.
“When I hit the gas, that thing was so out of control,” Scelzi said. “That was the worst case of driving I think you could ever do. I don’t know how I kept from running over everything. I was driving in and out of the groove. My car looked like a windshield wiper going from side to side.”
WALKING THE MINEFIELD – Lesson number four for Scelzi – leave a teammate alone when you are tied when they are fighting for a spot in the championship.
“I had forgotten for a moment that Capps is an emotional guy at the top end,” Scelzi said. “He was fourteenth qualifier and I didn’t think there was any way he would get bumped out. I was teasing with him. I could tell the more teasing I was doing – the more pissed he got.”
Then Gary Densham ran a 4.83 and it knocked Capps down a spot.
“I thought to myself if he gets knocked out of this thing then it is going to get ugly,” Scelzi said. “He’ll probably knock me down. We got in and then he told me that he was going to be calm. He told me that whatever was going to happen – was going to happen.”
BROKEN RECORD – Ron Capps admitted that he felt like a broken record throughout the weekend when talking about his championship chances with the ESPN2 crew.
“This is the most important round of my life,” Capps told them before he made his Saturday qualifying run.
Capps was unqualified and got into the field as the 15th qualifier.
“We needed to get in to have a shot and then I found out I had to run Robert Hight in the first round,” Capps said.
When teammate Gary Scelzi qualified eighth, it put him into a tie with Capps unofficially since points are only made official at the completion of an event.
Once again Capps said it.
“This is the most important round of our life – if we don’t win – our season is done,” Capps repeated.
Then Jack Beckman lost in the second round to Tony Bartone. The only way Capps could entertain championship thoughts was to win the semi-finals.
Capps was on the losing end of a tiebreaker with Scelzi, which meant all of the pressure was on him.
“As long as Gary was winning, we had to keep going rounds,” Capps said.
Cue the record once again.
“I had heard there was a chance we both could pass Jack [Beckman] in the points if we went to the final round,” Capps said. “When I pulled to the line in the semis against Tim Wilkerson, I knew this was the most important round of my life.”
Capps overcame a Wilkerson holeshot to post low elapsed time of the round and go to the finals.
“We wanted three of us in the finals and at that point I didn’t care,” Capps said. “I have been praising the countdown and even though it didn’t look like I was going to make it in, I was praising it. I got emails from fans and read articles about how bad it was that I got my points taken away.
“I thought it was exciting and if there was a team, and not to take anything away from anyone, I felt like we deserved a shot at it. We weren’t going to cry about the points and the structure because we knew about it going in. We made a fatal mistake of going into a test mode in Topeka. If we had kept going on at our pace, we might have had a 200-something point lead and maybe won a few races. But, that was part of the countdown and that’s why we did it. We won’t do it again.
“I wanted [crew chief] Ed McCulloch to have a shot at it in Pomona. I wanted to be one of those four cars. It’s so justified that we got in. You wanted excitement and you got it.”
NO CLUTCH PLAYER - A clutch malfunction ended Robert Hight’s hopes of succeeding the late Eric Medlen as Funny Car champion of the event but he still managed to lock up a starting spot in the Countdown to One which will crown the 2007 POWERade World Champion.
After dominating the preliminaries and earning the Full Throttle Pit Crew Challenge bonus money for qualifying consistency, Hight fell to Ron Capps when the clutch activated prematurely, causing his 8,000 horspower Mustang to inexplicably lose traction several hundred feet into the run.
The upshot was a quarter mile time of 7.447 seconds at only 107 miles per hour, far off the 4.790, 4.814, 4.822 qualifying pace that had stamped him as the pre-race favorite.
“It was really a surprise,” Hight said. “The clutch just came in quicker than it had all weekend. We don’t know why, but we’re going to test tomorrow and then we’re going to Vegas and test next week. We’ve got good sponsors and a good team and (the championship is) still ours to win.”
Hight, the 2005 winner of the Auto Club’s Road to the Future Award as the NHRA Rookie-of-the-Year, now will vie with Tony Pedregon, Ron Capps and Gary Scelzi for the $500,000 championship, trying to become the third different Team Castrol driver to win the title in the last six years.
“Our job was to get one of these Ford Mustangs in the Countdown to One for Auto Club, Castrol and Ford,” team owner John Force said from Baylor University Medical Center where he is recovering from injuries suffered in a Sept. 23rd crash. “Robert will carry that banner for us in the last two races. He and (crew chief) Jimmy Prock earned the right to race for the championship.”
A TESTIMONIAL – Jack Beckman can testify regarding the emotional complexities surrounding the NHRA’s first year of the Countdown to the Championship format. He was eliminated from championship contention after the semi-final round today.
“We came in here and it was like a story book,” Beckman said. “Capps and Scelzi both got in and that’s exactly what we wanted. We really would have liked to have seen both cars in. You never root against your teammates unless they are in the other lane. We all three got past the first round and we needed to beat Bartone. We had lane choice and didn’t get the job done.
“It’s one thing if we went out and knocked the belt off of it or kicked the rods out, then that becomes a mechanical issue. The thing made a big move towards the wall and I needed to wrestle it back over and didn’t get it done. It hit the rev-limiter and spun.
“I don’t know what cost us the race. It stinks. So we had a chance? Now we had to sit and watch, but the question then begins, who do you cheer for?”
“The only time I ever bet against Capps or Scelzi is when they are in the other lane. You want them to win, but you know if they make the final round it will knock you out. It’s devastating. It’s not just me because there are ten other guys whose livelihood to make that car run as good as possible. They have given me a great a car and great momentum. There are eleven disappointed guys out there including me. You always want to control your destiny and to sit and watch it unfold for two rounds. It’s tough to put a good spin on this right now.”
Beckman entered the day with two national event victories to his credit this season including a triumph at the $100K Skoal Showdown at Indianapolis. Despite his shortcoming today, Beckman said the program has its plusses and minuses.
“We have kept the excitement level high until the end of the season, which has been perfect for the NHRA and that was their goal,” Beckman said. “Wally was behind this deal and it will be exciting all the way down to Pomona.
“Ron Capps came within two-tenths of a second of not making it in the Countdown and he was the most successful driver all year long. My idea is if a guy wins the first seventeen races that they can take a weekend and go to the Bahamas and paint the No. 1 on their car. Maybe we make it an eight or ten car shootout for six races. Then it becomes an incidental thing where oil may get dropped on the track and not seen or a blower belt breaks. You don’t want to see those kinds of things decide a title.”
CLEAN SWEEP – Dave Connolly might not do windows in his regimen of housecleaning chores, but he certainly knows how to sweep things up.
The former sportsman drag racing phenomenon piloted Evan Knoll’s Torco Race Fuels-sponsored Chevrolet Cobalt to a clean sweep in the five-race second portion of the Countdown to the Championship. He joined elite company with Ronnie Sox, Bob Glidden and Greg Anderson as Pro Stock drivers who have won five races in a row.
"It was definitely a big weekend for us, and on top of all the streaks, it was our sponsor's race, Torco Racing Fuels," Connolly said. "(Owner) Evan Knoll, not only does he help a lot of the racers out here, he also sponsors a national event like this. And it was a successful one at that just looking up in the stands. It seems like here at Richmond the fans are always jam-packed in the stands and they're real drag racing fans, especially for the Pro Stock category.
"To pick up our fifth win and be put in a group with those guys, it's pretty incredible. It's something I never would've dreamed of. I just wanted to race Pro Stock, and here we are getting put on a list with guys like that. It was definitely a big win for us and things are just clicking right now. It was nice to sweep all four races in the first part of the Countdown to the Championship, but there are still two races left and that's our main goal right now. This team keeps plugging away, though. Even before this race weekend we went to Maryland for two days to test. Now we've got a long stretch of tests scheduled before we even hit Vegas, so the work's definitely not done.
"For Victor (Cagnazzi, team owner) to put the group of guys that he has put together with the in-house chassis program and the in-house engine program, I think Jeggie and I are both just grateful to be the wheel men behind those Chevy Cobalts because they're definitely fast right now. To have all the different winners in Pro Stock and all the good teams that are out there, for Victor to put both team cars in the Countdown is definitely a feat in itself.
"I'm not a superstitious person. I try to just go up there and do what I have to do. We try and take one round at a time, and if you beat the guy in the other lane like we have, the national event wins and streak of rounds won will just kind of come to you. So no, I'm not wearing the same underwear or the same undershirt or anything like that."
YA NEVER KNOW – V. Gaines was ready for Connolly and viewed things from the optimistic side.
“Somebody’s got to stop that kid, maybe it will be this old man,” Gaines said.
ANY GIVEN SUNDAY - A big Sunday effort by Jeg Coughlin Jr. resulted in the three-time NHRA champion advancing to the final round of the Countdown to the Championship playoff. Coughlin jumped from fourth to third place with a quarterfinal result, meaning he'll start the two-race Countdown to One just 20 points, or one round of action, behind points leader and teammate Dave Connolly.
