Las Vegas: Race day final report

Bernstein, Johnson, J. Coughlin And Panella Strike It Rich At The Srip LAS VEGAS - Kenny Bernstein won for the 54th time of his career Sunday at the Second annual NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Tommy...

Bernstein, Johnson, J. Coughlin And Panella Strike It Rich At The Srip

LAS VEGAS - Kenny Bernstein won for the 54th time of his career Sunday at the Second annual NHRA Nationals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Tommy Johnson Jr., Jeg Coughlin and Bob Panella also were winners of their respective categories at $1.9 million race, the fifth of 24 events in the $50 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Bernstein won the event for the second straight year when he blasted his Top Fuel dragster down the track in 4.533 seconds at 325.53 mph to hold off 21-year old Australian Andrew Cowin and his numbers of 4.615 at 322.73. Bernstein also drove past Rob Passey, Larry Dixon, and points leader Mike Dunn to set up his final round win over Cowin. Bernstein was also the No. 1 qualifier of the event for the second straight season. His qualifying elapsed time of 4.524 seconds was the second quickest that has been recorded since the NHRA implemented the 90 percent rule at the beginning of the 2000 season. He made seven passes over the weekend and all of them were in the 4.50-second range. "Tim Richards had it on a rail today and it was a pleasure to drive that racecar," said Bernstein, a five-time Winston champion. "The team has worked really hard and they deserved the victory and especially since I was a little late leaving (the starting line) and thank goodness Timmy had it going against (Cowin). Once Tim gets on to a tune-up, he is able to pick on it a little bit and stay with it."

Bernstein had an added bonus to the weekend in addition to the win. His son Brandon won for the first time in his Federal-Mogul dragster. The elder Bernstein has said that he will drive no longer than the end of the 2002 season when he will turn the Top Fuel driving duties over to Brandon. "My number one accomplishment was breaking the 300 mph barrier," said Bernstein. "The father-son victory today comes right behind it."

Johnson earned the Funny Car victory when he covered the quarter-mile in 4.856 at 310.77 in his Skoal Chevy Camaro to defeat the slower Whit Bazemore who ran a 4.965 at 291.07. Johnson defeated Jim Epler, Gary Densham and Dean Skuza before his final round matchup. It also was an emotional victory for Johnson who celebrated his birthday over the weekend with team owner Don "The Snake" Prudhomme.

"This was an outstanding weekend," said Johnson. "Snake and I celebrated birthdays on Friday and we've been kidding about this for a long time and how nice it would be to win a race here. We got our first win early in the season, jumped up there in the points, and this won't be the last (win) I can tell you that."

Johnson experienced some highs and lows the past few seasons with his driving career before signing a contract with Prudhomme.

"The last few years have been pretty tough," said Johnson. "I had my own family team and couldn't keep the sponsorship to keep it going. It takes a lot of money to run these teams. I got an excellent opportunity to drive with Joe Gibbs driving half a season and finishing in the top 10 in points. I drove half a year for Al and Helen Hofmann last season, and to get the opportunity to drive for somebody like Don Prudhomme and the caliber of team he has with Skoal and Chevy, this is a first class operation."

With the victory Johnson climbs to third in the Winston points standings. Bruce Sarver regained the Funny Car points lead, 17 ahead of 10-time Winston champion John Force.

Coughlin won the Pro Stock final for the second consecutive season when he used a pass of 6.959 at 197.62 in his Jeg's Mail Order Chevy Cavalier to outrun Jim Yates and his pass of 6.940 at 197.71. Coughlin beat Warren Johnson, Darrell Alderman, Bruce Allen and Yates to the finish line en route to his 21st career win.

"Everything just seemed to come together today," said Coughlin, the 2000 NHRA Winston Pro Stock champion. "We struggled a little bit here early on, qualified 10th, but it worked out pretty well. We certainly appreciate Chevrolet's support and winning here in Las Vegas is certainly a major accomplishment for us. It's a great facility and 10 times better than last year."

Coughlin has experienced some difficulties this year after winning 10 of 14 races and seven of the first eight last season.

"We've made some mistakes this year that has hampered us and some of the other teams have taken advantage of it," said Coughlin. "We really haven't been in the running so to speak, but I think we're headed in the right direction and this is a good indication of things to come. This is our first official win with the Chevy Cavalier and that is really exciting for us."

The two-time Winston champ Panella also won for the second straight year in Vegas behind the wheel of his Panella Trucking Chevy S-10. He defeated fellow Chevy driver Greg Stanfield in the Pro Stock Truck final with his run of 7.554 at 178.19. Panella defeated Larry Kopp, Don Smith, points leader Randy Daniels and Stanfield for the win. Panella now trails Stanfield by 15 points for second place in the standings.

"I don't want to think about the points right now because it could only be a dream to win (another) championship," said Panella. (Randy) is not way out ahead and nothing is out of reach yet. If we continue to race like we did today then we will be there at the end."

The NHRA's 50th Anniversary season continues with the completion of the rain delayed 32nd annual Mac Tools Gatornationals, April 20-21, at Gainesville Raceway.


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Series NHRA
Drivers Bruce Sarver , Jeg Coughlin , Bob Panella , Larry Dixon , Darrell Alderman , Kenny Bernstein , Jim Epler , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Andrew Cowin , Larry Kopp , Randy Daniels , Gary Densham , Don Prudhomme , Greg Stanfield , Bruce Allen , Tim Richards , Rob Passey , Tommy Johnson Jr.