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NHRA Pro Stock points race a dead heat - Coughlin, Anderson, Yates Battle for the lead. READING, Pa., Sept. 12, 2002 - The clock is ticking. After 17 national events and an eight-month, ferocious on-track battle, the Pro Stock points race is a...

NHRA Pro Stock points race a dead heat - Coughlin, Anderson, Yates Battle for the lead.

READING, Pa., Sept. 12, 2002 - The clock is ticking. After 17 national events and an eight-month, ferocious on-track battle, the Pro Stock points race is a virtual dead heat - and time is running out. Only six races are left on the NHRA POWERade tour and half of the remaining schedule will be completed when the next three races are run on consecutive weekends at Maple Grove, Memphis and Chicago. These are races that could go a long way in determining the next NHRA Pro Stock points champion, but don't count on it.

A mere nine points is all that separates the first three drivers in the Pro Stock standings. Jeg Coughlin Jr. leads with 1097 points, Greg Anderson is in second place with 1096 points and Jim Yates is in third place with 1088 points.

The hottest driver on the circuit right now is Jeg Coughlin Jr. The Jeg's Mail Order Chevy Cavalier driver has scored four victories in the last six races including his most recent win at the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. Since his first victory of the year at the Craftsman Nationals in St. Louis, the 2000 NHRA Pro Stock champion has rattled off 18 round wins and moved from sixth place to the lead position.

"It's going to be an exciting battle all the way to Pomona," explained Coughlin. "And even though Warren (Johnson) is back in fourth place you can't count him out either. What's most important is that we get qualified at every remaining event, and from there it will probably take an average of a semifinal finish to get the job done. As competitive as the class is, to do that for the next six races is going to be a tall order.

"There are a lot of drivers right now who are doing a great job behind the wheel and who are being extremely aggressive. That's making it exciting for the fans, and to some degree, for the teams as well. We're going to some fast tracks where we've had quite a bit of success in the past and we're up for the task at hand."

In addition to his four race wins this season, Coughlin posted runner-up finishes at Gainesville, Fla., and Englishtown, N.J, and so far, his 29 round wins are the most in the category. Coughlin is also the elapsed-time national-record holder, a feat he accomplished last year at Maple Grove Raceway after driving his Chevy Cavalier to a 6.750-second run.

"We've been quite confident," said Coughlin. "Even before we got our first victory at St. Louis we felt this program was capable of multiple wins and that we could challenge for the championship. Fortunately we've also had some good luck by winning some close races by thousandths of a second, and sometimes that's what it takes. We've been fortunate to outrun our opponents when we've had to outrun them, and out drive them we we've had to out drive them. That's what has made this POWERade Pro Stock championship so exciting. The fastest car isn't always going to win. It takes a combination of factors and any one of the 16 cars that qualify has the capability of winning."

In head-to-head competition this season, Coughlin is 3 - 2 against Anderson, and 4 - 0 against Yates, a net gain of 100 points for Coughlin over his two closest rivals.

"Greg's (Anderson) doing a super job right now," said Coughlin. "He's fighting for his first championship so he's going to be tough. Jim (Yates) is a two-time champion, has been there before, knows what to expect and knows what to do. Beating either one of those guys, let alone both of them won't be easy. But there's no question that we're geared up for this points chase especially from a standpoint of preparedness.

"We're not looking back and to come from where we were says a lot about our program. We have great people, great engines and these Chevy Cavaliers are great race cars. I've never been more comfortable in a race car than I am right now in this Jeg's Mail Order Cavalier."

After struggling through three first-round losses and a DNQ in the first four races of the year, Greg Anderson now finds himself within one point of first-place Jeg Coughlin.

"It's a dead heat, start over," quipped Anderson. "To win it all you're going to have to qualify at every race left on the schedule, and I'll bet you right now that there will be at least one of the three of us that doesn't do that. We have to do everything we can to make sure we come to each track prepared to qualify. That's goal No. 1. Goal No. 2, somebody's going to have to win races. Jeg has done that. He's winning races right and left, he's probably going to win some more, and as such he's jumped right to the top. In order to beat him you're going to have to win races, and the simple fact is we need to get back to the winner's circle."