"It's a big day for Team JEGS and a huge day for Victor Cagnazzi Racing," Coughlin said. "For Victor's group to put two cars in the final Countdown to One deal is very impressive in this day and age of Pro Stock racing. It's a real credit to the talented people he's surrounded himself with at the track and at his shop back in North Carolina. Dave and I are the lucky guys that get to drive the cars and get all the credit but the hard work is done by many, many people.
"The cards all kind of fell into place for us with the guys that were big threats to us in the points all falling by the wayside before we ever made a pass today. By the time I got up there I was fairly certain that all I needed to do was win that opening round and I'd be in. It certainly lifted a load off my shoulders."
Coughlin clinched his spot in the final four by defeating newcomer Tommy Brown in the opening round of eliminations. Brown gave the race away at the starting line when jumped the green light by -.068 seconds, drawing an immediate disqualification. Coughlin went on to run a 6.671 at 207.78 mph in his JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt o leapfrog Allen Johnson in the points. Johnson was beaten earlier in the session.
"The Tree took forever to count down and it obviously distracted Tommy," Coughlin said. "I had my hands full through third gear and I didn't even realize he had red-lighted until I was a considerable way down the track. I saw him out in front of me and I thought maybe I'd gotten killed on the Tree but it all turned out okay.
"I'm a little disappointed we didn't respond better in Round 2. We made some adjustments but just didn't find what we were looking for there. Regardless, we earned low qualifier honors, got the Full Throttle deal for the crew, and clinched a spot in the Countdown to One so we'll be running for the championship. It's all good."
Coughlin and crew will have two weekends off before the Countdown to 1 begins Oct. 25-28 with the seventh annual ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"Don't be surprised if this yellow and black JEGS.com Cobalt comes to life and makes a run over these last two races," Coughlin said. "We've been showing some great numbers and it certainly feels like we're on the cusp of some great things."
NO JUICE - Greg Anderson just couldn’t get the spark he needed to get past the first round of eliminations. He left the line first against Greg Stanfield but slowed to a crawl the result of a suspected electrical problem.
Since Anderson had already clinched a spot in the Countdown to 1, the first round loss was not as cost as it could have been in either of the next two races that comprise the final segment of the Countdown to the Championship.
“I felt we had everything going our way in that opening round when the Summit Racing Pontiac just quit,” said Anderson following the lost. “If something like that was going to happen, it’s better now than in either Las Vegas or Pomona (Calif., site of the final two races).
DRAMATIC TURNAROUND – Last year Jason Line could do no wrong en route to winning this event and the Pro Stock championship. This year was a different story.
Line lost to Max Naylor in the first round of eliminations and ended his championship aspirations.
Line came into the event needing to go two rounds further than either Allen Johnson and/or Jeg Coughlin to become one of the four drivers that will advance to the final segment.
“I’m a little numb and definitely disappointed at the early loss,” said Line. “We thought that our Summit Racing Pontiac could run with these guys but today we came out with the short straw. We’ll go on to Las Vegas and Pomona and try to help Greg (Anderson, teammate) win his fourth championship.”
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SATURDAY NOTEBOOK – GRAHAM LIGHT’S TOUGH DAY, SHOE
THE DAY AFTER – NHRA Senior Vice President, Race Operations Graham Light walked into the control tower and greeted his staff in the usual manner. He didn’t say a word, but you could see on his face the desire for an easier day.
Light hoped Saturday would be a smoother day than Friday presented. In one day, Light survived inclement weather which altered the schedule, a racing surface that refused the adhesive process and a power failure that left the racers and thousands of race fans in the dark.
“We’ve had tougher days, trust me,” Light said. “We are fortunate to have a lot of good people that know what to do – some of them twenty and thirty years.”
Light said sometimes you just have to step aside and let those you have in place handle the situations.
“You immediately try and figure how you can juggle the schedule to make everything fit,” Light explained. “You want it to be as fair as it can be for both the professional and sportsman racers. Darryl Zimmerman and his crew do a great job of making all of that work.”
Friday’s morning rains created problems for Light and his crew of officials.
“The concrete looked pretty good yesterday morning,” Light said. “For some reason, the rain got under it and the rubber lost its bond. We really had a virgin piece of concrete for about 550 feet. The first process is that you have to get all of that flaky rubber off. We did that and dried the track.
“We proceeded to try and put the rubber down with the tire machine that Roger Stull provided us with.”
Light explained how his crew used VHT as well as a powdered rosin [gold dust] to the racing surface and then worked it in until the surface turned black again.
“We had a good racing surface and the cars might have run even better if it hadn’t have been so humid,” Light said.
Everything appeared to be going well and then VMP went pitch black from a power failure. It was later determined the failure wasn’t limited to the track. An entire power grid in Dinwiddie, Virginia failed Friday evening.
“I was thankful that it wasn’t in the midst of two Top Fuel cars making a run,” Light said, a sigh of relief in his voice. “The concern was to make sure it didn’t happen again because it could have been catastrophic if two cars were running 300 miles per hour and the lights went out. Luckily it was between a pair of cars and Virginia Power has given us a pretty high level of confidence the situation has been resolved. It is a problem they identified on their grid.”
Friday’s miscues were nothing new to Light, however having them all piled into one event on a single day was unexpected.
“Some events go smooth as anything and others are plagued with issue after issue,” Light said. “We’ve had lights go out before. We’ve had rubber wash off before. It’s just we had them all happen here yesterday.”
NEW SPONSOR - NHRA announced today that Caterpillar Inc. (CAT), will become an official sponsor of NHRA beginning in 2008.
The multi-year deal with NHRA comes on the heels of Caterpillar’s recent announcement to become a primary sponsor with David Powers Motorsports, beginning in 2008, of the “Hot Rod” Fuller Top Fuel Dragster.
NHRA, together with David Powers Motorsports, will work with CAT and its dealer network to provide support in CAT’s efforts to recruit prospective dealer service technicians. As part of the official status with NHRA, CAT will have display space at all 23 events on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series circuit. CAT also will participate in NHRA’s Youth & Education Services (YES) program, presented by the U.S. Army. NHRA’s YES program brings students and sponsors together at national events around the country to stress the value of an education as well as career opportunities within motorsports and the sport of NHRA Drag Racing.
“We are excited to join forces with David Powers to help CAT and its dealer network recruit prospective technicians,” said Gary Darcy, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “Through this year’s pilot program, CAT witnessed first-hand the incredible access to our fans that sponsors are afforded at NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series national events. I am confident it had a significant impact on CAT’s decision to embark on a multi-year deal both with NHRA and David Powers Motorsports.”
“These races provide a venue for our dealers to meet one-on-one with drag racing and engine enthusiasts who are also prospective employees,” said Bill Mayo, vice president of Caterpillar’s North American Commercial Division. “Recruiting—especially in this arena—is vital to the future growth of both Caterpillar and our dealers. We are constantly looking for creative investments like this to secure talent for Team Caterpillar.”
Schumacher’s best run, his second of the day, came in the worst atmospheric conditions of qualifying and yet it was still better than runs made the previous night.
“I’ll never stop saying that it is great to go down the track on Friday night and get the top spot but it is completely irrelevant unless you are having a night race,” Schumacher said. “This was good for so many reasons. I made so many statements that we can’t win an event qualifying on top and then losing in the first round.
“We won a championship and had a great run at the end but when you add up the points, it was won by our top qualifying spot. The format is different and you’re not going to be able to pull off the same kind of a thing this year.
“Having the fourth (Bernstein) and
fifth (Vandergriff) place points guys racing one another in the first round
takes some pressure off of me. I watched
“I said, ‘I don’t want to be second. I want to be first if I am going out there to get something.”
Schumacher said Bernstein racing Vandergriff in the first round works to his favor.
“It works perfect for me,” Schumacher. “I couldn’t have asked for a better one. It’s good for one of them. Those guys ought to be going to bed early and doing their push-ups and all of that stuff. This is going to be a statement day for one of them.”
MARQUEE MATCH UP – Only 27 points separate Brandon Bernstein from Bob Vandergriff, Jr. for the fourth spot in Top Fuel. The two meet in the first round of eliminations.
Both drivers said they agree that having fate in their hands Sunday is the best way to finalize the season. Bernstein qualified No. 2 while Vandergriff is No. 15.
“I’d feel a little better if we had
qualified higher in the field, but we’ve done well racing from the
15th and 16th spot all year,” Vandergriff said. “I guess
for our team it doesn’t matter because we have our destiny in our hands. If we
Bernstein, in the top qualifying spot until the final round, ended the day second quickest.
“It’s obviously in our hands,” Bernstein said. “We have to go out there and perform like we have all weekend. Everything should fall into place at that point. Everybody has to do their job and I have to do my job driving.”
