Keep up with this weekend's NHRA Lucas Oil Nationals by reading our behind-the-scenes event notebook. We bring you the stories behind the numbers and win-lights throughout the course of the weekend. Tune in daily for the latest news from the pits.  



STOP US IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS BEFORE - The real challenge in Tony Schumacher’s nine victories has not been in winning

Tony Schumacher won his ninth national event of the 2008 season; he's within two wins of tying Joe Amato's career wins mark.
the events, but in finding a unique method to describe the victory to the media and also the drag racing community.

Schumacher collected his 50th career victory on Sunday and ninth of the 2008 season. He’s just two wins short of tying Joe Amato’s Top Fuel career victory mark.

“This has been an incredible run for the U.S. Army team,” said the five-time world champion. “I can assure you that we’re enjoying every minute of this. Of course, the most important thing is that we keep winning for our Soldiers. It’s all about our brave men and women.”

After sweeping the Denver/Seattle/Sonoma, Calif. segment of the schedule last month, Schumacher took out his Don Schumacher Racing teammate, Cory McClenathan, in the finals at BIR with a 3.865-second pass at 310.05 mph.

“When we started the season, Joe’s record seemed so far away,” he said. “Fast forward 16 races and we’re knocking on the door. Like I’ve stated before, it’s pretty amazing that we’ve reached this point.”

With the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway in Reading, Pa. scheduled for next weekend, Schumacher is also approaching a couple of other single season records.

With nine wins to date in 2008, he’s one shy of tying his own record (set in 2004) for most victories in a season. At Maple Grove Raceway, he could also tie his own record for most consecutive victories in a season (set in 2005).

“It’s definitely been a dream season,” he offered. “But, we need to stay focused on the real goal which is to win another title.”

Schumacher, who has already clinched the top seed for the Countdown to One, knows consistency will be the key as the season winds down.

“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he said. “There’s no reason to change a thing. We’ve got two more races before we start the playoffs, so trying to win both will clearly help on the momentum front.”

If Tony Pedregon becomes a grandfather, he’ll have some stories to tell.
Tony Pedregon's victory enabled him to become only the second Funny Car driver to win 40 national events.

The two-time world champion will spin yarns about the tough days of his championship defense season. This weekend he added another chapter to story time as he captured his fourth national-event victory of the season and advanced to second place in the POWERade point standings with a final-round victory over Jack Beckman.

The triumph marked Pedregon's 40th career victory, his first at BIR, and his first final-round appearance at this venue since a runner-up back in 1996. Pedregon became just the second Funny Car driver in the history of the sport to reach 40 national-event victories.

"This is probably one of the toughest eras to be racing in," Pedregon said. "It's bad timing on my part, but we're surviving and we're very fortunate to be winning races. I had never won a race here in Brainerd. I was runner-up when I drove for Force so this is a big achievement for me to be able to pull the win off today. There's never a bad time to win, but we realize we need to get ourselves back in that second spot and I think we've done that. All the points will be critical from this point on."

Pedregon entered Sunday's eliminations as the sixth quickest driver and waded his way through eliminations at the expense of Melanie Troxel, John Force and a red-lighting Beckman.

"Every round was a big challenge," Pedregon said. "Probably the toughest race, without question, was racing Force. You can't cut him any slack. People say he's old and he's lost it. I'm not buying it - he told me that 10 years ago. He's a great competitor and it was a tough race just like I thought. But so was Beckman. A little more time in the seat and he's (Beckman) going to be better.

"Sometimes you force them into making mistakes when your car's running good and our car performed well today. I'm just happy to win a race here. We had great conditions, and we put a smile on these people's faces. A lot of good, close racing, just so tough mentally on the drivers, but we're in the business of entertainment. For us, the racers, it's all about nuts and bolts, and oil and spark plugs and filters. But it's really a form of entertainment, and I think we did a good job of being able to pull this off."

Pedregon's win ties him with Tim Wilkerson for the most in the category this season. Chevy Funny Car drivers have also combined for a class leading 10 victories this year, the most ever by Chevy Funny Cars in a single season.

"I have to have a certain amount of confidence and I have to remind myself of that," Pedregon said. "You take all this stuff away and I think I'm pretty humble because of where I come from, and how I was brought up. I look across the pit and see Don Schumacher's team and John Force's, and I was in the stands watching these guys - I was kid taking pictures of Force when I was 12 years old. That part of me will never change. But there's a competitive nature that was instilled in me when I was a child. I know what it's like to be on the top, and I know what it's like to be on the bottom and I don't want to go back there."

Pro Stock racer Kurt Johnson may have moved away from Minnesota decades ago, but a sense
KJ was the quicker driver off the line and low elapsed time earner in each round of competition. This weekend’s triumph was the 39th national event win of his career.
of the home state spirit inspired the veteran into his third win of the 2008 POWERade Drag Racing season.

KJ was the quicker driver off the line and low elapsed time earner in each round of competition. This weekend’s triumph was the 39th national event win of his career, and fourth at Brainerd International Raceway, tying him with his father Warren Johnson, Bruce Allen and Lee Shepherd for the most by a Pro Stock competitor at the Minnesota quarter-mile.

“The ACDelco Cobalt crew had a great day today,” said Johnson.  “As close as the competition is in Pro Stock, any time you can leave on all four opponents, out run them and come out with the trophy, you’ve accomplished something.  Every round we ran today was like a final, and to be able to beat teams and drivers of the caliber of Yates, Edwards, Coughlin and Connolly says a lot about our team.  It just feels awesome.

“It’s always great to win here in Minnesota.  I don’t know what it is about Brainerd, but we always seem to do well here – I guess the track just suits my style.  We also had a lot of family and friends on hand throughout the weekend to cheer us on, which makes it even better.  You always want to show off for them, and I can tell you they’re all having a good time right now.”

GIVING PROPS - Johnson wanted to recognize the efforts of a fellow Minnesotan who had come to the team’s assistance in the last month.  Following the unexpected departure of a crewmember prior to the start of the Western Swing, Fridley native Brian Strait, who had gone to high school with KJ joined the team on an interim basis, performing whatever duties necessary.  Even though the team welcomed Rob Charmello to the crew at this race, Strait still made the trip from his current home in Las Vegas to help coach the team’s latest addition.

“Brian has been my friend for a long time, and has always been there when I needed him,” stated Johnson.  “He came through for us in Denver, Seattle and Sonoma, and once we found Rob, who will need a little training but we believe is going to be good, Brian came up here and coached him, letting Justin (crewmember Belfance) and myself concentrate on doing our jobs, giving us more time to be perfect.  We always talk about the hat dance teams do in the winner’s circle, and it was great to get to do it with him and the rest of the ACDelco crew here today.”

CLIMBING THE LADDER - Finally, Johnson’s performance allowed him to move up one position in the POWERade points standings, ascending to second while simultaneously gaining ground on the points leader.  With only two races remaining before the start of the NHRA’s playoff season, the second-generation racer has his sights set on regaining the top position.

