Richie Stevens starts 2000 series in style at Pamona

POMONA, Calif. (Feb. 6) -- Team Valspar has started the 24-event NHRA Winston Drag Racing series in style with driver Richie "The Kid" Stevens reaching the quarterfinals of the season-opening AutoZone Winternationals before bowing out to...

POMONA, Calif. (Feb. 6) -- Team Valspar has started the 24-event NHRA Winston Drag Racing series in style with driver Richie "The Kid" Stevens reaching the quarterfinals of the season-opening AutoZone Winternationals before bowing out to five-time champ Warren Johnson. The strong start translates to a top-10 position in the 2000 standings for the 21-year-old from New Orleans, who earned enough points today to grab eighth place overall.

With a Johnson motor under the hood of his sleek Valspar Refinish Firebird, Stevens began the weekend with a strong set of qualifying passes, the best of which was a 6.938-second pass at 197.91 mph that earned him the 13th spot on the ladder. His reward was a Sunday morning opening-round elimination battle against No. 4 qualifier Troy Coughlin, who was one of the weekend's quicker drivers with a 6.895-second, 199.05-mph pass.

Knowing he needed to be sharp against the slightly quicker car, Stevens went through his normal pre-race routine in Round 1. But Coughlin decided to play some games at the starting line and it wound up costing him the race when he jumped the light and was disqualified.

"I like to stage first and he usually stages last so I thought we'd be okay," Stevens said. "But he pulled right in there ahead of me just like he did the last time we raced. I guess he was trying to throw me off. I just put it out of my mind and went through my normal routine as best I could. When the tree lit, he was gone and I thought 'Oh no, he beat me off the line big time.' But when I saw him lift (off the accelerator) and I looked down the track and saw the win light on in my lane, then I knew he had jumped the light."

Stevens went on to post a 6.959 at 197.97 mph, setting up a fateful Round 2 showdown with Johnson, who opened with a 6.952-second, 197.48-mph win over Bruce Allen.

The stipulation of racing against the man who supplies his engines is that Stevens must use his own powerplant. The Valspar crew took on the venture with gusto and managed to swap motors in the allotted 75 minutes, but shorted out the cars electrical system in the process, which left Stevens in a less-than-perfect machine. Still, driving on feel alone, Stevens nearly pulled out a win, running a 6.979 at 197.02 mph against Johnson's 6.959 at 197.28 mph.

"If I could've pulled that off, that would have been something," Stevens said. "I feel bad for the guys after they worked so hard to get us ready. We've never had to swap motors before between rounds. But, that's just part of leasing engines. It's part of the agreement we have.

"No matter what, this is a great start to the season for Valspar Racing. We're already in the top 10, which is one of our primary goals, so everyone is happy. I'm ready for bigger and better things at the next race in Phoenix (Feb. 24-27.)"

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Series NHRA
Drivers Troy Coughlin , Warren Johnson , Bruce Allen