History remains on Bernstein’s side. In two of the last three events Bernstein has posted the lowest elapsed time in the first round of eliminations.
“It gives you a lot of confidence headed into the first round with that on your side,” Bernstein said.
In his defense, Vandergriff has reached the final round three times after qualifying 11th, 15th and 16th.
Vandergriff said he’s enjoyed flying under the radar for much of the season.
“That’s the way I like it because you can sneak up on people,” Vandergriff said. “That pretty much stopped at mid-season when people realized we were for real. We kept winning rounds and now that eliminated our chances of sneaking up on them.”
GIVE IT A BREAK – Schumacher has a message to the media, “Get off the fact the points reset and I got the lead after Indy.”
That was his response when asked if
he was focused on battling with Fuller for the top spot in Top Fuel points in
“I think one of Hot Rod’s primary defects as a driver is that he’s so focused on our car,” Schumacher said. “You hear him and all he says is, ‘We have to get around Schumacher.’
“There are a lot of great cars out
here. Forget it. How about trying to win a championship? I wasn’t surprised that
“We want to win this race and quite frankly I am tired of hearing the media say that they took away Hot Rod’s points.
“If we pull off this championship, it won’t be because they took away his points but because we read the rule book better. We tested when we could and as much as we could. That’s the facts.”
Dixon said leaving Dallas atop the points was not his primary objective, just remaining in the top four was.
“Our goal is to win but most
important, we want to be in the top four,”
The final two stops on the Countdown
to the Championship,
“I’ve won at both of them before,”
“There’s a lot going on. Then you
have the SEMA show that week and before you know it, you’re in
Dixon says he’s focused on the task at hand, racing for the championship and he’s putting his faith in team owner Don “The Snake” Prudhomme when it comes to whether he’s racing or not in 2008.
“Right now, next year is a long ways
TESTING THE WATERS – Veteran jet
dragster driver Jessie Harris was at
DRIVING A TIME BOMB – Tony Pedregon isn’t one to show fear but the recent manifestation of problems related to Funny Car safety has him concerned to the point he wouldn’t be opposed to slowing the class down.
“I know they have addressed the chassis that it should stay intact,” said Pedregon. “I know [chassis builder] Murf McKinney and all the teams are working together – it is great to see. When I get into this car, I hope it isn’t my turn for something to be on the track or something to create a tire failure – not a tire failing – something has to cause that tire to fail.
“For the first time in my life I left my house and made sure my insurance was taken care of and told my wife to make sure my will is intact. That’s pretty scary. I want to be safe. But, I don’t think there is enough done to make sure these cars don’t run 330. These cars shouldn’t run 330. I think they should run 310 or 315. I think that’s something the NHRA needs to handle. They will come up with a lot of reasons of why not, but they need to give reasons why. I think there are more pros than cons.”
Pedregon said he’s aware that Goodyear has taken a lot of blame for nitro racing’s problems. But, he said, maybe the sport needs to look elsewhere.
“There is still a problem that exists and it is not Goodyear’s problem,” Pedregon said. “Goodyear has made a tire that can withstand the speeds and the downforce that these cars make – 330-something miles per hour, they have done their job. You cannot ask them to do more than they have already done. I think that NHRA needs to make the tough decision like NASCAR did and slow these cars down.”
Pedregon said he wouldn’t begin to pinpoint a single problem, but he said he’s sure if it’s investigated thoroughly enough – it will be discovered.
“It’s still there and John’s accident proved it,” Pedregon said. “John’s Funny car was going at a much higher rate of speed than Eric Medlen’s. The phenomenon was the same. The car ruptured a tire. A big chunk wanted to stay on the rim creating this harmonic balance. The end result is a catastrophe. Now, we are addressing that because we are making the car safer in a lot of areas.”
Pedregon said he is constantly reminded through Force’s accident and the fatal accident that cost the sport a rising star, Eric Medlen, that he’s an active participant in a volatile sport.
“The sensible part of me always reminds me that we are getting into somewhat of a time bomb,” Pedregon said. “We do go through a lot of effort and lengths to make sure we have taken the right measures and did the right things to make these cars as safe as we can. We are getting into an area that is uncharted waters.
“I’m concerned that the NHRA hasn’t slowed these cars down because the problem is still there. Have we addressed it? Well, we’ve made some improvements in the cockpit and the driver protection but is it enough to keep a driver from experiencing what happened to Eric?”
PERFECT TIMING – Tony Pedregon
“Timing is everything,” Pedregon
Pedregon is almost assured a pass into the final phase of the playoffs, but he said that won’t affect how he tunes the car for Sunday.
“The conditions are really
determining of what we will do,” Pedregon said. “The race tracks are really good
that we are going to. The weather is going to play the largest role. If it gets
hot, we have come a long way that we can run a lot better and consistent than we
used to a year or two ago. I always think our strength has been in when the
temperatures are cooler. If we go to Vegas and it’s in the 70s, it will benefit
Pedregon said there are other cars competing at these final three events that aren’t necessarily involved in the playoffs. He said a driver can’t forget about them either.
“You can’t forget about the cars that didn’t make the countdown,” said Pedregon. “You are still going to have to perform. That’s what got us here. We realize we are going to have to do more of it and be consistent. To come up with Robert and Beckman – their cars run good. You are going to have to run as fast if not better.”
HEAD’S CAPSULE – Credit Jim Head with being the first driver to develop the first encapsulated Funny Car cockpit of the modern era.
Head revealed he was prepared to sit out this weekend, but confidence in his new engineering design inspired him to compete.
After leaving Dallas, Head flew to Indianapolis to look at the remnants of the Force chassis. Looking over the mangled remains, the thought of what could have happened scared Head enough to put his engineering education to work.
“I reacted to what I saw on John Force’s chassis and adapted mine to not fail in the same fashion,” Head said. “I’m concerned about my safety as well as the person beside me. Force’s car smacked Kenny Bernstein pretty hard. Overall safety is paramount and I recognized the chassis was deficient but I didn’t realize to what extent until John’s car broke in half. I fixed mine but it is my fix.”
Head explained that most of his innovations follow a simple procedure. He creates a design and then hands his plans to longtime crew chief Johnny Davis who fabricates the plans into existence.
“That’s the way most everything
works around here,” said Head. “We talk throughout the project. But, it is
really a simple procedure. I went from being so uncomfortable with Funny Car
safety that I wasn’t planning to run
TJ STILL TOPS – Tommy Johnson, Jr. remained atop the qualifying order after the second day of qualifying.
"The track's coming around," Johnson said. "It's getting better and better every run. It's going to be hot and sunny tomorrow, so it's going to be a little tricky. I think whoever gets to halftrack the fastest and then can back it down and just slide it through the second half will have the best success. It will definitely be a crew chief's race tomorrow."
TYING TEAMMATES - Gary Scelzi pulled out an important Funny Car qualifying effort in the final session.
Producing a 4.849-second elapsed time at 319.22 mph, Scelzi earned the No. 8 spot and tied his teammate Ron Capps in fourth place in the Countdown to Four standings. Both drivers were not qualified as they entered the final session. Capps earned 15th. The tie-breaker is round wins in the Countdown to Four, and Scelzi leads that stat with four to Capps' one.
Scelzi's first two attempts included a tire-smoking 11.762/75.39 in Friday's only evening session, and a 5.180/278.52, neither strong enough to put him in the field. Finally, in the last session he put a good number on the board.
"It's down to crunch time," he added. "Fortunately, I have been in enough of these deals that you either do it or you don't. I felt that if the Mopar/Oakley Dodge went from the starting line to the finish line and nothing stupid happened like the round before, it would get in.
"There's no doubt that it can run mid- to low .80s or whatever Todd wants it to run. Tomorrow is important. We got (Del) Worsham first round, one of the best guys out there and we're going to go out there and do everything we can do to try to win that round and see what happens from there. There's nothing else we can do."
For Capps, this was a fitting finish to a tough weekend.
"It's tough to race against guys for the one spot we're fighting for," Capps said. We're not going to have lane choice, it's going to be warm, and we have them all stacked against us. But we had them stacked against us the last run. It was a great call by Ace (crew chief Ed McCulloch) to get down the track.
"It seems like the adversity just keeps coming at us and we keep having to get past it, and that's part of it," added Capps, who had led the majority of the season by as much as 154 points before the Countdown to the Championship kicked in.
"Basically it boils down to our 2007 season is the first round tomorrow; because if we lose that round, the last two races mean nothing to us. We're working for a championship.
"You couldn't ask for a tougher match-up, but I really believe in this team."
Capps faces second-in-points Robert Hight in the opening round of eliminations on Sunday.
NOT RESTING YET – Jeg Coughlin Jr. was far
from a lock for the final four headed into the weekend. By qualifying on the
pole, he took a big step towards a possible fourth championship. The three-time
world champion ran a near-perfect 6.645-second quarter-mile pass at 207.27 mph
Saturday morning to steal the pole away from teammate Dave Connolly.