“It feels good to gain ground in the points standings,” said Johnson  “There’s a bonus of thirty points for the leader going into the Countdown to One, and we’re after that, because they could be huge at the end of the year.  For now, we’re just going to keep trying our best, and see how it all works out.

“This win is in the books, and after taking a little time to celebrate tonight, this ACDelco Cobalt crew will put it behind us and focus on doing whatever it takes to do this all over again five days from now in Reading.”

Matt Smith can take a losing a round of competition.
Matt Smith ranks second in the standings, trailing Andrew Hines by 12 points.

He can also reluctantly take a rule change.

Kidney stones -- now that presents a challenge he hopes to avoid in the future – win or no win.

The defending world champion debuted his new in-house Kelly Campbell-built Buell this weekend and dominated the event.

Smith secured the top spot in qualifying on Saturday and hung around long enough for the press conference. He checked himself in a hospital on Saturday night.

“I am in some pain for sure right now,” said Smith.  “The doctor told me I had 10 kidney stones last night.  They gave me lots of fluids, so hopefully the pain will ease up a bit.”

Smith’s latest victory came at the expense of local favorite Jim Underdahl first round, Craig Treble second round, David Hope in the semi’s and Angelle Sampey in the finals when her bike would not fire, Smith found himself in the winner’s circle for his third win of the year.

Smith spent much of Sunday’s final eliminations in the six second zone. The 2007 NHRA POWERade Champion looks to be on the same path as last year, right to the top.

“This is awesome,” said Smith.  “To come here with a new bike and to fight 10 kidney stones the whole weekend is just awesome.  We brought the bike out in order to get it sorted before Charlotte, so it seems like we are on the right path and I am very happy with how it ran this weekend.  I’m going home to rest now and get ready for Reading.”

Smith ranks second in the standings, trailing Andrew Hines by 12 points as the Pro Stock Motorcycle’s head to Reading, Pennsylvania this weekend.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY – One year ago on this weekend, Cory McClenathan took a gamble and he’s still cashing in a year later.

McClenathan debuted a leased Top Fuel operation from Don Schumacher Racing at the 2007 IHRA Lucas Oil Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. The veteran driver now drives as a hired gun for DSR and as a result, reached his third Top Fuel final round of the season, and the 53rd of his career.

McClenathan drove the FRAM Top Fuel dragster into the runner-up spot to his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Tony Schumacher in the U.S. Army car. His and the FRAM team's solid effort moved him into No. 4 in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Top Fuel point standings.
After clinching a place in the Countdown to One playoffs when he qualified No. 3, McClenathan began the day by dismissing Luigi Novelli with the second quickest elapsed time of the first round: 3.897 seconds at 309.84 mph. He then defeated Bob Vandergriff Jr. in the quarterfinals with a 3.939/304.74, and continued his torrid pace in the semifinals by taking out Steve Torrence with a 3.951/305.36.
The final round was a rematch of the finals at the season-opener in Pomona (Calif.) in February, and the outcome was the same. In a close race, Schumacher claimed the victory with a 3.865/310.05 pass to McClenathan's close but losing 3.900/306.74. With this triumph, Schumacher captured the 113th national-event win for Don Schumacher Racing.
"The day went as planned: let's have the right people go out so we can start moving up in the points," said McClenathan. "Everyone was talking about clinching a spot in the Countdown before Indy, but that still doesn't deny the fact that I still want to win drag races and make a statement and catch up to my teammate (who is No. 1 in the standings). That's really what we were looking at, just moving up in the points.
"And we did that today and we made some ground up in some areas. That U.S. Army car was bad all weekend long, that's all there is to it. (Crew chief) Mike Green and (assistant crew chief) Neal Strausbaugh and all the FRAM guys are awesome. They had my back all day. My lights weren't good and didn't come around until the semis and the final. Tony and I were awfully close leaving the starting line together and it was a great drag race. We ran a 3.90 and they ran a 3.86 and it's just one of those things. They're a great team and they're tough to beat.
"It was a great day for DSR all the way around," added McClenathan. "To have both Top Fuel cars in the final makes me very proud to be a part of this organization and I want to thank FRAM, Prestone, Autolite and Bendix. Everything is working just the way it's supposed to and if I can't win, my teammate should."  

ACCEPTING THE BLAME – Jack Beckman admitted a part failure denied him from scoring his second win of the season. The 0832-07011.jpgdevice was not bolted on his Valvoline/Mail Terminal Services Dodge Charger R/T, though.

"My brain told my right foot to go and the light hadn't come on yet,” Beckman added. “Absolutely 100 percent a driver's mistake.”

A hiccup in the final round against Tony Pedregon resulted in a red-light loss.

Despite posting a quicker pass of 4.216 seconds at 293.28 mph to Pedregon's 4.238/289.89, Beckman's run was disqualified.

"I changed my routine a little bit," explained Beckman. "I went to take a little bump (stage deeper) because it was the final round and lane choice isn't a big deal because there is no next round.

"The Valvoline/MTS Dodge guys gave us a car that could win this race today. We ran great all four rounds. It was a great weekend. Points-wise we couldn't have asked for much more. It could have been an outstanding weekend if I'd been effective in the final.

"I'm really disappointed, but we've got a race in a week. I'm going to get over it, the Valvoline/MTS Dodge guys are over it already. Everybody is excited that our car is predictable and repeatable now."

En route to his third final round of the season, the eighth of his career, Beckman posted three strong passes to defeat Gary Densham (with a 4.249/290.88), his Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps (4.216/292.52) and Funny Car points leader Tim Wilkerson (4.207/295.40).

The California native, who is in his second full season of Funny Car competition, moved up into No. 9 in the point standings, with two events remaining before the Countdown to 1 playoffs begin for the top 10 following the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend.

MOVIN' ON UP - Dave Connolly knew his 2008 challenge was a tough one. The Pro Stock driver missed the first five races 0832-05273.jpgdue to sponsorship woes but that seems like a distant memory as he’s not only in the top ten among point earners but has rose as high as eighth after scoring his second consecutive final round finish.

Connolly’s excellent game of catch-up with only two races left in the first phase of the championship battle has all but assured the Cagnazzi Racing Charter Communications/LifeLock Chevy Cobalt team of a place among the 10 starters for the Countdown to 1 championship playoff.

The Brainerd final represented the team’s fifth final round in its first 11 races. 

Connolly and Johnson staged a tight race but it was the latter driver who crossed the finish line first in 6.671 seconds at 207.45 mph to Connolly’s 6.696 at 206.29 mph. 

“We just didn’t have enough for him,” said Connolly.  “That is what’s fun about this class.  It’s not just the driver, not just the crew, not just the engine guys, you have to have everything.  We had a good day.  We made it to the final.”

Connolly’s performance gives 775 points, 14 ahead of Cagnazzi Racing teammate Ron Krisher and 55 behind V Gaines in seventh place with two more races to go before the field is trimmed to 10.  Jeg Coughlin, the third Cagnazzi Racing driver in the top 10, is fourth at 1,107 points.

“We may not have secured ourselves of a top 10 spot yet, but this really gave us a little cushion anyway after being on the edge of our seats all the time.  It was a winning week for sure.”




