Dixon, Force among nominees For Driver Of The Year Award.
GLENDORA, Calif. - NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series champions Larry Dixon and John Force headlined the nominees for the prestigious Driver of the Year Award, it was announced recently by Barry Schmoyer, president of the Driver of the Year Foundation.
Other nominees include stock car driver Tony Stewart and open wheel racers Cristiano da Matta and Sam Hornish Jr. Dixon, whose fast start earned him the title of Second Quarter Driver of the Year for 2002, had a career-season behind the wheel of his Don Prudhomme-owned Miller Lite Top Fuel dragster. He set a record for final round appearances (14) and tied Gary Scelzi (2000) for the season win record (9).
Dixon opened the season at a rapid pace, winning seven of 10 final round appearances in the first 11 races, setting a mark for the best start in NHRA history for a Top Fuel driver. He added victories in Memphis and Las Vegas and runner-up finishes at Indianapolis and Brainerd, Minn., near the end of the season to hold off hard-charging rival Kenny Bernstein to secure his first NHRA Top Fuel crown.
"It's cool that we've got a couple of NHRA guys in the running for Driver of the Year," said Dixon. "It's a great honor to be recognized for what the entire Miller Lite team did this season. This goes beyond any goal we set for this season and any I've set for my career. It's an absolute honor."
Force, the only drag racer to ever win the Driver of the Year Award (1996), earned his 10th consecutive NHRA Funny Car championship, and 12th overall, behind the wheel of his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Force powered to eight victories in 10 final round appearances for the season, increasing his career win total to 106, second all-time among drivers in major auto racing series, behind stock car legend Richard Petty (200). He also posted six No. 1 qualifying awards and extended his eliminations streak to 300 consecutive races without a DNQ (did not qualify).
The championship run came down to the wire for Force, as he squeezed out a title- clinching semifinal victory over top rival and teammate Tony Pedregon in Sunday's Auto Club NHRA Finals at Pomona (Calif.) Raceway. Pedregon got hot late in the season, recording three straight victories and a runner-up finish to challenge Force to the end, which ultimately came on a holeshot loss to his boss. Force surged ahead of Pedregon by less than an inch at the finish line, gaining an extremely close margin of victory of 0.0055 of a second.
"It's always an honor to be considered one of the top drivers. When I won (the Driver of the Year Award) in 1996, I didn't really know what it was all about but I knew it was something (Dale) Earnhardt and Richard Petty and Mario Andretti had won before me, so it definitely was a big deal," Force said. "Bottom line, it's one of those awards that just to be in the running is something I'm proud of. I think it says a lot about how far our sport has come and where it's going."
The Driver of the Year program is administered by the Driver of the Year Foundation, located in Sarasota, Fla. The Driver of the Year is picked by a select panel of motorsports journalists, including Chris Economacki, National Speed Sport News; Shav Glick, LA Times; Steve Ballard, Indianapolis Star; Mike Harris, Associated Press; Mark Armijo, Arizona Republic; John Sturbin, Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Chris Jenkins, USA Today and Gary Long, Miami Herald, among others. ESPN.com also participates, through an online poll, allowing fans to cast a vote.
The Driver of the Year is based on a 25-point system. Each panelist ranks the nominees from 1-6, and points are awarded to the drivers as follows: 9 points for first, 6 for second, 4 for third, 3 for fourth, 2 for fifth and 1 for sixth.
Last year's winner was stock car driver Jeff Gordon. In addition to Force, other drivers to win the award include Mario Andretti, Cale Yarborough, Al Unser, Richard Petty, A.J. Foyt, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Emerson Fittipaldi, Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte, among others.