Phoenix ATSCO Nationals News 98-02-17

ATSCO NATIONALS WIN WOULD BE GOOD MEDICINE FOR McCLENATHAN PHOENIX -- A Top Fuel victory at the 14th annual ATSCO Nationals could be the best medicine for McDonald's dragster driver Cory McClenathan. The $1,549,310 race is the second...

ATSCO NATIONALS WIN WOULD BE GOOD MEDICINE FOR McCLENATHAN

PHOENIX -- A Top Fuel victory at the 14th annual ATSCO Nationals could be the best medicine for McDonald's dragster driver Cory McClenathan. The $1,549,310 race is the second of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

After three weeks of recovery following surgery to remove a benign tumor from his left shoulder, McClenathan fought the pain and had a good showing at the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, running the second-fastest speed of the event, at 319.71 mph. He feels certain he'll be back to full strength at Firebird International Raceway Feb. 19-22.

"We had a pretty good effort at Pomona," said McClenathan. "Physically I'm just a little behind and trying to get in shape for the season. As the days have progressed since the surgery I have felt better and better in the car.

"It's amazing, no matter how much you hurt, as soon as they start that motor behind you, all you start thinking about it trying to win the race."

McClenathan missed all pre-season testing, but it didn't slow the McDonald's team. During testing at Firebird three weeks ago, Kenny Bernstein came to the aid of his mending friend and played the role of substitute driver. With his help, Mike Green and crew were able to gather much needed data.

"That really shows what a true sportsman Kenny is," McClenathan said. "He didn't have to do that for this team, but he did. I'll remember that."

No one needs to tell McClenathan how important this event is. One year ago, he qualified 15th and lost in the first round. The race was one of very few disappointments in McClenathan's best season ever, which included six victories and a second place finish in the NHRA Winston point standings.

"It was a tough pill to swallow because I had done so well there in the past," he said. "When you look back at the final numbers for 1997, this was one of those races where we would have liked to reverse the outcome. It made a big difference in the final standings, no question.

"But we learned a lot from last year and have some extra motivation going into this race because of what happened last year. We feel good about our chances. We're definitely ready to make a run for the championship."

TOP FUEL NOTEBOOK

-- Making a list, checking it twice: While the majority of contenders in Top Fuel this season include familiar names like defending NHRA Winston champion Gary Scelzi, Cory McClenathan, Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato, the list of potential NHRA Winston champion candidates is growing.

Larry Dixon's impressive win at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. Feb. 1, may be a preview of things to come for the Miller Lite team with new crew chief Dale Armstrong turning the wrenches.

McClenathan feels Dixon and company will be one of several teams to watch this season. "I think we're going to see a little more out of Larry this season with Armstrong over there," he said. "It's going to take a couple of races, but I think Dick LaHaie is going to be real tough with Doug Herbert. Of course Bernstein is going to run good because Lee Beard is over there now. There's a lot of cars out here who have showed improvement and signaled that they're ready. It's going to be really tough."

-- Blazing Arizona: Many drivers consider Firebird International Raceway to be one of the trickiest quarter-mile facilities on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series schedule. However, it's also widely regarded as one of the fastest.

Cory McClenathan expects Top Fuel speeds to exceed 320 mph during the weekend.

"It's a good racetrack and I think you'll see some guys run big numbers out there," he said. "I know there were plenty of big numbers posted there during pre-season testing, and with what several teams were able to accomplish at the Winternationals I think it's going to be really fast."

-- No need to panic: For only the third time in Gary Scelzi's Top Fuel career he was a first round loser, smoking the tires of his Team Winston dragster at the Chief Auto Parts Winternationals. The defending NHRA Winston champion and '97 ATSCO Nationals winner goes to Firebird International Raceway in ninth place in the Winston point standings, but isn't lacking confidence despite his early season setback.

