Phoenix: Round two preview

QUOTABLE: Brandon Bernstein, rookie driver of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster on his outlook for the 2003 season - "We all want to go out there and win a POWERade championship. That's a goal that I have set because I know this team is capable...


Brandon Bernstein, rookie driver of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster on his outlook for the 2003 season - "We all want to go out there and win a POWERade championship. That's a goal that I have set because I know this team is capable of doing that. If we win some races along the way, then that's great. It's one of those things that we are going to be out there and we are going to try our hardest every time. Hopefully we will win races and be contenders for a POWERade championship."

Doug Herbert, the driver of the Snap-on Tools dragster who finished seventh in the final standings but was impressive in the second half of the season, winning at Sonoma and earning his first two No. 1 qualifying positions (Chicago 2 and Las Vegas 2). Herbert also made a crew chief change following the 2002 season - "We all feel real good about the new season. I'm excited about Ron Douglas being our new crew chief and being able to work with (tuning consultant) Jim Brissette again. We definitely have a good combination and a good crew to make a run for the championship. We are probably in the best position we've been in to start a new season. We don't have to start the year testing new stuff. I think our team chemistry is better than it has been. Everyone at our Cherryville (N.C.) shop is excited, which is a good sign. If I'm the only one who's enthused, it's not going to do any good. Brissette will help everyone else work together better. All-in-all, it's going to be good."

Del Worsham, the defending winner of the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals, which also is the title sponsor that backs the two Pontiac Firebirds that make up Worsham Racing. Worsham finished No. 3 in the 2002 final Funny Car standings and is considered one of the top threats to dethrone perennial champ John Force - "It's absolutely going to be the toughest year ever in the Funny Car class. There are so many good teams, and they all think they should not only be in the POWERade Top 10, but in the top five. Obviously, there's not room for 16 cars in the top five, so it's going to be incredible competition every week. We've freshened up our stuff, worked on some new things, brought out two new chassis, and we have two new Pontiac bodies for our cars, so we're ready to go for it. It's all looking very good, and I know both of our cars are going to run well, but I can't imagine there ever being an easy weekend this year. "Winning (at Phoenix) last year was one of the highlights of my career, so the only thing that could be better would be to do it again. Last year was amazing, starting with barely getting qualified for the race on the last lap. Then we got our act together and beat four great teams on Sunday, including John Force in the final round. We not only won our sponsor's race, in front of hundreds of CSK people, but we denied Force his 100th win doing it. They had to have all the hats and confetti ready for him in case he won, so it was great to make them put it all back away."

Gary Scelzi, the newest member of Schumacher Racing and driver of the Oakley Dodge Stratus R/T - "It's different looking out of the new Dodge. It's like you sit further back because the dash area is further forward. But the visibility is good and the car is really stable on the top end. It doesn't want to drift around a lot. So, it's a whole new ballgame for me. I made a couple of runs in last year's car (in 2002) and then we came back and we have the Dodges now and it's a whole different feeling. I like the feeling; it's stable. It's a great sense of security. It's a great beginning."

Jeg Coughlin, the defending NHRA POWERade Pro Stock champion and driver of the Jeg's Mail Order Chevy Cavalier on what the Jeg's team needs to succeed in 2003 in the competitive category - "The first thing we need is more power. Horsepower is king in Pro Stock and that's what it's going to take to stay on top. The second item is qualifying. I believe there will be a number of teams that will qualify at each event this year. The third thing is consistency on race day. Having consistent wins and late-round finishes will be a must to claim the top spot."

Ron Krisher, driver of the Krisher Racing Chevy Cavalier, and was the only driver to qualify for every event in 2002. He had a category-best nine No. 1 qualifying positions including the first four of the year, the top speed at nine events, and recorded the quickest elapsed time at five races. He feels horsepower will give him a boost in 2003 - "I feel that the commitment I've made to the success of the race team and the engine program is indicative of how I can conduct all of my business affairs. Everything I do I'm either successful at it, or figure out why I'm not and fix it, or go on to something where I can be successful. That's just the approach I take to everything. But in racing, I understand that it takes time and a huge investment before things start coming back your way. I don't know if we can take the championship this year or not, but I want to be at least a top-three race car at the end of the season. Our engines are fresh and ready to go, and we were able to find some more power over the winter. Plus, we have a brand-new Chevy Cavalier that's going to be awfully fast."


Passing the Budweiser Torch - Last season Kenny Bernstein ended a driving career that saw him etch his name into the NHRA record books numerous times. The first driver to eclipse the 300-mph barrier and the only driver to ever win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, Bernstein handed the keys to the famed Budweiser dragster to his son Brandon for the 2003 season and beyond. After earning the Division 7 Top Alcohol Dragster crown in 2001, the younger Bernstein spent the entire 2002 season as a crewmember on his father's team, learning the intricacies of a nitromethane powered dragster. All eyes will be on the 30-year-old as he tries to fill the legendary shadow left by his father.

