Reading: Epler looks to keep momentum going in final stretch

MOHNTON, Pa. - Jim Epler is gaining confidence these days. With each passing race, the Phoenix driver is totaling more round wins and more victories in his WWF Racing Chevrolet Camaro. Based on his performance in recent events,...

MOHNTON, Pa. - Jim Epler is gaining confidence these days. With each passing race, the Phoenix driver is totaling more round wins and more victories in his WWF Racing Chevrolet Camaro. Based on his performance in recent events, Epler will be among the top drivers to beat at the 16th annual Keystone Nationals, Sept. 14-17, at Maple Grove Raceway. The $1.9 million race is the 18th of 23 events in the $45 million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series. Consider the statistics. He claimed his first victory of the season at Las Vegas. Then he won the prestigious U.S. Nationals, where he was also runner-up in the lucrative Budweiser Shootout. His other top finishes this season have included a runner-up effort at Brainerd, Minn., and semifinal efforts at Columbus, Ohio and Seattle. He's been the No. 1 qualifier twice. "With (Jerry) Toliver's team and the support we get from the WWF, we expect to win every race," said Epler, currently fifth in the NHRA Winston point standings. "Our car has to be one of the most consistent four-second cars out there and when guys have to race us they know they have to put down a good run to beat us." That includes John Force. The nine-time Winston champion has compiled one of the best records against Epler over the years. Until the U.S. Nationals, Epler had not beat Force in a round of racing since 1993. In the second round, Epler used a powerful run to oust Force. The victory gave Epler great satisfaction and even more confidence. "I've always dreamed of winning in Indy," said Epler. "To win the U.S. Nationals is such a huge career-builder for me. Hopefully we can keep this momentum going and keep moving up in the Winston point standings because our goal is to finish in the top three."

AMATO WANTS ANOTHER HOMESPUN WIN: Dale Earnhardt finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 after countless tries. The collective motorsports community cheered on the 'Intimidator' in an emotional chant. A similar scene took place last season at Maple Grove Raceway when hometown hero Joe Amato finally won the one race that had dodged him during his career. In 15 years of NHRA national event racing at the speedy Pennsylvania quarter-mile, the 51-time NHRA Top Fuel winner had not visited the winner's circle at his home track. Oh, he had come close on several occasions, but victory somehow eluded him. Last year, that all changed when Amato streaked to the win in front of thousands of his fans. Following the win, the five-time Winston champion wiped a bit of sweat from his forehead. Not signifying the tireless efforts for the day, but rather, the culmination of 15 years of chasing a trophy that was really tough to grab. Amato hopes to add a second Maple Grove Raceway trophy to his collection this season. "I'm really glad that we were finally able to pull it off because when the time comes for me to hang up my driving suit for good, I don't want to come back to this track and say to myself, 'It's a shame that I never won a race here'," said Amato, the Top Fuel runner-up here in 1985, '89 and '91. "It was really neat to win for all of my friends and family and my employees at Keystone Automotive."

FORCE GETTING CLOSER TO 10TH WINSTON CROWN: There is one word that John Force is saying a lot these days: Focus. It's become the battle cry for his Castrol GTX team as they prepare his ultra-quick Ford Mustang for the season's final stretch in his bid to become the second 10-time NHRA Winston champion in the history of the sport. Following the rain-delayed event in Englishtown, N.J., Force increased his lead to 222 over rival Jerry Toliver, driver of the WWF Racing Pontiac Firebird. "We just need to stay focused," said Force, who has raced to eight victories this season and recently won the $100,000 Budweiser Shootout at the U.S. Nationals. "There's still a lot of racing ahead. We need to protect our points lead and we need to beat some people so that we can help my teammate Tony Pedregon." Force, a four-time winner at Maple Grove Raceway, is cautiously optimistic about his chances for another championship. Mostly because of bad memories from 1992, the season that Cruz Pedregon put a string of victories together and overcame a huge Force lead to steal the title away. "That's how easy it can turn around," said Force of the only year in that decade he didn't claim the Funny Car crown. "I told my guys, if we go into a slump and Toliver wins a couple in a row, he's right back in it. It'd be just like 1992, when Cruz (Pedregon) won five straight races (five of the last six in the season) and caught us for the title."

SCHUMACHER FEELS MOMENTUM SWING: Tony Schumacher can feel the swing in momentum, and he thinks it's heading his way. After dropping to as low as third in the Winston championship chase a month ago, the defending series champion is making a hard charge toward a repeat championship. And he's coming full-throttle in a new machine -- 'The Sarge' -- his new U.S. Army dragster. Schumacher, runner-up here last year, has recorded victories in Brainerd, Minn. and Indianapolis to move 31 points ahead of Gary Scelzi, a six-time winner this season and points leader since late May. "Last year we left Indy with the lead and there were 10 guys that could have won the championship," said Schumacher, a four-time winner this season. "It's not as crowded this year but we still have a long way to go. Six races could make a big difference. But we're running strong and I think we have the best team out there. We have the U.S. Army and all their technology behind us. I think we've got the momentum behind us at this point."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jim Epler , Tony Pedregon , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cruz Pedregon , Jerry Toliver