More importantly, Coughlin's impressive qualifying effort moved him more than a round ahead of Jason Line in the Countdown to One point rankings. Line is the closest racer to Coughlin in the points but he'll now need to win two more rounds than Coughlin on Sunday to take his spot in the points. Prior to the race, he needed just one more round win to pass Coughlin.
"We'll take every point we can get at this point," Coughlin said. "It's time to slit their throats and lock up one of these spots. We have to go rounds because any of the guys behind us could cause trouble if we don't take care of business. We need to come in here tomorrow and race smart, race aggressive, and turn on some win lights.”
Coughlin said he knew that being the best in every aspect of the event would shine good for him when the point tallying began on Sunday. He said one positive aspect of the Countdown to the Championship is that a team can struggle and still have a chance.
"Putting it on the pole was definitely a goal and to get our fourth of the year sets a career-high for me,” said Coughlin. “We've been struggling a bit over the last several weeks but with this Countdown it's never too late to turn it around. We've had three phenomenal runs here. We were second last night and quickest in both of today's rounds. That's real exciting and should secure the Full Throttle award for the Team JEGs crew.”
Coughlin said he’s usually calmer on Sunday than in qualifying.
"I can't tell you [the points chase] is not on my mind but typically once we get to race day it cools off for me. Tomorrow I just want to have a good clear mind and focus on hitting the Tree and making great runs."
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FRIDAY NOTES: THE CHARLOTTE DRAG STRIP DEBATE; BERNSTEIN JUMPING UP FROM BUBBLE, TJ'S RENNOVATED RACER AND CONNOLLY FLIES AGAIN
The opposition turned out in Force earlier this week for a town council meeting
for the City of Concord. The source of their ire was the potential drag strip
that Bruton Smith has planned to build on the property of his Lowe's Motor
Speedway, located outside of Charlotte, NC.
Donnie Faulkner, proprietor of the Rolling O Store, said he felt an obligation to attend the meeting in defense of drag racing.
"Drag racing could have done a better job of representing itself," Faulkner said of the meeting where opposition to the project attended in an 80-20 majority. "Bruton Smith had one of his representatives there and she did a great job of representing him and the project."
Faulkner said the majority of those residents wouldn't be against the track if they were better informed.
"They are just scared because they don't know any better," Faulkner said. "They've heard all the horror stories like the sounds carry for eight miles and the nitro fumes kill kids. It's bad for the local schools. It sounds like a horror story and it would scare me too. It just isn't true."
Faulkner said he was tempted to speak up but declined.
"I could have spoken up, but I didn't because I wanted to hear what they were saying," Faulkner said. "I kind of see their point but they zoned this to say whatever Bruton wanted to build he was able to. The only stipulation is that he had to stay within his property. It shouldn't matter what he does.
"Basically, they are changing the rules in the middle of the game. It has always been a plan to build a drag strip on the property; it was just never acted on until now."
Pro Stock racer Larry Morgan said Bruton Smith is an asset to drag racing.
"Bruton makes such a class act track and we surely need those facilities," Morgan said. "I know Bruton personally and he tries to do things the right way to better our sport. He's one of the only ones who does try to better our sport. I don't think our own sanctioning body works at it as hard as he does. I think this would be a great thing and would hate to see it get away from him."
Morgan said he doesn't see Monday's city council vote being the end of this debate.
"He'll have a drag strip because I know how he is," Morgan said. "I respect him. He's just trying to better our sport. I know him well enough to know that is what is about with him."
90,000 AND COUNTING - The number of postcards signed by NHRA fans and supporters and sent to war-zone troops overseas as part of the Mail from Home program instituted this year by Mail Terminal Services, sponsor of the Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car driven by Jack Beckman, is expected to hit the 90,000 mark by the end of 2007.
Following the Memphis NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series event in September, the 19th of 23 scheduled races this season, 50,000 postcards have been distributed to the troops. The count reached 55,000 after the Dallas race and continues to grow steadily at each event.
Fans are invited to the Don Schumacher Racing pit area and to the U.S. Army Interactive Zone in Nitro Alley to sign special postcards which are then sent to troops at a featured camp at each event, along with photographs signed by the drivers and donated by photographer Ron Lewis. Also included are issues of Drag Racing News and National Dragster.
Employees at the 20 MTS terminals have a competition collecting cards from schools, churches and other groups. They also donate their time to work the Mail from Home kiosk at national events and have added greatly to the collection of cards. So far, the lead terminals are Newark, N.J., MMT (Military Mail Terminal) and the Rutherford, N.J., terminal after sending an additional 2500 cards after the Englishtown, N.J. event. Tied with the leaders and gaining quickly is the Indianapolis, Ind., terminal that sent in a box of 2500 and has just ordered another box of 2500. These terminals have collected an additional 5600 cards from outside sources.
"We are very proud of all of those who have contributed thus far to the program and hope that all of the fans will continue to stop by the kiosk to send support to our troops," said Rodger Comstock, President and CEO of Mail Terminal Services. "We also hope all of the Mail Terminal Services employees understand how important their contribution of support is to the program and to the troops over in the war zone."
BURSTING THE BUBBLE - Brandon Bernstein may be on the bubble for the Countdown to the Championship, but he made sure he wasn't on the qualifying bubble Friday night. The second-generation drag racer stormed to the provisional top spot with a 4.549 elapsed time at 321.58 miles per hour.
"We knew we needed to come into this race and qualify in the top half of the field," Bernstein said. "We need those extra points from qualifying to give us some cushion. This is going to come down to a round-by-round deal on Sunday. We just have to go rounds on Sunday and hope we go more than everyone else goes."
Bernstein's run came after qualifying was interrupted by a power outage that rendered the track dark for thirty minutes.
"It's unsettling when you're hoping for two runs and you look out and see rain. Then you start to wonder if you're going to get any runs. I was afraid that we'd be down to two runs with a championship on the line. Knowing that we only had one shot and that it would be a night shot, that it was going to be more and more critical that we got down the track."
Bernstein said his crew and the wisdom of his championship-winning father Kenny Bernstein that gave the boost for tonight's success.
"Tim Richards made an awesome call," Bernstein said. "We had a pep talk with my dad last night and he said whatever was going to happen – was going to happen. He told us to just go in there and if we come out four – then we come out four. If not, as long as you look in the mirror and you know you've done the best you can do, then that's all that is asked. I just put that in the back of my mind and tried to do the best that I could do."
SARGE VISITS - Tony Schumacher hosted a group of injured soldiers from Walter Reed Army Medical Center Friday at Virginia Motorsports Park.
All Operation Iraqi Freedom veterans, Specialist Josh Lutz, Corporal Daniel Howe, PFC Robert Clark and Specialist Melissa Hildum, visited with Schumacher during the opening day of qualifying for the Torco Racing Fuels Nationals.
"I'm in awe of these soldiers," said Schumacher. "They're all heroes as far as I'm concerned. Hopefully, at least for one day, we were able to take their minds off the challenges they face every day."
Lutz, Howe, Clark and Hildum are going through extensive outpatient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center located in Washington, D.C.
"It's truly amazing how they're all holding up given the injuries they have," added Schumacher, the defending NHRA POWERade world champion. "They're an inspiration to me and my team. Perhaps, we can deliver a victory to them come Sunday afternoon."
FIRST AGAIN – Tommy Johnson, Jr. was the first for the second time again this week. The driver of Don Prudhomme's Skoal Funny Car was the first to get his Chevrolet Impala back from chassis builder Murf McKinney following safety updates and then first in the order following qualifying.
"They actually ended up making a lot of the jigs off of our car for everybody else's car," McMillen said. "It wasn't a performance secret, so you want to share the safety stuff with everybody. We were more than happy to help everybody out."
Johnson said that he didn't get a chance to test the changes to his car before today.
"I was plenty nervous about the first run - you don't know what it's going to do, is it going to make the chassis stiffer, smoke the tires? So it was good to get a good run in and everything looks normal. If we can make the safety better and the performance the same, that's fine with me."
Johnson ran a 4.790 elapsed time to claim the No. 1 spot on a run that tied Robert Hight. It was Johnson's 312.06 speed that was the deciding factor.
"I told Mike (crew chief Green), I don't know if it's my gut feeling, but it felt like it drove better," Johnson said. "It almost felt like it stiffened up the cockpit area, almost like it took a little "slop" out of the car. Maybe it's a little tighter than it used to be. It almost felt like it drove a little bit better and maybe that's a side benefit. It seemed pretty responsive and so far, everything's great."
If Johnson's run stands up tomorrow, it will be his second No. 1 effort of the season and ninth of his career.
THE LONE WOLF – Robert Hight will carry one of drag racing's most famous multi-car teams on his shoulders this weekend. With his boss John Force recuperating from injuries sustained in an accident two weeks ago and the subsequent decision for Ashley Force to sit out to sit out this weekend's event; Hight is the lone representation for the Castrol GTX and AAA Auto Club team.
