Joliet: Pontiac Racing finals report

JOLIET, Ill., September 30, 2001 - Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird driver Whit Bazemore shattered the national record book enroute to his third Funny Car victory of the season at the NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway. From a performance...

JOLIET, Ill., September 30, 2001 - Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird driver Whit Bazemore shattered the national record book enroute to his third Funny Car victory of the season at the NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway.

From a performance standpoint, it was a sterling weekend for the 38-year-old Bazemore who steered his nitro-powered Pontiac to both ends of the national record and 138 points, the maximum number a driver can claim in one weekend of competition. On Friday, Bazemore set the national e.t. record with a qualifying run of 4.750 seconds, and then today the Matco Tools Firebird set the new national top-speed record of 325.45 mph.

Bazemore came into the event qualified in the No. 1 position, the sixth time in the last eight races that's he's started raceday from the top of the eliminations' ladder. He defeated Chuck Etchells in round one, Johnny Gray in round two and Frank Pedregon in round three before meeting 10-time Funny Car champion John Force in the finals.

Consistency was the key all weekend for Bazemore, and during the first three sessions of eliminations the Matco Tools Pontiac ran 4.76, 4.79 and 4.80 before meeting the Castrol Ford in a final-round showdown.

In the championship heat, Bazemore's Firebird rocketed to a winning 4.823 second run at 320.97 mph with Force's Mustang following close with a 4.875 e.t. at 312.93 mph. The margin of victory for Bazemore was 62-hundredths of a second.

"We knew if we didn't make any mistakes, odds were we'd be meeting Force in the finals," said Bazemore. "We were prepared for that, but it was probably one of the hardest rounds I've ever had. It was fair with good sportsmanship on both sides and a good clean drag race, and that's how they all should be.

"We all have to do a perfect job and today we had some close races. If we'd been a tick off against Frank Pedregon we'd have gotten beat. The same at the U.S. Nationals. We only beat Hofmann by a hundredth of second, and the slightest let down would have made the best weekend of our lives the worst weekend. It's that challenge every week that drives you, and motivates you, and why people like Force and Bernstein have done this for so long."

For Bazemore, it was his third win of the season and the sixth time he's appeared in a final round. It was also the 10th career win and the 23rd career final round for the Pontiac Firebird Funny Car driver. He won the first national event at Route 66 Raceway in 1998. Currently second in the points standings, Bazemore is 244 points behind first-place John Force.

"We have to look at the points spread, see what it is and go from there," said Bazemore. "This Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird is a great running car, there's no question about it, and the team did an outstanding job this weekend. We're fortunate to have the national e.t. record - that's a dream come true for me. I've had the speed record before and that's special, but the e.t. record is something I've never had, and I just can't describe how good it feels to have a car that performs like that. I'm really blessed."

In Pro Stock, GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac driver Warren Johnson won his sixth national event of the season and edged closer to a sixth Winston championship. After struggling early in the weekend, the "Professor" borrowed a winning tune-up from son Kurt that propelled the 58-year-old Johnson to his 87th career victory.

"We basically took what we had in Kurt's (Johnson) car, put it in our car, and it worked right off the bat," said Johnson. "We didn't find the setup as quickly as Kurt's crew did for his Cavalier. We basically just plugged it right straight into the Grand Am, and you saw it was as consistent a racecar as you could get out there today. I think we had the best 60-foot time in every round, so the car really came around in a hurry. I think we're onto something. Whether it will pay off for the championship is hard to tell, but we'll ride this racehorse as long as we can."

Johnson came into the race qualified in the No. 4 position after posting a career-best e.t. of 6.808 seconds at 201.64 mph. He defeated Vieri Gaines in round one, Brad Jeter in round two and Mike Edwards in round three before squaring off against long-time rival Darrell Alderman in the finals.

Both drivers launched within eight-thousandths of a second of each other with the edge going to Alderman. But Johnson's Pontiac ran down the three-time Pro Stock champion crossing the finish line with a 6.832 e.t. at 201.70 mph. Alderman followed in 6.852 seconds with a speed of 201.97 mph. The margin of victory was 12-hundredths of a second.

"The best part of the win was the consistency of the performance," said Johnson. "We didn't start out that well because we don't really race under these kind of conditions. These are premium conditions, both atmospheric and track wise, in fact we don't even test in these kind of conditions very often. But every so often you get a day like we had today where things go your way. More often than not they don't go your way so you have to enjoy it when it's there."

With just four races to go and a maximum number of 16 rounds left to be won, Warren Johnson extends his points lead over Jim Yates to 135 points.

"The parity is good for the sport, but it gives us all ulcers," said Johnson. "You have to be spot on with every aspect of your team right now - driver, decisions to be made, equipment, everything has to be as perfect as you can make it. Without everything meshing correctly you're not going to win? But as long as the fans get their money's worth, that's all that matters."

Although Jim Yates was eliminated in round two, it was an impressive comeback this weekend for the two-time Winston champion who qualified No. 3 for this event. He had to sit out eliminations last weekend at Memphis after driving the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Grand Am to the No. 1 qualifying spot. He later underwent a successful angioplasty last Monday and arrived here at the NHRA Nationals on Friday ready to race.

"I feel like I went from a rookie driver when I got here on Friday to an experienced veteran today," Yates said. "I felt the Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Grand Am ran really well today and I did a pretty good job of getting it down the racetrack. We just lost lane choice after first round and that ended up costing us against Tommy (Martino). I feel better, I feel more comfortable in the car. I was a little anxious when I first got here about getting in the racecar and how I would do after everything that happened last week. The doctor gave me a clean bill of health but that doesn't keep you from having second thoughts sometimes.

"We're looking forward to Reading because the conditions there usually favor our car. We have a lot of hometown fans in Pennsylvania and Maryland that get up there for us. We have to get serious about this championship race. If we're going to catch Warren (Johnson) we need to start making up some rounds and Reading is the place to do it. I think the national record can be set again there. We just need to go home, get all of our engines fresh, get our program straight and make some good runs."

ACDelco Chevy Cavalier driver Kurt Johnson leaves this event with the new national e.t. record at 6.801 seconds.

The next stop on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing tour is the 17th annual Pep Boys NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove Raceway on October 5 -7.

-GM Racing-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Frank Pedregon , Darrell Alderman , Brad Jeter , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Chuck Etchells , Vieri Gaines , Johnny Gray , Mike Edwards