Naturally, Cory McClenathan knows the NHRA U.S. Nationals (Sept. 4-7 in Indianapolis) is the biggest and richest race of the year. But considering his current position in the Top Fuel standings and where he wants to be when the final points are tallied, every race to the end of the year is going to be the biggest of the season.
"The only thing I want more than a U.S. Nationals victory is the NHRA Winston series championship," said McClenathan, who has finished second in the point standings three times -- 1992, 1995 and 1997. "We're in a tight points battle right now and from my standpoint every race from here on in is going to be big."
McClenathan, driver of the McDonald's Joe Gibbs Top Fuel dragster, is having an outstanding year, with a season-high five national event wins and two runner-up finishes. And yet, with of all of the success, McClenathan's lead in the series point standings, with seven races remaining, is by a mere one point over Joe Amato.
"This is hardball," said McClenathan, who has been in first place since March 22. "We've been to the finals seven times in the first 15 races and we're hanging in there by only a thread. We've done a good job, but so have other teams, which is going to make this championship points race a dogfight right to the end."
McClenathan, 35, of Anaheim, Calif., is hoping to increase his lead at the U.S. Nationals, an event that has been both successful and emotional for him the past two years.
He won the U.S. Nationals in 1996 and dedicated the victory to fellow Top Fuel racer Blaine Johnson, who was killed during the event in a qualifying accident.
At last year's race, McClenathan advanced to the final round and was in position to become the first Top Fuel driver in history to win five consecutive national events. He was the favorite going into the final against Jim Head, but 300 feet past the starting line McClenathan's car experienced traction problems, which cost him the victory and a place in the record book.
"Those were two of my most emotional days in racing," McClenathan said. "The joy of winning in 1996 was obviously clouded with the death of Blaine. And last year, that was a hard loss to swallow. It's one thing to come so close to winning the U.S. Nationals, but to lose the event when we were in position to do something that no one has ever done hurt even more."
That was one of the few final-round losses suffered by McClenathan and the McDonald's team, which is led by crew chief Mike Green. Since mid-season of 1997, McClenathan won 11 races in 14 final round appearances. The next closest in victories during this time period are Amato and Kenny Bernstein, who have each won four times.
"Though we've had a great run during the past year, there's still more to accomplish, like the Top Fuel series championship," said McClenathan. "It's like going fishing: you know that big one is out there and you're not going to stop until you get him."