Madison: GM Racing preview

MADISON, Ill., June 23, 2004 - The NHRA POWERade season reaches its median point this weekend at the 8th annual Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway. It's make-or-break time, and competitors running under the GM Racing banner...

MADISON, Ill., June 23, 2004 - The NHRA POWERade season reaches its median point this weekend at the 8th annual Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway. It's make-or-break time, and competitors running under the GM Racing banner are ready to battle in the first of six events that over the next nine weeks, take the series westward for a key series of meets. When the tour completes its stop this weekend on the eastern banks of the Mississippi River, only 11 events will remain, making that much more important every qualifying session and every contested round of eliminations.

After a strong runner-up performance last Sunday at the NHRA SuperNationals in Englishtown, N.J., Kurt Johnson is looking to take the additional step needed to get his ACDelco Chevy Cavalier back into the Pro Stock winner's circle. The 41-year-old Johnson has already posted a victory this year at the CSK Nationals in Phoenix, has competed in a total of four final rounds and has reached the title heat in two of the last three events.

"The ACDelco Chevy Cavalier, although new at the beginning of the year, has evolved into an exceptional racecar," said Johnson. "I can let the clutch out, take my hands off the wheel and that car will go down a hot racetrack, a cold racetrack, it really doesn't seem to matter as long as we make the right adjustments. It's a pretty happy racecar right now.

"Even though we won at Phoenix, the new car kind of threw us a curve - we just didn't have it right. We stumbled a little bit at Gainesville (Fla.), came back strong after that and runner-upped at Las Vegas. Then we kind of experimented with some engine stuff and got off base there. Everything seems to be coming together right now. The car's been running good since the April race in Las Vegas, and we should be all right from here on out."

In his 12 1/2 seasons as an NHRA Pro Stock competitor, Johnson has compiled 370 career round wins, and 28 victories including a final-round win in 1998 at Gateway International Raceway over Jeg Coughlin Jr. Currently in second place in the Pro Stock standings, Johnson has compiled a 23 - 10 round win/loss record this season, and has advanced to no less than the second round of eliminations in 39 of the last 40 races.

In a change from the normal routine of national-event competition, each qualifying session and eliminator round of this year's Sears Craftsman Nationals will be contested after 4:30 p.m. Johnson feels the cooler conditions will provide an interesting twist and a quicker pace for the Pro Stock competitors.

"Any kind of race is good for me," said Johnson. "The ACDelco Chevrolet should be fine racing in St. Louis. We qualified well at night at Englishtown and Columbus when the sun went off the track at both of those places - even at Topeka we ran fast. In the long run though, I think this racecar may be better on a hot racetrack than on a cold one, but we're confident we can pick up some points on first place. I'm looking forward to St. Louis. It's a night race, and it still may be hot, but without the sun on the track it's going to be a faster event overall."

Two-time NHRA Pro Stock champion Jim Yates is looking to reach a pair of career milestones this weekend at the Sears Craftsman Nationals. The driver of the Sea Ray Boats/BW Pontiac SC/T Grand Am will be competing in his 300th national event, and if he successfully qualifies on Saturday, his first-round matchup will be his 600th career round of competition. Yates has a current career record of 363 round victories against 236 losses for a winning percentage of 60.6.

"It's hard to qualify in Pro Stock and you can never take for granted that you will," said Yates. "Just being there for Sunday eliminations is quite an accomplishment given the competitive nature of this category. Truthfully though, when we first started racing in Pro Stock, our attitude was that we just wanted to qualify, because like it is today, just getting in the field was a heck of a challenge. Once you get to that point, once you get qualified, you don't sit around very long because now you want to win. The thrill of competition is addictive and it's why I race. Some people race because they like to go fast. I race because I love the competition and going head-to-head with the guy in the other lane. I enjoy driving the car and testing, but the real reward is when you get to tee it up against another car on Sunday.

"It's a great feeling that's hard to describe when you see that win light come on. Critics say we're not athletes, but I disagree. On the starting line you're calm, cool and collected, you have to stay focused, and learn how to pace yourself. When you get to the finish line after going 0 to 200 mph in less than 6.8 seconds, you have so much adrenaline running through your body that you're just shaking. You feel like you've just jumped out of an airplane or been in the fight of your life. You experience an entire spectrum of emotions in just a short amount of time."

Yates success at Gateway International Raceway is well-documented and includes a win in 1999, runner-up finishes in '97 and '01, and low-qualifying honors in '97 and '02.

"We've spent a lot of time there over the years because it's been such a great place to test," said Yates. "The people at the racetrack treat us wonderfully and they always accommodate our needs. Testing there as much as we have has given us an advantage on how to run on the racetrack. We know about what it does in the afternoon, we know how it is in the evening, we have a pretty good idea how to react to the barometer and the various atmospheric conditions, and all of that helps when you go there to race. The race we won there in 1999 was by a thousandth of a second, and when it's that close, it's nice to have that experience and knowledge on your side."

With a relatively slight margin of 120 points separating fourth from eighth place in the NHRA Pro Stock standings, Pontiac's Bruce Allen sees an opportunity to break through the middle-of the-pack logjam and move forward from his seventh-place perch.

"We feel like we're making pretty good progress," said Allen. "We've qualified for every race, and we haven't had success winning a race yet, but we are winning some rounds and getting closer to where we need to be. The whole field seems to be tightening up as the season goes forward. We've had some pretty good chances to score some strong finishes, and either we haven't made good runs when we needed to, or haven't driven well enough to get the job done. I'm not disappointed from that standpoint, just realistic, and I still think we have a real good chance to finish in the top five at the end of the year.

