ACDelco Gatornationals Marks the Next Big Test for GM Racers Title Battles Already Begin to Heat Up GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 13, 2006 - Only two races have been completed this season on the 23-event NHRA POWERade circuit and already the...
ACDelco Gatornationals Marks the Next Big Test for GM Racers
Title Battles Already Begin to Heat Up
GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 13, 2006 - Only two races have been completed this season on the 23-event NHRA POWERade circuit and already the battle for the 2006 Pro Stock championship is beginning to heat up. Greg Anderson and Warren Johnson are a pair of Pontiac GTO drivers who are currently first and second in the points standings, and that should come as no surprise to anyone who closely follows the sport. The two have won six of the last eight driver's titles since 1998 and accumulated a total of nine NHRA Pro Stock crowns during their careers. With Anderson leading the standings by a meager 48 points over the "Professor of Pro Stock," both competitors will be trying to stay ahead of a determined pack of pursuers when the series converges on Gainesville Raceway for the 37th annual ACDelco Gatornationals on March 16 - 19.
After struggling at the season-open opener in Pomona, Calif., the GM Performance Parts Pontiac GTO driver rocketed to an impressive victory at the CSK Nationals in Phoenix (his 96th career win) on Feb. 26 that put the 62-year-old Georgia resident right back into the thick of the POWERade points chase. It was also the 161st all-time victory for a Pontiac in NHRA Pro Stock competition.
"We just haven't been able to negotiate the first 330 feet of the racetrack very well," said Johnson. "It's one of those situations where with all of the adjustments we have in these cars, you're going to have to find the sweet spot sooner or later for a particular racetrack and then change it appropriately for every other racetrack, and we just haven't gotten there. We got relatively close when we were down in Valdosta (Ga.). With the conditions that they had there, we ran 6.60 at 210 mph, but we've had different conditions so it takes a different setup. It's just a matter of getting enough backlog of data so you can make the correct changes as the atmosphere conditions change and the track changes."
Experience and knowledge are essential assets in drag racing, or as Warren Johnson likes to say, age and treachery over youth and enthusiasm, but when it comes to Gainesville Raceway, no one has mastered the legendary Florida quarter mile like the driver of the GM Performance Parts Pontiac GTO. Johnson has visited the winner's circle at Gainesville Raceway nine times (1984-85, 1991-94, 1998-2000) during a career that spans across 30 years, more than any other Pro Stock competitor in the history of the category. In addition to his nine wins at this near sea-level venue, Johnson was runner-up in 1976, and has set the elapsed-time national record at Gainesville Raceway twice (1998-99) and the top-speed national mark six times (1984, 1992-93, 1997-99). His final-round victories over Jim Yates in 1998, and son Kurt Johnson in 1999, both races in which Johnson set the national e.t. record, helped to springboard the "Professor" to back-to-back NHRA championships.
"The closer you can stay to the leader, and hopefully eventually get ahead, the better off you are," said Johnson. "It's awful hard to make up those rounds that you lose, but we've been able with our whole team to come up with a racecar that is competitive, I can still somewhat drive it, and overall the program's still working pretty good. When you're in my position and absolutely love what you're doing, you probably put a little more effort overall into it."
After playing a half-season-long game of catch-up during the first six months of the 2005 campaign, Summit Racing Pontiac GTO driver Greg Anderson is pleased, but not entirely content, with the outcome of this year's first two races. A victory at Pomona (Calif.) from the No. 1 qualifying spot, and a runner-up at Phoenix (in which he was No. 1 qualifier) has the 44-year-old Anderson in first place in the POWERade standings. It's quite a different start from last year when he entered the Sunshine State and the third race of the year 10th in points.
"We're very pleased with the performance of our Pontiac GTO," said Anderson. "That doesn't mean that we can sit back and ride what we have, but we are off to a good start. We were scared too death coming into Pomona because we didn't want to start the season like last year, and so far it looks like we haven't. We're on schedule and where want to be, and now it's just up to us to go forward and make it better yet. Last year we were hanging our head at this time and it was time for some soul searching, but it doesn't look like that this year."
With his back up against the wall, Anderson drove his Summit Racing Pontiac to both ends of the national record and the No. 1 qualifying spot at last year's Gatornationals, and his win at Gainesville Raceway two years ago was a key component in his 2004 championship run. With the extra two weeks to prepare and given the history of the venue, Anderson feels the national record could be in jeopardy once again.
"We believe the races are won or lost in the shop, and we look forward to all the shop-time we can get," said Anderson. "Other teams look at it as a chance to catch-up, so we'll see how it works out. We always look forward to our time back at the shop, it's one of the last big opportunities we have before the hectic summer crunch when you don't have weekends off.
"If, and it's a big 'if' obviously, if we get anywhere close to 70-degree weather, or under, you'll see national-record times again. It's clear that the class as a whole has made huge gains over the winter, and there's no question in anybody's mind that as soon as we get good atmospheric conditions below 1000-feet of sea-level, which you could very easily get at Gainesville, you're going to see a national record set in both e.t. and speed. We always lick our chops when we see an opportunity like that coming. Records are neat, records are fun, you have the bonus factor to consider, and we all like to go as fast as we can. It's a great track, and if you get anywhere close to the conditions we had last year, it's going to be national-record performances all over again, and it's going to be fun."
