MIDSEASON SUCCESS TURNS FORTUNES AROUND FOR BERNSTEIN SONOMA, Calif. -- After five straight first round losses from Richmond, Va.'s Pennzoil Nationals to Englishtown, N.J.'s Mopar Parts Nationals, Kenny Bernstein and his Budweiser King...
MIDSEASON SUCCESS TURNS FORTUNES AROUND FOR BERNSTEIN
SONOMA, Calif. -- After five straight first round losses from Richmond, Va.'s Pennzoil Nationals to Englishtown, N.J.'s Mopar Parts Nationals, Kenny Bernstein and his Budweiser King crew had already decided that it was time to start looking toward the 1999 season. Things just seemed too far out of control to salvage the 1998 season.
Then, just as the team started to focus its efforts on the next season, everything began to click. All of a sudden, Bernstein was back in the game.
The Lake Forest, Calif. resident powered his Bud King dragster to victories in the inaugural FRAM Route 66 Nationals at Chicago and Pontiac Excitement Nationals in Columbus, Ohio, then posted a hard-earned runner-up finish at Gateway International Raceway's Sears Craftsman Nationals, and followed that with a semi-final appearance at the Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals in Denver.
While Bernstein had shown he had a winning package in victories at Gainesville, Fla. and the Winston All-Star race in Rockingham, N.C., the overall consistency just wasn't there. However, he and crew chief Lee Beard are feeling a lot more confidence these days.
They'll try to turn that confidence into another victory and further tighten an incredibly competitive Winston Top Fuel championship race at the 11th annual Autolite Nationals, July 24-26 at Sears Point Raceway. The $1.4 million race is the 13th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.
Despite the wild roller coaster ride Bernstein and his team endured during the first half of the season, the veteran racer says the midterm grade is solid. Most important was the team's ability to handle the adversity and still keep coming back strong.
"I'd give us a strong B+ or A-," Bernstein said. "We've made a great turnaround in the last month. During that five race stretch when we were losing in the first round, I'd definitely give us a D. But I think from where we've came from in the last several races we're back in the hunt for the championship. At one point, Lee and I were already beginning to discuss things we could do to plan for next season. Now, we're back in the game. It feels good."
With all the different components, elements of weather and altitude and five-dollar parts and pieces that could cause his 6,000 horsepower machine to malfunction, Bernstein says finding the gremlin was no easy task.
"It took tremendous hard work by Lee and the team in the clutch area," Bernstein said. "The car has become much more consistent now. It's been very quick and fast. In the middle of the season we just didn't have any consistency. It would make one or two runs on race day and that was it. To be successful in this sport you have to make four runs on Sunday. We're doing that now."
While the team developed a winning combination for three of the schedule's most intense races for heat and humidity, Bernstein says that doesn't necessarily mean instant success at Sears Point Raceway -- another track having a reputation for steaming asphalt. However, he says the team will most likely use a similar setup.
"On one side, you're back to sea level so you're going to be able to make the power," he said. "But it's Sonoma and it's going to be extremely hot and slick -- that's just the way it is. From what we learned at Columbus, Chicago and St. Louis in similar hot conditions, we feel like we've got the combination to be competitive at Sonoma."
Following his runner-up finish at Gateway, Bernstein moved into fourth place in the Winston standings, 122 points behind leader Cory McClenathan. Joe Amato and defending Winston champion Gary Scelzi are second and third respectively, creating one big jam at the top. Bernstein says it is shaping up to be one of the greatest NHRA Top Fuel shootouts for the Winston crown.
"With four cars on top of each other and a couple of others who are capable of joining the group it really keeps everybody a little more honest," Bernstein said. "I think this really will go right down to the wire. We've been through this so many times before that we're ready to fight it out."