TOPEKA, Kan., May 23, 2001 - The NHRA Pro Stock Truck series will converge on Heartland Park this weekend for the sixth race on the 14-event schedule. Jeff Gracia is hoping to capitalize on his strong showing two weeks ago in Atlanta where he drove his GMC Sonoma to his first final-round appearance in 2001.
Currently fourth in the points standings, it's been a stellar season so far for the 34-year-old Gracia, who drives out of the Panella Trucking Racing stable with teammate Bob Panella Jr. Gracia has won 10 rounds of eliminations, been a top-five qualifier at all five previous events, qualified No. 2 at Atlanta and ran a career-best elapsed time of 7.432 seconds at Houston.
John Lingenfelter is in his second season behind the wheel of a GMC Sonoma and looking to improve upon his 2001 performance. Currently 11th in the Pro Stock standings, Lingenfelter's best race was at Las Vegas where he qualified No. 4 and advanced to round two.
Also, team owner Rick Jones announced that his GMC Sonoma will be driven by Joe Pigford this weekend at Heartland Park, replacing Mike Corvo Jr.
NOTE: GMC Sonoma was awarded the 2001 compact pickup truck of the year last week by JD Power & Associates.
JEFF GRACIA (Panella Trucking GMC Sonoma) - "No one is pulling away from the rest of the field. I think these next four races will separate who's going to be in the top four or five for the rest of the year. The weather is going to be really tough to run in too. I think these next four races we have will separate the men from the boys, so to speak. The last two years Bobby (Panella) has won the championship, he's normally won it during this stretch of the season. He separated himself from the rest of the pack and ran strong all year. That's what we hope to do."
What are some of the areas you are working on? - "We went back and redid all the motors and made everything fresh for these next four races. Everything should basically be brand new on our GMC Sonoma and we should do well during this stretch of races."
What do you hope to accomplish? - "Hopefully I can win one or two of them and Bobby and I can be in the finals at all four of them. That would be the ultimate, but we just hope we qualify well at all of them, and hopefully be the first GMC-Sonoma to win a national event and the shootout we have coming up."
What was it like racing your teammate in the finals? - "That was great. That was our first final round as a so-called professional in the Pro Stock Truck class. I think that was our first Pro Stock final as a team and we qualified one and two, which was awesome. Panella Motorsports pretty much took all the money to be had, which was quite an accomplishment for me as a driver and Bobby as a team owner. It was exciting!
How far ahead in the season are you looking? - "We take it race by race, but we know that these next four races are very important. There won't be a whole lot of time to change a lot of things to the truck in between races. After this stretch the season will be two-thirds of the way over and after that the races are spread out. What you get out of this stretch will probably make or break your season."
Do you feel pressure? -"I think everybody feels a little bit of pressure especially before first round because you have so much time to think about it. But with the new 75-minute rule for the Fuel cars, it only gives us about 45 minutes in between rounds, so you don't really have time to feel pressured after that first session. You just have to concentrate on what it is you are there to do, and that's race hard and don't get beat at the line. You never want to know who you are racing next but you always do."
Are you enjoying the competition? - "I'm having a lot of fun. If it wasn't fun I wouldn't be doing it. I'm with a good team and we're doing well. They're a lot of fun to be with. We're having some great success so that makes it even better."
JOHN LINGENFELTER (Summit Racing GMC Sonoma) - "We've been working on everything to make this truck faster, but we've focussed primarily on the chassis. We had terrible 60-foot times at Atlanta and we finally determined it was the tires. We tested and were able to duplicate the situation. Hopefully we have that resolved now."
Where has the truck performed well? - "We're showing good power. We were about No. 1 through No. 4 in the back half at Atlanta and the Summit Racing Sonoma ran good speed too. If we can get the chassis squared around we should be in pretty good shape. I think we should be anywhere between No. 1 and No. 5 in qualifying."
On the close points battle - "It's real close, there's no doubt about that. It's phenomenal. Every week someone else picks up. It looks like Daniels may be struggling a little, and then we have guys like Patterson running a Dodge coming up, which is good for the program because we need more competition between the brands. It's going to be an interesting battle but we're still having fun. It's always fun. It's more fun though when you go fast and win!"