Chicago Grueling NHRA Eastern Swing Makes Final Stop

JOLIET, Ill. - A grueling trio of consecutive races over a three-week span, which started in Englishtown, N.J. and moved through Dallas, will reach its end point at the spectacular Route 66 Raceway, near Chicago June 1-4. Over the past 17 days,...

JOLIET, Ill. - A grueling trio of consecutive races over a three-week span, which started in Englishtown, N.J. and moved through Dallas, will reach its end point at the spectacular Route 66 Raceway, near Chicago June 1-4.

Over the past 17 days, NHRA teams have traveled approximately 2,493 miles through three different regions of the United States, not including the countless trips down a variety of quarter-mile tracks in their 6,000 horsepower machines. Their pursuit: NHRA Winston championship glory. The final stop of the early-season gut check is the third annual Prestone Route 66 Nationals, a race where winners and losers will be separated by their ability to deal with the physical and mental strain produced by the demanding stretch of races.

Mike Dunn, Tim Wilkerson, Warren Johnson, Matt Hines and Bob Panella are the defending pro category winners of the $2 million race, the 10th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Dunn, from Wrightsville, Pa., outran Kenny Bernstein for the Top Fuel victory here one year ago. This season Bernstein, who won this event in '98, will try for his third consecutive final round appearance at the Illinois quarter-mile. With one victory in two finals this season, Bernstein has established his Bud King dragster as one of the early favorites for the Winston championship. Another top challenger, hometown favorite and defending Winston champ Tony Schumacher, from nearby Park Ridge, has advanced to four finals this season in his Exide Batteries dragster, winning once. Other top contenders include two-time season winner Larry Dixon, Joe Amato and Doug Kalitta.

Springfield's Wilkerson enjoyed his first career victory here last year, defeating category icon John Force in a tire-smoking final. Nine-time Winston champion Force is still searching for his first victory in Chicagoland. With two wins this season, Force is in a tight points battle with another two-time season winner, Jerry Toliver, driver of the WWF Racing Pontiac Firebird. Whit Bazemore, the inaugural Funny Car winner here, hopes a victory at this event will turn around a less than favorable start for his Kendall Chevy Camaro team. Other favorites include Ron Capps and Tony Pedregon.

Johnson, from Buford, Ga., used a horsepower advantage to outrun Troy Coughlin in the Pro Stock final last year. This season Coughlin's brother, Jeg, has been the headliner in the category, winning five events in his yellow and black Oldsmobile Cutlass. Johnson, the runner-up here in '98, hopes to fine-tune his GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird and make a run at victory so he can erase some of Coughlin's early points advantage. Other contenders in the 200-mph category include two-time Winston champion Jim Yates, Mark Pawuk, Kurt Johnson and Richie Stevens.

Hines claimed the Pro Stock Motorcycle victory in a tough battle between Suzukis here last year, outrunning flamboyant Steve Johnson in the final round. Both riders will be among challengers for the victory once again, which will include Team Winston's Angelle Seeling and Sunoco's Dave Schultz, who have each scored early season wins. Also in the two-wheel mix will be Team 23 riders Tony Mullen, the early Winston points leader, and Antron Brown, a three-time winner last year.

Panella, from Stockton, Calif., had perhaps his best race ever here last season, winning the event, the $20,000 Holley Dominator Duel and a special $10,000 'double-up' bonus from the NHRA. His combined payday for the event was over $40,000, a record for Pro Stock Trucks. Panella, who claimed the Winston championship in '99, has returned to the top of the point standings this season. His toughest challenger, Randy Daniels, also drives an S-10, and has claimed three victories and set the national speed record with a performance of 180.16 mph. Other top truck contenders include Greg Stanfield, Steve Johns and Galesburg chassis builder Rick Jones.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Matt Hines , Bob Panella , Larry Dixon , Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Mark Pawuk , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Doug Kalitta , Randy Daniels , Tim Wilkerson , Jerry Toliver , Steve Johnson , Steve J