Phoenix: GM Racing preview

Confidence Runs High For GM Racers Bound For 21st Annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals PHOENIX, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2005 - If the performance in Pro Stock at the recent NHRA Winternationals at Pomona Raceway is an accurate early indicator,...

Confidence Runs High For GM Racers Bound For 21st Annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals

PHOENIX, Ariz., Feb. 18, 2005 - If the performance in Pro Stock at the recent NHRA Winternationals at Pomona Raceway is an accurate early indicator, then it appears that the competition has once again tightened up for the factory hot rods. Some familiar names and faces out of the GM Racing camp reemerged at the front of the qualifying bracket, and the quality and quantity of Pontiacs and Chevrolets flexing their raceday muscle suggests that anyone in this hotly-contested class has a shot at the 2005 POWERade championship.

"We ran a lot better at Pomona than we have in the last two years," said Pontiac Grand Am driver Jim Yates. "The most exciting part about it is that it looks like we have some potential. The engine we have from Steve Schmidt has a lot of power and ran excellent all day during eliminations. The only problem we ran into was trying to adapt the car to the changing conditions and the slicker racing surface you encounter when you advance to the second round of eliminations. But it's a been a long time since we've raced so competitively on Sunday, and as we continue to go rounds, we'll get better and better at adjusting.

"We've had a lot of good years, we won the championship in '96 and '97, and we finished second in a couple of close points chases in 2001 and 2002, but the last two years we have truly struggled - I'll be the first one to tell you that. We put a lot of energy into our program over the winter, and to go to Pomona and run as well as we did made it truly enjoyable."

The Winternationals were a reawakening for Jim Yates and his Grand Am race team. Yates rallied during the Saturday afternoon round of qualifying at Pomona to capture his first raceday pole since the NHRA Nationals in Reading, Pa., in Sept. 2002. The two-time NHRA Pro Stock champion (1996-97) drove his Pontiac to a career-best elapsed time of 6.669 seconds, advanced into the second round of eliminations and left California in fifth place in the POWERade standings.

"This new Grand Am only has about 20 runs on it," said Yates. "That's very unusual for us to race a car with so few runs on it, so we needed every lap we could muster out of the track at Pomona. On Sunday we got behind the curve, but now that we know what the car likes, hopefully we can be better at adapting when we get to Phoenix. We haven't had a lot of opportunities to run on a track surface like the one at Pomona so it was good for us to go a couple of rounds, and then when we go to Phoenix we'll work on improving that.

"We have a lot to get done in the next few days. Steve has another engine he's trying to put together and we have some issues we have to correct in the car, just trying to get things in proper working order. But as low as we've been, and as much as we've questioned ourselves during the last two-and-a-half years, our performance at Pomona gives us a lot of confidence."

Another familiar GM champion who successfully battled his way back to the top at Pomona was Warren Johnson, a six-time NHRA Pro Stock title holder (1992-93, '95, '98-'99, '01). Johnson drove his GM Performance Parts Pontiac to his third consecutive final-round appearance at the Winternationals, his 144th all-time, and continued a streak that now stands at 24 consecutive seasons in which he's advanced to at least one final round.

"We went to Pomona with a car with no full passes on it and two engine combinations," said Johnson. "Getting both Kurt's and my cars to the semifinals, and the GM Performance Parts Pontiac to the finals paints a pretty rosy picture for the road ahead for our team.

"I'm still not completely used to this car, as I'm sitting over to the left about an inch and a quarter further. However, given these initial results with relatively untested equipment, give us time and this GM Performance Parts team will give them something to talk about."

Not to be completely outdone, ACDelco Chevy Cavalier driver Kurt Johnson posted a career-best and track-record elapsed time of 6.692 seconds during a round one win over Greg Anderson. Johnson advanced to the semifinals (losing to Warren Johnson) and left Pomona third in the Pro Stock standings. Johnson is the defending champion at the upcoming CSK Nationals last year, and he also won the race in 1999.

