Joliet: Gary Densham preview

Densham seeks end to shutout at Chicagoland NHRA Nationals. JOLIET, Ill. If he hopes to maintain his narrow lead in the race for the 2002 NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship, Gary Densham must improve on his past performance at Route 66 ...

Densham seeks end to shutout at Chicagoland NHRA Nationals.

JOLIET, Ill. If he hopes to maintain his narrow lead in the race for the 2002 NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship, Gary Densham must improve on his past performance at Route 66 Raceway, site of this week's (May 31-June 2) fifth annual Chicagoland Dodge Dealers Nationals.

More to the point, if he doesn't do better at Route 66 than he has in the past, the former high school auto shop teacher said he doesn't deserve the points lead.

Fortunately, improvement is virtually certain considering that he is 0-4 with one DNQ in five previous appearances.

"Winning the championship is different from winning a given race," Densham said. "To win the championship, you have to be competitive every week.

"That's how John (Force, his teammate, boss and benefactor) has won 11 times," he said. "A lot of drivers run well at a few racetracks. John generally runs well at all of them. He wins his rounds even w hen his car isn't just perfect and that's something we've been able to do so far this year, too."

Actually, if Densham qualifies ninth or better, he already will have improved on his best Route 66 performance. However, bet that the 55-year-old journeyman won't be satisfied with a good starting spot. That ceased to be the primary goal once he and Crew Chief Jimmy Prock began to regularly outrun the fastest guns in Funny Car racing.

Rescued from drag racing's rank-and-file last year to drive a third car for Force, Densham has undergone a complete transformation at the wheel of the Team Castrol/Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang.

After coming up short in his first 245 appearances on the NHRA tour, Densham has won four times in the last 14 races. In fact, over the last nine months, he has been in the winners' circle four times -- twice as often as teammates Force and Tony Pedregon.

Moreover, he has started from the No. 1 qualifying position in two of the last six races and has emerged as the sport's newest "King of Speed," having posted top speed for Funny Cars in six of the last nine events while raising the NHRA national record to a jaw-dropping 326.87 mph.

As a result, he accelerated into the POWERade points lead for the first time in his career when he won the Matco SuperNationals at Englishtown, N.J., just two weeks ago. By reaching the semifinals last week at Topeka, Kan., he retained a slight two-point advantage over Force, who has won the title nine straight years and in 11 of the last 12 NHRA seasons.

Although Force touts Densham's driving ability ("he's probably been down more backwoods drag strips than anybody except maybe me and (Al) Hofmann. In this sport, there's no substitute for experience"), Densham deflects the praise to his Crew Chief.

"He's so meticulous and so sharp," Densham said of Prock. "If something goes wrong, he doesn't act like we've failed to conquer world hunger or (failed to achieve) world peace (and) he's not afraid to try different things. It they don't work, it's no big deal, he just moves on. He's always looking ahead."

Densham, who technically is on a leave of absence from Gahr High School (Cerritos, Calif.), has called his relationship with the quiet, unassuming Prock "the most delightful experience I've had in my entire career."

Of course, "delightful" probably is not the term rivals would apply to their new relationship with the erstwhile "World's Fastest Schoolteacher."

After toiling in relative obscurity for so long (in his first 12 seasons, he won only 10 rounds of competition, seven fewer than he has already this year), Densham is making up for lost time and repaying old debts.

DENSHAM at Chicagoland Dodge Dealers Nationals....
*Never has won a round of racing in five appearances at Route 66 Raceway.

*Never has qualified in the top half of the field (1 through 8).

*Qualified 12th and lost in the first round of both races last year.

DENSHAM Highlights....
*Four-time tour winner, all coming in the last nine months.

*NHRA national FC speed record holder at 326.87 mph.

*Presently second in POWERade points after leading the Funny Car division for the first time in his 30-year career following his May 19 victory at Englishtown, N.J.

DID YOU KNOW:
Gary Densham went 245 races before winning for the first time....for 29 years, Gary was the auto shop teacher at Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif., and for most of that time he campaigned a Funny Car with a crew comprised of current and former students....if he continues at his current pace, Gary will qualify to compete in the Budweiser Shootout, limited to the tour's top eight teams, for the first time in his career. He has qualified fifth or better at seven of the nine races contested thus far and was the No. 1 qualifier at Gainesville, Fla., in March, and at Atlanta, Ga., just a month ago....Gary is just the 14th different driver to have led the Funny Car point standings over the last 13 years. In addition to his Castrol teammates, John Force and Tony Pedregon, the others are Ron Capps, Chuck Etchells, Al Hofmann, Bruce Larson, Ed McCulloch, Cruz Pedregon, Dale Pulde, Bruce Sarver, K.C. Spurlock and Jerry Toliver.

-jfr-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Bruce Sarver , Tony Pedregon , Al Hofmann , Ron Capps , John Force , Chuck Etchells , Gary Densham , Bruce Larson , Cruz Pedregon , Jerry Toliver , Dale Pulde