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LIKE A ROLLING STONE - Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Matt Smith didn't feel like doing much after scoring his third top qualifying effort of the season. The defending world champion said he wanted to sit in some water, preferably at a local hospital, and get rid of what he considers to be a kidney stone ailing him.

"I’ve been fighting a little bit of a kidney stone and it’s about to wear me out," Smith said. "We debuted a brand new bike here and I think we’ve got a good bike for tomorrow. We knew it was a good bike yesterday. On the second pass yesterday I did a bad job of riding and it still ran a 6.98. We tried a test deal today on the second run and it didn’t work out, so tomorrow we’ll go back to basics and we’ll be alright."

He says the plan is to race tomorrow, kidney stones or not.

"I will run somehow or another," Smith said. "I’ve been taking some Tylenol for the pain. I am going to the hospital tonight. Hopefully we can get it broke up tonight. I’ll spend some time in there if I have to."

Smith claimed the top spot away from Chris Rivas. 

THANK GOD FOR FRIDAY - Greg Anderson captured his 66th career Pro Stock pole thanks to a Friday night qualifying with a run of 6.679 seconds at 206.76 mph, and that time held up through two additional rounds of qualifying on Saturday.

"Thank God for Friday," exclaimed Anderson. "We didn't set the world on fire today, but we'll be all right. We definitely tried a couple of things today. We knew the sun was going to be out today so we made quite a few moves to the car planning on the racetrack going away."

Anderson now ties Kenny Bernstein for fourth place on the NHRA all-time list for career No. 1 qualifying awards by a professional driver, and it marks the 10th time this season (in 16 races) that a driver in a Pontiac GXP has been top qualifier in Pro Stock.

"With the team I have, they certainly know what we did wrong today and we know where the edge is now," Anderson said. "I have full confidence in them and I'm going to go up first round to that starting line thinking I have the best hot rod on the planet. That's the confidence they put in you with the work they do, and the preparation they put in for Sunday."

It was Anderson's fourth No. 1 qualifying effort of the season and his third career pole at Brainerd International Raceway. Already this year, the native of nearby Duluth, Minn., has won the three previous races where he has qualified No. 1 (Pomona, Englishtown, Denver), and he currently holds a narrow points lead in the POWERade standings over second-place Jason Line. Anderson won this race in 2003 and was runner-up in 2002, '04 and '07.

"You saw today how many cars can run great," Anderson said. "I told you yesterday that a lot of these guys weren't done - they were going to show us that we didn't have a big edge on them. We just made better runs yesterday and now it's anybody's game tomorrow. I'm hoping the hometown advantage is the one intangible I need to put a Pontiac in the winner's circle."


Mike Edwards drove his Pontiac GXP to the tenth spot with a 6.710, 205.38 package. He faces Ron Krisher.

Ashley Force enjoyed the accolades of qualifying No. 1 in Sonoma so much that she repeated the feat in Brainerd.

The 25 year-old California driver used her 4.110 second run from Friday night to win her second consecutive No. 1 qualifier of her young career. Force had an up and down day today but was optimistic about her chances tomorrow.

“We are hoping to go out tomorrow and go some rounds. We have really struggled the last few races. We have a really good car we just haven’t had the luck. We are hoping to change that. It is exciting to be number one. At the same time you don’t want to get too excited you know that there are plenty of times that you are number one and everyone is gunning for you. They want to take you out,” said Force.

WHAT ABOUT DAD? - Right behind the 2007 rookie of the year Ms. Force is her 14-time Funny Car champion father John Force. His time from Friday night, 4.112 seconds, carried him to the number two position and moved him within fighting distance of the final spot in the US Smokeless Showdown bonus race to be contested at the Mac Tools US Nationals Labor Day weekend. If Force can qualify one or two in Reading (site of the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals and final race before Showdown) and the drivers in front of him in the standings qualify in the bottom half of the field or fail to qualify, Force will land in the No. 8 spot.



Cory McClenathan was one of two Top Fuel drivers who clinched berths in the Countdown to the Championship by qualifying.

TWO OUT OF THREE AIN'T BAD - After qualifying first Friday, Chris Rivas went out and did what the G2 Motorsports Drag Specialties S&S Cycle V-Twin Pro Stock Motorcycle team planned for Saturday’s final two sessions – improve the elapsed time on each run and hold on to the No. 1 spot.

Well, two out of three isn’t bad. Rivas wasn’t able to match Matt Smith’s 6.958-second time at 189.55 mph and settled for second place with a run of 6.977 seconds at 190.22 mph going into Sunday’s competiton.  But he goes into eliminations confident because he made four solid, consistent runs as crew chief George Smith continued to coax more performance from the motor and chief mechanic Ken Johnson had the bike working very well.

The difference between his run and Smith’s was his rival 60-foot time, said Rivas.  It’s an area where Smith and Johnson have been working on.

“His specialty is the first 60 feet, so when he went 1.047 seconds in the first 60 feet, we went 1.07,” Rivas noted, “so there’s automatically three-hundredths (of a second difference).  If we could’ve had that 60-foot time we would have been first for sure.  We are definitely making a lot of horsepower.  One of the things we really concentrate on is trying to apply that with the clutch properly, but we’ve been preoccupied by the electrical issues we’ve been fighting.

“We didn’t have any problems with it (Saturday).  We were making good runs. We hope to go a lot of rounds Sunday. I definitely need another win.  That will help us in points.”

DOIN' THE NUMBERS - Before the start of Saturday’s Pro Stock qualifying for Sunday’s Lucas Oil Nationals, Dave Connolly was doing the math necessary to provide what his first qualifying time may be. 

“We should run a 6.70 (seconds),” he said.  “Hopefully that’s good enough to get into the top half of the field” when eliminations begin.

It was mission accomplished on both counts.  He drove the Cagnazzi Racing Charter Communications/LifeLock Chevy Cobalt to a time of 6.708 seconds at 205.35 mph on his first quarter-mile run and it was good enough to put him eighth overall. He races Richie Stevens (ninth, 6.710 at 205.44 mph) in the first round. 

“We were soft on the starting line on our run this morning and we thought we could’ve run a little better, but not much,” said Connolly, who hopes to solidify his hold on 10th place in the POWERade Series top 10 Sunday.  “The car shook the tires a little bit (on the hotter afternoon run) in the heat of the day. 

“I think we have a good race car for Sunday.  As I’ve said before, it really doesn’t matter where you qualify.  We race Richie, whose running pretty good, in the first round, so it’s going to be a tough battle from round one for as long as we get to go.  Eighth is where we started in Sonoma (where he won for the second time this season).  Hopefully we’re the first pair of Pro Stock cars out and the last the last ones standing.”

Connolly, who bumped into the top 10 with the Sonoma victory, is 52 points ahead of 11th place (682-630) and he trails ninth-place Ron Krisher (his Cagnazzi Racing teammate) by 46 points.


Rod Fuller landed in the eighth position with a 3.933, 308.71. He races Brandon Bernstein in Sunday's first round.