So far this season, Anderson has won two races at Englishtown and Columbus and been runner-up four times. His 27 round wins are second only to Coughlin, and heading into the last race at Indianapolis, Anderson was the driver the other two were chasing.

"It's still more fun for me to win races than to be competing for the championship," said Anderson. "What seems like a big deal right now is winning races. If we do that everything else will take care of itself. If you win a race you've made more points than the next guy, it's that simple. Nobody's going to gain points on you if you win the race - you're going to put distance on them. That's our goal. You see it in other sporting events where teams have a lead and get into a defensive, prevent-type mode, and before you know it they've lost the game. My attitude is go with what got you there."

Of the three drivers battling for the lead, the Vegas General Construction Chevy Cavalier considers himself to be the underdog.

"I'm enjoying it," said Anderson. "I think I'm the underdog and I love being the underdog. There's got to be more pressure on the other teams because winning is expected of them. I doubt if any one bet a plug nickel on us being tied for the lead with six races to go. We weren't expected to win it, but everyone on this team expects that we can win it.

"I've got confidence in our program, that we can adapt to whatever conditions we encounter. We had a good hot-weather tune up for the summer, and I was scared to death that we might fall behind but we didn't. That tells us our program has rounded out to where we can adapt to different fluctuations in temperature, climates and racetracks. I don't think we'll have a weak track as we go forward. I feel we're going to be strong at all the remaining tracks, but the other contenders are going to be just as strong. Out of these three top cars, all of our games are pretty strong right now."

Even though he's yet to win a race this year, Splitfire/Peak Pontiac SC/T Grand Am driver Jim Yates is still very much in the hunt for a third NHRA Pro Stock championship. Yates has scored two runner-ups including his most recent final-round finish at the U.S. Nationals. The 49-year-old Virginian was first in the standings between May 26 and August 4, and would've moved back into the lead with a win over Coughlin in the finals at Indy.

"Going to the finals at Indy gave us some momentum," said Yates. "We came into the U.S. Nationals a round-and-a-half out of the lead, and left a half round out so we gained some ground. But more than anything we gained some confidence. We proved we could win rounds again. Now we're ready to move on to Maple Grove and get that points lead back.

"We made some major decisions by taking Jamie (Yates) out of the second car, and letting him devote his full time to being crew chief on my Grand Am. We still have Mark Carter in the second car so we're still getting information there. We were anxious to see if that was a positive move, and looking back at Indy we'd have to conclude that it was. As we go to the next few races it will only improve our ability to win races and go rounds."

Yates effectiveness this season has been his consistency on race day and his strong qualifying average. He's suffered only two first-round losses and has advanced to no less than the semifinal round at nine of the first 17 events. Even taking into consideration his DNQ at Denver, the Splitfire SC/T Pontiac driver still has an average starting position of 3.76. That includes six No. 1 qualifying spots and 13 races where he's started fourth or better. Yates has accumulated a total of 98 points in qualifying. That's 32 qualifying points better that Greg Anderson with 66, and 51 points better that Jeg Coughlin with 47.

"If you look at the points race no one really has a definite advantage," said Yates. "Both Greg's team and Jeg's team have been on a surge for the last five or six races. Hopefully our performance at Indy will send us on a roll and help us to run at that pace. They're both good teams, but our team has been together a long time and our engine program has had more time to develop over the years. That's experience we hope pushes us forward as we inch closer to the end of the season.

"Maple Grove is a favorite track of mine. I grew up there bracket racing over the years and I've had a lot of success there in a Pro Stock car. Last year at Memphis we qualified No. 1, at Chicago we were No. 3. Last year we ran with the top three or four cars at all three of these races coming up. Hopefully we can exhibit some of the same performance we had at the end of last season, put some experience behind it and win some races."

-gm-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Jeg Coughlin , Greg Anderson