The next Force? - Who will it be? Will there be another? Maybe not, but someone will be the driver to eventually dethrone the king. Force, winner of 12 NHRA POWERade championships and the last 10 in a row, didn't clinch the 2002 crown until the semifinals of the last race of the year. His teammate, Tony Pedregon presented him with quite a challenge. Tony's brother Cruz, is the only other driver other than Force to win a Funny Car title since 1990. Del Worsham, the defending winner of the Checker Schuck's Kragen Nationals who finished No. 3 in last season's standings, joins T. Pedregon as one of the young drivers aiming for the top. The 32-year-old racing veteran has 11 career wins and is a favorite to knock off Force. Whit Bazemore is another candidate to replace Force as the Funny Car champ. The outspoken Indianapolis resident won back-to-back races (Bristol, Tenn., and Atlanta) which placed him among the top three, before a slump took him out of contention. After a great showing in preseason testing, Bazemore would like nothing more than to take some of the spotlight from his rival.

World's Fastest Couple -- Rhonda Hartman-Smith and her husband John Smith, who also serves as his wife's assistant crew chief, compete against each other in separate dragsters to create an unlikely rivalry in Top Fuel. The couple travels with their young daughter Megan to each NHRA national event. Rhonda's father, Virgil, is the team owner and also works on both cars, making each race weekend a family affair.

Three For Force, Four For Schumacher - Funny Car champ John Force unveiled the first three-car team back in 2001. As teams continue to pursue the perennial champion, team-owner Don Schumacher has raised the stakes for other Funny Car competitors with his own three-car team. After fielding a formidable two-car duo last season, Schumacher snagged three-time Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi from the free agent ranks to pilot his third Funny Car, and combined with the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster driven by his son Tony, Schumacher Racing now has a four-car team.

Scelzi Returns to Funny Car Competition - Gary Scelzi, who competed in the first seven events of the 2002 season in a Funny Car, will join Whit Bazemore and Scotty Cannon in their efforts to put an end to the dominance of Force's Ford Mustangs. After obtaining his Funny Car license at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the week before the 2002 season, Scelzi experienced a tumultuous seven races in 2002 with crew chief Alan Johnson in the White Cap Toyota Celica. Scelzi amassed a 6-5 record in elimination rounds, earned a runner-up finish in his third Funny Car race, then finished out the season with consecutive DNQ's (did not qualify) at Bristol, Tenn., and Atlanta. His 228-92 career record in eliminations entering the 2003 season ranks him in the top 10 among active drivers for highest winning percentage (.713).

Mopar Switches Gears - After backing David Nickens Racing for the past few seasons, Mopar has joined forces with Pro Stock driver Allen Johnson and new teammate and long time Dodge driver Darrell Alderman. Johnson and Alderman will be one of the two two-car teams backed by Mopar. Pro Stock veteran Larry Morgan and second-year driver Gene Wilson will be the other duo to pilot the Mopar Parts Dodge Stratus' for the 2003 season. Johnson scored his first win in nearly three years in 2002 and had a career-best finish in the POWERade top 10 Pro Stock standings with little financial backing. Three-time Pro Stock champion Alderman earned one victory in 2002, his first since 1997. Morgan also ended a winless drought by visiting the winner's circle in Sonoma, his first win in eight years. Rookie Wilson finished ninth in the overall standings in the ultra-competitive category, earning three runner-up finishes, including the 2002 season-finale at Pomona Raceway.

Safety Safari-- These men and women are a team of professionals dedicated to making the sport safe for the competitors and keeping the action on the track moving for the fans. Spend the day or a few hours with this crew and watch as they take care of preparing the race track for competition, responding to crashes and cleaning up oil and debris on the racing surface.

Regarding Weather -- In drag racing weather plays a vital role as crew chiefs examine data and tune their race cars for maximum performance. Most teams have sophisticated weather stations on board their team transporters so they can access up-to-the-minute weather information as well as forecasts.


SCHEDULE: Pro qualifying sessions are scheduled for 1 and 4 p.m. on Feb. 21. Qualifying continues at 1 and 4 p.m. on Feb. 22. Final eliminations start at 11 a.m. Feb. 23.

TICKETS: Tickets are available for the 19th annual Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals. Call Firebird Raceway at (602) 268-0200, or call Ticketmaster at (480) 784-4444 or (520) 321-1000 for ticket information.

ON TV: ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying coverage of the Checker Schuck's Kragen NHRA Nationals at 11:30 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 22. ESPN2 will televise two hours of final eliminations coverage at 9 p.m. (ET) on Feb. 23.


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Series NHRA
Drivers Doug Herbert , Jeg Coughlin , Darrell Alderman , Kenny Bernstein , Tony Pedregon , Del Worsham , Whit Bazemore , John Force , Rhonda Hartman-Smith , Gary Scelzi , Ron Krisher , Larry Morgan , Scotty Cannon , Gene Wilson , Brandon Bernstein , Allen Johnson , Don Schumacher