Baytown: Round four preview

2003 POWERADE WORLD CHAMPION TONY PEDREGON ANXIOUSLY AWAITS O'REILLY NHRA SPRING NATIONALS PRESENTED BY PENNZOIL BAYTOWN, Texas -- There are a handful of races that every driver circles on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series schedule. Whether...

2003 POWERADE WORLD CHAMPION TONY PEDREGON ANXIOUSLY AWAITS O'REILLY NHRA SPRING NATIONALS PRESENTED BY PENNZOIL

BAYTOWN, Texas -- There are a handful of races that every driver circles on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series schedule.

Whether it's in their hometown, or the hometown of their primary sponsor, or a prestigious race like the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, whatever the case, it is a race that just means a little bit more than the others.

For Tony Pedregon, the O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil, March 30-April 1 at Houston Raceway Park, gets circled every year.

"I would say, besides Pomona, which is close to where we were born and raised (Torrance, Calif.), Houston is the one race we look forward to most," Pedregon said. "More than anything, we've seen our audience and Hispanic fan base grow and grow. They're drawn to us not just because of our (Hispanic) heritage, but winning a lot of races (four) at that track. It's always been a good facility that favors high powered cars."

The O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil -- the fourth of 23 events in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series -- is held in Houston, which is home to the corporate headquarters for Shell Oil (parent of Pedregon's title sponsor Q Racing) and a significant Hispanic population.

"Now that I'm not just a driver but an owner, I have so many more responsibilities and obligations," said Pedregon, who like his brother Cruz owns and operates his racing team. "The fun part is interacting with the fans and specifically with the big Hispanic following, particularly at this race. They come to see me and Cruz, they saw what we did in Phoenix (setting the national elapsed time record of 4.659 seconds), and they have a lot of pride in that.

"(The Hispanic fans) see a couple of NHRA drivers who win races and championships (Tony won in 2003, Cruz won in 1992). We want to inspire them, show them that if we can do it, anyone can do it," said Pedregon, who's currently in third place after three races this season. "They say, 'I saw you speaking in Spanish and we were screaming and yelling.' You see the same faces when you come back year after year. Their kids are getting bigger now and they're bringing their friends. I've seen it with my own eyes. This market has grown."

Pedregon comes into the race in excellent position in the inaugural season of the POWERade Countdown to the Championship.

With his win at Phoenix that was accompanied by the 20-point bonus for setting the national record, he moved well within the top eight in the standings -- the top eight drivers after the first 17 races remain eligible for the 2007 POWERade world championship under the new Countdown playoff format.

"I think we all are to some degree (thinking about the Countdown)," Pedregon said. "I think, you try to focus on each race, but deep down inside we have a mental note that we want to maintain that position (inside the top eight). I think at the end of a race we do think about it, we just may not want to admit it."

Phoenix was the 33rd career win for Pedregon, but few may have as much impact. In the last three years, 91.9 percent of the drivers who won one of the first 17 races (and ran full schedules) found themselves in the top eight in the standings after the first 17 races. So while it's not a guarantee that he'll be in the second stage of the Countdown in the ultra-competitive Funny Car class, he is certainly in a good position historically.

Houston has also been a good place for Pedregon. Of his 33 career wins, four have come at Houston, the last coming in 2003 when he won his POWERade Series world championship. The four wins at Houston Raceway Park are the most for Pedregon at any track except for Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, where he's also won four times.

The winningest driver in Top Fuel at Houston Raceway Park is Kenny Bernstein, who came out of retirement this season. He will not, however, be racing in Top Fuel. If he's to add to his three Top Fuel wins at Houston Raceway Park, he will do it in his Monster Energy Drink Dodge Charger Funny Car.

His son, Brandon, will have a chance to tie his three Top Fuel wins this year. The driver of the Budweiser dragster has won twice at Houston Raceway Park including 2006. Standing in the way of a repeat will be three-time defending Top Fuel world champion Tony Schumacher, Doug Kalitta, series points leader Rod Fuller and Top Fuel newcomer Whit Bazemore.

In Pro Stock, it typically boils down to the Summit Racing team of Jason Line and Greg Anderson. Interestingly enough, however, the winners of the last four POWERade Pro Stock world championships (Anderson in 2003-05 and Line in 2006) have never won at Houston Raceway Park.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, the safest bet may be on a woman. Angelle Sampey ended Karen Stoffer's two-year winning streak at Houston Raceway Park to make it three years in a row that a woman has hoisted the O'Reilly Spring Nationals Pro Stock Motorcycle Wally trophy.

* SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday, March 30. Qualifying continues at 11:15 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 31. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. on Sunday, April 1.

* TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 19th annual O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil. Call Houston Raceway Park at (281) 383-RACE (7223) for ticket information, or check online at Ticketmaster.com.

* ON TV: ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise two hours of qualifying coverage of the O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals presented by Pennzoil at 7 p.m. (ET) on Saturday, March 31. ESPN2 and ESPN2 HD will televise three hours of final eliminations coverage at 4 p.m. (ET) on Sunday, April 1.

-credit: nhra

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Tony Schumacher , Greg Anderson , Karen Stoffer , Rod Fuller , Angelle Sampey