Hight's Funny Car was the only one completed in time to participate in this weekend's event. Reportedly, a second car will be finished over the course of the weekend and if it arrives, it will serve as a back-up for Hight. Mike "Zippy" Neff could test in that car on Monday.
Hight's focus is on his newly configured chassis.
"It's untried," Hight said of the car delivered to the track Wednesday night and assembled on Thursday, "but, trust me, the crew chiefs wouldn't send it out there if they didn't think it could compete. I'm actually looking for it to be a better car along with being safer. Until we go down the track, we won't really know, but I have a feeling that it might be better."
According to Pat DiMarco, a vehicle diagnostics engineer for Ford Racing Technology, the chassis changes ultimately made to Hight's car by McKinney Corporation were designed to move the hot spot "further forward, in front of the driver's feet" instead of beneath them.
"You change the bar configurations add, subtract and move bars," DiMarco said, "so basically the load path from the tires gets transferred to the chassis (at) a different point so you're dispersing the high-stress area across the chassis."
While Hight may not be concerned with the design changes, he's just a little apprehensive about the 30 additional pounds his car will carry into qualifying on Friday.
"That's a lot of weight," said the former crewman on Force's Castrol GTX Ford, "but I think Jimmy (crew chief Jimmy Prock) makes enough horsepower to overcome it. Besides, most of the guys we're racing against have made the same changes and have the same problems with weight."
CONNOLLY TOPS – Dave Connolly sits on the verge of being the only professional drag racer to sweep a portion of the Countdown to the Championship. He's got four consecutive wins to his credit since the points reset in Indy.
Connolly got off to a good start on Friday night with a 6.649 elapsed time at 207.24 miles per hour to claim the top spot. If the run holds, it will be his second top qualifying effort since Seattle.
"(This run) is kind of incredible," Connolly said. "We went to Maryland last week for two days (for testing), and sometimes you just get those vibes that you're going to have a good weekend. I got that feeling last week and we actually made some gains. You can go out there and test for months and months at a time a just never really find anything, but we actually felt like we made some progress with our Chevy Cobalt and it showed on that run. We made a pretty nice run, nice and straight down the track. Given the weather conditions, to hit the ground running like that was pretty good, especially being at our sponsor's race, Torco Racing Fuels.
"You never know what to expect, especially when it rains that hard, but NHRA did an excellent job. We watched the first two cars go down and some of them were dead right to the groove and they were still getting on through there. The thing never moved around one bit, so hat's off to NHRA. I don't know what it is about these East Coast races with "R" in it - Reading, Richmond - it seems like it rains on us all the time, but we've always had a lot of luck in the rain and we did it again today."
STILL HANGING ON - Jeg Coughlin Jr. entered this weekend knowing he needs a strong showing to place his JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt in the Countdown to One field, which will be set at the end of this event. He's off to a great start, shaking off a lengthy rain delay that swallowed up one of Friday's two qualifying sessions to grab the No. 2 position in the field.
Coughlin's 6.661-second pass at 207.27 mph was second only to teammate Dave Connolly's 6.649 at 207.24 mph and was quicker than all the other racers trying to get into the top four in the points. Only the first four racers in the POWERade points at the end of this event will advance to the Countdown to One, out of which the 2007 champion will emerge.
"We tested extensively before this event and it obviously paid off," Coughlin said. "As simple as it sounds, the shortest way down a drag strip in a straight line and we were having some issue with keeping our Chevy perfectly straight, especially down low. The guys worked on that during the test and we felt confident we had solved the problem but until you get here and run, you're never sure.
"Of course, now that we've run a nice number like that compares well with the other teams it really picks up our spirits moving forward. It was a nice, smooth pass and I couldn't be happier."
The qualifying round that was lost to rain will not be made up so Coughlin and the rest of the Pro Stock drivers will have just two chances remaining to improve on their Friday night times.
"Normally, Friday night is 'the run' to make your mark but with the rain and the cloud cover you just never know how tomorrow will turn out. We've seen it before where the entire field is reset on Saturday so we can't relax, but if everyone else is able to run quicker, we should be able to also.
"Let me say that I'm having a blast with all this Countdown stuff. It's exciting and my pop has been along for the ride the last few races and he loves it too."
MORGAN BACK HOME – Larry Morgan was once an accomplished Competition eliminator racer and even though he ran the class last weekend at the Jeg's Northern SportsNationals in Columbus, Ohio, he has no desire to run the class on a regular basis.
Morgan said that he was preparing a car for Nick Morgan, his 18-year old son, to drive in future competition.
"I figured I had better start him off in something slower, so I took one of our engines and put a slower stroke crank in it," Morgan said. "I took it out to make sure it was okay for him. It was a national event atmosphere and provided the perfect opportunity for us to do that.
"I didn't do it to cause any problems because there are some heavy-hitters in that class. But, this car did run well."
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THURSDAY NOTEBOOK – THE COUNTDOWN WINDS DOWN; TOP FUEL SHOOTOUT, FUNNY CAR FORGES ON MINUS FORCE AND A CLEAN SWEEP IN STORE FOR CONNOLLY?
The fields for NHRA POWERade Countdown to One in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock will be set during this weekend's Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals at scenic Virginia Motorsports Park near historic Petersburg, Va. In the same manner the North and South waged significant battles during the Civil War; there are several close battles to keep an eye on. Following the race, only the top four competitors in each pro category’s point standings will be eligible to win world championships during a two-race shootout in Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.
In Top Fuel, Bob Vandergriff Jr., in 5th, is 21 points behind Brandon Bernstein, who currently holds down the No. 4 position.
In Funny Car, with fourth-place driver John Force on the sidelines recovering from injuries suffered in a high-speed crash at the last event, Jack Beckman, 3rd, Ron Capps, 5th, Gary Scelzi,6th and Mike Ashley,7th, are all battling for the final two spots in the top four. A total of 15 points stands between Caps, Scelzi and Ashley from Force’s position.
In Pro Stock, Allen Johnson and Jeg Coughlin hold the third and fourth place spots, but Jason Line and Kurt Johnson are looking to crash the party.
Fans will remember the last race of the regular season, the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa., for the amazing Cinderella run turned in by Top Fueler, Doug Herbert. Herbert leapfrogged three drivers -- Cory McClenathan, Melanie Troxel, and Dave Grubnic -- to clinch the eighth and final Top Fuel playoff berth with his first win in more than two years.
At the same event, Craig Treble survived as the last man in the Pro Stock Motorcycle field when Matt Guidera and the Mohegan Sun team ended the playoff bid of Chris Rivas one round short of bumping Treble. But Treble didn't survive a second bout with fate when his playoff life was again out of his hands at the final Countdown to Four race for the bikes in Dallas. There, he could only watch helplessly as upstart Peggy Llewellyn beat No. 1 qualifier Chip Ellis in the semis and three-time defending champ Andrew Hines in the finals en route to her first career win to earn the fourth and final Countdown to One berth.
The championship field was set in dramatic fashion in Pro Stock Motorcycle (the bikes do not compete in Richmond) and finalizing the four-driver fields for the Countdown to One in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock figures to provide much of the same edge-of-your-seat theatrics this weekend.
SPINNING WHEEL – Rod Fuller learned a valuable lesson in Dallas. One can knock off the point leader and still lose. With the sprint-style format of the NHRA’s Championship playoffs, Fuller defeated the point leader Tony Schumacher only to be passed by the third-seeded Larry Dixon.
Fuller enters the 21st race and the final event in the Countdown to Four ranked second in the Top Fuel standings. He trails category-leader Larry Dixon by 45 points. He has a 52-point margin over fifth-place racer Bob Vandergriff, Jr. for one of the coveted top four slots for the Countdown to One.
“This is as big as it gets," he said. "We’re not guaranteed into the Countdown to One. We need to make sure we go into Richmond and go some rounds to make sure we have a shot at this championship. Last year was the first time I competed there and we went to the finals and felt like we had the car to beat. The goal is to have a great show, qualify well and make sure we get the one or two spot for Las Vegas.”
Last fall, Fuller qualified third in his Valvoline dragster with a run of 4.543 seconds at 317.79 mph at the Richmond race. He raced to his fifth final round appearance of the 2006 season where he posted a runner-up finish to 29-time NHRA Top Fuel winner Cory McClenathan.
Fuller has two wins (Phoenix, Denver) in five final round appearances this season. He also has earned four poles in 2007. He led the point standings following 14 of 20 races this season and would hold a 120-point lead over Dixon in the old NHRA points system.
FREE FALLING - Tony Schumacher entered Dallas with the lead, one race later he's just two points away from being on the bubble of the Countdown to the Championship.
