Phoenix Preview

TEAMS SEEK MOMENTUM GAINS AT CHECKER SCHUCK'S KRAGEN NATIONALS CHANDLER, Ariz. -- At this point in the season, it's way too early to start predicting NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. ...

TEAMS SEEK MOMENTUM GAINS AT CHECKER SCHUCK'S KRAGEN NATIONALS CHANDLER, Ariz. -- At this point in the season, it's way too early to start predicting NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series champions in Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock. While the prize always remains clear, the focus comes in gradual stages. In fact, teams in those categories often utilize events in February and March to better develop their tune-ups for the long season ahead. Others simply need time to allow team chemistries to properly mix. Still others try radically different approaches in engine and chassis combinations, searching for a competitive edge that may be beneficial later in the year. While strategies and game plans are drawn up on paper and put into motion, one thing is clear. Teams who can find a way to win at the beginning of the season are most always in the hunt for Winston championships in November. While there are exceptions, most often winners in the first four events of the season have the best chances for obtaining Winston championship glory. Those teams catch hold of the tidal wave of momentum and refuse to let go. Its pull can be immense. The momentum gained from a victory in the early stages of the season can quite simply be the difference between winning a Winston championship and not even finishing in the Winston top 10. NHRA professional category teams will try to gain some early-season momentum at the 15th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals presented by Pennzoil, Feb. 25-28 at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix. The $1.5 million race is the second of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series for 1999. Cory McClenathan, Chuck Etchells and Warren Johnson are the event's defending champions in their respective professional categories. McClenathan, from Anaheim, Calif., won the Top Fuel title at Firebird with an impressive victory over Jim Head. McClenthan, now driving the MBNA dragster, will attempt to repeat. Two-time Winston champion Gary Scelzi, Winternationals winner Mike Dunn, Joe Amato and Larry Dixon are among McClenathan's top challengers. Etchells, from Putnam, Conn., claimed the Funny Car win over red-hot Ron Capps, who at the time was making his second final round appearance in as many races. In a battle of Chevrolet Camaros, Etchells proved to have the muscle to get the job done. This season Etchells has given up the driving duties of his Kendall Camaro to Whit Bazemore and will not seek to defend his event title. In addition to Capps, eight-time Winston champ John Force, Cruz Pedregon and Al Hofmann are all top candidates to win in Funny Car. Buford, Ga.'s Johnson drove his GM Goodwrench Pontiac Firebird to the first of his nine Pro Stock victories in 1998 with a win at this event last year. Johnson, who added Firebird International Raceway to his list of winning tracks by outrunning arch-rival Jim Yates, will try to repeat his winning ways and begin his fifth Winston championship march. Young Jeg Coughlin Jr., Richie Stevens and Kurt Johnson are among drivers in the hunt for a Pro Stock victory.

DUNN LOOKS FOR MORE SUCCESS AT CHECKER SCHUCK'S KRAGEN NATIONALS CHANDLER, Ariz. -- The streak is over. Mike Dunn, who endured a two year-plus absence from the winner's circle, ended his Top Fuel winless drought with authority at NHRA's season-opening event at Pomona Raceway, Pomona, Calif. He drove his Team Mopar Top Fuel dragster to a top qualifying, record-setting run of 4.503 seconds and put together four impressive 4.50-second runs during eliminations, culminating in a victory when he beat Larry Dixon to the finish line in the final round. It was his seventh career Top Fuel win. His team's performance was one of the most dominating Top Fuel efforts this decade. "It feels good coming off a performance like we had at Pomona," Dunn said. "Still, we realize it's going to be a long season and anything can happen. We had a great weekend at Pomona. It wasn't like we were doing anything trick, it was just that everything worked like it should have." Indeed. Now comes the task of building consistency. It's one thing to spank the competition in a dream-come-true weekend. It's altogether another thing to do it with regularity. Dunn will attempt to prove his team's effort in Southern California was no fluke at the 15th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals presented by Pennzoil, Feb. 25-28 at Firebird International Raceway, near Phoenix. The $1.5 million race is the second of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Firebird International Raceway will provide a similar setting: it's one of the quickest and fastest quarter-miles on the circuit. Dunn, who inched very close to a milestone sub 4.50-second performance in the opener, says the stage could be set at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals. "It could be soon," Dunn said. "We weren't perfect at Pomona. Our runs were very strong coming off the starting line, but we lost a little bit at the top end. If we could put together a solid run from start to finish I think running a 4.49 or 4.48 is possible. It can happen at Firebird. I would be very surprised if it doesn't happen there." Dunn, from Wrightsville, Pa., likes his chances at the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals -- to reach the elapsed time milestone and win the race. Dunn, a 1988 Funny Car winner at Firebird, says Cory McClenathan's 322.92 mph run there last year is just a preview of what fans can expect this year if the conditions are right. He says it's going to be fast -- really fast. "Usually at this time of year these cars will just fly at Phoenix," Dunn said. "It can be a tight track and pretty tricky for some teams. If the weather conditions are good, I think you'll see some strong numbers. The track is good and the racing there is definitely exciting." Dunn's strong start is no surprise to his opponents. Last year he posted four runner-up finishes, all to Winston champ Gary Scelzi. During the offseason Dunn dropped 10 pounds and rededicated himself to winning races, something he had not done since the 1996 Pennzoil Nationals in Memphis, Tenn. At Pomona, Team Mopar clicked. They hope to make that a habit in 1999. "Without a doubt this is the best start I've ever had," Dunn said. "But the season is so long and demanding. It's nice to get a good start, but there's too many good cars out here to start counting on a championship. Gary Scelzi, Larry Dixon, Kenny Bernstein and Joe Amato are after the same thing. I'd like to think we could dominate the entire season, but the competition in this category is too good for that to happen. We're in a good position, we just need to keep building and getting quicker and faster."

