Pontiac Teams Eye Second Half of the Season

BRISTOL, Tenn. - After five months, 11 races and a bundle of emotional ups and downs, the 22-event NHRA championship tour has reached its halfway point with the conclusion of the Sears Craftsman Nationals in Madison, Ill. The series will ...

BRISTOL, Tenn. - After five months, 11 races and a bundle of emotional ups and downs, the 22-event NHRA championship tour has reached its halfway point with the conclusion of the Sears Craftsman Nationals in Madison, Ill. The series will pause to celebrate its very own version of the "All Star" break at the non-points Winston "No Bull" Challenge at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tenn., on July 8 - 10. So far in 1999, Pontiac has won 10 professional events, competed in 16 final rounds and taken the No. 1 qualifying position nine times. The Sportsman racers have added another 19 national event wins for Pontiac which has helped to give the Detroit automobile manufacturer a substantial lead in its quest for a fourth consecutive NHRA Manufacturer's Cup. In Pro Stock, four-time Winston champion (1992-93, 1995, 1998) Warren Johnson is well out in front of the rest of the field as he works feverishly to win another title. The "Professor of Pro Stock" has won five races in five final rounds (Gainesville, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago, Columbus), taken the No. 1 qualifying position eight times and charged to the top speed of the race at all 11 events. On April 30 at the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., Johnson drove his GM Goodwrench Service Plus Pontiac Firebird to a new national top-speed record at 202.24 mph. He currently has 910 points, 179 points more than his nearest competitor and teammate, Kurt Johnson. "This GM Goodwrench Firebird is turning out to be a pretty good hot-weather car," Johnson said. "Probably better than what we expected, but it's taken us a while to get there. Even in St. Louis where we qualified so poorly, when it came time to race, we got it together and were the quickest car of the first session, but unfortunately we were just gunned down. "It helps us from a team standpoint in that we were able to put all of the nuts and bolts together and get the car to go down the racetrack even in the bad lane. That run was significantly faster than anybody else in that lane. From a confidence standpoint and going into Bristol, we don't enjoy the loss, but at least the team was able to bring everything together and make this Firebird competitive." Two-time Winston champion (1996-97) Jim Yates got his first win of the season at the Sears Craftsman Nationals. The Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird driver has been sneaking up on a winning combination all season long and in St. Louis he finally hit paydirt. He has advanced to no less than the semifinals on five different occasions and has qualified in the top half of the field at six events. On April 30, he became a member of the Speed-Pro 200 mph Pro Stock Club, eclipsing the timing sensors with a career-best top speed of 200.11 mph. He is currently third in the Winston standings with 644 points. "Everybody on this team works very hard and it makes it easier when you're winning races," Yates said. "We learned that for two years when we won 18 races during that time frame. So no matter how hard we worked, we were only a couple of weeks away from some recognition. We've gone the last year-and-a-half without winning and some people have basically counted us down and out. That has everyone working even harder and even though we recognize it on the team, others outside our camp may not see it. To come to St. Louis and win with everyone working as hard as they are just gives the whole team that little extra pat on the back. "Bob Ingles (engine builder) has been busting his tail getting the motors to work right, and we've done a lot of work on trying to get a combination that will work in these air conditions. It's been difficult, but this Splitfire/Peak Pontiac Firebird is a good racecar to put that combination in. I'm driving well and all of the ingredients are in place for us to make a run to the front. This team just sticks together and that's what we need to do to stay competitive." Another racer to watch as the season heads into its second half is Summit Racing Pontiac pilot Mark Pawuk. Currently ninth in the standings with 472 points, Pawuk has qualified his Firebird in the top half of the field at nine of the first 11 races of the year and has been a top-five qualifier at five events. At the Pennzoil Nationals in Richmond, Va., he set a career-best elapsed time at 6.883 seconds and joined the Speed-Pro 200 mph Pro Stock Club with a career-best top speed of 200.08 mph. "We know that the Summit Racing Firebird is a fast racecar, so it's disappointing when you don't see the results that you would like. I'm trying as hard as I can, and the guys are doing a terrific job preparing this