FULLER BUMPS IN - Rod Fuller earned one of the 10 slots in NHRA’s Countdown to the Championships by qualifying at Brainerd International Raceway on Saturday afternoon. Fuller, who finished second in the inaugural Countdown to the Championship last year, qualified eighth at the Brainerd NHRA race with a time of 3.933-seconds.

Fuller, who entered the final day of qualifying at the Brainerd NHRA race ranked eighth in the 16-car order, nearly equaled his quickest elapsed time on Friday during Saturday’s first qualifying session. Fuller raced the Caterpillar dragster to a pass of 3.933 seconds at 308.71 mph on Friday evening and opened Saturday with the third quickest pass of the session, 3.934 at 307.16. Only points-leader Tony Schumacher and teammate Antron Brown were quicker. The seven-time Top Fuel winner remained in the No. 8 position. On his final qualifying attempt, Fuller carded a run of 4.160 at 251.86 after shutting off early when the Caterpillar car started spinning the tires down track. It is the eighth time that Fuller has qualified in the No. 8 position in his professional career and the 10th time that he qualified in the top half of the field this season. He has now qualified for 77 consecutive races, the second longest streak in Top Fuel (Tony Schumacher).

“We used that last run as a test run,” crew chief Rob Flynn said. “We were very happy with the first run. We tried to improve, but nobody did improve on that run. What were happy about is that the car is not dropping cylinders. That’s been a major problem with our lack of consistency this season and that gives us more confidence going down the track.”

JUST GET IN - Ron Krisher busted into the 16-car Pro Stock field during Saturday's morning session with a run in the Valvoline Chevy of 6.704 seconds at 204.88 mph. Krisher is qualified sixth.

"We changed everything in the world on our Valvoline Chevy Cobalt from the battery, to the ignition, to every switch, everything you could imagine from the front of the car to the back of the car," Krisher said. "We obviously found something that was wrong. We don't know what it was but we don't care - we're qualified."



Bob Bode missed the cut in both Friday and Saturday qualifying.


Allen Johnson was third provisionally on Friday but fell to fourth after Saturday. He races Mopar rookie Rickie Jones in the first round.


BATTLING FOR THE BUMP - Del Worsham will face Bob Tasca in round one, in what is essentially a battle for 11th place.  Coming into this race, Worsham sat 12th and trailed Tasca by only two points.  Worsham's qualifying position gave him a net gain of four points over Tasca, so Worsham now officially sits in the 11th spot with a two-point lead.  Jack Beckman holds down the 10th (and final) spot for the Countdown, and after qualifying is now 42 points ahead of Worsham.  Beckman faces Gary Densham in round one, and is on Worsham's side of the ladder.  The two could not meet until the semi-finals.

DETERMINING FACTOR - Tasca and Worsham’s meeting in the first round tomorrow will be the second between the two drivers this year. They previously competed in St. Louis, with Worsham coming away with the round win.

“I’m as much a fan as I am a driver our here, and to see the way the ladder shakes out, it’s almost kind of destiny the way it works out. A lot of the drivers fighting to get into the top 10 are on the same side of the ladder. To lose first round would be devastating to our championship run, no question about that. To win first round and to carry that through a few rounds and pick up the trophy, that would put us into the top 10 solidly, and move us on to Reading. So it’s going to be neat.

“We’re looking at tomorrow’s run as one that could be a defining moment for our championship run, and I’m excited to be a part of it," said the Rookie-of-the-Year contender. "With this being my first year, this is the first time that I’ve ever been faced with something like this, and it’s just exciting to be a part of this run.”



Greg Stanfield fell from qualifying in the final session. He was 18th quickest.


Cruz Pedregon ended qualifying as tenth. He surrenders first round lane choice to Jerry Toliver.

I WANNA BE A ROCKSTAR - At least in the last three races, Funny Car racer Jerry Toliver has felt like a rock star. Brainerd marked the third consecutive event he's made it into the top half of the field and the sixth time this year.
Toliver recorded his quickest run during Friday's cooler second session with an elapsed time of 4.190 seconds at 296.83 mph, good for No. 7 at the time. His other runs included a 5.027/153.40 (No. 12), a 4.797/168.87 (No. 7) and a 5.750/110.79 (No. 7).
The California native was clearly pleased with the Rockstar Energy Drink Dodge since the team's performance has been improving over the last several races.
"I knew that the Rockstar Energy Drink Dodge turned the corner in the performance department several races ago, and it's really starting to show now," said Toliver, who entered the race No. 15 in the Funny Car point standings. "We've got the early part of the run figured out and improving and doing better. We just need to step up the performance in the middle and the back half some more.
"It's a constant work in motion and you're never done or happy until you're No. 1 qualifier," he added. "I'm extremely pleased with the Rockstar Energy Drink guys and what we've done, but we've got to go rounds tomorrow. It's make-or-break time for us; put up or shut up. We're fighting for the top 10 and we're going to fight right up until the end."
Toliver will enjoy lane choice against No. 10 qualifier Cruz Pedregon in the first round of eliminations on Sunday.

ANOTHER CLINCHER - Consistency at Brainerd secured a playoff berth for Jeg Coughlin, Jr. All the defending series champion had to do was qualify and he was in.

"The car's actually working really, really well right now," Coughlin said. "I firmly believe we can improve our performance a little bit more and we'll probably need to if we want to win, but I'm convinced we can run right through the field tomorrow.

"You look at all the major players in the class and we're all within a few hundredths of a second of one another. That means you're going to see a bunch of races decided at the starting line. The drivers will need to be perfect to get the win lights, both at the Tree and all the way down the quarter-mile. Any little misstep could end your day when it's this close."

For the fifth time this year, Coughlin will face good friend Justin Humphreys in eliminations as the two men prepare for a first-round battle. Coughlin has a 3-1 record versus "Hump" this year, but on this occasion Humphreys has lane choice due to his slightly quicker qualifying pass of 6.703 of 205.29 mph.

"It's always a tough race with Hump in the other lane," Coughlin said. "He's looking sharp this weekend and I expect them to be fully prepared for our race. He knows we're the defending champs of this race and how much we want to win it again, but he's just a hungry to get a trophy. It'll be a fight right from the start and I wouldn't want it any other way."



Tony Bartone's roller coaster season took another hill and on the downside failed to make the cut again in 2008. 

60 IN A ROW - Chip Ellis qualified the Schumacher Electric Suzuki No. 7 securing the 60th consecutive Pro Stock Motorcycle event in which he's qualified. Ellis has never failed to make a 16-bike field since his debut in the class at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis in 2004.
Ellis made his best qualifying run on his final attempt with an elapsed time of 7.026 seconds at 191.10 mph, top speed of the event for the class so far. His other passes included a 7.074/187.08 (No. 5), a 7.040/188.38 (No. 5) and a 7.043/189.02 (No. 7).
Ellis' will enjoy lane choice over Karen Stoffer, in their first meeting in eliminations this season on Sunday.
"The Schumacher Electric Suzuki is running really well," said Ellis, who entered the event No. 3 in the point standings. "We're the fastest Suzuki again. That's a plus for us and I'm very confident going into race day tomorrow. The Schumacher Electric crew is doing a great job once again and (crew chief) Steve Tartaglia continues to give me a great bike to ride. I'm just going to go out there tomorrow and have a little fun."

