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ENNIS, Texas - Is Dick LaHaie on his way to another NHRA Top Fuel championship as a crew chief? Is Doug Herbert destined to become the tallest (6-foot-4) driver to win the title? Those are questions Herbert and LaHaie would...

ENNIS, Texas - Is Dick LaHaie on his way to another NHRA Top Fuel championship as a crew chief? Is Doug Herbert destined to become the tallest (6-foot-4) driver to win the title? Those are questions Herbert and LaHaie would like to answer in the affirmative, but they realize the Castrol Nationals, April 23-25, at the Texas Motorplex, is just the fifth of 22 races in what will become a long season. "It's way too early to think about those things, but I definitely think we can be a contender," said Herbert, who leaped from fourth place into second in Winston Series points with a victory at Houston (April 11). He also became the first driver to win the Winston No Bull Challenge, pocketing an extra $100,000, making his $150,000 payoff ($50,000 for the race win) the largest one-day payday in NHRA history. LaHaie's tune-ups have made Herbert's Snap-on Racing dragster one of the most competitively consistent cars during the last three races. After a first-round loss at Pomona, Calif., to start the season, Herbert reached the semifinals at Phoenix and was runner-up at Gainesville, Fla., where, ironically, he was randomly selected to qualify for the bonus. The Houston win put Herbert back into the NHRA winner's circle for the first time in almost six years. Herbert's title-round triumph over Tony Schumacher at Houston was his first in NHRA since June 1993 at Columbus, Ohio, and capped what the winner termed "an unbelievable weekend. First, just to be selected to have a chance to win the bonus was amazing. Then to win the race was exciting. Maybe I should head for Las Vegas. "A lot of the credit for this win has to go to Dick, assistant crew chief Larry Frazier and our crew," Herbert added. "They all did a great job.

About 18 months ago, I was fortunate to get LaHaie to come to work for me. He said he thought I could do the job as a driver. He was my hero before he came to work for me. He's a former Winston Top Fuel champion (1987) and he knows how to win as a driver and tuner." LaHaie was crew chief on Scott Kalitta's 1994-95 Top Fuel championship teams. "Dick's a conservative guy," Herbert said. "We had the same engine in the car all weekend, and that's pretty rare. He's such a perfectionist. All eight cylinders run and the engine doesn't drop cylinders very often. We complement each other. He knows how hard I try and I understand how hard he tries. We respect each other. I'm lucky to be the guy behind the wheel who gets to hit the throttle." "You don't learn anything when you don't go down the track," says LaHaie. "I'm happy (to get the win) for Doug. It was a long time coming. I can't say enough about how hard Frazier and the crew are working. They are very dedicated." Herbert had traction problems on his first run at Houston, then followed with a string of 4.60s and a 4.573 at 321.65 mph, which qualified him sixth. The speed was a career best. During eliminations, he knocked out Doug Kalitta, Joe Amato and Cory McClenathan before driving away from Tony Schumacher in the title round. Herbert left the starting line first and crossed the finish line first with a 4.657 at 309.56 mph while Schumacher's car had traction problems and slowed to a 7.631. He wasn't thinking about the money on the run, Herbert said. "When you're in the car running, the last thing you're thinking about is the money." The win was the second in seven NHRA final rounds for the Cherryville, N.C., driver. While his wallet may be a little heavier with the extra $100,000, Herbert, 31, remains about 25 pounds lighter than when he began the season. "Dick had the car on a diet," he commented. "I was buying all these titanium parts. The crew was working hard and I wanted to do my part. I starved myself (going from 245 to 220). "Some of the little bitty guys don't have any problem getting their car weight down, but when you have a full-size guy like me, it's hard to get the car down to the right weight. Actually, the car is the right weight, but you put this driver in it and it's too heavy." Herbert prefers earning points to gaining pounds. His 313 Winston Series points put him 32 behind pacesetting Mike Dunn's 345 and 27 ahead of Larry Dixon going into the Motorplex. Qualifying is scheduled Friday at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m., Saturday at noon and 4 p.m. Eliminations begin Sunday at 11 a.m.

Doug Herbert Facts:

Age: 31 Hometown: Cherryville, N.C.

Career Final-round record: 2-7 1999 Final rounds: 1-2 Last Win: April 11, 1999, Houston

Quickest time: 4.551 seconds (3/99, Gainesville, Fla.) Fastest speed: 321.65 mph (4/99, Houston)

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Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Larry Dixon , Mike Dunn , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Doug Kalitta , Cory McClenathan , Scott Kalitta , Dick LaHaie