"The last couple of years I wouldn't have been very excited about this time of year because we had a suspect setup. Now I think we're better than that and I'm confident we can win a race or two. But there are a lot of other cars that are just as fast as we are - it's just not that easy. We've put our Pontiac in a position to win a couple of times and we'll continue to improve. We should run pretty good in St. Louis and from here on out."

The Funny Car division shows Chevy Monte Carlo driver Del Worsham back atop the points standings after he fell from first to third place following the Route 66 Nationals in May in Joliet, Ill. But during the last three races, the 34-year-old Worsham has compiled an 8-2 round win/loss record, including his third victory of the season two weeks ago in Columbus, and two semifinal appearances at Topeka (Kan.) and Englishtown (N.J.). That consistency has helped move the CSK Chevrolet back into the lead position, 20 points ahead of second-place Whit Bazemore and 42 points in front of third-place John Force. Worsham is the defending champion of the Sears Craftsman Nationals, winning this event in 2003 after starting from the 16th and final qualifying position.

"There are so many things that have to go just right for you to win a race, no matter how fast your car runs," said Worsham. "When you win one, you look back over the race and it boggles your mind how well it all has to play out. We've run better at some races and didn't win this year than at some of the ones we did, and that's just an example of how it all has to line up and play out.

"Our team has grown so much, and we've come so far over the past few years. Sometimes I sit back and think about it and it really is gratifying. We work very hard around here, but it starts with a family and it extends into a team that reflects that. My dad and I may be the only ones related around here, but this entire team feels like family. When you're that tight, the wins are really special."

Gateway International Raceway is the venue where Tim Wilkerson earned his first career low-qualifying award in 1998, just a short distance from his home in Springfield, Ill. This weekend's event will be sort of homecoming race for the driver of the Levi, Ray & Shoup Chevy Monte Carlo.

"We've run fast at St. Louis, but unfortunately we haven't had any luck on raceday there," said Wilkerson. "This year I'm looking to go some rounds. We changed the car a little bit and it hasn't responded the way we would've liked. We're going to go back to what we were running at the beginning of the year, so we'll see how things go. We're pretty confident things will work out okay, but you never know for sure.

"I'm pretty confident we can get our stuff together, run a little better and maybe impress somebody. Our Chevy Monte Carlo has run fast all year, but unfortunately it seems like we're racing the wrong guy in the first round. I'm becoming the fastest loser and I'm not liking it too well. If we can get past that first round, then we can usually roll on a little further. Racing at Gateway is a fun time, we've got a lot of local fans and the crowd gives us a lot of support. I've raced for over two decades with a lot of the people who come out for this event, so there's some extra incentive to do well. We're pretty confident things will work out okay, but our goal this weekend is to get this racecar back in winning form."

GM Racing Notebook: NHRA Craftsman Nationals

GM Performance Parts Pontiac driver Warren Johnson holds the Pro Stock elapsed-time track record set last year at 6.808 seconds when he captured low-qualifying honors. Another Pontiac Grand Am competitor, Greg Anderson, holds the speed record, also set last year at 202.85 mph.

Ron Krisher is the defending Pro Stock champion at Gateway International Raceway driving his Chevy Cavalier to a final-round victory over Allen Johnson.

There have been seven previous national events contested at Gateway International Raceway since 1997. Warren Johnson and Ron Krisher are the only Pro Stock competitors to win more than once at this event - Johnson in 1997 and '01, and Krisher in '00 and '03.

In addition to Warren Johnson, Jim Yates is the only current Pontiac Grand Am Pro Stock driver to visit the Gateway winner's circle in 1999.

In addition to Ron Krisher, current Chevy Cavalier drivers to visit the Gateway winner's circle include Jeg Coughlin (2002) and Kurt Johnson (1998).

Nine competitors driving GM-branded racecars occupy a place in the top 10 of the NHRA Pro Stock standings. Greg Anderson leads in a Pontiac Grand Am with 1,154 points, Kurt Johnson is in second place in a Chevy Cavalier with 832 points, Jason Line is third in a Pontiac with 796 points and Dave Connolly is fourth in a Chevrolet with 624 points. Jeg Coughlin is in sixth place in a Chevrolet with 527 points, Bruce Allen is seventh in a Pontiac with 525 points, Warren Johnson is eighth in a Pontiac with 504 points, Rickie Smith is ninth in a Chevrolet with 451 points and Steve Johns is 10th in a Chevrolet with 418 points. Mike Edwards is in 11th place in a Pontiac with 370 points and Jim Yates is 12th in a Pontiac with 359 points. Each round win during eliminations is worth 20 points.

Del Worsham leads the Funny Car standings in a Chevy Monte Carlo with 806 points. Other Chevy Monte Carlo drivers in the top 10 include Tim Wilkerson in seventh place with 597 points, Phil Burkart in eighth place with 590 points and Tony Pedregon in ninth place with 562 points.

Qualifying highlights of the Sears Craftsman Nationals can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, June 26, beginning at 10 p.m. (ET). Three hours of final eliminations will be telecast on Sunday, June 27, starting at 9 p.m. (ET).

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , John Force , Greg Anderson , Ron Krisher , Bruce Allen , Tim Wilkerson , Phil Burkart , Jason Line , Rickie Smith , Dave Connolly , Mike Edwards