THAT'S NOT A SUZUKI - It isn't often a customized street motorcycle creates more attention in the Don Schumacher Racing

Robert Noland, 46, of Minneapolis, won an OCC-built NAPA Auto Parts chopper two years ago after entering a contest at his local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

pit area than the team's seven pro nitro Funny Cars, Top Fuel dragsters, Pro Stock Motorcycle and drivers, but that was the case today at the 27th annual NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway.
The object of everyone's attention, including members of the DSR pro crews, was the stunning blue-and-yellow NAPA AUTO PARTS chopper owned by Robert Noland and built by world famous Orange County Choppers of Newburgh, N.Y. Noland was on hand to support Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car, and display his personal tricked-out chopper to the thousands of fans on hand at Brainerd.
Noland, 46, of Minneapolis, won the chopper two years ago after entering a contest at his local NAPA AUTO PARTS store. "I went into my local NAPA store and filled out an entry form and put it in a box that was stuffed with entries," said Noland, who works at Costco Wholesale. "About a month later I received a phone call from my local NAPA dealer telling me I was one of the lucky contestants who was chosen to attend the Minnesota State Fair to see if I had won the bike.
"I went to the fair and drew number 16 out of the fish bowl for my turn to pick the key that started the bike. I went up in front about 20,000 people and I found this one key and pulled it out and told the crowd that this was the one and I ended up winning the bike."
Noland, a former drag boat racer who also works on boats at Roberts Speed & Marine in Minneapolis, was overwhelmed when he won the NAPA OCC chopper. "It was awesome; I couldn't believe it when it happened. I only drive it on special occasions like coming here to the drag races. If I know it's going to rain I don't bring it out because it takes five hours to clean it." 

"It's a beautiful bike," said Chip Ellis, rider of the Schumacher Electric Suzuki Pro Stock Motorcycle. "Orange County Choppers did a great job. It's just a cool-looking bike and I'm glad Robert is enjoying it. I like fast motorcycles and I'm sure that bike is pretty fast. It's great that NAPA AUTO PARTS took the initiative to get involved in a project like that."
Noland displayed his chopper in front of the DSR pit area and posed for photos with the DSR racing vehicles, race-car drivers and enthusiastic fans.    



Doug Herbert landed fifth and for his efforts he gets Doug Kalitta in the first round of eliminations.

When you're a rookie, nothing is taken for granted. If anyone subscribes to that philosophy is first-year Pro Stock driver Rickie Jones.

"We've now qualified for nine out of ten events," says Jones. "We're making a good track record for our first year. Our best run so far was on Friday; we struggled a little in today's sessions, but I think we've learned enough from these runs to be confident going into race day. I was able to check out the 'zoo' after qualifying and all the stories I heard about the Brainerd fans were true. They're definitely a passionate group, which is catching. It's great to race in front of this crowd."

Jones heads into race day optimistic and looking to rack up some round wins for the Quarter-Max Mopar Dodge Stratus Team.

"I believe we have to run Alan Johnson first round. I'm definitely going after the win, but at least we know that a Dodge will be in the quarter-finals either way. The Quarter-Max team has worked hard this weekend and I believe we've got what it takes to go some rounds here." 

WAITING TO EXHALE - Ron Capps pulled out his quickest pass of the weekend, 4.305 seconds at 285.83 mph, in the heat of the day in the fourth session, jumping from No. 19 into No. 14. By the end of qualifying, he had fallen safely into the field, in No. 16.

He and crew chief Ed "Ace" McCulloch struggled in the first three rounds, posting 5.086/149.40 (No. 14), 4.448/207.91 (No. 14) and 4.833/205.76 (No. 19) passes.

"I don't think I've exhaled since that last run," said Capps, who is seventh in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series point standings and maintains a tie with Tony Pedregon for the longest active qualifying streak (31) among Funny Car drivers. "Just a great job by Ace and the NAPA guys. You don't want to throw these cliches out about how nervous we all were.

"I was reminded again that we were tied for the longest qualifying streak in Funny Car with Tony Pedregon, and that's something to be proud of. You can go back and look at our press release from a couple of races ago and then from Denver, and we've been saying that, with the testing ban, we have been trying to implement these parts that we're making at DSR, which we know will make our whole Don Schumacher Racing team better later in the year."

"So, we need to throw them in and we have to do it under race conditions. That's what we'd planned on doing on Friday, and that put us behind the 8-ball, as the conditions got warmer and warmer. I would have been OK not even qualifying because I know that we're working towards the future. It's the old cliché, I guess: you take one step forward and two steps back sometimes and that's what we had to do."

Capps faces No. 1 qualifier Ashley Force in the opening round of eliminations on Sunday. He has a 1-3 round-win record over Force. His single round win over the daughter of the 14-time Funny Car champion John Force came in St. Louis in 2007.

BY GOLLY HE'S GOT SOMETHING - The Pro Stock field had better watch out on Sunday. Warren Johnson might have found his groove.

“We’ve hit upon a direction today that we believe we should pursue further with our GM Performance Parts GXP.  The combination certainly worked on this racetrack today, but we still see some anomalies in it that need to be worked out.  If we’re able to address those in a timely fashion, we should be really able to rock and roll.  After all, it has come down to crunch time, and if we want to secure our spot in the playoffs, we need to go rounds.

“We’re particularly encouraged by our performance in the first sixty feet today, which is an area we had been working on.  For example, on top of our performance this morning, we were the second quickest car to sixty feet in the left hand lane for that last session, and third quickest overall, which, considering we were using that run to break in a new set of tires, isn’t all bad.  We still have some things we need to work on, but we are certainly better than we have been of late, and it couldn’t come at a better time.”



Jack Beckman was the eighth quickest and his seeding matches him against Gary Densham, a driver with a penchant of knocking off quicker qualified cars in the first round.


CREW CHIEF BY COMMITTEE - Without the tuning expertise of his crew chief Todd Okuhara this weekend, as he recuperated from a viral inner-ear infection, and with the help of Rockstar Energy Drink Dodge tuner Phil Shuler and on the advice of U.S. Army dragster tuner Alan Johnson, Gary Scelzi rocketed the Mopar/Oakley Dodge Charger R/T to a 4.291-second lap at 286.86 mph in the Northern Minnesota heat to earn that spot.

While that run did not improve his position, it was straight, strong and fast under the warm conditions (not to mention his quickest of the weekend), boding well for Sunday's eliminations rounds.

His other passes included a 5.364/136.81 (No. 15), 4.370/246.89 (No. 12), and a 4.470/220.73 (No. 14).

"I'm pretty excited," said the four-time NHRA champion. "It's just a lot of little things that we moved around, and that was the first run we made without smoking the tires.

