Bristol: Round eight preview

WITH MILESTONES AND HISTORY IN TOW, FORCE RACING HEADS TO BRISTOL DRAGWAY FOR O'REILLY NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS BRISTOL, Tenn. -- In what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Funny Car seasons in NHRA history, John Force and...

WITH MILESTONES AND HISTORY IN TOW, FORCE RACING HEADS TO BRISTOL DRAGWAY FOR O'REILLY NHRA THUNDER VALLEY NATIONALS

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- In what is shaping up to be one of the most competitive Funny Car seasons in NHRA history, John Force and his daughter Ashley have teamed up to provide plenty of early season buzz with some memorable milestone performances.

First, at Las Vegas in early April, 25-year-old Ashley became the first female to lead the Funny Car point standings with a runner-up finish in her Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. John then arrived at Atlanta Dragway in late April and became only the second driver in NHRA history to attend 500 NHRA events, joining Pro Stock legend Warren Johnson on that short list.

Then, in an attempt to win his 1,000th eliminations round at the same race, John lost to his daughter in the final round. That emotional gender-barrier breaking victory -- which John called "the greatest win of his life" -- elevated Ashley to the distinction of first female to win a Funny Car race in the 57-year history of NHRA.

At the following event in St. Louis, John managed to score his incredible 1,000th round win, defeating longtime rival Ron Capps in the opening round.

Indeed, it has been a whirlwind few weeks for John Force Racing.

"You can't win without a good crew, sponsors like Castrol, Ford, the Auto Club and Old Spice and crew chiefs like Austin Coil and Bernie Fedderly," John Force said. "Five hundred races just means you showed up a lot. But winning a thousand rounds, that means that at a point in time, we were pretty good."

Said Ashley: "It's a great time for women in racing. With Danica (Patrick) winning in IndyCar, I think it's exciting for the fans to finally have a woman winner in Funny Car, but I know it's the 10 guys on my team who got me to this point. I'm proud to be a female in the seat, but it's Guido' and Ron (crew chiefs Dean Guido' Antonelli and Ron Douglas) and my crew guys who really got me here. The thing about drag racing is you can go from hero to zero very quickly. We're enjoying (success) now, while we have it, but we know it's a tough group we race against. You never want to get ahead of yourself. Qualify first, then one round at a time."

With their career achievements noted in the NHRA record book, both drivers will again turn their focus exclusively to the POWERade Series points battle at the O'Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, May 16-18 at historic Bristol Dragway. With more than 16 high-horsepower Funny Car favorites racing for position in the Countdown to 10 cut, which takes place following the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend in Indianapolis, a strong finish at each of the next 11 events will be critical.

Brandon Bernstein (Top Fuel), John Force (Funny Car) and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock) are the defending winners of the race at the scenic Tennessee quarter-mile dragstrip, which will be televised on ESPN2 HD.

John Force, who has won 14 POWERade Series world championships in Funny Car, is determined to get back to the winner's circle and add to his record 125 career victories after a spectacular crash nearly ended his racing career last September at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas.

Ashley's next assignment: win race No. 2 and continue to maintain her position in the POWERade Top 10.

Meanwhile, journeyman Tim Wilkerson continues to have a breakout season in Funny Car and leads the 7,000 horsepower category for the first time in his career with two victories and four No. 1 qualifying positions.

"Being the points leader is everyone's dream and it's what you come out here for," said Wilkerson, driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Chevy Impala. "But there is no way I could ever dream this up, really. I'm confident in our car and the abilities of our crew, but I really didn't think we could pull this off. I'm kind of happy so many guys are struggling because it makes me really look good. But right now we are going to cherish our No. 1 spot."

Robert Hight, Tony Pedregon, Jack Beckman and Del Worsham also have earned victories this season in Funny Car and will be among the favorites in the category at Bristol Dragway.

In Top Fuel, Tony Schumacher has started strong in his U.S. Army dragster, posting two victories in four final round appearances.

"Last year at this time, we were clearly struggling and already had five first round losses," said Schumacher, a winner at Bristol in 2004. "What a difference a year makes, right? I can guarantee you that Alan Johnson (crew chief) and the guys will be looking for ways to improve even more."

The five-time NHRA world champ's main competition has come from former Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Antron Brown, who has opened the season with two victories in three final rounds in his Matco Tools dragster, while racing on four wheels instead of two. Larry Dixon, Rod Fuller and Cory McClenathan have all earned wins and have proven to be the early Countdown to the Championship contenders in Top Fuel.

Six different winners have emerged in seven races in Pro Stock, with two-time Bristol winner Greg Anderson the only repeat winner of the year. His teammate, Jason Line, leads the POWERade Series standings in his Summit Racing Pontiac GXP, while defending Bristol winner Coughlin, Kurt Johnson, Mike Edwards and V Gaines have all visited winner's circle this season. Local favorite Allen Johnson from nearby Greeneville is sure to have many friends and family cheering him on on his J&J Racing Team Mopar Dodge Stratus.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 4 and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 16. Qualifying continues at 12:30 and 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 17 and final eliminations begin at noon on Sunday, May 18.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the O'Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals. Call Bristol Dragway at (423) 989-6900, or check out www.bristoldragway.com.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 17. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 18. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise three-and-a-half hours of race coverage beginning at 6:30 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, May 18.

LUCAS OIL SERIES: The O'Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals also will feature competition in four categories in the NHRA Lucas Oil Series, where the future stars of the NHRA POWERade Series earn their racing stripes. Lucas Oil Series qualifying and eliminations begins at 9 a.m. on May 16.

-credit: www.nhra.com.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Greg Anderson , Cory McClenathan , Tim Wilkerson , Jack Beckman , Brandon Bernstein , Allen Johnson , Jason Line , Robert Hight , Rod Fuller , Austin Coil , Mike Edwards