GAINESVILLE, Fla. (March 9, 2000) - The NHRA championship tour and the promise of spring arrive simultaneously on the East Coast at the 31st annual Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 16-19 at Gainesville Raceway, the third race on the 23-event ...
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (March 9, 2000) - The NHRA championship tour and the promise of spring arrive simultaneously on the East Coast at the 31st annual Mac Tools Gatornationals on March 16-19 at Gainesville Raceway, the third race on the 23-event Winston Drag Racing circuit. Final eliminations of the Gatornationals can be seen on Sunday, March 19, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern. Qualifying highlights can be seen on Saturday, March 18, beginning at 8 p.m.
Summit Racing Firebird driver Mark Pawuk is coming off a runner-up finish at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals in Phoenix. His performance at the first two races of the year have been strong enough to propel him to a No. 7 qualifying effort at Pomona and a No. 4 qualifying effort at Phoenix. The 42 year-old Ohioan is currently third in the Winston standings and hopes a little luck in Florida can carry his Rob Downing-tuned Pontiac to the winner's circle at Gainesville Raceway. Pawuk was runner up at the Gatornationals in 1995.
"We should be able to run well again in Gainesville," Pawuk said. "Just to make sure, we'll be doing some testing beforehand. Hopefully we can continue to qualify strong and keep this Summit Racing Firebird moving forward. Third place in the standings is a great place to be, but we want more than that. We want to win races and bring a championship to our sponsors and the people who have stood by us through the lean times.
"Gainesville is a nice facility and it's a great racetrack. We'll get down to sea level and hopefully run pretty fast there. I mean we ran fast in Phoenix and in Pomona, so I know we can do it again. Everything seems to be clicking and now I feel that we're beginning to make opportunities for ourselves that maybe we would have squandered before. We've got some guys on this team that are hungry and that's starting to show when we get trackside. I've always enjoyed racing in Florida because it's a little closer to home and it gives me the opportunity to spend more time with my family. As busy as we all are these days you can't seem to do enough of that and I'm really looking forward to it. That's why the Gatornationals is one of those races that I can truly enjoy no matter what happens from a competition standpoint."
Defending Winston Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson is determined to bolster his title chances in 2000 by returning to Gainesville and copying his performance from a year ago. Coming in as event's defending champion in the GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird, Johnson has scored victories at this legendary Florida venue eight times (1984-85, 1991-94, 1998-99). After a second-round finish in Phoenix two weeks ago, the five-time Winston Pro Stock champion (1992-93, 1995, 1998-99) returns to this fast sea-level facility where atmospheric conditions were made to order for "The Professor's" style of racing. Johnson is currently second in the standings just 87 points behind Jeg Coughlin Jr.
"We're hanging in there, and that's the most important thing," noted Johnson. "We feel pretty fortunate to be in the second spot right now with all of the problems we've encountered in the last few months. We won't be up to full power yet at Gainesville because I don't think we'll have all of the replacement parts for the things we damaged prior to Pomona. We'll probably be at the same power level as we were in Phoenix, but we're running good enough to go rounds and qualify in the top half. If we can keep that momentum going until Las Vegas then we'll open up the performance. We're looking forward to going to Gainesville. It's one of the better attended events on the tour, it's usually a pretty decent track this time of year, and the conditions are usually pretty fast which goes hand in hand with our program. We'll definitely be competitive."
Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver Jim Yates has tasted victory twice at Gainesville Raceway, posting back-to-back wins in 1996 and 1997, catalytic victories that helped propel the 46-year-old Virginian to two consecutive Winston titles. Last month at the season opener in Pomona, Calif., Yates qualified in the No. 1 position with an event-record elapsed time of 6.878 seconds at 199.58 mph, and in Phoenix, he jumped to the No 2 qualifying position before bowing out in round two. Currently eighth in the points standings, Yates is hoping that the long journey to a third Winston title begins somewhere near Interstate 75.
"This new Pontiac Firebird has just done a great job for us this year," explains Yates. "We're running roughly the same combination that we ran last year as far as engine, transmission and clutch. We've tried a lot of things over the winter, maybe a little different gear ratio here and there, but the bottom line is, this car just seems to be getting the job done a little better than the old car did.
"We're going to Darlington to test both cars, and to a different chassis setup on Jamie's car - maybe come up with a little bit better combination, break in some tires and get ready. I think we have some really fast engines, and we've got one fast car, so it's just a matter of stepping the other car up to the program. But with any luck, Gainesville has always been a very, very good racetrack for me, and typically over the years we've had a good combination for going down that racetrack. So I'm excited about getting down there on some familiar turf and letting the clutch out."
Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird teammate and son Jamie Yates might be following his father's career path, but he's not standing in his shadow. Yates surprised a lot of people in Phoenix when, after surviving the bubble in the No. 16 qualifying position, the University of Maryland engineering student went on to win a pair of elimination rounds, including knocking off No. 1 qualifier Kurt Johnson in the opening stanza. He lost to Mark Pawuk in the semifinal round.
"I'm happy that our Splitfire/Peak Firebird was able to go rounds," said Jamie Yates. "I just wish I could have done a better job from a driving standpoint. My reaction times suffered a little bit in Phoenix and I know that I'm capable of doing a lot better. I gained a lot of experience though in the car."
Eager to speak of his son's performance, Jim Yates noted, "We were really excited about the way Jamie ran in Phoenix, just getting in the field was a big jump for him. He got a year's worth of experience just trying to run in that lane on Sunday. He also got a lot of practical knowledge on how to get down the bad lane on race day, and still get down there and get the win lights on the other guy.
"I would just rather watch Jamie win than go out there and win myself. Jamie and I are very close, and it's really rewarding for me to sit there and watch him race, especially since it's something he enjoys so much and he's able to do it well enough to compete on a national level like he has. I feel pretty good about what he's going to be able to accomplish in a Pro Stock car. I think there's going to be a lot of good things to come for him behind the wheel of a race car."
Valspar Refinish Firebird driver Richie Stevens is another one of Pontiac's young guns ready to blow away the competition at the Gatornationals.
"One of the hardest things for our team has been trying to figure out the various tracks around the country," said Stevens. "Most of the guys I race against have been to every track 10, 15, 20 times before and they've seen every type of conditions imaginable. We've had to learn as we go, like all new teams. But Gainesville Raceway is different. I have a whole book of data just on this track because we used to do all of our testing here. I know what you can and can't do, even if it's hot, cold, damp, humid, whatever happens, we've seen it before. That's a big help.
"It's taken us a little time to get used to Warren's (Johnson) power. It really picks up from half-track on and just pulls you through to the finish line. It's awesome but we haven't quite matched Gainesville our Valspar Pontiac to it just yet. When we do, watch out, we will be flying. My dad (Richie Stevens Sr., team owner) and Tommy (Utt, crew chief) have talked about switching to our new car at this race. It's the latest generation 2000 model Jerry Bickel Firebird and it seems like it's more aerodynamic, which we think will really help when we're at top speed with this new horsepower."