Gainesville: GM Racing preview

GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 17, 2004 -- At last year's NHRA Mac Tools Gatornationals, Pro Stock veteran Kurt Johnson debuted his new Chevy Cavalier in grand style with a Gainesville Raceway track-record speed of 203.71 mph en route to his first of...

GAINESVILLE, Fla., March 17, 2004 -- At last year's NHRA Mac Tools Gatornationals, Pro Stock veteran Kurt Johnson debuted his new Chevy Cavalier in grand style with a Gainesville Raceway track-record speed of 203.71 mph en route to his first of four Pro Stock wins in 2003 on the NHRA POWERade drag racing circuit. The second-generation racer looks to defend his Gatornationals title this weekend as the 23-event NHRA tour makes its annual Florida stop at Gainesville Raceway for the 35th annual Mac Tools Gatornationals.

As if being defending race champ weren't enough, Johnson is coming off an impressive win at Phoenix two weeks ago and is only five points behind defending POWERade champ, Pontiac's Greg Anderson, for the top spot in the Pro Stock title chase.

At Phoenix Johnson defeated J.R. Carr in round one, Warren Johnson in round two, and No. 1-qualifier Greg Anderson in round three before defeating 21-year-old Dave Connolly in an all-Cavalier final. The win continued Johnson's streak of at least one victory for 10 consecutive seasons.

"Our ACDelco Chevrolet made four perfect runs on Sunday at Phoenix," said Johnson. "I felt pretty good after we ran a 6.80 in qualifying on Saturday, and that made me feel confident going into Sunday. I have an outstanding team behind me that works very hard to make this Cavalier competitive.

"I know some people are making a big deal about my beating Greg (Anderson) in the semis, but winning the race is what really matters. Every race is a battle and a key piece in the championship. At Phoenix, the ACDelco crew won the battle, and we're about 80 points ahead of where we were last year at this time, but it's going to be tight all season. There are several teams working hard and running well. It really doesn't matter until the end of the year, and it's our job to make sure we're on top then.

"Basically, we're going to feed our ACDelco Cavalier different parts and determine which ones make it run quicker. We've planned to do some extensive testing at Atlanta Dragway before heading down to Florida. The Gatornationals usually have one of the biggest Pro Stock fields of the year, and we have to be ready for every competitor, not just one car."

Kurt Johnson comes by his Gainesville success honestly as his father Warren is a record nine-time Gatornationals champion (1984-85, 1991-94, 1998-2000) and will be looking for No. 10 in his GM Performance Parts Pontiac Grand Am.

"We've had some time since the last race to analyze the data and see why we didn't run as well as we should have," said Johnson. "It's a case of seeing what we've done, what we have equipment wise, where we need to go in the future and how to get there. It's a matter of not only finding more horsepower, but also making our cars more consistent, especially in light of the new parameters of the bead-lock wheels.

"Certainly our goal for the Gatornationals is the same as it is every week - to win. Given what we have learned in the first two races, we should be in good shape to get our GM Performance Parts Grand Am back to our favorite spot in Florida - the Gainesville Raceway winner's circle."

Pontiac's Bruce Allen rolled to his best performance of the early season two weeks ago in Phoenix, qualifying in the No. 2 position and advancing to the quarterfinals. This will be Allen's 20th Gatornationals, a race he won in 1988. Last year, Allen's Pontiac Grand Am set the track e.t. record of 6.777 seconds en route to the No. 1 qualifying position. "I'm not going to predict we're going to win three or four races, but we can win a couple," said Allen. "What we're working on in the engine shop shows a lot of potential and the car is a lot better than what it's been in the past. If you can put yourself in a position to win a race often enough, just like we did at Phoenix, we'll get the job done. The championship picture unfolds when you're good enough to win some races, but until that happens, you can't even worry about the points title.

"We've worked through some things with the car that previously hurt our performance for the last couple of years. I think how we've learned to run our new Grand Am will be a big help. From an engine development standpoint, we're better than we've ever been. With our sponsors and engine customers, we have enough funding and commitment to be competitive and run without making any compromises. Starting the year out with some real serious goals as far as some things we wanted to attack, I would say we're getting there."

Other GM racers of note includes two-time event winner Jim Yates (1996-97), and Jeg and Troy Coughlin. Since 2000, there has been a member of the Coughlin family in the Pro Stock final of the Gatornationals. Troy was runner-up to Warren Johnson in 2000, and brother Jeg scored a win in 2001 against Mark Osborne and followed that feat up with back-to-back runner-up finishes in 2002 and 2003.

