Rookies anxious for U.S. Nationals

Rookie Drivers Anxious for First Shot at the 'Big Go' During 50th Annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals GLENDORA, Calif. -- More than 1,000 drivers have submitted their entry forms for the biggest event of the drag racing season -- the 50th annual Mac...

Rookie Drivers Anxious for First Shot at the 'Big Go' During 50th Annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals

GLENDORA, Calif. -- More than 1,000 drivers have submitted their entry forms for the biggest event of the drag racing season -- the 50th annual Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis Raceway Park. The most prestigious event on the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing schedule has turned 'Average Joes' into racing legends. It has also kept event and series champions at bay.

Six-time Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson has six victories at the U.S. Nationals. Funny Car's 12-time champ John Force has four wins. Top Fuel racer Tony Schumacher has three victories at 'The Big Go.'

Brandon Bernstein, Eric Medlen and Morgan Lucas have earned a combined total of zero victories at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals. Why? Because they haven't had the chance...yet.

Bernstein, Medlen and Lucas will make their first professional qualifying laps at Indy on Friday, Sept. 3 with high hopes of joining the elite group of past U.S. Nationals winners.

With six career Top Fuel victories in seven final round appearances, Bernstein is the 'veteran' of the rookie class. Bernstein won three races in 2003 behind the wheel of the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster before he was sidelined by injuries suffered in a crash at Englishtown, N.J. He missed the U.S. Nationals last season -- one of 15 events he missed. After extensive rehabilitation, Bernstein is back and he is looking forward to finally making his first appearance at Indy.

"Indy has so much prestige and everyone talks about it so much because of the whole spectacle of the event," Bernstein said. "I'm looking forward to just getting there and competing. It's going to feel good to be part of the U.S. Nationals, especially the 50th."

If Bernstein feels any pressure making his first appearance at the 50th U.S. Nationals, it won't be from nerves about racing in the event. Any pressure he might feel will come from one spot -- the driver standings. After the first 16 races of the season, Bernstein sits in the No. 3 spot of the Top Fuel standings with three wins. He's chasing leader Tony Schumacher and second-place Doug Kalitta in the fight for the NHRA POWERade world championship.

"It's a three-car battle right now and I think that if this team feels any pressure, it will come from the championship chase," Bernstein said. "They way I look at it is that we are in a championship situation and my first U.S. Nationals is the 50th in history. I think it's harder to keep the (points) lead right now. We need to make a run at it, but I think we're in a pretty good spot."

Medlen is a rookie driving the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang in the John Force Racing camp. Racing a Funny Car is one thing, but racing a Funny Car in the U.S. Nationals, says Medlen, is something entirely different.

"I'm trying to put the excitement behind me because I still have a job to do. To be able to participate in a race like that where all the greats have won like Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, John Force and (Don) Prudhomme is a great honor," Medlen said. "This race means so much to everybody. It's enough excitement just to be able to compete in the U.S. Nationals."

Medlen earned his first career victory during the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway in mid-August. That helped calm his excitement....a little.

"I think I'm getting better about knowing when it's time to get excited and when it's time to get to work," Medlen said. "When you get into that car, it's business as usual. But I am still learning and I will be learning five years from now and 50 years from now. It's important to be able to put the circus behind you.

"The bigger the NHRA gets, the bigger the circus gets and the 50th anniversary of Indy is great practice for the future. It's great to be part of this."

Lucas drives the Joe Amato-owned Lucas Oil dragster and has the least amount of pro experience going into the U.S. Nationals. Lucas made his pro debut during the recent race in Brainerd -- just two events before the U.S. Nationals.

Lucas did, however, earn the victory in Top Alcohol dragster at the U.S. Nationals in 2003. He will be driving in both categories this year.

"I'm looking forward to racing in a fuel car there," Lucas said. "Hopefully I can win like we did last year in the alcohol car. I have a shot at winning two "Wally" trophies and how often do you get the chance to do that?

"A Wally is awesome and hard to get. But a Wally from the U.S. Nationals is even better. It's the cream of the crop. Indy is the best. I'm excited and I know the rest of the team is too."

Lucas said the pre-race excitement passed in Brainerd.

"I think I have all the anxiety out of my system," Lucas said. "My leg was shaking so bad in Brainerd. My foot was in the same spot, but my knee was twitching. But that 4.59-second run made it all better. I have calm knees now and everything is good."

Lucas may be 20 years old, but he has the confidence of a veteran.

"Everyone wants to win, that's for sure, but I think our team can reach this goal," Lucas said. "This team took Darrell Russell into the finals last year and we all want to go out there and kick some butt. If you don't have that goal, why would you even show up for the race?"

-nhra-

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Series NHRA
Drivers Shirley Muldowney , Warren Johnson , John Force , Tony Schumacher , Joe Amato , Doug Kalitta , Don Garlits , Brandon Bernstein , Morgan Lucas , Eric Medlen