Gainesville: Round three preview

FLORIDA'S RECORD-SETTING WEATHER CONDITIONS TEMPT NHRA TEAMS AT ACDELCO NHRA GATORNATIONALS GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For more than 35 years, NHRA teams have been addicted to the high-performance recipe that exists at Gainesville Raceway in early ...

FLORIDA'S RECORD-SETTING WEATHER CONDITIONS TEMPT NHRA TEAMS AT ACDELCO NHRA GATORNATIONALS

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For more than 35 years, NHRA teams have been addicted to the high-performance recipe that exists at Gainesville Raceway in early March. With low humidity, cool temperatures, some cloud cover, and a near sea-level altitude, the legendary track where Kenny Bernstein roared to the first 300 mph quarter-mile run offers all crew chiefs the desired formula for tuning 7,000 horsepower race cars to record-setting performances.

Certainly one of NHRA's major tradition-filled events, teams will be working hard to achieve maximum performance and race victories at the 37th annual ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals at historic Gainesville Raceway, March 16-19. The event, which will be televised on ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD, is the third of 23 races in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Series. Doug Kalitta, Whit Bazemore, Jason Line and Steve Johnson are the defending winners of the $1.8 million race.

Ron Capps, the current POWERade Series points leader in Funny Car, says his Brut Dodge, which is tuned by four-time Gatornationals winner Ed "The Ace" McCulloch, will be happy to claim a national record performance, as long as it is on the way to the Winner's Circle.

"The Gatornationals is the one race where every team goes there and just stands on it because they know the combination of the good race track and favorable conditions can produce records," said Capps, whose best Gainesville finish was a runner-up effort to Jerry Toliver in 2000. "I think teams get really aggressive when they go there just because of the history of the place."

Heading into Gainesville, Capps leads 13-time series champion John Force by 15 points. Capps opened the season strong with a runner-up finish at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif. and followed with a semifinal finish at the second race near Phoenix. It is the fourth time in his career that Capps has held the points lead. On two other occasions he entered Gainesville as the series leader, in 1998 and 2003. However, while he knows having the lead early in the season isn't quite as important as holding it following the last race, Capps believes that in order to have it at the end you need to make a habit of being out front during the season.

"It's important for us to be in the hunt, and I will take in the lead as opposed to chasing anytime," Capps said. "Last year we almost won the championship and I didn't lead once. But we were always in the hunt and that was important for the team."

In '05 Capps came up eight points short of winning the championship, the third time in his career that he finished second overall. Capps watched Gary Scelzi win the closest Funny Car championship chase in NHRA history in the epic three-way battle that also included Force.

"Last year was an unbelievable year but I didn't feel like I was able to enjoy it," Capps said. "You get so immersed in it that you have some anxiety attacks. It never affected my driving, but you are continuously going through a gut-check in a tight points race like that when you know that the outcome of one round could win the championship. The experience gained during a run like that is immeasurable."

Just like the experience that tells Capps and his crew that in order to win the ACDelco Gatornationals you need a fast hot rod, but you also have to be smart with the setup.

"You just have to go there ready to go fast and not overthink it," Capps said. "You have to put aside the fact that it is the Gatornationals and just race the track. You always see the national record runs, but on Sunday you tend to see a lot of tire smoke and looking back five years you find that the winners usually weren't the guys setting the records."

And if Capps has a choice, he'll take a spot in the Gainesville record book in the win column instead of the performance section.

"As a kid I used to hear all the stories about Gainesville and that was one of the tracks where I always dreamed of racing," Capps said. "I still haven't won that race yet, so it would be a huge thrill to go in there and get a win."

In Top Fuel, Melanie Troxel holds the series points lead and has advanced to the final round in her Skull Gear/Torco Race Fuels dragster at both of the first two events, winning once. Rod Fuller hopes to keep his winning ways going in his Valvoline dragster, and U.S. Army dragster driver Tony Schumacher, a winner here in 2004, is looking for his first victory of the season. Larry Dixon, currently fourth in points, is a three time winner of the Gatornationals. Others to watch include defending winner Kalitta, Morgan Lucas, Dave Grubnic and rookie Hillary Will.

While Capps leads the way in Funny Car, rival Force, a category leading seven-time winner at Gainesville, isn't far behind in his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. Defending winner Bazemore also will challenge for the victory, as will Tommy Johnson Jr., Robert Hight, Del Worsham, and defending series champion Scelzi, among others.

Phoenix winner Warren Johnson has earned nine victories in Pro Stock at Gainesville over the years, his most recent coming in 2000. Warren's son Kurt, who drives the event sponsor flagship ACDelco Chevy Cobalt, won this event in 2003 and is looking to turn his season around after back-to-back first round losses in the first two events. In order to defend his title, Line will also need to hold off '04 winner Greg Anderson, hard-charging Mike Edwards and Erica Enders, who has qualified well at both races so far in '06.

While two-time series champ Andrew Hines has to be the pre-race favorite, the Pro Stock Motorcycle season opener is really wide open. Among the top contenders include two-time Gatornationals winner Angelle Sampey on her U.S. Army Suzuki, along with her teammate, Antron Brown. Buell riders Ryan Schnitz and Chip Ellis also are threats to win, as well as Hines teammate GT Tonglet, defending winner Johnson and '02 winner Craig Treble.

