Phoenix: Russell, Amato elimination recap

Patient Amato still optimistic about team PHOENIX (Feb. 24) -- Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell's trip to Firebird International Raceway for the 18th annual Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals wasn't nearly as fruitful as his last stop in the ...

Patient Amato still optimistic about team

PHOENIX (Feb. 24) -- Top Fuel driver Darrell Russell's trip to Firebird International Raceway for the 18th annual Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals wasn't nearly as fruitful as his last stop in the Arizona desert. One month ago, Russell and his Bilstein Engine Flush teammates recorded their career-best quarter-mile numbers during an extended testing session. This time around they struggled to qualify for the event and were then dismissed in today's opening session of eliminations. They remain winless on the young season.

Fortunately for Russell and crew, the Bilstein team is owned by the NHRA's winningest Top Fuel driver of all time, legend Joe Amato. The 52-time national event winner knows how to handle the down times all race teams encounter and he remains bullish on the future of his Rookie of the Year driver and crew, which is led by crew chief Jimmy Walsh.

"We just don't have the combination we need yet," Amato said. "It would have been easy to come out this year and run the same numbers we were running a year ago. But we were a sixth-place car running five to 10 hundredths of a second behind the No. 1 guy. We're out here to win the POWERade championship so we made the decision to step it up and try to get this car to consistently run like the other cars in the 4.4-second club.

"We tested really well here and I think it kind of threw us a curve because the track was so good and the air was perfect back then. Now we're here in the real world and we're struggling. When this happens you just have back up a bit and try to simply what you're doing by going back to the basics. Then you work from there and fix your problems. We'll be fine."

Russell, a 33-year-old from Houston, actually led his race today against Kalitta after jumping out to a marginal .009-second headstart. But the Bilstein dragster soon lost traction, which allowed Kalitta by for the lead. Smoke then began pouring from Kalitta's car and Russell tried mightily to track him down but simply ran out of race track. The final numbers showed Kalitta winning with a 4.750 at 305.15 mph in front of Russell's 5.029 at 276.52 mph.

"I couldn't see or hear him until I started rattling the tires and he darted by," Russell said. "Then I saw the smoke coming out of his headers so I pedaled [the accelerator] and started catching back up to him. If the track were a little longer I might have caught him. We've already decided to stay and test so we'll run this thing until we have it figured out."

The elimination rounds of the 18th annual Checker-Schuck's-Kragen Nationals air today on ESPN2 from 7-10 p.m. locally. The entire program will be repeated from 3-6 a.m. Tuesday.

-jmr-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Joe Amato