BAZEMORE NEW DRIVER FOR DEFENDING FUNNY CAR WINNERS AT PHOENIX CHANDLER, Ariz. -- What a difference a year makes. One year ago at Firebird International Raceway, Whit Bazemore lost in the second round to Team Chevrolet rival Chuck Etchells. While Bazemore's camp was busy loading his Team Winston Camaro onto the team transporter preparing to head to the next event, Etchells and his Kendall crew were celebrating their first victory of the season. This season, Bazemore is sitting in that winning seat. Hired during the off-season by Etchells as the new driver of the Kendall Camaro, Bazemore will try to defend his new team owner's crown at the Phoenix quarter-mile. Bazemore, 35, from Indianapolis, will be among the favorites in Funny Car heading into the 15th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals, Feb. 25-28 at Firebird International Raceway. The $1.5 million race is the second of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Bazemore, an independent team owner himself in the category since 1989, says he's looking forward to the challenge of being a driver-for-hire. "The difference now is that I have a five-time NHRA champion-winning tuner (Tim Richards) calling the shots," Bazemore said. "There's a lot of experience with this team. I think that this team is definitely more established and is a lot more experienced. The biggest difference is in the past I was part of the decision-making process. Now I'm the new guy and I've got to kind of come at home and get accepted with my new team. It's been smooth -- way smoother than I thought it was going to be." Etchells, who has put together a solid team over the last five seasons, has had very little turnover with his employees. "The key people on the Kendall team have been together for several years and that's one of the things you need to be successful in this game," Bazemore said. "You need longevity and consistency. In that respect it's a great opportunity for me." Indeed. An opportunity to drive for a team that was a contender for the Winston Funny Car championship in 1998. Etchells earned three victories in four final rounds and finished fourth in the Winston standings. Bazemore, who won one event in four final rounds, finished fifth overall. Bazemore says he feels no pressure taking over the seat for a driver that's widely regarded as one of the best. "There's no pressure," Bazemore said. "I am glad that Chuck believes in me enough to put me in his car because he's a very good driver. I've always said there's two drivers who can really pedal the car and get if from point A to point B, and that's John Force and Chuck Etchells. For Chuck to believe in me, I look at that as a feather in my cap. The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself. I've always done the best when I've been under the gun."

Bazemore and Etchells joined forces when Team Winston and Bazemore decided to part ways following the 1998 season. In motorsports these days, teams joining forces isn't anything new. The long-range plan for this union is a two-car team. "To field a championship winning team is incredibly expensive," Bazemore said. "There are three teams out here who have incredible budgets -- John Force, Don Prudhomme and the Joe Gibbs team. This was purely a business decision that Chuck made and I think it's going to work out well. What it comes down to is that you've got to have money to test and buy new technology in order to be competitive." Etchells defeated Ron Capps in the final last season at Firebird, capping a day that included round victories over Mitch McDowell, Randy Anderson and Bazemore. Bazemore is hoping to continue the Kendall Camaro's success at Firebird, but he knows just because the team earned a victory here one year ago doesn't guarantee a Phoenix win in 1999. "It's a different deal now," Bazemore said. "What they did last year is different: different car, different driver, different tuner and probably different weather conditions. You can't ever look back. It's a new day and we're going into it with the attitude that we can win every race. Phoenix can be a really fast track and we're looking forward to the race. We think we can win there, but not because Chuck won there last year. We want to prove that this team can win there this year under new circumstances." * Burst of excitement: The Etchells-Bazemore alliance is one of several early season stories that has the Funny Car pits buzzing with excitement. Funny Car rookie Scotty Cannon, a multi-time IHRA Pro Mod champion, and new WWF-sponsored Pontiac driver Jerry Toliver have grabbed their share of headlines. Cannon, from Lyman, S.C., sports a Mohawk haircut and drives a wildly-painted Pontiac Firebird with sponsorship from Oakley. Toliver has already been fitted for his own personal NHRA WWF championship belt. "There's some new faces and some excitement in Funny Car this year and we're glad to be a part of that excitement," Bazemore said. "One thing about this sport is that no matter who you are, you have to pay your dues sooner or later. These new guys are talking big and they're flashy and have wild-looking haircuts, but that's OK. Bring 'em on. It's exciting for the class."