The Young Life Pontiac GTO of Mike Edwards has jumped off to a good start as well in 2006. The Oklahoma native is third in the points standings after advancing to the finals at Pomona and the second round of eliminations at Phoenix. Two strong qualifying efforts including a No. 6 starting position at the Winternationals and a No. 7 at the CSK Nationals add up to an early effort that puts Edwards 69 points behind first-place Anderson and 21 points behind second-place Johnson.
"We expected to run well, but coming off a year like we had in 2005, anything would be better," explained Edwards. "We're plenty pleased with the performance of the Young Life Pontiac at the first two races, and we're just hoping to keep the momentum going and avoid hitting any real big bumps in the road, go to Gainesville, run good and win a round or two. If it's fast at Gainesville, these cars have picked up so much, there's no telling what they will do. We feel like we can stay there at the front, but saying it and doing it are two different things."
Edwards has never won the Gatornationals, but he qualified No. 2 at last year's meet and was runner-up in 1997 to Jim Yates. He tested his Young Life Pontiac GTO at Tulsa Raceway prior to the Gatornationals in preparation for this year's race.
"We run a bunch out at Tulsa," said the resident of nearby Broken Arrow, Okla. "It's pretty handy and been pretty helpful. At Pomona, the first race, you never know what everyone's been able to find. At Phoenix, we came back and ran just as good - should have qualified better than I did, but just made a couple of mistakes in the good session. I feel like this Young Life Pontiac is a pretty good car, we just need to keep working on it, which is what we were doing at Tulsa. Of course we're always working on the engines. We need to be more consistent and improve our down-low numbers, from the 60-foot to the 330, get better right there. Hopefully I can drive good and win a round or two at the Gatornationals."
The Gatornationals mark an anniversary for Pontiac GTO driver Jim Yates. The two-time NHRA champion made his first Pro Stock at Gainesville Raceway in 1989, and since his Gatornationals debut 17 years ago, Yates has won the event twice (1996-97) and was runner-up in 1998.
"Racing in Gainesville has always meant a lot to me and our race program," said Yates. "Years before we raced professionally, Gainesville Raceway was one of the tracks we went to quite a bit just as spectators because it was an outstanding event and because it's so central to where we're from in Virginia. It's where all of us East Coast guys went every spring to see our first race and that still holds true today."
Pre-Race Facts & Stats
The latest NHRA Manufacturer's Cup standings released on March 3 showing Pontiac in first place with 460 points, Chevrolet is in second place with 220 points and Dodge is third with 160 points.
Of the 161 wins by a Pontiac Pro Stock driver, Warren Johnson leads the pack with 44 victories, Greg Anderson is second with 38 victories and Jim Yates is third with 24 victories. All three have won multiple NHRA Pro Stock driver's titles.
Eight drivers in GM-branded cars currently occupy a position in the top 10 of the POWERade Pro Stock standings. In addition to Anderson (1st), Johnson (2nd) and Edwards (3rd), Rickie Smith is in fourth place in a Chevy Cobalt, Jason Line is in fifth place in a Pontiac GTO, Greg Stanfield is in seventh place in a Pontiac GTO, Erica Enders is in eighth place in a Chevy Cobalt, and Jim Yates is in 10th place in a Pontiac GTO.
Erica Enders has had two strong, back-to-back outings in the Slammers Ultimate Milk Chevy Cobalt. The 22-year-old marketing major at Texas A & M University qualified No. 2 at Pomona and ran a career-best speed of 206.80 mph, and at Phoenix, she was the No. 1 qualifier until the final round of time trials before Greg Anderson bumped her down to the No. 2 slot. The CSK Nationals was the third straight event going back to last year's NHRA Finals in which Enders has qualified No. 2.
Tommy Johnson's victory at Phoenix in a Monte Carlo was the 77th all-time win for Chevrolet in NHRA Funny Car competition and the 157th time a nitro-powered Chevy had advanced to a final round.
Chevrolet also has 127 all-time NHRA Pro Stock national-event victories since 1970.
Five competitors in Chevy Monte Carlos currently occupy a spot in the top 10 of the POWERade Funny Car standings. His recent win at Phoenix moves Tommy Johnson Jr. to third place in the standings, 17 points behind first-place Ron Capps. Phil Burkart is in fifth place in a Chevy Monte Carlo, Del Worsham is in sixth place in a Monte Carlo, Tony Pedregon is in eighth place in a Monte Carlo and Cruz Pedregon is in 10th place in a Monte Carlo.
Del Worsham's Checker Schuck's Kragen Chevy Monte Carlo posted the top speed of the meet at the CSK Nationals in Phoenix and has posted the top speed at two of the last three events.
For the second straight year a group of GM-affiliated drivers will make a stop at the Pediatric Specialty Clinic at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida. Pontiac GTO drivers Mark Pawuk and Jim Yates, Chevy Cobalt driver Ron Krisher and Top Fuel driver Morgan Lucas will visit with the kids and pass out goody bags on Thursday, March 16.
Qualifying highlights of the ACDelco Gatornationals can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, March 19, beginning at 12:30 a.m. Eastern. Final eliminations will be broadcast on ESPN2 on Sunday, March 19, starting at 5 p.m. Eastern.