"I know a 4.29 doesn't sound like much, but, believe me, there's a lot of promise there. I hope Todd's feeling better. I can't wait for him to come back, but right now Alan and Phil are doing a great job. We're excited; we're going into a new area and I like where we're headed."


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PLEASANT SURPRISE - Ashley Force just had to snatch one away from her Dad.

0832-01917.jpgMs. Force flew down the Brainerd International Raceway in 4.110 seconds just barely besting her 14-time champion father John’s 4.112 second run for the provisional number one position on Friday night.

“We were real happy with that run. You never know what the conditions will be like tomorrow. At least we don’t need to be standing back tomorrow. We can really push it. We know that we are pretty well in the field. We probably won’t get bumped from No. 1,” said Force. “We are just hoping to take the next step. We don’t just want to get the No. 1. We want to go rounds on race day. No. 1 is a great feeling but it means nothing if on race day you can’t get past the first round. We are going to hope to change that this weekend in Brainerd.”

The run was so smooth Force was surprised when her crew told her the times her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang had just posted.

“It really didn’t feel like it was going that fast. The runs that are nice and smooth don’t seem as fast. That run was the clearest run I think I have ever made in that Funny Car in any pass. That is the kind of run we like,” said the provisional number one driver.   

WHEN IT STARTS - Pro Stock Motorcycle Chris Rivas said it two weeks ago at Sonoma, Calif., and he repeated on Friday 0832-01812.jpgfollowing Pro Stock Motorcycle qualifying for the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway: “We have a very fast bike . . . when it starts.”
The G2 Motorsports Drag Specialties S&S Cycle V-Twin motorcycle rider grabbed the provisional No. 1 starting position with a quarter-mile run of 6.978 seconds at 190.00 mph.   Not only was it the day’s quickest run, it was the fastest, and the bike started both times. 
The team fought with a fuel-sensor glitch at Sonoma that prevented the motor from starting prior to his quarterfinal round.  “It almost didn’t start on our first run today (a No. 1 effort at 6.992 seconds),” Rivas said.  “It was really a big relief.”
George Smith, crew chief and team co-owner with George Bryce, was pleased because the motor is making good horsepower.
Rivas, who wound up in the No. 2 spot for eliminations at Sonoma, hopes to wrap up his third top qualifying berth this season on Saturday.
“We’ve had pretty good results when we qualified No. 1 at the other two races (his first Pro Motorcycle win at Chicago and a runner-up at Englishtown, N.J.),” added Rivas.  “That just comes from having a bike that’s well-prepared.  The crew has been losing sleep trying to fix some electrical gremlins that we’ve had. We’ve been working frantically.  Between the two rounds we had the bike all apart and were replacing everything we could think of.  A few of the things we actually fixed twice.”

IT'S BEEN A WHILE - It's been since the 2007 when Tony Schumacher suffered a first round Top Fuel loss.

tschumacher_friday.jpg If he keeps the top spot through Saturday, he'll automatically carry this impressive achievement into the next race.

“With only 15 cars on the grounds this weekend, if you’re the number one guy that means you’re definitely going to the quarterfinals,” said the five-time world champion. “We certainly want to stay right where we’re at.”

Schumacher, who is coming off a sweep of the three-race “Western Swing,” is challenging for his fourth straight pole in Brainerd. He’s totaled four poles so far this year.

“There’s no question we’re running real well at the moment,” he added. “We’d like to keep it that way as we close out the regular season and head into the Countdown to One.”

MISSED IT BY THAT MUCH - Greg Anderson said many of his Pro Stock counterparts missed the track on the first qualifying session. He admitted missing a bit too.

0832-02177.jpg “We missed a bit on the first run and were a little heavy on the clutch,” Anderson said. “We were shocked that the starting line had as much grip as it did. It bogged the motors down a little bit. Mine did it a little worse than his did because I had more ground to gain. Looks like we hit it on the second run.”

Even though Anderson has nailed 65 top qualifying efforts of his career and three thus far in 2008, he’s not counting anything yet.

“I’m not getting any kind of a false sense of security on this deal. This class is incredible. Anyone can get the pole or win one of these things.

Anderson leads the Pro Stock points at present and for all intent purposes both he and teammate appear to be on schedule to each clinch a berth.

Clinching isn’t their only objective.

“I think we are solidly in the Countdown but we really want that No. 1 spot, it’s very important to peak at the right time in this deal. We didn’t do that, we were on the wrong side of the hill. That’s one thing we wanted to make amends for last season.”

We’ve been an A or B- all season, you had better bring an A+ or you’re going to get whipped.” 

At this point in the 2008 championship battle, Del Worsham is open to any and all suggestions, even if 0832-02243.jpgthey are out of the normal. The latest suggestion no longer has him seeing red, but rather black and white.

Although other teams have recently gone to a bare carbon fiber shell with minimal vinyl logos in an effort to save weight, Worsham and his team are taking a different approach and are doing so for a different reason, and most of them will agree it's simply superstitious.    Rather than adhere the vinyl panels to a car painted in a base coat of red, Worsham has devised a new "look" for his car's vinyl that is based solely on shades of gray, and those sheets of vinyl have then been applied to the bare shell.  The reason?  The current red and white design has not won a race since it became the official design for the team in 2006, yet this particular body has a win under its belt, when it was covered in K&N Filters colors earlier this season in Houston.

"The guys are convinced our regular red car can't win, and I have to admit I'm not far behind them on that theory, for whatever reason," Worsham said.  "We've done pretty well with the special-edition cars, and we even tried running one of our blue CSK cars for a while this year, so we think it's time to retire the red car and do something different.  We were thinking of the options, and the whole concept of what our car would look like on an old black & white TV came to mind.  Why not start with a black car, and then adjust the vinyl so wherever we had previously faded from light red, to dark red, and then to black, we'll instead fade from light gray, to dark gray, to black.   The object is create the exact same design, but in a total stealth way.

"In reality, this has a lot to do with the fact we like this body a lot more, and it's in a lot better shape than our red CSK car.  We really didn't have the time or the desire to paint it, after Sonoma when the Techron vinyl came off, so I was looking at it and kind of came up with the monochrome look out of nowhere.  By not painting it, we get to save some money, which is just as important as weight these days, and we get to tweak the red out of the car just in case.  Who knows if that red design was just plain unlucky, but I'm not going to argue.  Now we have a black and gray car that may look pretty wild, but we know it's a winning body and we think we can win rounds with it.   At this stage, the bigger question is 'Why not?'   The CSK guys told us to go for it, and my crew loves the idea of getting the red out, so let's try it."

Worsham refers to his new theme as "monochrome". The new scheme evidently worked as he thundered to a  strong 4.152 to land 4th on the chart in session two.  His run broke up what might have been a 1 through 4 procession of Force cars, as he sneaked in between Robert Hight (3rd) and Mike Neff (5th) while Ashley and John Force finished No. 1 and No. 2 respectively.

"The new black monochrome car is bad, and it looks even better when it's out in the sun and on the car, with a our black wheels," Worsham said.  "You never know when a good idea and a good computer rendering are going to look as good in real life or look ridiculous, but this car is just plain cool looking.  Everybody thinks it's looks great, and I know one place where it would look the best, with lots of photographers in front of it and our whole crew behind it.