Pontiac. When guys cut 4-0 lights against you there's not much you can do but keep working at it. "We'll stay positive, keep charging forward and we'll get some breaks to fall our way one of these days. We're going to test in Denver and then we're going to Bristol for the Winston Showdown. I think Bristol's a race that we can win. Denver's one of those racetracks that you have to test at before you race there. We went there early last year because we hadn't qualified for that event in about three years and ended up running real fast. We went to the semifinals and that's the last time that we have done that. Maybe we can get on a roll there." This season, Tom Martino has a runner-up finish (Englishtown) and recently advanced to the semifinals at the Sears Craftsman Nationals at Madison, Ill. The New Jersey native hopes a new racecar will be the key to a future victory and a top-10 finish in the points standings. "Since we didn't expect to do as well as we did in St. Louis, we're pretty pleased with the way things turned out," Martino said. "We were so far behind on the tune up when we got there on Thursday. The reason we haven't run well at the last three races is that the fuel regulator was throwing us off. I never even thought it might be that, so we kept putting more and more fuel in it, and it would go a little faster, but it was a pooch down the back half. Now we've got that figured out along with some transmission problems we were experiencing. If things are coming around the way they seem to be, this Century 21 Pontiac Firebird is going to be a competitive racecar." Steve Schmidt, Bruce Allen, Mike Thomas and George Marnell are all confident that a win is just around the corner for their programs. "After our weekend in St. Louis, we have a lot of positives to build on," explained Allen. "I feel pretty good about the way the Outlaw Pontiac Firebird is starting to run. We're going to Denver early to get ready for the Mile-High Nationals and we'll test to see if we can't get a leg up on the competition. If you don't go there early you can really get behind the eight ball. The setup is completely different; transmission, rear end, engine combination, it's all different there. Being able to get a few runs in and getting the confidence that you can run there is a tremendous boost when you do finally show up to race." In Funny Car, Interstate Batteries Pontiac Firebird driver Tommy Johnson, Jr. is getting acclimated to his new racecar. After experiencing some growing pains at the Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, the former Top Fuel Dragster driver nailed down the team's first No. 1 qualifying position of the year at the Sears Craftsman Nationals with an event-best elapsed time of 4.897 seconds. "After this weekend I feel good enough about driving this car that I don't even think about it. Now I'm thinking about what I have to do at the starting line and what I have to do to cut a good light. At Columbus I was more concerned with keeping it in the groove than I was about what I was doing at the starting line. This weekend that was all reversed. I'm as comfortable driving this car as I was driving the dragster. It's nice to get that out of the way. Now I can just get in the car and concentrate on racing. "The guys have told me that the training wheels are off now so we'll be going after it pretty hard. We'd like to get the Interstate Batteries Pontiac back into the top 10 in points, and even though that's going to be tough, a couple of wins would also be nice. I expect this Firebird to be running pretty fast at the next couple of races." Tim Wilkerson got his first career win at the Fram Route 66 Nationals last month. After getting his initial victory out of the way, don't expect the JCIT Pontiac Firebird driver to be a stranger to the winner's circle. This year, the Springfield, Ill., native won the pole position at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta, has qualified in the top half at seven races and in the top four of the 16-car field five times. In addition to his win in Chicago, Wilkerson was runner up in Columbus to Phil Burkhart, and advanced to the semifinals at Englishtown. The hard work over the last two months by the Terry Manzer led crew is starting to pay off. Wilkerson is currently fourth in the Winston standings with 561 points. "We've always had the ability to win races, but unfortunately the breaks just didn't go our way when we needed them to," Wilkerson said. "It's a total team effort with the JCIT Demand Flow Racing program, there's no doubt about that. The guys work flawlessly together. You never see our car go up there and leak, or have something fall off, or have the headers loose, or have the clutch valve malfunctioning. I don't have those excuses. The blame is never pointed at what the team does and that's a good thing. Either Tim Wilkerson messed up or the tune up wasn't right. Terry (Manzer) can tell you when I win or lose a race for him, and