“As the old lottery line goes, you have to be in it to win it,” he offered. “If we can remain in the top four (he’s currently third), we’ll obviously be in the hunt. We certainly can’t have another bad outing if we’re to entertain any title hopes.”
Part failures put Schumacher on the sidelines early at the last two races in Dallas and Memphis. For the season, he’s totaled 11 first round losses, to go along with five wins.
“It has seemingly been an all or nothing deal for us this year,” he added. “Truthfully, at the last two races, we had some freakish things happen. In Memphis, we broke a barrel valve and then in Dallas we had a valve spring break after the burnout. You can’t predict when things like that will happen. You just have to put the disappointment out of your mind and move on.”
Schumacher and his U.S. Army team are fully aware that there’s only 52 points that separate Rod Fuller in second-place from Bob Vandergriff, Jr. in fifth-place.
“It’s really tight right now,” said Schumacher. “As a result, we better stay focused on the mission. If we can go out and win the race this weekend, then we’ll have no problem qualifying for the final phase of the playoffs.”
The NHRA tour returned to Richmond last year after a five-year hiatus. Unfortunately for Schumacher, the homecoming was not very pleasant. After qualifying number one, Schumacher smoked the tires in an opening round loss to David Baca.
WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME LATELY? – Brandon Bernstein is learning that it doesn’t matter how many times one has led the points this season, what matters the most is who is ahead after Richmond that matters.
Bernstein has led the Top Fuel point standings twice during the season, and has never fallen out of the top eight. Since the field for the Countdown to Eight field has stayed in the fourth spot. Now with the cutline fast approaching for the Countdown to Four, Bernstein is vulnerable.
“We really didn’t want to end up at the last race before the field of four is set with no breathing room,” said Bernstein, “but that’s pretty much where we are. We are 26 points out of third place, or 21 points out of fifth.
“It would be a huge bummer if we didn’t make the Countdown to Four. The record books prove we’re definitely a contender. We’ve won five events this season, a career-high number of victories in one season for me. For the most part we’ve hovered around second or third in the point standings with a few dips lower than that.
“The tide turned to a certain extent when I was hospitalized for kidney stones and was unable to compete at Reading,” continued Bernstein. “We were second going into that event, and because I couldn’t race, we came out fourth as the points were reset for the first phase of that Countdown. That was a 20-point swing. Those kidney stones just picked a really bad time to get riled up.
“Now, all that being said, we have the talent to soldier through this. Make no mistake, competition in our category is tough. We’ll have knots in our stomach and we’ll be holding our breath until we qualify. Fortunately Tim (Richards, crew chief) normally tunes us to some really consistent laps in all the qualifying sessions. Qualifying high on the ladder awards you more points and gives you lane choice, which might give you an advantage.
“I know for sure I picked up the competitive gene from my dad. But our whole team has the desire to win. We need to stay focused and positive and see if we can go some rounds. We have our eyes on the championship, but we need to make the Countdown to Four.”
Bernstein’s victories this season include Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol, Topeka, and Brainerd, Minn. He was runner-up at the season-opening event in Pomona and in Seattle.
ROLLING 400 - Cory McClenathan’s next Top Fuel round win will be his 400th, a milestone reserved for NHRA racers in the sport for the long haul.
McClenathan, 44, has 29 victories in 50 final rounds in his 16th full season on tour. His last win came a year ago at Virginia Motorsports Park, site of this weekend’s Torco Racing Fuels Nationals and, he hopes, his 400th round win and more.
“That is quite an accomplishment – 400 rounds wins,” said McClenathan, “but my Fram Top Fuel team is focusing on winning this race again. By doing that, I will have 403 round wins by Sunday night. I believe we are capable of winning the race.
“Keith Adams, our new crew chief, and Tony Shortall, the assistant crew chief, have been working together for a short time, but they found a combination our car likes. In reality, if I had been on my game at the starting line at our last race in Dallas, I already would have 400 wins. I let the team down and myself down because I was left at the starting line in the second round.
“I was very disappointed. We ran the quickest time (4.571 seconds) of the round and the fastest speed (328.06 mph) of the day and lost.” The difference came in reaction times. Whit Bazemore got the win with a 4.592-second, 327.74-mph run and .091-second reaction to McClenathan’s .138-second reaction.
“We are working on getting a solid foundation for the tune-up, and it’s gratifying to see that coming around. We still want to finish in the top 10 and we have three more races to accomplish it.”
NEW KID ON THE BLOCK - Terry McMillen might not be a household name amongst NHRA drag racing enthusiasts, but if the driver of the second Foley and Lewis Torco Top Fuel dragster has his way, they will.
McMillen will make his NHRA debut this week at the Torco Race Fuels NHRA Nationals. The race held at Virginia Motorsports Park is one that McMillen has been looking forward to all year long.
"We circled these dates on our calendar right away," McMillen said. "Evan Knoll does so much for drag racing and this is one of the many events that he sponsors, so we wanted to be here to support him and to gets some NHRA experience.
"I'm lucky enough to work along side of Evan at Torco. He's really a great guy to work with. When it comes to racing, no one does it better. He gives us the best tools to work with and now this opportunity to race with the best of the best. It's pretty exciting."
McMillen is looking forward to joining his teammate Doug Foley for this race and expects a great outcome.
"Doug has been running really well," he said. "Our Torco car is set up about as identical as you can set up two Top Fuel cars when you compare it to Doug's Mach Series Accelerator car. It will take a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck, but I'd love to see the Torco car qualified right there next to Doug and racing on Sunday."
While this is McMillen's NHRA debut in Top Fuel, he has found the winner's circle twice already this season in IHRA competition, capturing event wins in Edmonton and Toronto.
THE LOGICAL SONG - A realist, J.R. Todd takes the logical approach to his chances of winning the 2007 NHRA Top Fuel championship.
“It would take an act of God and a miracle for us to get into the top four at Richmond (Va.),” Todd said, “and we aren’t counting on it.”
Virginia Motorsports Park in Dinwiddie, near Richmond, is the site of the fourth and final Countdown to Four event as the title chase nears an end. Four drivers will be bowing out of contention Sunday evening and the remaining quartet will settle it in back-to-back races at Las Vegas (Oct. 28) and Pomona, Calif. (Nov. 4).
“Realistically, our goal is to finish fifth,” added Todd, driver of the Skull Shine Top Fuel dragster. He has 2,130 points and trails his good buddy, fourth-place Brandon Bernstein, by 91 points. The ‘miracle’ would happen only if Todd wins the race and Bernstein doesn’t qualify.
“We will run as hard as we can in the next three races, trying to win them all. We want to be spoilers and hopefully help a couple of my friends along the way,” Todd said. “But, at the same time, we want to finish this season strong.”
Todd is optimistic because crew chief Kevin Poynter has the car running like it did earlier in the season. He earned the No. 1 starting spot – the second of his career and the year – at Dallas last week with a run of 4.541 seconds.
“The car hadn’t run that well in a long while,” said Todd. “It is good to see the car’s performance coming back. The crew guys are real upbeat about that.”
A forecast for good weather could produce “some quick times,” noted Todd. “I think the track is good enough to yield 4.40-second elapsed times. It is a little disappointing that we aren’t in the hunt for the championship. You kind of get greedy after awhile, but there are a lot of good drivers that would like to change positions with us right now. It would be nice to put the number 5 on our car next year.”
Todd placed eighth in 2006 with a solid second half of the season that produced three wins and one runner-up en route to rookie of the year honors.
“This race is sponsored by Evan Knoll and Torco Racing Fuels, and Evan also sponsors our car,” said Todd. “It would be cool if we could win this race for him.”
MEMORY MAKER - Tony Pedregon knows what it takes to win a championship and in Dallas he provided a refresher course.
Pedregon jumped from outside the top four in points to first in the Countdown with his win in Dallas. He was crowned Funny Car champion in 2003 and knows the feeling of occupying the top spot heading toward the final three events of the season.
“There are several good cars that are close to us in points and they all want a shot at the championship,” said Pedregon. “We are going to Richmond to work hard to keep the lead. We are going to take a close look at the track and the conditions and then do our best to get to the late rounds on Sunday. To win a Championship, you have to be ready to capitalize on the opportunities, especially now when everyone is contending for a spot in the Countdown.”
With important Countdown races on the horizon and in the wake of John Force’s accident in Dallas, Pedregon and the Q Horsepower team are implementing changes aimed at improving driver safety and chassis performance.
“We are going into Richmond with a new chassis,” said Pedregon. “Ideally, we’d like to put a few testing runs on it, but we’ve done this several times before. In those instances, we’ve adapted to a new chassis almost immediately. We feel we’ve hit the limit in terms of the number of runs on our chassis. It’s now time to run a new chassis, especially as we go into the Countdown.
“We are working in concert with custom chassis manufacturer Murph McKinney. The new chassis will have upgrades to the area in front of the driver’s legs that are designed to prevent it from failing like it did in John’s [John Force] accident. It is another step to improve the safety of driver while improving the performance characteristics of the car.”
