BERNSTEIN, HIGHT AND STEVENS EARN VICTORIES AT O'REILLY FALL NATIONALS
ENNIS, Texas -- Brandon Bernstein and Robert Hight moved into their respective championship chases Sunday with convincing wins at the O'Reilly Fall Nationals presented by Castrol Syntec at the Texas Motorplex near Dallas.
Both men started and finished the day third in the points, but not before gaining some serious ground on the category leaders at the 19th of 23 races in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series. Bernstein is now just 40 points out of the Top Fuel lead, while Hight closed to within 93 of Funny Car's top spot.
In Pro Stock, Richie Stevens scored his first victory in more than five years. Bernstein's fourth victory of the season and 12th of his career came at the expense of Rod Fuller, while Hight pulled away from first-time finalist Mike Ashley at half-track to earn his third win of the year and fifth overall.
Bernstein's nearly silent pursuit of headline grabbers Tony Schumacher and Doug Kalitta has featured three final-round showings in the last four races, including his win here and his runner-up finish at the last event in Indy. The final round was over early in the run when Fuller's Valvoline dragster lost traction and Bernstein's Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster powered to a 4.612 at 323.19.
"It seems like the pressure has been squarely on Doug and Tony," said Dallas native Bernstein, a graduate of Texas A&M. "I know no one in the media has asked me about it. But within the team I kept telling the guys we just needed to stay consistent and keep plugging away. Now I think everyone knows what we already knew; we have a race car that can win the championship."
Mac Tools dragster driver Kalitta's lead in the POWERade standings continued to erode as he went out one round before second-place racer Schumacher, who was the event's top qualifier in the U.S. Army dragster. Kalitta now leads Schumacher by 33 points.
For the first time since the Brainerd event more than a year ago, a top qualifier in Funny Car managed to convert a fast hot rod into a race win as Hight beat Ashley with a 4.796 at 322.73 mph in his Auto Club Ford Mustang to Ashley's tire-hazing 6.024 at 159.08 mph in his Torco Racing Fuels Dodge Charger.
"I feel like we don't have a choice, we have to win every round left," Hight said of his championship aspirations. "I can't begin to describe the feeling you get when [crew chief] Jimmy Prock pounds on your hood just before you run and you just know that you have the best car on the property. Jimmy is a very confident guy and it filters down to the team."
The much anticipated first-round race between points leader Ron Capps and 13-time champ John Force, who is second in the standings, was a thrill with Capps upsetting the higher qualified Force. But Capps didn't capitalize much on the victory, losing in the next round to Ashley. His lead over Force increased from 19 to 37.
Stevens' race with Edwards was a classic Pro Stock contest with both men leaving with nearly identical reaction times and staying locked together most of the way down the track. Stevens finally inched away at the end and won with a 6.693 at 204.60 mph in his Team Mopar Dodge Stratus to Edwards' 6.718 at 206.39 mph in his Young Life Pontiac GTO.
"I can barely talk," said Stevens of his fifth career victory. "It's been a long time since I've won. I forgot what I'm supposed to do."
The two men battling for the 2006 Pro Stock title, teammates Jason Line and Greg Anderson, fizzled in Texas with top qualifier Anderson losing on a holeshot to Dave Northrop in the first round and No. 2 qualifier Line losing on a holeshot to Edwards in the quarterfinals. With the extra round, Line extended his lead to 78 over Anderson.
The NHRA POWERade Series continues with the rain-delayed Toyo Tires Nationals, Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at Maple Grove Raceway near Reading, Pa.