"On the first run, we saw car after car smoke the tires, and all the crew chiefs on all the teams were scrambling back to change the set-ups after they saw the guys ahead of them.  Because of that, each pair seemed to make it a little bit farther, and by the time we ran we had pushed the power out about as far as we thought we could, and made it down there past where anyone else had gone.  You just knew, though, that our run was the one that would show the rest of the crew chiefs what was out there, so we ended up 5th but that was pretty good, because it put us farther back in the line tonight.   We weren't sure how brave to be, right up until Ashley Force ran a 4.11 a couple pairs ahead of us, in our lane, so we put it back to the aggressive set-up and it went right down there.  The lap itself was just beautiful; pretty much right down the middle."

They are the pride of the Iron Range.
This is the area of Minnesota in which the father and son Pro Stock combination of Warren and Kurt Johnson were born.

Together the Johnson combination account for 134 national event wins and this weekend, they are racing at home in front of family and friends.

“Every year when we go to Brainerd, I get to see people I went to school with about 40 years ago, making it an enjoyable return to my roots, and I am truly grateful for my early existence there,” said Warren, the elder Johnson. “Growing up in Minnesota, the one thing you develop is a tremendous work ethic.  As a result, we primarily see returning to Brainerd as just another race for our GM Performance Parts GXP team.”

Just another race or not, together they have accounted for seven wins and six No. 1 qualifying efforts. In fact, they average fifth in qualifying since the event debuted twenty-five years ago.   

The elder Johnson remembers all too well his early days of drag racing in Minnesota.

“One of the first tracks I went to and competed on was Minnesota Dragways, and that spoiled me as far as racetracks are image013.jpgconcerned,” Warren said. “It was really ahead of its time, with a concrete starting line and a complete Christmas Tree.  In addition, both the spectator and all the pit areas and return were completely paved, something we don’t necessarily see at tracks we race on today.  John Foster and the group that ran that place were really on top of things when it came to having a state-of-the-art racetrack.”

Kurt’s driving career didn’t begin until his family relocated to Georgia in the early-1980s.

“It was a bit of a culture change moving to Georgia from Minnesota, and it can get a little humid here in the South, but I really don’t have any regrets about moving,” Kurt added. “The winters are a little better here, which extends the amount of time we can test.  After all, I’d rather be too hot than too cold.”

The Johnson’s agree the Brainerd event has a unique culture and when the campground area is nicknamed the “Zoo” one can easily draw conclusions regarding the atmosphere. The “Zoo” could be seen as the antithesis of the tightly-spun Warren, but even he finds a way to fit in.

“The name is extremely appropriate, and some of the behavior you see in there could be the result of those long hard winters,” Warren said. “You see every variety of vehicle running around in the Zoo, including motorized picnic tables and deer stands, as well as the entire spectrum of human behavior.  However, the people we have run into over the years in the Zoo have been absolutely tremendous, and I’ve had a great time over there.  The only downside for the racers is that it’s held on Saturday night, and we still have a race to run.”

Kurt manages to make an appearance as well, advising “The number one thing to remember as a driver when you’re heading into the Zoo is to bring plenty of Sharpies, because everyone wants your autograph!

“The easiest way to describe it is a sea of people all there to have a good time, with some of them probably never even seeing the races.  Still, it’s a chance to meet some neighbors and hang out with the fans, with everyone involved guaranteed to have fun.”

IN LIKE FLYNN - Robert Hight clinched a spot in the Countdown to One by making his first qualifying run and he improved drastically with a 4.119 second run to land in the No. 3 spot. That run was solid enough to stand at the top of the field until teammates Ashley and John Force drove around him. 

OH, SO CLOSE - Reigning Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin Jr. will secure his spot in this year's NHRA drag racing playoffs by simply qualifying for this weekend's race. Considering he's a four-time winner at Brainerd International Raceway, the task seems easy, but the veteran racer isn't taking anything for granted.

"We've got three races left, including the biggest one of our season in Indy, before the Countdown to 1 starts," Coughlin said. "What we need to do now is make sure we're on a hot streak when that six-race sprint to the finish starts in Charlotte on Sept. 11. That's our second season, if you will, and these last few races before it begins are crucial."

The 52-time national event winner, who earned his landmark 50th career victory one year ago at BIR, opened with a 6.724 at 204.98 mph before improving to a 6.714 at 205.35 mph in Round 2 to land in the seventh spot.

"We're very pleased with the day," Coughlin said. "The JEGS.com Cobalt went nice and straight both runs, which is exactly what we like to see. I think we all wanted a tick or two more in Q2 there but we weren't quite as efficient as we needed to be in the first few feet of the run. After that it hustled down through there perfectly.

"The weather was perfect for us today. There was some nice cloud cover and that helped us all run big numbers. I'm looking at the qualifying sheet and we're all packed in there close within a few hundredths of a second so the dogfight continues."

Coughlin is coming off a strong runner-up finish at the POWERade Drag Racing Series' last stop in Sonoma, Calif. It was his third runner-up result of the year. He's also got a win and three final-four showings this season.

WILK'S MULLIGAN - Tim Wilkerson wasted a qualifying attempt by smoking the tires coasting across the finish line early.  Wilkerson called in a mulligan and the end result was a 4.354 elapsed time and that landed him in the 11th spot.

“The track’s different from what we’ve been used to,” explained Wilkerson.  It’s a little treacherous.  I guess it’s not if you know what you’re doing, but obviously for me it was.  On our first pass it put a hole out right away and went to smoke the tires, so I shut it off.  For the second run, it was going good but it pulled loose in the middle.  I thought the track would be better in the middle than it was and I tried too hard.  That’s easy to figure out in hindsight, but I wish I would have been smarter ahead of time.

“For tomorrow we’ll figure it out.  We’ll have to see if we can ease through the middle, that’s all.  We’ve had to do this before, so I think we can.  We should step up tomorrow and maybe end up in the top half of the field.”

FORCE'S DAY OF RECKONING - With his bid for a record 15th NHRA Funny Car championship hanging in the balance, John Force couldn't find himself in a better place this week than Brainerd International Raceway.
In the simplest terms, no one in NHRA history has dominated at one racetrack like Force has at BIR, where he has driven a Castrol GTX® Funny Car to victory 11 times in 22 appearances.
This weekend's race is critical to his bid to earn one of the 10 berths in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship playoffs.
Since winning the June 1 O'Reilly Summer Nationals at Topeka, Kan., extending to 22 the number of consecutive seasons in which he has won a tour event and climbing to third place in POWERade points, Force has been in free fall at the wheel of a Castrol GTX High Mileage™ Ford Mustang.
The 126-time tour winner has won just two racing rounds in the last six events and, as a result, has fallen to eighth place.  The upshot is that a Countdown position that once seemed to be a foregone conclusion, now is very much in jeopardy.
Force's assessment of the situation has been brutally honest.
"If I don't win some rounds, I'm not going to be in this Countdown," he said.  "We didn't win a single round on the Western Swing (the three-race set composed of events in Denver, Colo., Seattle, Wash., and Sonoma, Calif.).  We have to find out why and we have to fix it."
Only three races remain before the NHRA certifies the 10 drivers eligible to compete for its $500,000 championship.  John Force Racing, Inc., could occupy as many as four of those positions but the 14-time Auto Racing All-America selection concedes that, right now, others have the momentum and he and rookie teammate Mike Neff (ninth in current points) are just treading water.
"We need to make a move," he said.  "The reality is we're running out of races.  We have a car that's getting better and we've got history (at Brainerd), but they're not gonna give us (anything).  We're gonna have to earn our spot.  And so is Mike Neff."

