BERNSTEIN EYES THREE-PEAT AT PHOENIX DURING CHECKER SCHUCK' KRAGEN NHRA NATIONALS CHANDLER, Ariz. -- In the NHRA's 20 year history at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix, only two drivers have won the event in three or more consecutive...
BERNSTEIN EYES THREE-PEAT AT PHOENIX DURING CHECKER SCHUCK' KRAGEN NHRA NATIONALS
CHANDLER, Ariz. -- In the NHRA's 20 year history at Firebird International Raceway near Phoenix, only two drivers have won the event in three or more consecutive seasons.
Two NHRA legends -- John Force in Funny Car and Bob Glidden in Pro Stock -- are the only racers to successfully defend their titles in multiple seasons at the popular quarter-mile dragstrip in the desert Southwest. Force, a 13-time Funny Car world champion, did it on two occasions -- winning the race four straight times from 1994-'97, and three times in a row from 1999-2001. Glidden, a 10-time Pro Stock world champion, was a winner at the event during four straight seasons, from 1985-'88.
An aspiring young Top Fuel driver with one of drag racing's most legendary last names hopes to be able to join that short list with a victory at the 21st annual Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals presented by Castrol, Feb. 25-27 at Firebird International Raceway. Del Worsham and Kurt Johnson also are defending winners in their respective categories of the $1.8 million race, the second of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.
Brandon Bernstein, 32-year-old second-generation driver of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil Top Fuel dragster, is seeking his third consecutive victory at FIR and his own piece of history in the NHRA record books. Dick LaHaie (1985-'86) is the only other Top Fuel driver to win back-to-back titles at FIR.
"It's awesome to have an opportunity to join Force and Glidden in that category," said Bernstein, who also could become the track's winningest Top Fuel driver with a victory during the weekend. "We certainly want to be able to use the positive history we have at Firebird to keep that momentum going this year. It would be pretty special to three-peat."
Bernstein says his team's secret to success at FIR is all about consistency, adding that his crew chief, Tim Richards, has developed a tune-up that works really well at that track.
"We do all of our pre-season testing there, so we have accumulated quite a few laps on that track," Bernstein said. "This year we made about 15 runs there in testing, so we just have so much data to pull from for the different conditions that we may face with during the race. I think Tim really has his game face on there on race day and puts together a race car that responds very well to the track."
With the incredible competition Bernstein is facing in Top Fuel this season he says it is critical that the team makes a move at FIR. The season-opening event in Pomona, Calif. featured the quickest 16-car field in NHRA history for the 7,000-horsepower category, with a bump spot of 4.59 seconds. Seven of the 16 cars qualified with a run quicker than 4.5 seconds, including Bernstein, who clocked a 4.477 second run to qualify fifth overall. The race winner, two-time series champion Scott Kalitta, won by clocking four consecutive runs in the 4.4-second range.
"It seems like everybody is going to be running in the 4.40s all year long, and it's going to be one of the most competitive seasons ever," said Bernstein, who lost in the second round in the opener and sits sixth in the POWERade Series point standings. "If you get too far behind in the points chase early on it is going to be very difficult to make up that gap, especially with as many of the cars that are running so well. When you look at all of the competition -- especially the three Kalitta cars -- it's just crazy."
Other Top Fuel contenders include two-time world champions and past FIR winners Tony Schumacher and Larry Dixon, rising star Morgan Lucas and the two other Team Kalitta drivers -- Doug Kalitta and Dave Grubnic.
In Funny Car, the competition is just as intense. Veteran racer Tommy Johnson Jr. claimed the points lead for the first time in his career by winning the Winternationals in his Skoal Racing Chevy Monte Carlo. He broke an 89-race winless drought when he clocked a career-best elapsed time to defeat Phil Burkart in the Checker Schuck's Kragen Monte Carlo. Force has seven victories at FIR, followed by Burkart's teammate, Worsham, who has won the race for his title sponsor two of the last three years.
Pro Stock upstart Dave Connolly also has the points lead for the first time in his career coming into the event. The Bullet Motorsports Chevy Cavalier racer will be challenged by a host of drivers, including two-time defending series champion Greg Anderson, who got off to a slow start in Pomona. Category veterans Jim Yates (top qualifier at Pomona) and Warren Johnson (runner-up at Pomona) are two-time winners at FIR and seem to have found the combination to return to their world championship winning form. Other drivers to watch in the 200-mph category include rookie Erica Enders, the first female to compete in the category in more than a decade, Team Mopar drivers Jeg Coughlin and Richie Stevens and defending winner Kurt Johnson.