"It's tough to lose in the first round, especially when you're so excited about the new season," Scelzi said. "These things happen, but it's certainly not the end of the world. They pay the same number of points at Phoenix, and I'm sure we'll have our problems solved soon." -30-

CAPPS NO LONGER THE ULTIMATE UNDERDOG

PHOENIX -- For the first time in his drag racing career, Ron Capps feels the need to take a new mental approach to the sport. No longer is the kid from San Diego the ultimate underdog. Now, behind the wheel of the Don 'The Snake' Prudhomme-owned, Roland Leong-tuned Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro, Capps has earned the status of pre-race favorite.

His name is definitely atop most Funny Car prognosticator lists for the upcoming ATSCO Nationals, Feb. 19-22 at Firebird International Raceway.

After showing skill and determination in winning the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., Capps says he's getting a little more comfortable in his new role.

"I used to really like being the underdog, and took a lot of pride in being able to upset one of the heavy-hitters," he said. "I was used to it. I never liked it when I knew going to the starting line that it was my race to lose. But now, our car is running so good that I have to prepare myself a little differently."

Capps leads a strong contingent of Funny Car drivers into the second of 22 events on the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. However, while it's the first time in his short career that he's led the NHRA Winston point standings, he isn't going to order his championship ring just yet. He realizes that there's plenty of races remaining on the schedule and seven-time Winston champion John Force is looming in the distance.

"Obviously John Force is the biggest thing that we have in drag racing," Capps said. "There's a big reason why he's been a multi-year champion. He's very tough to beat. I'm going into the season expecting to see him in the other lane quite a few times. As long as he's there, you don't want to jump to any conclusions about the championship. I really don't want to jinx myself this early in the season."

While Force gets Capps' immediate attention, there are plenty of other drivers that he's just as equally concerned about.

"It seems like everybody is going to be really tough this year," he said. "Whit (Bazemore), (Chuck) Etchells, Randy Anderson, (Dean) Skuza and the Pedregon brothers (Cruz, Frank and Tony) are just a few of the drivers who are capable of winning the Winston championship. It's going to be a long season." FUNNY CAR NOTEBOOK

-- Learning to like it: Ron Capps admits that he has never looked forward to NHRA's annual trip to Firebird International Raceway. However, with crew chief Roland Leong calling the shots in the pits, his outlook is changing. And for good reason: Capps was quickest during pre-season Firebird testing, posting a 4.98 second run in his Copenhagen Chevrolet Camaro.

"It's funny, I used to despise the place," Capps said with a smile. "I never had any success there because it's such a tricky track. But Roland has helped me like it. We ran good there during testing and for the first time I'm actually excited about going to Phoenix."

-- Middle of the pack: For the first time in 40 consecutive NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series events, John Force is not the Winston Funny Car points leader. After the season-opener at Pomona, Calif., Force is sixth with 57 points. However, the seven-time Winston champion isn't sweating just yet.

"We look at the overall picture and know we just have to be consistent and work hard like Vince Lombardi used to say," Force said following his second round Winternationals loss to teammate Tony Pedregon. "I think we've only won the Winternationals three or four times during the seven championships, so we've shown that we can overcome a slow start.

"We're just pumped up for the new season and looking forward to Phoenix where we can get this Ford back on track."

-- New contender: Winternationals Funny Car runner-up Tim Wilkerson feels that his team's effort in the season-opening race is just a preview of things to come.

"I think we've answered a lot of questions that people had about this team," said Wilkerson, 37, of Springfield, Ill. "I think you're going to see the JCIT Firebird in the later rounds quite a bit this year. It's a great combination on this team and everyone works very well together."

-- Schedule: Pro qualifying is at noon and 4:30 p.m. Feb. 20. Qualifying continues at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Feb. 21. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. Feb. 22. Federal-Mogul competition starts at 8 a.m. Feb. 19.

-- Tickets: Tickets are available for the ATSCO Nationals. Call Firebird International Raceway, (602) 268-0200, for more information.

-- On TV: The Nashville Network (TNN) will televise 90 minutes of highlights and final-round competition from the ATSCO Nationals at 5 p.m. (MST) Feb. 22. -30-

* * * * Thanks for your coverage of the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

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About this article
Series NHRA
Drivers Larry Dixon , Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cory McClenathan , Dick LaHaie