On his way to the winner’s circle in Dallas last weekend, his 35th national event win, Pedregon cut a razor-thin .09 light to defeat Jack Beckman in round one and then beat Tommy Johnson, Jr. on a holeshot in the quarterfinals. He received a bye in the semis, but ran a stout 4.867 to win lane choice for his final round match up with his brother Cruz Pedregon. It was the second time in their careers that the Pedregon brothers squared off in the final round and the first match since they became teammates in 2004. They were in opposite lanes in the finals at Houston in 1997.
“It was an emotional win in my parents’ home state,” said Pedregon. “I was at the starting line and looked over to see my brother next to me in the final round and I thought, ‘How proud our dad would have been of his sons competing against each other in the final round of an NHRA national event.’
“NHRA Drag Racing fans are passionate about the sport. This was never more evident than last weekend when many fans were celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. I’ve received a positive response from many NHRA fans regarding my comment last weekend. A few misunderstood that my intent was only to inspire and motivate the entire racing audience. I think it’s important to be a good role model and I think drag racing has the best fans in motorsports.
“My emotion came from knowing two members of a Latino family were paired against each other in the final round during this month of celebration- what a great achievement for our family.”
HIGHT IN, ASHLEY FORCE IFFY - Robert Hight should be in Richmond to seal his spot in the top four of Funny Car point earners.
Enhancements to Hight's Automobile Club of Southern California Ford Mustang should be completed Wednesday. That will make it possible for the seven-time tour winner to compete this week – but not to test.
Work still is being done at McKinney Corp. on Ashley's Castrol GTX Ford and on a third Mustang for rookie-to-be Mike Neff. Force's car, which was to be the second to receive the latest upgrade, was pulled out of line when it became apparent that the 1996 Driver of the Year would be unable to compete this week.
Force said Tuesday that Ashley's participation in the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals won't even be considered if improvements to her car are not completed by Thursday.
SPIRIT WILLING, FLESH IS WEAK - John Force aches more at not getting into the final phase of the playoffs than his physical injuries are creating. He earned his spot in winning the same round he crashed on.
The injured Force will remain at Baylor for an undetermined amount of time under the supervision of trauma specialist Dr. Michael Foreman, orthopedic traumatologist Dr. Alan Jones, and orthopedic surgeon Dr. David Zehr and immediately will embark on a more intense physical therapy program.
Although, with assistance, he has been up on his feet since the Sept. 23 accident at Texas Motorplex that left him seriously injured for the first time in his 30-year career, reports that the 125-time tour winner has been walking have been greatly exaggerated.
His physical activity to date has consisted primarily of doing pull-ups with his right arm and raising and lowering his legs – all from his hospital bed, which is why, on Tuesday, drag racing's biggest star acknowledged that while he is extremely motivated to get back in his race car as quickly as possible, he finally understands that he cannot accelerate the healing process.
“It is what it is,” Force said. “I know I said I was going to drive at Richmond (in this week's second annual Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals at Virginia Motorsports Park) and that I was going to drive at Las Vegas. That's what I wanted to do, but the truth is I'm beat up pretty bad. I can't do anything for myself right now, plus my blood count is down.
“They want me to eat, but nothing tastes right, and they want me to walk on my own, which I can't do because my right leg is so bad.”
Force's right leg initially was weakened by childhood polio and aggravated by an accident in 1989.
“I've had to rely on my daughter Ashley and my son-in-law, Robert Hight, to do everything for me – and I mean everything,” Force said. “I got two bad hands and two bad legs, so it didn't make any sense to do a couple days of therapy here, a couple more in Indy, and a couple more in California.
HOT STUFF - Jack Beckman's been hot this season, especially when it counted. In the last 11 races, he jumped from 10th, to eighth, to seventh, to fifth and into second in the Countdown to Four playoffs. Coming into this weekend's final event to name the four to compete in the Countdown to One, Beckman stands third in the rankings. He knows well the importance of a good result this weekend.
"I think it's pretty cool having this playoff format," said Beckman, a two-time winner this season. "Technically our strategy doesn't change. We race to win every race. That being said, if you're one of the top eight, and fighting for a spot in the top four, everything this weekend is based on how you do relative to the other cars that are vying for those four positions.
"And I think most people would agree that, if given the choice of winning the race versus making the Countdown to One, this might be the first time in history that somebody would say that winning the race is the battle but not the war.
"Coming into a track that the NHRA cars have only run once since 2000, which could be markedly different than it was last year, is going to be very, very interesting. It means that we have the potential of basically not having a whole lot of usable data. And I think a lot of the crew chiefs are going to have to make the tune-up calls more by feel than by going over past notes.
"So, it really seems like a strategic weekend and, that being said, we just want to go win the race. That will guarantee we stay in the top four."
HUMPTY DUMPTY - Kenny Bernstein and the Monster Energy/Lucas Oil team are picking up the pieces, literally, and putting together another chassis and Dodge Charger Funny Car body for competition this weekend.
Legendary drivers Bernstein and John Force collided in second round competition in Dallas. News of the accident jammed cyberspace for hours as fans and friends searched for information. The accident happened when Force’s car began to break apart and became unmanageable. Bernstein climbed out of his chassis without injury, while Force was airlifted to a Dallas hospital and underwent a surgical procedure to repair ankle, hand, wrist, and knee injuries.
“John is a good friend and we’re happy to know he is making good progress,” said Bernstein. “We know it’s going to be a painful recuperative process, but John is strong and determined.
“When drivers go through an accident like this, the best thing from my point of view is to get back in the saddle and ride the horse. I will be fortunate enough to be able to do that at Richmond.
“The saving grace for John is that he doesn’t remember much of the run at all, so the vision won’t keep looping through his brain. I remember everything that happened, but I never want to review video footage or photos from something like this. I leave the review process to Jimmy (Walsh, crew chief). So I’m mentally prepared to get on with qualifying.
“Physically, Jimmy and the entire Monster Energy/Lucas Oil team have a lot of work to do. Tuesday after the accident they took the damaged Dallas chassis to Murf McKinney’s shop, who manufactures our chassis, and found out it was beyond repair. That chassis was on its third race.
“We have two more chassis and three more bodies, so we should be good to go for the remaining three races.
GIVE ME THE BALL - Gene Hackman said it best in the movie "The Replacements." When speaking to his quarterback, in a movie about replacement football players, he said, "When the game is on the line, champions want the ball."
Mike Ashley might not be the greatest football player, but when it comes to driving a Funny Car, he's top notch.
After 20 events, three wins, four final-round appearances, five No. 1 qualifiers, and six track speed records - including the fastest run in Funny Car history, the entire NHRA season comes down to one race for the Torco Race Fuels driver Ashley.
Currently seventh in the POWERade Funny Car Championship race, Ashley is battling the top five drivers for one of four spots to continue his quest for the title, and is confident as always that his team will come through with a Championship performance this weekend at his sponsor's title race: the Torco Race Fuels NHRA Nationals in Richmond, Va.
"You can't get where we are without having done a lot of things right, and this team is so fired up and ready to go," Ashley said. "I am convinced we'll get past this eliminations round and go for the Championship in Vegas and Pomona."
Ashley currently sits outside the bump for making the playoffs, but is less than one round-win out of advancing to the Countdown to One. With 14-time champion John Force sidelined after surviving a spectacular crash at the event in Dallas, Ashley is only 12 points out of fourth place, and two round-wins out of third, depending on how competitors Ron Capps, Jack Beckman, and Gary Scelzi perform in Richmond. To advance and compete for the '07 title, Ashley must be in the top four after this weekend's event.
"We've been is several clutch situations already this year and every time this team has had the ball passed to them, they've responded with the clutch shots that prove they are already champions," he said. "It's like in football, one of those times when you don't think about whether you'll make the pass, you just want the ball, because you know what will happen when you get your fingers on it - you'll put it in the end zone.
"I'm ready; just give me the ball."
Ashley, who became team owner this year, is no stranger to high-pressure situations. In racing, he has won two world championships in AMS Pro Modified competition, each one coming during eliminations at the final race of the season. In business, as a mortgage banker from New York, Ashley is embroiled in the current credit crisis in America, and as Vice President and Chief Strategist, has positioned his company, Lend America, to not only weather the storm, but is actually growing his core business through the use of government-backed loan programs.
"For me, pressure is a fact of life. I don't seek it out, but I am always comfortable in it because I know I'm surrounded by the very best," he said. "Brian Corradi and Mark Oswald [crew chiefs] and the rest of the guys have proven over and over this year that they know how to make this car run, and I know they will be on their game come this weekend."
STEP RIGHT UP - Dave Connolly is the man to beat in the second phase of the POWERade Series championship race. He brings an impressive four-race win streak with him to Virginia Motorsports Park, in nearby Dinwiddie, for his car owner/sponsor Evan Knoll’s Torco Racing Fuels Nationals.
