Madison: Gary Densham preview

Densham protects 1-point lead at sixth Sears Craftsman Nationals. MADISON, Ill. How tenuous is Gary Densham's points lead as the NHRA POWERade tour moves this week (June 28-30) to Gateway International Raceway for the sixth renewal of the Sears...

Densham protects 1-point lead at sixth Sears Craftsman Nationals.

MADISON, Ill. How tenuous is Gary Densham's points lead as the NHRA POWERade tour moves this week (June 28-30) to Gateway International Raceway for the sixth renewal of the Sears Craftsman Nationals?

Well, by the end of Saturday's qualifying, the 55-year-old California auto shop teacher could know for the first time what it's like to LOSE a points lead.

Since driving his Team Castrol/Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang to victory in the Matco Tools SuperNationals at Englishtown, N.J., last May 19 and taking the Funny Car points lead for the first time in his 21 years on the NHRA tour, the veteran has clung tenaciously to No. 1 despite pressure from the most prolific winner in NHRA history: boss and teammate John Force.

One point is the difference in just one position at the top of the qualifying order and one point is Densham's current advantage.

If he qualifies just two positions behind Force, the 11-time series champion, 100-time tour winner and NHRA national record-holder (4.731 seconds), he would find himself in second place when racing begins at 12 noon (ET) Sunday.

"It's not like we don't know John's back there," Densham joked.  "But
whether it's John or Tony (Pedregon, driver of the Castrol SYNTEC  Ford,
who currently occupies third place) or  (Whit) Bazemore, the pressure's
the same.  All we can do is run our own race.

"Nobody tied No. 1 up with a bow and just gave it to us," said the four-time tour winner. "We earned it. This is a really good group over here and (Crew Chief) Jimmy Prock gives us a chance to win every time we go up there (to the starting line). If we lose the lead, it's not the end of the world as we know it or anything like that. We're just halfway through the season and, obviously, the time you really want to be in the lead is at the end."

That said, Densham isn't ready to give up his position without a battle and remains upbeat even though he hasn't made the starting lineup at Gateway since 1999.

He owes such confidence to his relationship with Prock, the 37-year-old wunderkind who won 21 times as a Top Fuel Crew Chief before making the transition to a Ford Funny Car last year.

"He doesn't dwell on the negatives," Densham said of Prock. "He'll try something and, if it doesn't work, he'll just move on. So I'm not concerned about what happened last year or the year before. Every day's a new day over here and that kinda keeps everybody pumped up."

As for Force, Densham marvels at his accomplishments and, not unexpectedly, is grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to drive a race car not only capable of winning but also of setting world records (as the Auto Club Ford did at Pomona, Calif., where it was clocked at an NHRA record 326.87 miles per hour last February). At the same time, he is not intimidated by the 11-time Auto Racing All-America selection with whom he has been friends for almost 30 years.

In fact, he beat Force in the final round for both of his victories last year and neither was a gimmee. At Memphis, Tenn., he won by just .045 of a second; at Dallas, Texas, the margin was just .006.

Those breakthrough wins propelled Densham to the highest points finish of his career No. 8. However, based on his performance this year, it's unlikely that the veteran would be satisfied with a repeat performance.

In fact, a championship certainly isn't yet out of the question. Whether the margin is one point or 100, the title still pays the same and it's a little more than Densham was making as a teacher $400,000.

DENSHAM at the Sears Craftsman Nationals.... *Failed to qualify the last two years.
*Despite qualifying problems, has posted a 3-3 record in head-to-head competition and reached the semifinals in 1997.

DENSHAM Highlights....
*Funny Car points leader the last four races.
*Four-time NHRA tour winner, all in the last nine months.
*NHRA national FC speed record holder at 326.87 mph.
*Is only the fourth Funny Car driver in the last 13 seasons to lead the NHRA points for four consecutive events.
*If he reaches the final round this weekend, will set a personal record for rounds won in a single season. Through the first 11 races this year, he won 19 rounds. Until last season, the most rounds he had won in one year was 12 in 1995. He won 21 rounds last year, his first with Team Castrol and John Force Racing.

* * * *

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 earned two Budweiser qualifying bonuses this year as the No. 1 qualifier at Gainesville, Fla., in March, and at Atlanta, Ga., in April....Gary is just the 14th different driver to have led the Funny Car point standings over the last 13 years....when he's not driving the Team Castrol/Auto Club Ford, Gary spends his weekdays talking to student groups on behalf of the Automobile Club of Southern California and his weekends racing a Alcohol Funny Car with his son Steven, 20.

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Series NHRA
Drivers John Force , Gary Densham