In Funny Car, Del Worsham also has some momentum heading into this weekend's Gatornationals after piloting his Pontiac Firebird to a final-round victory at Phoenix over defending POWERade champion Tony Pedregon. It was Worsham's 15th career victory in 25 final rounds and moves the 34-year-old Californian into first place in the POWERade Funny Car standings.

"It's really too early to start to worry about the points standings," said Worsham. "These rounds and races we're winning now are all part of what we want to do by November. Tons of other great teams are out here trying to win this championship and we'll do our best to fight them all every week. But what the heck, right now we're No. 1 and I can't deny that. It feels pretty good."

It's time for a new body, and this weekend at the Gatornationals veteran Tim Wilkerson will become the newest member of Chevrolet's red bowtie racing fraternity when he debuts his very own 2004 Monte Carlo Funny Car.

"We've had our old Pontiac for so long, and run it on so many racetracks that's it's really taken a beating," said Wilkerson. "We won the U.S. Nationals with that old car but it's time to make a change. We know the Monte Carlo is lighter and stronger, and if the aerodynamics are as good as it looks, we should be able to pick up a couple hundredths of a second and about three mph. The improved aerodynamics and lighter weight should help us with about anything we try to do this weekend.

"We just need to keep focused on getting down the track as fast as we can and the new Monte Carlo will help us do that. We made five decent runs in Phoenix and we need to keep that up. We just got nipped there by one of the few car that could beat us."

Tommy Johnson Jr. is another Chevy Monte Carlo driver looking for his first Gatornationals victory and his first win of the season. Two weeks ago in Phoenix, Johnson qualified fourth with an elapsed time of 4.823 seconds and posted his best starting position since last June. This will be Johnson's third event in the new Chevrolet.

"We continued making improvements on the new car in Phoenix," said Johnson. "We were confident going into Firebird Raceway and it showed. The new Chevrolet is a much better car than what we previously raced, but we're still working on it to discover that mph advantage - we're still learning the top-end tune-up on this racecar. We've posted some solid speeds so far but it's only going to get better."

GM Racing Pre-Event Facts:

"After two races, Pontiac leads the NHRA Manufacturer's Cup standings with 400 points, Chevrolet is in second place with 320 points and Dodge is in third place with 80 points.

"Chevy Cavalier driver Jeg Coughlin Jr. continues to have the longest consecutive-qualifying streak in the Pro Stock category. Coughlin has made every 16-car field going all the way back to the Craftsman Nationals at St. Louis in June of 2002, a streak of 38 races. Pontiac's Greg Anderson has the second longest streak at 26 races.

"Kurt Johnson's win at Phoenix in the ACDelco Chevy Cavalier marked the 10th consecutive season he has had at least one victory. He still has a long way to go to catch his father Warren who had won at least one race every season for 22 consecutive years (since 1982) entering the 2004 NHRA POWERade season.

"Current Chevrolet Cavalier Pro Stock drivers who have won the Mac Tools Gatornationals include defending race champ Kurt Johnson (2003) and Jeg Coughlin Jr. (2001). Coughlin also had back-to-back runner-up finishes (2002, 2003) and brother Troy Coughlin was runner-up in 2000. Kurt finished runner-up to his father Warren in 1999.

"Current Pontiac Grand Am drivers who have won the Mac Tools Gatornationals include nine-time event champion Warren Johnson (1984-85, 1991-94, 1998-2000), Jim Yates (1996-97) and Bruce Allen (1988).

"Bruce Allen holds the Pro Stock track-record elapsed time of 6.777 seconds set in a Pontiac SC/T Grand Am in March 2003. Defending Gatornationals champ Kurt Johnson holds the track-record speed of 203.71 mph in a Chevy Cavalier set in March 2003.

Two hours of qualifying highlights of the Mac Tools Gatornationals can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, March 21, beginning at 2:30 a.m. Eastern. Two hours of final eliminations coverage will be telecast on ESPN2 on Sunday, March 21, starting at 11:30 p.m. Eastern.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Troy Coughlin , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Del Worsham , Greg Anderson , Bruce Allen , Tim Wilkerson , J.R. Carr , Dave Connolly , Tommy Johnson Jr.