Fifty-two points separate Connolly from three-time champion Greg Anderson (2,408-2,356) going into the last of the Countdown to Four races in the 21st of 23 2007 events. And even if the native of Elyria, Ohio, boosts his win streak to five, his advantage will be a guaranteed 10 points come Monday. The points will be reset for the Countdown to One, with 3030 going to No. 1, 3020 to second and 10-points less each for third and fourth.
“It has been kind of weird looking back on what has happened to us in the last month,” said Connolly, who, along with Jeg Coughlin Jr., drives for Victor Cagnazzi Racing. “We have been on a hot streak and everything is clicking and going smooth. It doesn’t seem like we can do no wrong. A good example is the final round against Greg at Dallas (Sept. 23). I got a lucky break when Greg didn’t even get to the starting line.”
Connolly’s streak began with a win at Reading, Pa., and then came wins at Indianapolis, Memphis and Dallas. The last three have been against Anderson, his career-long nemesis. Connolly and Anderson are tied with seven for most 2007 wins. Connolly’s career total is now 16 victories in 28 final rounds. His best season finish is third (2004, 2006) and he was fifth in 2005.
“Sometimes you might start to take things for granted when they start going like they have, but it has worked just the opposite for me,” Connolly said. “I am becoming more and more appreciative that I have a good job and good opportunity to do what we do. Whether times are good or bad, we still have a lot to be thankful for. I get to fulfill my dreams racing Pro Stock for a living. A lot of people would pay to drive and we get paid to race.
“Thanks to Evan Knoll . . . he’s the guy who gave me the opportunity. We are happy with what we’ve accomplished, but there is more out there. We want to keep Jeg (fourth with 2,188 points) in the top four this weekend. We knew going in that this was going to be an important cut. There are a lot more than four good cars in Pro Stock. It is very rewarding to have our car in the top four, but to have both cars in would be awesome.”
TURNAROUND REQUESTED - Greg Anderson said that gaining momentum has become more of an objective than just earning points. He said one will naturally bring the other. He and Connolly are the only two drivers who have clinched their spots in the final phase of the playoffs.
Seven of Anderson’s 50 wins have come in 2007 behind the wheel of his Summit Racing Equipment Pontiac and if he can get by the three other drivers that will advance to the Countdown to 1, two-race championship round, he can add another championship title to his résumé.
The march to the championship continues this weekend at Virginia Motorsports Park in Petersburg, Va., a short drive from Richmond.
Win number seven came at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif. Since that time Anderson, who is current second in the Pro Stock point standing has been runner-up in four final rounds losing three of the four to Dave Connolly, who holds onto the top spot (52 points ahead of Anderson) and has won the last four races. His other loss came at the hands of Connolly’s teammate, Jeg Coughlin.
“We need to get the momentum turned around to our side here at Richmond,” said Anderson. “To do that we need to put this Summit Racing Pontiac in the winner’s circle again and break the roll that (Dave) Connolly has been on.
“We were up (at Virginia Motorsports Park) testing a few weeks ago and they have ground the race track and made the track smoother. It should be a better race course than we had last year but I don’t think you’ll see the times and speeds we had last year because of the weather. It may be too warm. Times will be good and could approach the record times of last year just because of the work they did to the track.
“There’s a lot on the line. We’ve got to get Jason (Line, teammate) in the last part of the Countdown. He’s got a new hot rod, which we’ve been testing the last three days here in Mooresville (N.C.). He’s excited and I think he’ll do well. He needs to win the race; that will help. That would definitely guarantee him a spot in the Countdown.
“It would be an exceptional weekend if we could get both Summit Racing Pontiacs in the final round. Talk about momentum. But nobody is going to roll over and play dead, so we’ve got to go out and earn everything we get.”
TO THE WIRE - Allen Johnson and teammate Richie Stevens Jr. went head-to-head in a final round battle at the 1999 Richmond event at Virginia Motorsports Park. The duo would be overjoyed to repeat that final round fight this weekend as Johnson ranks third in the battle for a spot in the final phase of the playoffs.
Johnson, driver of the Hemi-powered Mopar/J&J Racing Dodge Stratus R/T, scored his first career win in that final-round match-up against Stevens eight years ago.
This year, Johnson holds a slim lead over the fourth-place Jeg Coughlin and fifth-place Jason Line in the NHRA Countdown to Four. With every round weighted with drama, Johnson would like nothing better than to ring up his second Richmond victory and sixth career win this weekend.
Johnson has little margin for error as he focuses on finishing in the top four and qualifying for the Countdown to One, a two-race shootout for the 2007 NHRA Pro Stock championship set to commence following the Torco Racing Fuels NHRA Nationals. The Greeneville, Tenn., native enters the event this weekend confident but cautious.
“I think we did just what we needed to at Dallas. We didn’t gain much ground, but we gained a little,” Johnson observed. “I guess if I were to write a headline for Richmond, it would be ‘Pretty confident but critical.’ We have to go rounds, and we have to go at least one round further than Jeggy [Coughlin]. And we have to stay put and have a little bit of luck.
“I feel real confident in the motor program. Dad [Roy Johnson, co-owner and engine builder for J&J Racing] found a little power this week. But I’m sure Jeggy and Jason [Line] will have in the best of the best.”
Johnson’s past success at the track aside, the Team Mopar veteran knows he must bring his “A” game if he is to advance to the Countdown to 1 two-race title battle. He can’t afford any slipups.
“I have guarded optimism. I do feel confident there,” Johnson remarked. “The air is good, and we usually run pretty well. But it’s also guarded optimism. We have to make all the right decisions and I need to drive well. Everything needs to come together this weekend.”
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES - Last year in Richmond, no one could touch Jason Line. This year, he's fighting for survival.
This weekend is the last chance for Line, driver of one of the two KB Racing LLC-owned, Summit Racing Equipment Pro Stock Pontiacs, to move into top four drivers in points if he wants to repeat as the NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champion.
Currently Line, from Mooresville, N.C., is 18 points behind fourth place, but is optimistic about his chances to overcome the deficit.
“I like the track,” said Line. “We did well at Virginia Motorsports Park last year. There are a lot of Pro Stock fans there. We set the national records there, so obviously it a fast race track. Generally speaking, it’s the type of race track we run best at. I’m going to be cautiously optimistic, but I have high hopes for this weekend.
“Naturally, we’re going to go there and do our best but the plan is to put this Summit Racing Pontiac in the winner’s circle. We’re working on a new car for there. This is a big, big race and we feel the new car will give us a performance boost.”
The racing facility in Petersburg previously held NHRA events there from 1995 through 2000 and returned there last year with Line winning the 2006 Pro Stock title. Although the national records he established at Virginia Motorsports Park last year have since been reset, Line still holds the track elapsed time record at 6.558 seconds and the track speed record at 209.75 mph.
MAKE OR BREAK - With three world titles and 50 national event victories to his credit, Pro Stock driver Jeg Coughlin Jr. is certainly no stranger to pressure. As one of just 11 drag racers in the history of the sport to reach the 50-win plateau, Coughlin has become a master of his emotions whenever he's behind the wheel of his 1,300-horsepower JEGS.com Chevrolet Cobalt.
With all of his experience, Coughlin knows there is no substitute for seat time and after a disappointing first-round loss at the last NHRA event in Dallas -- a race where he could have solidified his spot in the Countdown to One but instead fell to fourth place overall in the four-car field -- his Victor Cagnazzi Racing team decided to hit the test strip in search of answers.
"We spent two full days at South Georgia Motorsports Park and I spent more time in the car than I have over any two-day period ever," Coughlin said. "We had signed on with Goodyear several weeks ago to test some new tires for them and it happened at a great time for us because there were some things on the car we felt needed to be addressed.
"Roy Simmons (crew chief) and the guys found a few things they wanted to change to help make the car go straight, especially down low where you make all the e.t. with these cars, and the adjustments they made really seemed to work. I did 40 or so burnouts and launches and probably a dozen or more full passes and the car went straight every time. It was an excellent test for us and I know we gave the Goodyear engineers a bunch of good data for their research and development efforts."
Coughlin enters the final race before the field of drivers eligible for the 2007 title is reduced to four racers on the bump spot. He's just 16 points behind third-place Allen Johnson, but just 18 ahead of fifth-place Jason Line and 29 ahead of sixth-place Kurt Johnson. Even Larry Morgan lurks just 50 points back in seventh.
"There are five of us fighting for the last two spots," Coughlin said, referring to the fact Dave Connolly and Greg Anderson have already secured the first two positions. "It's basically come down to who does the best this weekend. There is no room for error, nor should there be.
"It's good for me to know I'll be getting in my car this Friday just a few days removed from making several great passes. Mentally, I'm ready to go right now. We also know the crew is completely in tune with the car. I fully expect us to rise to the occasion."
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