Houston Pennzoil Nationals story

McCLENATHAN, PEDREGON, JOHNSON AND NICKENS WIN 11TH ANNUAL PENNZOIL NATIONALS PRESENTED BY HILO/O'REILLY BAYTOWN, Texas -- This time Cory McClenathan didn't take any chances. The McDonald's dragster driver avenged a Mac Tools ...


BAYTOWN, Texas -- This time Cory McClenathan didn't take any chances.

The McDonald's dragster driver avenged a Mac Tools Gatornationals upset to giant-killer David Grubnic by beating the native Australian in the Top Fuel final at the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals presented by HiLo/O'Reilly, March 22 at Houston Raceway Park.

Tony Pedregon, Warren Johnson and David Nickens were also winners in their respective pro categories at the race, the fourth of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

McClenathan, from Anaheim, Calif., ran a career-best 4.559 second elapsed time at 320.74 mph to power past upstart Grubnic, who ran 4.743 at 261.24, in John Mitchell's unsponsored Montana Express dragster.

One week earlier in Florida, Grubnic ran a career-best 4.573 to oust McClenathan from the Gatornationals in the first round. This time, the McDonald's team had their dragster set on kill.

And it was a good thing they did. Grubnic surprised Bruce Sarver in the first round and then made his way to the semi-finals when top qualifier and $50,000 MBNA World Record Club bonus winner Joe Amato smoked his tires in the second round. Grubnic squeaked out a semi-final win over Mike Dunn in one of the closest side-by-side races in NHRA history to advance to the final.

"What do you have to do to get by this guy, anyway?" McClenathan quipped after the race. "That Grubnic kid is a good driver and they have a good car. We weren't taking anybody lightly. We just wanted the car to run what it did in the first round. We set it up identical because we knew the track would come around."

McClenathan beat two-time finalist Larry Dixon in the first round, topped a red-lighting Doug Kalitta in the second and advanced to the final by out-pedaling Jim Head in a competitive semi-final duel.

"My nerves were shot before my race with Jim because there's kind of a little rivalry there between us," said McClenathan, who moved into the Winston points lead with the win, his second of the season and first-ever at HRP. "I think I pedaled it five or six times before it finally stuck. We didn't have an easy race today, they were all tough."

Pedregon scored his second-straight victory at this event, and this time he beat his boss instead of his brother.

The Gardena, Calif. driver ran a career-best 4.847 at 316.67 to beat Force, who covered the quarter-mile in 4.887 at 310.88 in an identically prepared Castrol GTX Ford Mustang. It was the quickest side-by-side Funny Car race in NHRA history.

"It couldn't have ended in a better way for me," said Pedregon, 33. "We wanted to give everybody a good race, and I think they got that."

Force sustained quite a bit of damage to his Mustang in a spectacular fire following a first round win over Del Worsham. He rebounded to beat Al Hofmann and Randy Anderson in the next two rounds to advance to his second-straight final of the season. He said he was just glad to be there, all things considered.

"It's been a few years since I had a fire like that," Force said. "But it wasn't too bad. The Safety Safari was there and all my safety equipment on board worked. We just lost our computer data because everything got burnt. That hurt us a little, but fortunately we had Tony's data to use. Then (Jerry) Toliver's crew helped us put it back together. If it wasn't for those Mad (Magazine) guys we wouldn't have made it. Our hat's off to them.

"In the final, I just got in the wrong car," Force said with a laugh. "But I'm still sneaking into the winner's circle with Tony."

Pedregon knew he had the right car all day long, however, posting four consecutive four-second runs.

He topped Dale Creasy, Jr. in the opening round, outran Chuck Etchells next and then beat brother Cruz in the semis, in a near replay of his victory here one year ago. He said his win over top qualifier Cruz -- who claimed $10,000 from MBNA for lowering the Funny Car elapsed time national record to 4.819 seconds in the Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird, set a new national speed record at 317.23 mph and moved in front in the Winston point standings -- was definitely a sign of good things to come.

"Beating Cruz was quite an accomplishment," the younger Pedregon said. "He's been so fast here lately. I know everybody is starting to call his car 'Big Green', and for good reason. I knew if we could get by him, we would have a good chance to win. But (crew chief) John Medlin and my crew are the guys who really pulled this off, changing the motors and giving me the horsepower to win. This was a great day for our team."

Sugar Hill, Ga.'s Johnson continued to dominate in Pro Stock, scoring his third-straight victory and increasing his Winston points lead significantly over defending Winston champion Jim Yates, who lost in the first round.

Johnson overcame a holeshot start by first-time finalist Mike Thomas and powered his GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird past the Gumout Firebird at the finish line, 6.878 at 201.02 to Thomas' slower 6.926 at 198.01.

Top qualifier Johnson posted three 200 mph passes during eliminations, taking wins over Larry Morgan, Ron Krisher and Jeg Coughlin to advance to the final.

"Fortunately the car ran well today," Johnson said. "I wasn't really driving that well this weekend, but the performance of the car made up for it. Everybody goes through that all the time, you have on days and off days. Whenever we have a real good race track like the one we had this weekend, we run fast and do well."

Team Mopar driver and hometown favorite Nickens took the inaugural Pro Stock Truck win over Chevy's Randy Daniels. Nickens, driving a Dodge Dakota pickup, ran 7.747 at 170.81 to beat S-10 pilot Daniels, who took a holeshot start, but slowed to an 8.121 at 140.07.

"We had an incredible weekend," said Nickens, a former NHRA sportsman class racer. "The Dakota looks like it's going to be tough to beat. The Chevys ran well, but we got the win and that's all that matters."

Top truck qualifier Larry Kopp, driving a Chevy, established both the elapsed time and speed records for the new category, 7.635 at 174.82. Kopp, from Baltimore, red-lighted in the semi-finals against Daniels.

Pro Stock racer Ray Franks, New Carlisle, Ohio, and Super Gas competitor Jeff Hefler, Mansfield, Texas, were involved in single-car incidents. Franks' Pontiac Firebird rolled onto its roof and nosed into the wall during a first round loss. Hefler lost control of his 1992 Beretta in the second round and veered nose-first into the retaining wall in his lane. Neither driver was injured.

The estimated, four-day event attendance was 102,500. The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event is the special non-points Winston Invitational, April 3-5 at Rockingham (N.C.) Dragway.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Bruce Sarver , Mike Thomas , Jeg Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Mike Dunn , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Joe Amato , Doug Kalitta , Ron Krisher , Larry Morgan , Larry Kopp , Randy Daniels , Chuck Etchells , David Grubnic , Cory McClenathan