I can tell you when he wins or loses a race for me. "I think we're going rounds because we have two or three people, myself, Terry Manzer and John Stewart, who combined, have a nice memory bank that we can call on when we need it. We remind each other of certain situations when things either went right or went wrong. That's all we do. We're not afraid to communicate, we're not afraid to hurt anybody's feelings, and we're not afraid to get our feelings hurt. Because it's not about that. It's about getting this Pontiac Firebird down the racetrack." Dale Creasy Jr. and the Mad Magazine Firebird continue to qualify and run strong. With the exception of the Pontiac Excitement Nationals, the team from Lansing, Ill., has qualified at every event. Their best effort this year was at the Southern Nationals in Atlanta where they started from the No. 9 position and advanced to the second round. At Houston in April, Creasy ran his career- best elapsed time at 5.017 seconds. "We've been struggling since late last month because we got a little bit lost in the power department," Creasy said. "We just didn't have enough in it. We looked at everything in St. Louis and decided to throw more coal onto the furnace. We threw a lot of motor at the racetrack and adjusted the clutch accordingly. We must have lost track of that for awhile. There was one race that we didn't qualify for and hopefully that won't happen again. We won't be going to Bristol, but the Mad Magazine Firebird will be ready for Denver. Now we have a baseline and a working computer to tune from so we just may surprise somebody." Del Worsham and his Checker Schuck's Kragen Firebird are eighth in the Winston Funny Car standings. The "California Kid" can attribute his success this year to the fact that he's qualified his Pontiac at every event with his best effort coming at Houston where he advanced to the semifinals. At that same event, he chalked up a career-best elapsed time at 4.967 seconds, and two weeks later in Dallas, Worsham ran his career-best top speed at 308.32 mph. "It seems that we're right on the edge of getting on a good streak," Worsham said. "So far, we've been able to qualify at every race this year, and there are only about four of five guys left who can make that claim. If we can continue to qualify and combine that with some semi-final finishes and a couple of wins, then I think we can put the Checker Schuck's Kragen Firebird in the top five. All you have to do is take a look at the standings to see that we're only 100 points out of fourth place. There's a big traffic jam here in the middle of the pack, and the upcoming Western swing should ease a little bit of the congestion and spread things out." Al Hofmann is also confident that he can keep his own streak alive. He has raced in a Funny Car final round every year since 1991 and has won at least one race in seven of the last eight race seasons. "We need to see if we can't get this Firebird to go down the racetrack on all eight cylinders," Hofmann said. "At the beginning of the year we were fighting clutch problems and now we can't seem to get enough horsepower in it. We've actually had some pockets of success where we get the car running strong, we've just had trouble putting four good runs in a row together." In Top Fuel, Cory McClenathan's MBNA/Pontiac team has gone through some changes with Rick Cassel taking over the reigns as crew chief. In St. Louis, McClenathan's dragster qualified fourth and advanced to round three before losing to race winner Gary Scelzi. Even though Cory Mac is eighth in the Top Fuel championship standings with 603 points, he is less than nine rounds, or 179 points out of first place. "We really can't complain about our performance at St. Louis," McClenathan said. "The MBNA/Pontiac seems to have really turned around. We all know it takes time with a new crew chief and new people, but the car ran good all weekend at Gateway. We put ourselves in a position where we wanted to run 4.57 or 4.58 and we had to go for it. It's just one of those deals. I'm happy with this race car but it sure would be nice to put it back in the winner's circle for all of our sponsors. Maybe we can do it in Bristol. For $200,000 I would like nothing more than to beat John Force in the final." The next stop on the tour is the Winston "No Bull" Showdown on July 8-10 at Bristol Dragway in Bristol, Tenn. This race is a special non-points event where Top Fuel cars will race Funny Cars for a winner's payday of $200,000. Pro Stock competitors will race each other for a winner's prize of $50,000. ESPN will have same-day coverage of the Winston "No Bull" Showdown on Saturday, July 10. Check your local listings for specific times and air dates.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mike Thomas , Mark Pawuk , Kurt Johnson , Al Hofmann , Del Worsham , Gary Scelzi , Dale Creasy Jr. , Cory McClenathan , Bruce Allen , Tom Martino , Tim Wilkerson , George Marnell , Cory Mac , Steve Schmidt