YATES READY TO RETURN TO HEAD OF PRO STOCK CLASS CHANDLER, Ariz. -- For two-time Winston Pro Stock champion Jim Yates, the desire to work his way back to the head of the class is as intense as ever. To do it, he'll have to outsmart the 'Professor', defending Winston champ Warren Johnson. At the season-opening Winternationals in Pomona, Yates qualified mid-pack, but was impressive on race day, advancing to the semi-finals with a second round holeshot win over arch-rival Johnson. Although he missed a trip to the final round compliments of young Troy Coughlin, the victory over 1998 Pro Stock dominator Johnson was very important for Yates, who finished fourth in the Winston standings one year ago during a season that featured a single victory, four runner-up finishes and three uncharacteristic DNQs. Yates, who last won at the 1998 Winternationals, hopes to end his drought from the winner's circle at the 15th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at Firebird International Raceway. The $1.5 million race is the second of 22 events in the $40 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

"They've (the competition) been predicting our demise for two years now," said Yates, 45, from Alexandria, Va. "Since Richard (Maskin) and I parted ways they just keep predicting doom. But this team I put together is working hard and we just won't quit. We try not to pay attention to all the talk, but sometimes it does get under your skin. We're just trying to focus our energies on running fast and winning races." In 1998 Yates was quick at the beginning of the season, but wasn't quick enough to qualify for national events at Richmond, Va., Chicago and Sonoma, Calif. Following his opening season win, other highlights included final round appearances at Phoenix, Gainesville, Fla., Columbus, Ohio and Dallas' Revell Nationals. While catching Johnson would have been impossible, he only finished 140 points out of second, despite the three miscues. "We could have fixed a few minor things and finished second, we realize that," Yates said. "It would have been tough to win the championship because Warren had one of his best seasons. The competition was tough for second place, but a few less mistakes and we could have finished right behind Warren. During the off-season we just looked in the mirror and said it was our fault for not winning the championship. The day we start blaming our competition for not winning the championship is the day we don't stand a chance of winning it." Yates enjoys racing at Firebird International Raceway; he's made three consecutive final round appearances at the track, winning there in 1996 and 1997. He's very optimistic about his chances of putting his Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird in victory lane. "Historically we do very well during the first three races of the year," Yates said. "Pomona, Phoenix and Gainesville are tracks that play right into our hands. We have a very good combination for Firebird so I believe we have a good chance of doing well at Phoenix." * Pulling levers: With air-shifters ruled out for Pro Stock in 1999, drivers now must shift their cars manually. Yates says it has been fun returning to the basics. "It's a real thrill to drive the car now," Yates explained. "It makes the trip go by a lot faster and I think it puts the driver more in control of the car. Obviously Warren has pulled levers for a long time and is good at it. Jeg seems to have that youth-experience thing going and seems to be able to adapt to whatever situation you put him in. I think the guys who are going to run in front of the pack and contend for the championship won't be affected by (the rule change)." CHECKER SCHUCK'S KRAGEN NATIONALS GENERAL INFORMATION * Schedule: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. (PST) on Feb. 26 and at 11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. Final professional eliminations start at 11 a.m. Feb. 28. Federal-Mogul competition starts at 9 a.m. Feb. 25. * Tickets: Tickets are available for the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals. Call (602) 268-0200 for ticket information. * On TV: TNN will televise 90 minutes of tape-delayed highlights and final round competition from the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals at noon (ET/PT) March 7. TNN will show a repeat of the program on March 14 at 12:00 a.m. (ET).

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jim Head , Troy Coughlin , Larry Dixon , Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Kurt Johnson , Warren Johnson , Al Hofmann , Whit Bazemore , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Chuck Etchells , Scotty Cannon , Cruz Pedregon , Cory McClenathan , Don Prudhomme , Tim Richards , Jerry Toliver