Phoenix: Round two preview

HEAT RATCHETS UP A NOTCH AS POWERade SERIES ROLLS INTO FIREBIRD INT'L RACEWAY CHANDLER, Ariz. - Heat shows up in a variety of ways. For some, heat means pressure - a mental game. For Tony Pedregon, heat was something he could feel. Pedregon's...

HEAT RATCHETS UP A NOTCH AS POWERade SERIES ROLLS INTO FIREBIRD INT'L RACEWAY

CHANDLER, Ariz. - Heat shows up in a variety of ways. For some, heat means pressure - a mental game. For Tony Pedregon, heat was something he could feel.

Pedregon's Q Horsepower Chevy Impala SS exploded in the first round at the season-opener in Pomona, Calif., instantly propelling the reigning POWERade Series Funny Car champ back to the center of attention in a category already ripe with story lines. Since the accident there's been no rest for Pedregon, who was solicited for appearances on NBC's Today show, CNN and Inside Edition to talk about the accident.

"I'm anxious at this stage to get back to the track," said Pedregon, who sustained only minor burns to one hand. "I think the couple of days home will do me some good. In the office there's a lot to catch up on. I'm already looking forward to making it to the track and getting back to the car. I know the team is evaluating everything and it seems we were able to locate what the problem was. There will be some efforts made to address that, with the hopes of not allowing that again, and some other precautions taken, but outside of (the glove) everything did its job."

Pedregon takes some solace in the fact that the next time he suits up he'll be in Phoenix, where he won in 2007 and tested well in January. But there's no doubt that he and the rest of the fastest drivers in the world have plenty on their minds heading into Phoenix. And it's only the second race of the season.

The 24th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals presented by Castrol, Feb. 22-24, is the second of 24 events in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship. The race will be televised on ESPN2HD.

"We've got good data (on Phoenix)," Pedregon said. "I think for that reason we feel good about going back. We'll see better track conditions this time than we did testing...I'm a little disappointed we didn't qualify as well as we would have liked in Pomona (he was 12th), so this is a good opportunity to get off to a better start than we did in Pomona. I'm anxious to get back into the seat."

For Robert Hight, the pressure to qualify is the heat he can't ignore.

"I used to feel safe knowing that I'd get qualified," Hight said. "I wouldn't get nervous until race day. Now I have two hurdles every race. The first hurdle is just getting qualified and then you have to go four tough rounds on Sunday."

Pomona's drama unfolded in a positive way for Hight and the four-car Funny Car team of John Force Racing, where after months of therapy team patriarch John Force made his first start since his own spectacular crash in Dallas last fall. In fact, it looked like it would be an all-Force final, with three of JFR's drivers - John, his daughter Ashley and Hight - in the semifinals. In the end Hight faced Cruz Pedregon in the finals, with the win light going to Hight and a relieved Force Racing team.

"We are still adapting to our new set-up and a lot of the changes to the chassis but the good news is I am heading into Phoenix with a lot more confidence than I had going into Pomona for the season-opener," said Hight, who nudged the track record for time down to 4.636 in 2007. "That being said, I think anyone can win any NHRA POWERade event this season. Look at the competition in Funny Car this year. Any one of my teammates, John, Ashley or Mike Neff could win, plus you have drivers like Tim Wilkerson (Springfield, Ill.), Jim Head (Columbus, Ohio), Ron Capps or the Pedregons out there."

There's no better leader to follow to Phoenix than John Force, who with eight career wins at the track is by far historically the strongest driver there. Checker Schuck's Kragen's Del Worsham is second on the Funny Car career-wins list at Phoenix with two, in 2004 and '02.

Tony Schumacher leads the Top Fuel field with three trips to the winner's circle in Phoenix (2005, '02, '00) and holds the track record for speed there (4.430, set in 2007), but last season it was Rod Fuller who earned the race title with a final-round win over Melanie Troxel at Firebird.

Both Troxel and Fuller's teammate Antron Brown entered 2008 with new heat on their shoulders. In Troxel's case, it's a personal pressure that came from switching from Top Fuel to Funny Car, a category her husband Tommy Johnson Jr. is already entrenched in. Now the two are the second married couple to compete against each other in NHRA history. The situation they'd dreaded most - one spouse qualifying while the other did not - didn't take long to materialize. In Pomona, it was Troxel who made the big show while Johnson's ride was back in the trailer.

Brown made a move of his own this season - from Pro Stock Motorcycle to Top Fuel - where he rocketed his Matco Tools dragster to a No. 1 qualifying spot and advanced to the second round on race day before his dragster lost traction in Round 3, allowing Cory McClenathan to advance.

"I can't wait to get to Phoenix," Brown said. "We had a very good time testing there a few weeks back. I'm looking forward to getting back on the race track and doing well in qualifying and going out there and being very competitive on race day and going some rounds. I'm real pumped to get back out there with this Matco Tools team. My confidence is steadily climbing in the car."

If there was any doubt that Greg Anderson would launch an all-out attack on reigning Pro Stock world champion Jeg Coughlin in 2008, those questions were quickly answered. Anderson powered his way through the rounds to win Pomona in his Summit Racing Pontiac GXP, outlasting a quicker reaction time by Coughlin in the final round with a faster car. Coughlin wrestled the POWERade Series world title from Anderson's teammate Jason Line in 2007 - a title Anderson and Line had shared between them since 2003. Watch as the rivalry continues in Phoenix. Another team to watch is the father-son pair of Warren and Kurt Johnson, who with three career wins there each lead the list of active drivers who have reached the winner's circle there. Kurt Johnson is the defending event winner.

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 1:30 and 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 22. Qualifying continues at noon and 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23 and final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals. Call Firebird International Raceway at (602) 268-0200 or check online at ticketforce.com.

ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise qualifying highlights at 2 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 24. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise NHRA Race Day, a 30-minute pre-race show, at 11 a.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 24. ESPN2 and ESPN2HD will televise the race beginning at 7 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, Feb. 24.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Antron Brown , Jeg Coughlin , Kurt Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Greg Anderson , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Melanie Troxel , Jason Line , Robert Hight , Rod Fuller , Mike Neff , Tommy Johnson Jr.