Phoenix: Cory McClenathan looks to championship

CHANDLER, Ariz. - Considered by many as one of the elite Top Fuel competitors in the NHRA, Cory McClenathan is still missing something that would cement his name among the legends of the sport: a Top Fuel championship. Always the bridesmaid but...

CHANDLER, Ariz. - Considered by many as one of the elite Top Fuel competitors in the NHRA, Cory McClenathan is still missing something that would cement his name among the legends of the sport: a Top Fuel championship.

Always the bridesmaid but never the bride, McClenathan watched as the Top Fuel championship eluded him on four different occasions. He's now ready to return to action and remind everyone why he ranks fourth on the all-time win list (26) for Top Fuel competitors and is among the leaders for win-loss records in elimination rounds (285-163, following 2002 season-opener).

McClenathan, from Anaheim, Calif., will make his return to the desert when he competes in the 18th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals, Feb. 21-24, at Firebird International Raceway. The $1.8 million race is the second of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

After runner-up finishes in 1992, '95, '97 and '98 in the Top Fuel standings, McClenathan was left without a ride at the conclusion of the 2000 season when team-owner Joe Gibbs left the sport. Other than a DNQ (did not qualify) at the race in Dallas, McClenathan sat out the entire 2001 season. After more than a year of searching for a primary sponsor, McClenathan teamed up with former Alcohol Dragster drivers Rick Henkelman and David Bacca to return to the nitro-ranks.

Henkleman and Bacca purchased the team from Brad Anderson, who had bought Gibbs' team upon his departure. That dragster was unveiled at the conclusion of the 2000 season and McClenathan drove it to two victories before being sidelined. Technically, he's driving the same vehicle that was dominant at the end of the 2000 season. The team also hired McClenathan's former crew chief, Wes Cerny, to turn the wrenches on the dragster.

"Everything is the same," said the 39-year-old McClenathan. "We have the same trailer and transporter and I'm really familiar with the car. This whole deal happened so fast, it was like within seven days, and now I'm racing again. "

In a Top Fuel field has that several dark horse contenders and a couple of heavy favorites for the championship, McClenathan will need to stay focused after a year out of the driver's seat.

"I know I am going to make a few mistakes along the way," said McClenathan. "I think with Wes doing his job, and me doing mine, we can come back pretty quickly. With (Gary) Scelzi going to Funny Car and a lot of new faces in Top Fuel, there's a chance to get some things done. (Kenny) Bernstein and (Larry) Dixon are going to be hard to catch though. I know we have to walk before we run, but I feel that if we can run in the 60s consistently, we can win rounds. But Dixon, man he has that car in the low 50s all the time. We have our work cut out for us."

Remaining in the Top 10 in the NHRA POWERade standings can be very lucrative for a smaller budget operation, and driving to a victory can determine the future of the team. A semifinal loss to defending Top Fuel champion Kenny Bernstein at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif., marked a successful return to the drag strip for McClenathan. However, Henkelman and Bacca have bigger plans.

"At Pomona we were happy because we got the car down the track three of four times during qualifying," said McClenathan. "Everyone on the team, and a potential sponsor, was excited. I would be surprised of we didn't run the full schedule and we want to add a second dragster by Vegas. When we add that car, Bacca will definitely be the driver. All I know is that it's good to be back in the driver's seat."

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Kenny Bernstein , Cory McClenathan