Memphis: Bazemore has championship goal

Bazemore Looking For Late Season Charge To Accomplish Championship Goal as NHRA PowerADE Series Season Enters Final Stage MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- Whit Bazemore, who loves pushing the pedals on his sleek mountain bike to traverse a high-altitude...

Bazemore Looking For Late Season Charge To Accomplish Championship Goal as NHRA PowerADE Series Season Enters Final Stage

MILLINGTON, Tenn. -- Whit Bazemore, who loves pushing the pedals on his sleek mountain bike to traverse a high-altitude ridge nearly as much as he enjoys navigating his 6,000 horsepower Funny Car down the quarter-mile drag strip, instinctively associates his chase for the NHRA POWERade Series world championship to the Tour de France, which his friend Lance Armstrong won recently for a record sixth consecutive time.

Bazemore says his 2004 campaign has been similar to the most grueling bicycle race in the world -- full of peaks, valleys and plenty of adversity.

He has led the chase at times during the 23-race POWERade tour, but he currently sits in third place with seven races to go. His latest challenge has come from a mid-season surge by longtime arch-rival John Force, the winningest driver in the history of the sport. Bazemore, eyeing his first NHRA world championship trophy, now feels a sense of urgency to push forward with much gusto as the season advances to the final stage.

"I definitely feel comfortable wearing that yellow jersey," said Bazemore, referring to the traditional attire worn by the overall leader at the end of each stage of the Tour de France. Bazemore led the Funny Car point standings following events in Chicago, Topeka, Kan. and Columbus, Ohio, but now trails Force by 188 points. After first driving a Funny Car in 1988, Bazemore has led the points order following four races in his career, and for the first time last year.

"Last year when I led the points after Memphis it felt great to have the lead," he added. "But this year when I had the lead I felt more like I belonged in that position; it was a different feeling than before. That's where this team wants to be again."

A hot streak that produced two victories in five final rounds over six races from early April to mid-June put Bazemore in the lead this season. However, during the last six races, Bazemore has posted one semifinal effort and four first round losses, including two of those in critical rounds against championship rival Del Worsham.

The driver of the Matco Tools Dodge Stratus R/T will try to change that trend with a victory at the 17th annual O'Reilly NHRA Mid-South Nationals, Aug. 20-22 at Memphis Motorsports Park.

Bazemore is the defending Funny Car winner of the event, while Top Fuel teammate Tony Schumacher, Pro Stock dynamo Greg Anderson and inspirational Pro Stock Bike rider Reggie Showers also posted victories one year ago at the $1.6 million race, the 17th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

"We're definitely not in panic mode right now," Bazemore said. "We know we have to close the gap if we want to win this championship. We know what we need to do and we have the team to do it. It's amazing that we have gone out in the first round as many times (six) as we have this year and are still in (third) place. We've had an up and down year and it is somewhat frustrating that we had an 80 point lead at one time and have since gave it all back."

Bazemore, who has finished second in the final points order two of the last three seasons (2001 and 2003), likes his chances this time around. However, he is cautiously optimistic. He knows if he's going to reel in 12-time champion Force, his team needs to be firing on all cylinders and keeping mistakes to a minimum.

"We seem to be a much stronger team on some of the traditional fast tracks that are coming up at the end of the season, and that gives us a good feeling," said Bazemore, who holds the NHRA national performance record for elapsed time at 4.713 seconds. "Hopefully with some cool temperatures and better weather conditions that will play to our strengths."

At Memphis Motorsports Park, Bazemore and his challengers will be faced with the unique task of racing under the lights for both qualifying sessions and final eliminations. It is the second time this season that the POWERade Series will feature nighttime racing. Teams participated in the format earlier in the year at Gateway International Raceway near St. Louis and it will be a first at Memphis Motorsports Park.

"It's hard to say what Memphis will be like running at night," Bazemore said. "I think it will offset the heat of the day a little bit and the track temperature should cool down. I like night racing because it is a real challenge. Funny Cars tend to fill up with clutch dust during a run so when you are racing one of these cars at night you just have to aim the car properly, try and keep the car in the groove and drive it by the seat of your pants. I think the fans are going to enjoy the show."

And Bazemore knows a major part of that show is going to be his battle with Force. Whatever the outcome at season's end, Bazemore will be content with the result because he knows that his team is going to give the maximum effort.

"For me it would be perfect if the championship came down to the final round of the final race at Pomona (Calif., Auto Club NHRA Finals, Nov. 11-14)," said Bazemore, who chased Tony Pedregon to the title in the closing moments of the 2003 season. "We have nothing to lose and everything to gain and that's how we are approaching this part of the season. As a driver, I've had my best season behind the wheel and I am aligned with the best team. I also have a great teammate in Gary Scelzi and a team owner in Don Schumacher who recently added another car to the team (Johnny Gray) to help gather more data and hopefully help take out the competition. We're ready to give 110 percent effort to win this championship, because that is the goal."

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , Tony Schumacher , Gary Scelzi , Greg Anderson , Reggie Showers , Johnny Gray , Don Schumacher