MILLINGTON, Tenn.- Gary Densham is just one of those guys who always has a smile on his face. He raced for 30 years, never making a trip to winner's circle, but always smiled nonetheless. The smiling hasn't changed, but his...
MILLINGTON, Tenn.- Gary Densham is just one of those guys who always has a smile on his face. He raced for 30 years, never making a trip to winner's circle, but always smiled nonetheless.
The smiling hasn't changed, but his resume has. Densham dons a grin as wide as the Mississippi River on most days, but now he has some racing statistics to give cause for the positive trackside manner.
Densham won two races last season - beating team owner John Force both times - and he picked up two victories in the first eight races of the 2002 season. But it all started at Memphis Motorsports Park, the site of the 15th annual O'Reilly Mid-South Nationals, Sept. 19-22. Kenny Bernstein, Densham and George Marnell are the defending winners of the $1.9 million race. It is the 19th of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
"I've always had a good time," said Densham, driver of the Auto Club of Southern California Ford Mustang. "We've got great fans, I always have a good time with people and I have made a lot of good friends out here. I have basically lived with all of these people for years and I can honestly say that there is not a single person I don't get along with. I can walk up to any of the teams and start talking.
"John Force always asks why I smile so much. I tell him that it's easy to smile when I am competitive and he is paying all of the bills. You better believe I am smiling."
Densham experienced another racing first this year. He was the points leader for the first time in his career, topping the Funny Car standings for nearly six weeks.
"That was pretty exciting," Densham said. "I saw that printed up and I thought they printed the list up-side down. They show the top 10 drivers on the screen at the races and I just had to watch, I couldn't believe any of it was true."
And to think it all started with that win in Memphis. "I think it actually started at the U.S. Nationals in Indy right before," Densham said. "We ran a 4.70 and the whole team started to come together and everything fell into place. But there is no doubt about it, Memphis is special because it is the first place I went to a final round and won. It doesn't get much better than that. For whatever reason, some tracks may not be the best, but they are special to some people. Memphis is that way for me and the team. We can't wait to get back there.
"Since Memphis, if you look at our performance, we have been as good as anyone out there." Do you want to know another feature to this career year? Densham is also in the hunt for the NHRA Funny Car championship. He was as low as seventh in the standings in March, but has since maintained a top three spot all season. Not bad for a guy who just started winning.
"We are definitely within striking distance of the championship," Densham said. "There are a lot of good cars out there and every round and every race is an absolute war. Our team had a lousy West Coast Swing, and we lost a few points, but our car is back to running good like it was before.
"Going for the title is not going to be easy. Not only are we going to have to get our breaks and win when we shouldn't, but other teams are going to have to lose when they shouldn't. There are so many good cars out there right now that really, anyone can win on any day."
Teammates Force and Tony Pedregon also are on the hunt for the championship. Force has the advantage with the points lead and five wins under his belt, but Pedregon has four wins as well as a shot at claiming the ultimate prize.
"It is hard to believe that something like this could happen and all three of us would still be at the top," Densham said. "Not that we don't have three good cars, but we also have to run into each other. Last year we all faced each other a lot. This year it hasn't happened as much. (Brainerd) was a dream weekend when all three of us went to the semis. This year it just seems like if John is having a good weekend, Tony and I go out early and if Tony is having a good weekend, John and I go out early.
"That really is a credit to all of the other teams out there. There are some really tough cars. If I was a betting man, I would have a hard time putting money on all three of us finishing at the top, but there is still a very good chance it could happen."
Regardless of how the points chase winds down, one thing is certain. Gary Densham is having a career year and he is enjoying every moment.
"I think to be in this position and to be able to run for the title is very special," Densham said. "Especially considering that the Funny Car category is so tough. We are basically the Pro Stock class, just at 300 mph. To be in the position I am in is almost overwhelming and I am loving it to death."