Topeka: Gary Densham preview

Densham seeks retribution in return to Heartland Park-Topeka. TOPEKA, Kansas During 20 years of disappointment on the NHRA drag racing tour, even when he was trying to face down corporately-backed teams with budgets that dwarfed his own, Gary...

Densham seeks retribution in return to Heartland Park-Topeka.

TOPEKA, Kansas During 20 years of disappointment on the NHRA drag racing tour, even when he was trying to face down corporately-backed teams with budgets that dwarfed his own, Gary Densham never doubted that one day he would win one of the events that comprise the sport's principal series.

A series championship, though? Not even Densham could have imagined that.

Nevertheless, when the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series moves this week (May 24-26) to Heartland Park-Topeka for the 14th annual O'Reilly Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX , there sits Densham atop the standings for the first time in his career two points ahead of his boss, teammate and benefactor, John Force.

On the strength of a convincing victory last week at Englishtown, N.J., his second of the current campaign, the 55-year-old former auto shop teacher has become only the 14th driver to lead the NHRA Funny Car driver standings over the last 13 seasons.

Among the others are his current Castrol teammates Tony Pedregon, the defending Summer Nationals Champion at the wheel of the Castrol SYNTEC Ford Mustang, and Force, the 11-time NHRA Champion who, until last week, was in a position to win the championship wire-to-wire for the third time in his career.

Like Pedregon before him, Densham ostensibly was hired to test equipment and performance theories developed by the John Force Racing braintrust of Austin Coil, Bernie Fedderly, John Medlen, Dickie Venables and Jimmy Prock.

And, like Pedregon, he did his job so well that instead of a limited race schedule, he wound up driving the Team Castrol/Automobile Club of Southern California Mustang to a pair of 2001 victories and an eighth place finish in driver points, his best ever.

However, not even that performance could have signaled the kind of success he and Prock have enjoyed this year. The sport's answer to Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, the original "Odd Couple," Densham and Prock have been contenders since the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif., where their Mustang raised the current NHRA national speed record for Funny Cars to 326.87 miles per hour.

Only once has their Auto Club Ford qualified outside the Top 5. Moreover, it twice has qualified Densham No. 1, it has taken him to the finals three times and it has posted top speed of the meet in six of eight races.

Densham attributes most of that success to Prock, with whom he has a great relationship, and Force, who gave him the opportunity.

"All the success that he's had," Densham said of Prock, who won 18 times as Crew Chief to Top Fuel drivers Cory McClenathan and Joe Amato, "he's still always willing to listen."

Densham, who's won four times since he and Prock hooked up with Team Castrol in March, 2001, was winless, but never discouraged, in 229 races as a Funny Car independent.

"Every time I went to a race," he said, "I figured I was going to win. It never worked out that way, but every time I pulled (into the track) on Thursday, that was the plan. Did I think I'd ever lead the points? Probably not."

The question now is, after getting the points lead for the first time in his 259th career event, can the veteran from Bellflower, Calif., hold onto it?

"We've got a really consistent and dominant race car right now," Densham said, "but it's a battle out there every week. There are 15 or 16 cars that can win on a given weekend and you've got to understand that John is just two points behind us. He could make that up by the end of qualifying on Saturday.

"We're just going to go out and do what we've done all year and that is to try and be consistent and not get ahead of ourselves and try not to beat ourselves. If we can continue to do that, then I think we'll be in the hunt (for the championship) until the end. I don't see anybody, whether it's us or John or Tony or Whit (Bazemore) or anyone else, running away with this thing."

DENSHAM at O'Reilly Summer Nationals....

*Has not won a round of racing in this event and has won only one round at Heartland Park in his career.

*Although he has claimed the No. 1 qualifying spot twice already this season, never has qualified better than No. 8 at Heartland Park-Topeka.

*Lost in the first round last year to Ron Capps, his 10th consecutive first round exit in the O'Reilly Summer Nationals presented by Castrol GTX.

DENSHAM Highlights....

*Four-time tour winner, all coming in the last 12 months.

*NHRA national FC speed record holder at 326.87 mph.

*Leads the POWERade points for the first time ever.

Gary Densham went 245 races before winning for the first time....for 29 years, Gary was the auto shop teacher at Gahr High School in Cerritos, Calif., and for most of that time he campaigned a Funny Car with a crew comprised of current and former students....if he continues at his current pace, Gary will qualify to compete in the Budweiser Shootout, limited to the tour's top eight teams, for the first time in his career. He has qualified fifth or better in all but one race this year and was the No. 1 qualifier at the Mac Tools Gatornationals at Gainesville, Fla., and at the Summit Southern Nationals at Atlanta, Ga.

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Series NHRA
Drivers Tony Pedregon , Ron Capps , John Force , Joe Amato , Gary Densham , Cory McClenathan , Austin Coil , John Medlen