Battle Shifts to the Desert - Phoenix

Pontiac Drivers Johnson and McClenathan Look To Defend Phoenix Titles PHOENIX (February 17, 1999) The 15th Annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway on February 25 - 28 is the second race on the 22-event...

Pontiac Drivers Johnson and McClenathan Look To Defend Phoenix Titles

PHOENIX (February 17, 1999) The 15th Annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway on February 25 - 28 is the second race on the 22-event NHRA Winston Championship tour. The warm dry weather of the southwest desert just might be the perfect setting for record-breaking elapsed times and top speeds. In Pro Stock, Warren Johnson will try to put his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird in the winner's circle for the second consecutive year and back into the Winston points chase. The ever elusive Arizona race dodged the "Professor of Pro Stock" for years before he finally notched his first career national-event victory at Firebird International Raceway last February. Until the addition of the Fram Route 66 Nationals in Chicago last June, Johnson had won at every racetrack on the series' schedule after taking the '98 Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals. "Without a doubt, that was the longest drought I've ever experienced at a racetrack," said Johnson. "I don't even think it took me as long to win at Indy. It's just one of those things that you go through as a driver and as a team." Two weeks ago at the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., Johnson picked up where he had left off the year before by cruising to the No. 1 qualifying position with a quarter-mile run of 6.888 seconds at 200.95 mph before losing to two-time Winston champion Jim Yates in the second round of eliminations. It was the 103rd time in his career that Johnson had qualified in the top spot at an NHRA National event. "We had a vacuum line come off, and that cost us about 20 horsepower," explained Johnson. "The engine just blew through the clutch, so apparently we torched the clutch discs. Now it's a matter of analyzing why that happened; with as much clutch pressure we had, it shouldn't have slipped. "It's going to take some work to get this new Firebird sorted out. It's not as comfortable in low gear as the old car, but it's running pretty fast considering that it's not making perfect runs yet." The scenario going into this year's race is strikingly familiar to what the four-time (1992-93, 1995, 1998) Winston Pro Stock champion faced going into last year's event at Firebird International Raceway. Johnson lost in the semi finals at the season-opening Winternationals and then charged back at Phoenix to defeat perennial rival Jim Yates in a classic final-round matchup for the first of his nine national-event titles in 1998. "We've been working on the car from the front bumper to the back bumper, and from the left side door to the right side door," explained Johnson. "There really isn't a specific area that we've zeroed in on because once you maximize your performance in one area, then that change requires an adjustment in another area. It's a never-ending process. "Winning another title won't be any different this year than in any other year because of the simple fact that it's never easy. If we are to continue to be successful, then we'll have to race smarter. There are so many good teams out there right now that if they start picking up their programs and closing the gap, and we're not able to expand our program, then whatever advantage we may have had will evaporate."

During his last three races at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals, Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver Jim Yates's win-loss record is 11-1. That includes back-to-back wins in 1996-97 for the two-time Winston champion and a runner-up finish in 1998. He comes into this year's race fourth in the Pro Stock points standings and determined to improve on his semifinal round showing at Pomona. "Even though we left California without the win, I was pretty happy with the performance of our Splitfire/Peak Firebird," said Yates. "We ran consistently all weekend but just missed with the combination on our last run. But I think this Pontiac shows some potential. We ran in the top three or four cars all weekend in Pomona and I'm pretty confident that we can do that all year. "We have some new motors coming together, but the main thing is to figure out how to get this car down the track. Hopefully, if we can keep working on it we'll get it figured out. Phoenix is the next race, so we'll do some testing and I'm pretty sure we can run a little better there. The last few years have been pretty good to us at that racetrack. I just hope we can capitalize on what we've learned there in the past."

Two drivers who would like to build on their Winternationals momentum coming into the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals are George Marnell and Mark Pawuk. Marnell qualified his Dynomax Pontiac Firebird in the No. 3 position with an impressive run of 6.932 seconds at 198.12 mph. Although he lost in round two to eventual race winner Jeg Coughlin, Marnell looks forward to the Phoenix venue where last year he turned in a strong performance by qualifying in the No. 5 position. "I think the Dynomax Firebird is off to a really good start," said Marnell. "I think the car works really well, and the crew, once again, did a marvelous job preparing for the race season. What we have to do now is continue to run strong and take advantage of situations where we should win races and accumulate points. It's a long season and these first two events are just blips on the radar. If we're going to be a challenger for the entire year then we're going to have to maintain a high level of performance throughout the season. That's difficult to do, but I feel we have the right bunch of guys on this team to get the job done." Mark Pawuk's Summit Racing Firebird continues to produce the performance numbers it demonstrated during the last two months of the 1998 race season. At Pomona, the Ohio native qualified in the top half of the field in the No. 8 position before losing to Jim Yates in round one. He won the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals in 1993 by defeating Larry Morgan in the final round. "We have some power in the Summit Racing Firebird and I'm very optimistic about our chances this year," said Pawuk. "We're just going to keep working at it. I've got a positive attitude and we have a great bunch of guys on this team. The guys at the engine shop are doing a fabulous job as well as the crew on the road. It will come together but every race is different. You have to have some experience and a little luck as well, make sure things don't go wrong in a good session and make the right calls. If you're not racing on Sunday then you don't have any chance of scoring any points. We've won at Phoenix before so we know what it takes to get down the track there."

Another contender going into the second event of the season will be Dynagear Pontiac Firebird driver Steve Schmidt. The Indianapolis engine builder added a Pro Stock Truck team during the off-season to his race program, and extensive winter testing proved to be extremely beneficial for both teams. He qualified 12th at Pomona and advanced to the second round despite battling engine gremlins all weekend. "We were terribly disappointed with our performance at Pomona because we learned in testing that we have the race car, the team and the power potential to win some races this year," said Schmidt. "I feel like we let an opportunity slip away at Pomona. "We were besieged with gremlins all weekend and the Dynagear Firebird never really made a good run. I'm certainly pleased that we won a round and some points, especially with the way we ended the '98 season, but I was just disappointed for my team. They've worked real hard and there really wasn't any reason for us not to be in the semifinals. Truthfully, there's really no reason why we shouldn't have been in the finals. That's racing though. We'll regroup and come out swinging in Phoenix."

Firebird International Raceway has been very good to MBNA/Pontiac Top Fuel driver Cory McClenathan. McClenathan has won at Phoenix on two different occasions (1994, 1998) and was runner-up in 1996. One of last season's shining moments came during final eliminations when Cory Mac set the national speed record at 322.92 mph. Although the record has since been broken, McClenathan's Phoenix performance helped propel him to five additional wins and a second-place finish in the Winston standings. "Our goal this year, like it is every year, is to get off to a good start," said McClenathan. "If we can win races early again and wins rounds at every event, then I think we'll be in a good position to win the championship. It's such a long season and anything can happen, but I feel pretty good that we have the right team together to get us through the long haul."

Final-round coverage of the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals can be seen on TNN on Sunday, March 7, beginning at 12:00 p.m. Eastern.

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Mark Pawuk , Warren Johnson , Cory McClenathan , George Marnell , Cory Mac , Steve Schmidt