SOMETHING'S FISHY - Kenny Koretsky’s Nitro Fish/Indicom Electric Pro Stock team is racing this weekend.

Koretsky won't be driving. Richie Stevens, who drove the car at Norwalk, Ohio, in June, and during the team’s two-day test session at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., will drive this weekend.

“After sitting out the Western Swing (races at Denver, Seattle and Sonoma), we are excited to get back to the track,” said Koretsky, who hasn’t driven since his accident at Heartland Park Topeka in May.  “We have a new Nitro Fish paint scheme that Chucky B at Banshee created.  I think it looks really cool.  It’s the nicest looking car I’ve ever had.”

The car had a new front-half installed following the crash and crew chief Eddie Guarnaccia wanted Stevens to get in some test laps prior to going to Brainerd.

AYEAR'S DIFFERENCE - Last year, Ashley Force's biggest win came, not on the racetrack, but rather on the worldwide web where, in an on-line poll conducted by AOL Sports, she upset New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, among others, to earn the title of "World's Hottest Athlete."

It was both flattering and embarrassing for the 25-year-old daughter of drag racing icon John Force, who this week is thankful to be returning to Brainerd International Raceway with more in her portfolio than a few glamour photographs and credits for a role in Driving Force, the real life TV series that aired for two seasons on A&E Network.
In fact, her second appearance in the Lucas Nationals, could earn her and her Castrol GTX® Ford Mustang one of the 10 starting spots in the NHRA's Countdown to the Championship.
Coming off a solid performance two weeks ago at Sonoma, Calif., the graduate of Cal State-Fullerton is riding a wave of momentum into an event in which her father is the defending champion and in which a Team Castrol Funny Car has reached the winners' circle in 14 of the last 20 years.
Already the first woman in Funny Car history to reach an NHRA final, win an NHRA event and lead the points, Ashley is just a couple of round wins away from becoming the first to mount a legitimate bid for the POWERade championship.  If the stars are in proper alignment, she could reach that milestone in Sunday's eliminations.
All she needs to do is exit the race leading rivals Bob Tasca III, Del Worsham and Gary Scelzi, the three drivers closest to breaking into the Top 10, by 237 points.  That's one point more than the maximum either of the three could earn by winning the last two events leading up to the six-race Countdown that begins with the inaugural NHRA Carolina Nationals at Concord, N.C., Sept 12-14.

ELIMINATED - The realization she won’t be among the 10 Funny Car drivers competing for the 2008 POWERade Series Imagechampionship didn’t find Melanie Troxel gnashing her teeth in disgust or stomping around in a sullen mood.

Nope, that’s not her style.  She approaches it as an opportunity to continue to improve instead of an opportunity lost.

“It’s interesting,” said Troxel.  “People almost feel like it’s a wasted season if you don’t make the top 10.  But, in reality, if you don’t finish in the top three or four, then I’m not sure it matters if you finish fifth or 15th.

“I would rather go out and win a couple of races this year than be able to make the top 10 but finish 10th and not win any races.  It’s more important to me to have race wins. Nobody’s going to remember who finished fifth or 10th come five years from now.  But if you were able to go out and win several races and be a dominant team in the last part of the season, that’s something I think our Gotham City Racing team would definitely be proud of.”

With that in mind, she has a positive outlook on not only the three remaining races in the 18-race Countdown to 10, but the six events that will end the season. 

Troxel is 14th in points, too far from the top 10 to be included in the Countdown to 1 playoff picture. Her first year at the controls of the GCR Dodge Charger R/T has not been what she hoped for, but it does include a victory at Bristol (Tenn., May 18), a No. 1 qualifying position and a solid team that should continue to evolve into a consistent threat to win elimination rounds and races.
NOT WORRIED - Four-time NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series champion Gary Scelzi says he's under no pressure, as far as the Countdown to the Championship is concerned.

With only three events remaining before the Countdown to the Championship playoffs for the top 10 begin following the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis on Labor Day weekend, Scelzi finds himself No. 13 in the standings, 77 points out of a berth to vie for his second Funny Car crown.

The Fresno, Calif., native knows he and the Mopar/Oakley team must win rounds this weekend if there's any chance for them to move into the top 10. He's decided to approach it in a more relaxed manner than one would expect.

"Well, it's our one-year anniversary since (crew chief) Todd Okuhara took over the helm of the Mopar/Oakley Dodge team," said Scelzi, the 1998 Top Fuel winner in Brainerd, No. 1 qualifier in 1999 (TF) and 2003 (FC), and FC runner-up in 2004 and 2006. "And we're excited about that. The Brainerd race was Todd's first race with us last year, we made it to the semifinals and had a real good shot at winning the race.

"So, I'm putting the Countdown on the backburner. To be honest with you, I don't want to put any more pressure on us than we've already got. We know it's there, we know we need to do well, but the main thing we need to do is go there and qualify in the top half of the field and go some rounds. And that's all we're looking at.

"Getting into the Countdown would be great, but we've had a lot of fumbles this year, we've had some chances to make some moves, and nothing happened. So, we're just going to do all we need to do and try to execute. If it works, great; if it doesn't, then it's not meant to be.

PLANNING - The concept looks so simple on paper, but for Bob Tasca III and his crew chief Chris Cunningham, the execution is much more complex.

“We go out there and I know that Chris [Cunningham, crew chief] has a number in his head that he wants to run, and when the car doesn’t run that, you’ve got to come back and re-evaluate what caused it,” said Tasca. “You have to see if it was too much clutch, ignition, motor; there are a multitude of things that go into a tune-up, and you could see today because a lot of cars struggled at some point getting down the track.”

Tasca’s first run to 1,000 in Brainerd put the rookie driver in eighth position, but with issues the second time down the track, Tasca fell to 15th.

“We went nine or 10 races in a row making really good runs Friday night, and then we would struggle in the heat,” said Tasca. “Now, it’s kind of been a role reversal and we seem to run better in the heat, and not as well at night.

“I have faith that we’ll sort this thing out,” said the Rhode Island resident. “We really did accomplish what we wanted to in the first run, because we were in the back half of cars to go down the track that second run, and we were able to see what everyone else ran. The car drifted slightly out of the groove and I made a slight correction to try and get it back. But, we focus on tomorrow. We've got two runs with very good conditions and we’ll take that data and use it on Sunday."

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