***

KURT JOHNSON VIES FOR WIN IN ULTRA-COMPETITIVE PRO STOCK FIELD AT TITLE SPONSOR'S EVENT

No one can deny that Kurt Johnson's NHRA pedigree is as about as good as it gets. The 42-year-old is the only child of six-time Pro Stock world champion Warren Johnson, the most prolific winner in that category's history with 96 career victories. Kurt's mother, Arlene, makes being on the road feel more like home with her homemade meals. And Kurt is no slouch himself.

In 2005, the younger Johnson finished second in the POWERade points standings to three-time and defending world champion Greg Anderson, a former crew chief of his father's. In this Q&A, Kurt discusses what it's going to take to stop Anderson, how he plans to take on his title sponsor's event, and the impact that women like Pro Stock's own Erica Enders are having on motorsports.

* QUICK FACT: Kurt Johnson drives the ACDelco Chevrolet Cobalt. He has 32 career wins and 29 runner-up finishes.

Q: Last year, you finished second in the POWERade points standings to three-time defending world champion Greg Anderson. Now, Anderson is leading the points again with a win and a runner-up finish already this year. What is it going to take to stop him?

K. JOHNSON: "You've got to have a consistently fast car. You've got to be on your game on the starting line and drive well. It's going to take the whole package -- team, car, driver, a lot of money and just paying attention to detail."

Q: Anderson served as a crew member and crew chief for your father Warren Johnson during four of Warren's six NHRA POWERade Series world championships. Do you ever wish they had never met?

K. JOHNSON: "That's not the case. Obviously we taught him a lot about racing, but he's taken it on himself. He has a lot of good people working with him and he's at the race track every day. He puts his car on the track directly from the door of his shop. That's made a big difference. Then again, we can't worry about his program. We've got to worry about ours."

Q: You have two sons (Conner, 9, and Jarrett, 6). Will either of them be a third-generation driver?

K. JOHNSON: "Who knows the future? It's a long way away. I just hope one graduates from kindergarten and the other from third grade right now. They're great kids. They've got clothesbaskets full of Hot Wheels. They've got so much stuff it's unbelievable. One is into trains (Jarrett) and one is into race cars (Conner) -- Hot Wheels. That was my favorite too, growing up."

Q: How is racing in your title sponsor's event different?

K. JOHNSON: "Obviously, you want to do a good job in front of your sponsors' eyes at their showcase race. We won the ACDelco Las Vegas Nationals last fall. It took us a few tries to win that race. Not that you try any harder than you do at any other race; it's just a little sweeter when you do win the race and show them that they're spending their money in the right direction. Winning is a lot easier than losing the first round, believe me. We've been in both situations -- there's less to explain when you win."

Q: What goes on in your head on race day?

K. JOHNSON: "That's all secret stuff. Preparation. Preparation is everything. You've got to be ready. You leave no stones unturned. You've got to check everything. Be open-minded and attack race day like it's a new one. Just because you won the last race doesn't mean you're going to win this race."

Q: What makes the Pro Stock category so competitive?

K. JOHNSON: "It seems like all of the categories are real competitive lately. It's paying attention to detail. It goes down to thousandths at the finish line. A lot of teams are making a lot of power. It's always been a competitive category, there are just more competitive teams out there right now."

Q: What gives a Pro Stock driver an extra edge?

K. JOHNSON: "That last sip of Full Throttle. You try hard every day. Some days you just get out of the right side of the bed and things turn out well. It's definitely not the lack of effort, as far as this camp goes. We put in 110 percent at everything we do. We try to make everything the best. Sometimes it turns out and sometimes it doesn't. It's kind of like when you're approaching a stoplight. Sometimes it's green and sometimes it's red."

Q: Why is Pro Stock so great at Gainesville?

K. JOHNSON: "I think you have a good racing surface. The barometric pressure is so good there because you're at sea level. Houston and Richmond will be real fast this year. It's also a good time to race. March is usually cool down there. It's a good race and I'm glad ACDelco got the sponsorship this year because when you walk through the gates on Friday at 7 a.m. there are a lot of people there. You can just feel the electricity."

Q: What do you think about the attention Erica Enders has gotten in Pro Stock? Is the impact positive or negative?

K. JOHNSON: "I think it's great for the sport. We need as many Pro Stock drivers as we can get out there. Her being a girl just adds another angle to the story. I think it's fantastic that she's out there, doing what she's doing."

Q: If you looked over to the other lane in the finals and saw her there, what would you think?

K. JOHNSON: "First rounds are kind of like finals. You just take each round like a final. Try to do your job and execute -- make sure everything works out like you want it to. It doesn't matter if I raced her in the first round or the final round. Everyone's a threat in the final. It doesn't matter who you race. We just have to pay attention to our program. Take care of what we do.

-nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Larry Dixon , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Melanie Troxel , Morgan Lucas , Jason Line , Ryan Schnitz , Andrew Hines , Jerry Toliver , Steve Johnson , GT Tonglet , Chip Ellis , Robert Hight , Rod Fuller , Hillary Will , Angelle Sampey , Mike Edwards , Tommy Johnson Jr.