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ETCHELLS, OTHERS INVADING FORCE'S FUNNY CAR PLAYLAND JOLIET, Ill. -- Chuck Etchells is so close he can smell it. For the first time in five seasons and the second time this decade, John Force and his Castrol Ford Mustang...

ETCHELLS, OTHERS INVADING FORCE'S FUNNY CAR PLAYLAND

JOLIET, Ill. -- Chuck Etchells is so close he can smell it.

For the first time in five seasons and the second time this decade, John Force and his Castrol Ford Mustang Funny Car team have shown signs of vulnerability. Force still leads the Winston points chase, but several drivers, including Etchells, are right there, knocking on the seven-time champ's door.

Etchells, Cruz Pedregon and Ron Capps have won two races each. Force teammate Tony Pedregon has also won. Force has earned only one victory, an impressive outing at the Mopar Parts Nationals in Englishtown, N.J., and the chase is tight heading into the inaugural FRAM Route 66 Nationals, May 28-31 at the state-of-the-art Route 66 Raceway.

Etchells, 43, from Putnam, Conn., hopes to win his third race of the season and move ahead for the second time in the Winston standings at the $1.5-million race, the ninth of 22 events in the $30- million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"It's definitely exciting," said Etchells, driver of the Kendall Oil Chevrolet Camaro. "There's so many cars out here that have good sponsorship this year that I think that has made a big difference in the competition. There's no low funded teams so there's quite a bit of parity. You still have to look at Force and his guys as No.1, but there's a lot of good teams with a good chance of winning this year."

After finishing in the top-five in the NHRA Funny Car Winston standings during the last five years, Etchells knows that this could be his year. All the pieces are in place.

"We're running real good," Etchells said. "I think one thing that the other teams realize is that this team has been together for a lot of years. Tim and Kim Richards are responsible for six Top Fuel championships. We have people over here running the show that know how to win on race day and I think they are starting to show that this year."

Except for an uncharacteristic misfire at the Castrol Lone Star Nationals in Dallas, Etchells has had the kind of season he'll need if he's to win the Winston championship.

"You can look at that as bad luck or just a weird calamity of errors," Etchells said. "We dropped cylinders, lost blower belts and had a burst panel blow out of the car. It was just a weird weekend. We haven't had three runs aborted for breakage in the last three years combined."

With so many drivers in the hunt, it makes every move critical down the stretch.

"We definitely feel like it's up for grabs," Etchells said. "It's going to take going a lot of rounds all year long. We went from not going out in the first round all year, to not qualifying. If something like that happens again, we're probably done. Other guys are going to have their share of problems, too. John hasn't really had his yet. Al Hofmann is seventh and not that far out of first. Really, everybody in the top- 10 could win the championship. Anything can happen."

* Flying Force: Seven-time NHRA Winston champion John Force increased the NHRA Funny Car national speed record to 323.89 mph at the recent Mopar Parts Nationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, Englishtown, N.J. The speed is the fastest NHRA speed in history. The fastest run by a Top Fuel dragster is 323.50 mph by Joe Amato, also at Englishtown.

Force says the reason his Castrol GTX Ford Mustang is so fast is a complex aerodynamic issue.

"It's because of our downforce problems that we ran so fast," Force said. "Austin Coil (crew chief) explained it to me that when you have less downforce, you also have less drag so the car is moving through the air better even though you don't have what you want in downforce."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Al Hofmann , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Chuck Etchells , Cruz Pedregon , Austin Coil