"We just wanted to get a good baseline with this piece, the new GEN III (DRCE III) stuff, and get it to where we can make good calls," said Johnson. "When we left Pomona last November, we decided to change everything - there wasn't one thing I liked. We knew our Chevrolet was a good car so we just worked on motor stuff. We bet the farm on the DRCE III this winter, and fortunately, it panned out." Although he's become a familiar figure in Pro Stock during the last 18 months, Pomona race winner and current points leader Dave Connolly finds himself in unfamiliar territory atop the Pro Stock standings. Connolly is the only driver other than Greg Anderson to occupy the lead position since Anderson took over first place in Columbus, Ohio in June of 2003.

"As tough as Pro Stock is going to be this year, it's a great feeling to already get our first win," said Connolly. "It's a long season, but right now we're on top and we'll enjoy it for as long as we can. Warren Johnson has accomplished so much in his career that to be able to race him in the finals at Pomona is a great feeling. To be able to beat him and out run him like we did says a lot about our whole team. There are still some things we want to try on the car, but today our Chevy Cavalier ran flawlessly."

The 22-year-old Connolly qualified his Bill Jenkins-powered Chevy Cavalier in the No. 4 position at Pomona and over the four eliminator rounds, his consistent Chevrolet posted an average elapsed time of 6.708 seconds.

"When you have to make big changes it makes it easier when you can fine tune on a good baseline," said Connolly. "At Pomona, we made a series of great runs and to be honest it's hard to find anything to complain about. Grump (Bill Jenkins) had the motors humming, and Terry (Adams) did a great job adjusting our Chevrolet so we were able to adapt pretty quickly and effectively when the conditions kept changing. It's just an awesome beginning to the 2005 season."

Mike Edwards' had the Young Life Pontiac on the provisional pole after the first day of qualifying at Pomona. Although he eventually was bumped down to the No. 8 starting position, it marked the seventh consecutive race dating back to last year's U.S. Nationals that Edwards' Pontiac has qualified in the top half of the field, and suggests that the performance the Oklahoma native found in '04 is here to stay.

"If you look at the cars that were at the top in qualifying and the other cars that seemed to be competitive, then it appears that this season may shake out to be an exciting one for the fans and the class," said Edwards. "But the bottom line is that the people who work the hardest and do the best job are the ones that are rewarded with good performance and wins. If you're going to be successful in this category then it's a full-time 24/7 occupation.

"We were pretty disappointed that we fell out of the top 10 last year. Our Grand Am ran fast and qualified pretty well after midyear, but for some reason we weren't able to put everything together on Sunday. We had parts failure, or driver failure or we just couldn't put it all together. The good thing though is that some of that performance we had toward the end of the year has carried over and we saw that on the racecar at Pomona. We're hoping to get back into the top 10 this year, win a race or two and see how we stack up at the end of the season."

While the rest of the Pro Stock field appears to have made tremendous gains in the offseason, defending two-time champion Greg Anderson isn't conceding anything just yet. Anderson qualified seventh at Pomona, his worst effort since the '03 Winternationals when he started from the No 9 position, and failed to advance to the finals at Pomona for the first time since that same event.

"We won one round but committed too many errors," said Anderson. "We have to go back, settle down and get our game face back on. I guess they ruffled our feathers and we can't let that happen. We'll regroup and be ready for Phoenix. The pieces are all there, we just have to get all the round pegs in the round holes and the square pegs in the square holes.

"I'm not satisfied with anything right now whether it's the car, or the engines or the drivers, to be honest with you. You add it all up and you're not going to go anywhere in this class. You need to have everything perfect and regardless of how many times we won last year, it wasn't because one thing was great. Everything worked together, everything was good and that's what it will take to win in 2005. This race gives us a tremendous incentive to get our noses back to the grindstone and should make everyone on this team hungry again. It definitely makes me hungry, that's for sure."

The 21st annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals on Feb. 25 - 27 at Firebird International Raceway in Phoenix, Ariz., is the second of the 23 events on the NHRA POWERade tour. Qualifying can be seen on ESPN2 on Saturday, Feb. 26, beginning at 9 p.m. Eastern. A three-hour broadcast of final eliminations can be seen on ESPN2 on Sunday, Feb. 27 starting at 7 p.m. Eastern.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Warren Johnson , Greg Anderson , Steve Schmidt , Dave Connolly , Mike Edwards