Atlanta: Gary Densham preview

Densham speeds into race for POWERade Championship. ATLANTA, Ga. Gary Densham is trying to bite the hand that feeds him. Rescued from drag racing's rank-and-file last year to drive a Ford Mustang for 100-time tour winner John Force, the ...

Densham speeds into race for POWERade Championship.

ATLANTA, Ga. Gary Densham is trying to bite the hand that feeds him.

Rescued from drag racing's rank-and-file last year to drive a Ford Mustang for 100-time tour winner John Force, the 55-year-old former schoolteacher suddenly has emerged as the biggest threat to his boss's continued reign over the NHRA Funny Car division.

Entering this week's (May 3-5) 22nd annual Summit Racing Equipment Southern Nationals at Atlanta Dragway, Densham is in second place in POWERade points, just 46 behind the man who came to his aid when shrinking financial support threatened to sidelinehim after 30 years as a Funny Car independent.

In his first season at the wheel of the Team Castrol/Auto Club of Southern California Ford, Densham started from the No. 1 qualifying spot for the first time, won his first two tour titles (beating Force in the final round at both Memphis, Tenn., and Dallas, Texas) and finished a career high eighth in the NHRA driver standings.

Already this year, he's raised the NHRA speed record for Funny Cars to 326.87 miles per hour, earned his third tour victory (in the SummitRacing.com Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway) and put points pressure on the man who has dominated Funny Car racing for the last 13 seasons.

While Force was exiting last week's Mac Tools Thunder Valley Nationals (Bristol, Tenn.) in the very first round, Densham was driving his way to a runner-up finish that propelled into the penultimate points position for only the second time in his career.

The only other time he was second was after he lost in the final round of the 1999 season-opener to current teammate Tony Pedregon, driver of the Castrol SYNTEC Ford.

Five times in six races this year, Densham has pushed the Jimmy Prock-prepared Ford to top speed of the meet.

However, it was his performance last week in a race in which he didn't have the fastest race car that stamped him as a legtimate title contender. After qualifying in the Top 4 in the first five races, Densham barely made the starting lineup at Bristol where he was 16th in a 16-car field.

"The good teams are the ones that can win even when they aren't at the top of their game," Densham said. "That's what John has done that's enabled him to stay on top. If we're going to challenge him for the championship, then we're going to have to do that, too, and I think we showed at Bristol that we're capable of making that happen."

Even though Densham now is nipping at his heels, Force takes considerable pride in the fact that he was able to repay a long-standing debt by putting his friend in first class race car.

"Densham and I go back to Australia in 1974," Force said. "It was the first time I'd been out of California, the first time I'd been on an airplane and the first time I'd driven a Funny Car. We really didn't know what we were doing but Dench was over there and kind of got us through it all and go me back home.

"A lot of people questioned the choice," Force said of Densham's hiring, "but I knew he could drive a race car. He's probably been down more backwoods drag strips than anybody except maybe me and (Al) Hofmann. In this sport, there's no substitute for experience."

Densham definitely is experienced, which no doubt has helped in a season in which a new Goodyear tire and unseasonably warm temperatures have left little margin for error on the racetrack.

Now he's in position to race for the $400,000 POWERade bonus that goes to the season champion. It's a scenario neither he nor Force could have anticipated 18 years ago and a half a continent away.

DENSHAM at Southern Nationals....

*Has more Top 4 starts at the Southern Nationals than in any other event in the NHRA POWERade Series. Has qualified No. 2 twice (1992, 1997), No. 3 (1996) and No. 4 (1998).

*Has not advanced beyond the semifinals in 10 starts at Atlanta Dragway and has struggled mightily the last three years with a DNQ in 1999 and first round losses in 2000 and 2001.

DENSHAM Highlights....

*Three-time tour winner, all coming in the last 12 months. NHRA national FC speed record holder at 326.87 mph.

*Has accelerated to top speed of the event at six of the last seven NHRA POWERade events dating back to last November's Auto Club of Finals at Pomona, Calif.

DID YOU KNOW: @Gary Densham went 245 races before winning for the first time. He now has won three times in the last 11 races in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series....for 29 years, Gary was the auto shop teacher at Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif., and for most of that time he campaigned a Funny Car with a crew comprised of current and former students....if he continues at his current pace, Gary will qualify to compete in the Budweiser Shootout, limited to the tour's top eight teams, for the first time in his career. He has qualified fourth or better in all but one start this year and was the No. 1 qualifier at the Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., in March....before beating John Force in the final round of last year's Miid-South Nationals at Memphis, Gary was 1-20 against the 11-time series champion and 0-3 in final rounds.

-www.johnforceracing.com

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , John Force , Gary Densham