Denver: Top Fuel, Funny Car preview

MORRISON, Colo. - Battles for Winston championships will be intense in several pro categories when NHRA teams embark on the always crucial three-race West Coast swing. In the past, championships have been decided during the course of the...

MORRISON, Colo. - Battles for Winston championships will be intense in several pro categories when NHRA teams embark on the always crucial three-race West Coast swing.

In the past, championships have been decided during the course of the trio of popular events that take place over thousands of miles between stops in Colorado, Seattle and California. Every competitor knows the importance of each event, and the very different atmospheric conditions that signify each stop.

Perhaps the most severe racing conditions of the season will present challenges to all teams at scenic Bandimere Speedway, which sits 5,860 feet above sea level. Certainly, teams will need to have their high-altitude performance notebooks in high-gear for the always demanding 22nd annual Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 13-16, at the quarter-mile dragstrip located just southwest of metropolitan Denver.

Few points separate Winston championship challengers in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle. In Pro Stock, teams are battling to reel in runaway points leader Jeg Coughlin Jr., a six-time winner this season. Coughlin and Tony Pedregon will be working to secure their third-straight Bandimere Speedway victories in their respective categories, while Joe Amato and David Schultz also are defending champions at the $1.8 million race, the 13th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Amato, from Exeter, Pa., managed to win the tire-smoking final round battle against Doug Kalitta for his sixth Denver victory, and first since 1991. Both drivers are among the favorites again this year, along with current points leader Gary Scelzi, driver of the Team Winston dragster. Other top favorites include defending Winston champion Tony Schumacher and two-time Bandimere Speedway victor Cory McClenathan, recent winner of the Winston Showdown, NHRA's all-star event.

Pedregon, from Chino Hills, Calif., defeated Whit Bazemore in a similar side-by-side traction battle for the Funny Car win, his second straight. While Pedregon will be going for three in a row, Bazemore, the '97 winner here, will be trying for his first victory of the 2000 season. Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver John Force, a three-time Denver winner, will try to regain his lost Winston points lead as he continues his quest for a 10th NHRA Winston championship. Current Funny Car points leader Jerry Toliver seeks to add more points as he pursues his first Winston crown. Coughlin, from Columbus, Ohio, outran older brother Troy for his second-straight Pro Stock victory here one year ago. Drivers chasing him include five-time champion Warren Johnson, two-time champ Jim Yates, Columbus, Ohio winner Mark Pawuk, two-time season winner Ron Krisher and hometown favorite V. Gaines, from nearby Lakewood.

Schultz, from Fort Myers, Fla., captured the Pro Stock Motorcycle win, edging Antron Brown in a battle of Suzukis. The two riders have already earned victories in 2000 and established themselves as Winston championship contenders. Three-time defending series champion Matt Hines, a three-time Bandimere Speedway winner, and current Winston points leader Angelle Seeling, are also top threats for victory in the two-wheel category.

PEDREGON GOES FOR THREE-PEAT AT MOPAR PARTS MILE-HIGH NATIONALS MORRISON, Colo. - Tony Pedregon just ended the longest victory drought of his career.

Needless to say, it was a gut-wrenching ordeal for the 35-year-old driver from Chino Hills, Calif. It was something that he doesn't want to go through again.

He had been shut out in three final rounds this season: once by Jerry Toliver and twice by team owner John Force. However, he gained some revenge at Columbus, Ohio in June, defeating Toliver with a holeshot start. Prior to that celebration, the last time he drove his Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang to the NHRA winner's circle was nearly one year ago, when he claimed a victory at one of his favorite tracks: Bandimere Speedway. During the slump, Pedregon always kept his focus, as well as his faith and trust in his teammates.

"I think it shows that being persistent and pulling together as a team will pay off eventually," said Pedregon, who will try for this third consecutive Bandimere Speedway victory at the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 13-16.

He defeated Whit Bazemore for the win here in 1999 and topped Ron Capps for the '98 victory. The $1.8 million race is the 13th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"When we won earlier in the year at Columbus, we had problems all weekend but made one good run in the final and won the race," he added. "When it's your time to win, it's going to happen."

He hopes it's his time to win again in Denver. He said the tremendous feelings he received in Ohio was too good to keep out of his system for another year. He wants to start a winning streak.

"Winning that race was pretty emotional for me," Pedregon said. "It had been a long time since I had seen smiles on my (crew membes) faces like that. I probably take more pleasure just seeing that, than anything else." And defeating rival Toliver, who currently leads the Winston points championship?

"Inside I was celebrating more than it showed," Pedregon said. "I don't like to rub it in anyone's face. I'm not that type of person. I really like Jerry. He gets a little loud every now and then, but I have to control my emotions. Jerry has got me two or three times this year so I felt like I owed him one."

TOP FUEL TITLE CHASE: Tony Schumacher, driver of the Exide Batteries dragster, has earned two victories in six final round apperances this season as he marches toward a second consecutive NHRA Winston Top Fuel championship. Standing in his way is two-time champ Gary Scelzi, driver of the Team Winston dragster. Scelzi has claimed five victories in five finals and currently holds a 95 point advantage over the kid from Chicago. It doesn't worry Schumacher any, however. He figured it would be a tough battle between himself and Scelzi all season long. He expects the points lead to bounce back and forth before being decided at the NHRA Finals in Pomona, Calif. Until then, his strategy is to gain every point possible. "That's the whole point of the game," Schumacher said. "At the end you want to have the Winston points lead. We're going to battle. We've said it from the beginning. Every single point counts."

AMATO NEEDS A VICTORY: Joe Amato has demonstrated all season long that he's got one of the quickest and fastest Top Fuel machines. His Dynomax dragster has claimed two No.1 qualifying positions this season and advanced to two final rounds. However, he's still winless, as he posted runner-up finishes in Las Vegas and Columbus, Ohio. The Exeter, Pa. driver, who recently underwent corrective eye surgery, hopes to regain his winning form at Bandimere Speedway, where he's won five times previously, including four straight from 1987-'91.

McCLENATHAN GOES FOR THREE: Cory McClenathan, driver of Joe Gibbs' MBNA dragster, has had quite a bit of success at Bandimere Speedway in recent seasons, winning back-to-back races there in 1997-'98. A winning performance at the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals could be just what he needs to make a climb to the top in the NHRA Winston point standings. McClenthan, who recently won the lucrative Winston Showdown all-star event, is currently seventh in the order with two No. 1 qualifying awards, but no final round appearances this season in points-earning events.

FIRST FOUR-SECOND FUNNY CAR RUN: While Funny Car teams will be focusing on defeating other rival race teams, one tough opponent also looms large: the quarter-mile track. Bandimere Speedway prides itself as being one of the toughest tracks on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series circuit as it protects its track records. This season, Funny Car drivers will challenge one of its longest standing marks -- the elapsed time barrier. No NHRA Funny Car driver has ever covered the mile-high quarter-mile in less than five seconds. The current record is 5.034 seconds, set last season by Tim Wilkerson.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Antron Brown , Matt Hines , Jeg Coughlin , Mark Pawuk , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Doug Kalitta , Ron Krisher , Cory McClenathan , Jerry Toliver