Atlanta Gary Scelzi Eyes Third Top Fuel Championship

COMMERCE, Ga. - As the NHRA Top Fuel battle intensifies with every passing event, one driver is already prepared to go to war. For two-time NHRA Winston champion Gary Scelzi, this season is all about regaining some property. In 1999, young Tony...

COMMERCE, Ga. - As the NHRA Top Fuel battle intensifies with every passing event, one driver is already prepared to go to war.

For two-time NHRA Winston champion Gary Scelzi, this season is all about regaining some property. In 1999, young Tony Schumacher emerged to swipe the trophy that Scelzi held for two straight seasons. This year, Scelzi is determined to swipe it back.

He hopes a victory at the 20th annual Advance Auto Parts NHRA Southern Nationals, May 4-7 at Atlanta Dragway, will provide some distance between his Team Winston crew and the rest of the competition, especially current points leader Schumacher's Team Exide.

Scelzi, 39, is the defending Top Fuel winner at the $1.7 million race, the seventh of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. The Fresno, Calif., driver was runner-up at the event in '97 at the Georgia quarter-mile.

One thing is for sure, Scelzi says, this year's champion is going to need a few more victories to get the job done. Over the first six races of the season five different winners have emerged, setting the stage for a season with more parity than 1999 featured. With six races to go last season, as many as eight drivers were still mathematically eligible to win the championship.

Scelzi says he doesn't think that'll be the case this year, despite the early indications.

"I think you're going to have to win a bunch of races and not lose many first rounds to win the Winston championship this year," said Scelzi, the only NHRA driver to win back-to-back championships during his first two pro seasons. "I don't think anyone will be able to win just one race like Schumacher did last year and win the championship."

The reason for Scelzi's prediction is simple. With one victory and five semi-final appearances so far, he says his team resembles the 'Big Red Machine' that dominated during his title seasons.

"We seem to have the consistency we had in 1997 and '98," Scelzi said. "I don't look for us to falter too many more times this season."

There has been one glimmer of '99 thrown into the mix however. He suffered a first round loss at Houston. Last season Scelzi finished second in the Winston points standings with three victories and an uncharacteristic nine first round losses and one DNQ (did not qualify).

"The way the car has performed this season, I'm obviously pleased," Scelzi said. "The first round loss at Houston left me a little depressed at the time, but I'm in no way discouraged by what this team has done, or is capable of doing. It was just one of those rare times when (crew chief) Alan Johnson's setup didn't match the track. There was really no explanation. Alan just set the car up soft and the track didn't hold. We just have to shake it off and move on."

In fact, the team will be doing a lot of moving in the coming months. Back-to-back events in Richmond, Va. and Atlanta are followed by three more consecutive events leading into June.

"This is a big stretch of races going on now," said Scelzi, a 15-time winner in the category. "We've traditionally done well at Atlanta, Englishtown (N.J.), Dallas and Chicago. If we can put a good run together and get a couple of wins, I think we could make it tough on the competition."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi