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SCELZI AND TEAM WINSTON FEELING CONFIDENT ABOUT STRETCH RUN READING, Pa. -- Don't look now, but here comes Gary Scelzi. Following a sluggish start to the 1998 season, the defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion has begun to...

SCELZI AND TEAM WINSTON FEELING CONFIDENT ABOUT STRETCH RUN

READING, Pa. -- Don't look now, but here comes Gary Scelzi.

Following a sluggish start to the 1998 season, the defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion has begun to pick up speed as the season heads into the bottom of the ninth. With only six races to go, Scelzi and his Team Winston crew have moved into second place in the Winston point standings, 20 behind leader Cory McClenathan.

Back-to-back victories at Brainerd, Minn.'s VisionAire NorthStar Nationals and the prestigious U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis have given the team a much needed boost. In drag racing, momentum is everything. At this point, Team Winston has a ton of it.

Scelzi and company will try for a third straight victory at the 14th annual Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals, Sept. 17-20 at Maple Grove Raceway. The $1.6 million race is the 17th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

One year ago heading into this event, Scelzi was the hunted. Now, he's turned the tables on McClenathan.

"I'd rather be chased," Scelzi admits. "When you're leading you just worry about holding on to the lead. When you're chasing you're wondering if you'll be able to catch him. When you get on a roll like we are, it's a lot of fun. You feed off that energy and it builds at every event. It makes it exciting. This is really a good time to hit your stride."

McClenathan's winning rampage at the beginning of the season stole most of the headlines, and Joe Amato's sudden burst midway through the year attracted a lot of attention as well, but Scelzi and Team Winston remained steady, picking up many needed round wins along the way.

"Everybody has said we're having a bad season and talking about the sophomore jinx and all that, but we've won three races and been to four final rounds," said Scelzi, of Fresno, Calif. "The objective is to be in the thick of things at the end of the season and we're there. It doesn't matter how you get there, it's just important that you make it. I don't see it as being a bad season at all."

After being as far back as ninth in the Winston standings at one point during the year, Team Winston made steady gains. During a four race span from Richmond, Va.'s Pennzoil Nationals to Chicago's FRAM Route 66 Nationals the team appeared in three semi-finals and had one runner-up finish. When Scelzi looks back on the season, the team's consistent performance during those races was critical.

"That was a real important stretch," Scelzi said. "Alan had changed some things on the car and it took it a while to work. Like I've said before, we had intermittent problems. Those are hard to find. Alan has got a handle on all the new stuff he's put on the car and now it is consistent. The driver has seemed to improve with the car and everything has come together for us at this point in the season. I think we're in good shape right now."

With some of NHRA's premier speedplants coming up on the schedule, Scelzi feels like the shootout for the Winston title will be a real gunslinger's affair.

"We're going to come into some race tracks where power plays a key role," said Scelzi, who lost to Joe Amato in the first round at Maple Grove last year. "It's actually easier for a lot of people to just unload and run fast. Some of the guys that are middle of the pack will load their cars up with a lot of power and try to take out the big guys. I look forward to the race tracks coming up because Alan is a big power builder. He's not a hit and miss, he's a consistent tuner. So if we go fast qualifying, normally we're going to go fast during eliminations. He's really good at reading race tracks. I think that plays into our favor."

While McClenathan has the lead and Scelzi is only one round away from the top spot, he knows the battle isn't going to be a two-man fight like last year. As many as five drivers are in contention.

"Jimmy Prock (Amato crew chief) can make a lot of horsepower and really drop jaws," Scelzi said. "In the blink of an eye they could run low ET of the universe when you don't expect it to happen. Kenny Bernstein is a spoiler. Mike Dunn is right there. Then, there's a couple of cars out there like Dave Grubnic, who's capable of running a low .60. He's a spoiler.

"I'd say there's six or seven cars that could win any race. Then there's three or four that could ruin one of our days. The only good thing about it is it could happen to any one of us. It's just a matter of the way the cards fall. Whoever wins the Winston championship this year, it's going to be well deserved. It's more of a battle for the fans and it's definitely hard on the drivers and teams. But the satisfaction we could get from winning when it's all over makes it all worthwhile."

He is very confident that the team's goal can be attained.

"We know it's a very doable thing to win the Winston championship," Scelzi said. "It helps your confidence knowing you've done it before. I don't want to quit signing my name with the No. 1 on it. I think this team deserves it. I think we're that good. We just have to see if luck is going to be on our side, get the breaks when we need them and as far as performance goes I think we can swing as hard as anybody."

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Series NHRA
Drivers Mike Dunn , Kenny Bernstein , Joe Amato , Gary Scelzi , Cory McClenathan