Phoenix: Johnny Gray goes 'blue' for 2002

CHANDLER, Ariz. - It may have taken 33 years, but Johnny Gray believes he made his biggest career move last November. He took over the driving duties of the blue Checker Schuck's Kragen Pontiac Firebird for the Worsham family. Gray and teammate...

CHANDLER, Ariz. - It may have taken 33 years, but Johnny Gray believes he made his biggest career move last November. He took over the driving duties of the blue Checker Schuck's Kragen Pontiac Firebird for the Worsham family.

Gray and teammate Del Worsham will try and make an early impression in the Funny Car category when they compete at the 18th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals, Feb. 21-24, at Firebird International Raceway. The race is the second of 23 events in the $50 million NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series.

Gray, from Carlsbad, N.M., replaced Frank Pedregon in the driver's seat after the two parties involved decided to part ways so Pedregon could pursue other interests. Gray was among a handful of drivers considered for the position by Del and his father Chuck and was selected to pilot the Pontiac at the NHRA's final event of 2001.

"I've driven stock cars, sprint cars, open wheel cars, and just about everything you could ever put on a drag strip," said the 48-year-old gray. "I'm not exaggerating when I say that joining the Worsham team is the biggest step in my career. There are a lot of great teams out here, and a lot of great people in this sport. You're in a pretty special place when you get to join a program that fits both of those descriptions."

The Worsham family and Gray intend on having an immediate impact on the Funny Car category and improve on last year's performance. Del finished a career-best third in the standings, setting a personal high of four wins, while Pedregon finished seventh and won the $100,000 Budweiser Shootout at Indianapolis.

"I don't make predictions, I just do the best I can and trust the people around me to do the same," said Gray. "If we do that, we'll be a contending car every weekend, and I think we'll be right in the middle of it all year in terms of POWERade points. I'm just thrilled to be part of this program."

Gray competed in 23 of the 24 events in 2001, his first full season behind the wheel of the 6,000 horsepower Funny Car. He has experience in seven NHRA categories and has wins in both Alcohol Dragster and Alcohol Funny Car. Gray is hoping that his experience paired with the necessary budget will result in the winning combination needed to be a contender.

A repeat performance of 2001 will be difficult considering the stiff competition the two-car CSK team will be facing. Schumacher racing has added Scotty Cannon to their Funny Car stable with title challenger Whit Bazemore, while the three cars of Force Racing are always considered dangerous. In 2001 the first four-second Funny Car field was set (Phoenix) and the quickest 16-car order was established on nine different occasions. Nothing will be coming easy.

"I think the competition this year is going to be tough," said Gray. "Last year was tough, I think the toughest in the history of Funny Car racing, and I'd expect 2002 to be more of the same. The Worsham team ended up with both cars solidly in the Top 10, and I expect us to be there again. I'll just do my best as the driver, and (crew chief) Dave Fletcher and the crew will take care of the rest."

SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying is scheduled for 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 22 and Feb. 23. Final professional eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Feb. 24.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 18th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals. Call the Firebird Raceway ticket office at (602) 268-0200, or Ticketmaster, for ticket information.

TELEVISION: ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 9 p.m. (ET) on Feb 23. ESPN2 will televise three hours of eliminations at 7 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 24. NHRA 2Day, a weekly 30-minute magazine show, will air Feb. 24 on ESPN2 at 11 a.m. (ET).

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Frank Pedregon , Del Worsham , Scotty Cannon , Johnny Gray