Top Fuel title chase shaping into a repeat of 2001's classic thriller
By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com
Maybe, just maybe, if all the NHRA fans in the world live clean, have pleasant thoughts, and keep their fingers crossed for the next two and a half months, the sport of drag racing will have another finish like it did one year ago in Top Fuel.
Kenny Bernstein and Larry Dixon had an epic 2001 stretch run, meeting an incredible five times in the last seven races to decide the championship the way it should be decided in head-to-head drag races. Surprisingly, considering this season's start, it could happen again.
With both men having career years last season and seemingly passing the points lead back-and-forth like an Olympic relay team, there was never a clear-cut favorite like there was earlier this year when Dixon sprinted to seven victories in the first 11 events. This time around, Bernstein has been forced into the role of pursuer and by his own admission, has come close to surrendering the chase a few times during Dixon's surreal start.
"When we were down 259 points [after Columbus] I thought we were in serious trouble," Bernstein said. "I never gave up, don't get me wrong, but they were on such a run and it was one of those deals where they could do no wrong and we were basically hitting it at a 50-percent margin where out of eight runs we got down the track maybe four times.
"I give a lot of credit to [my crew chief] Tim Richards. He was the only one saying, 'We're still in this. It's way too early to worry about the points. Hang in there guys.' Boy, ol' Tim was right. We've really been under the gun since then but the tide has shifted. Since the St. Louis race we've done nothing but gain on them every race, except Sonoma where we both lost in the second round and it was a push."
The way it was
"It was a hell of a finish," Bernstein said. "People didn't catch on because it was happening around them, but when you stand back and look at the final seven races it was as intense as you can get."
In his Miller Lite dragster, Dixon took his second U.S. Nationals title one year ago, beating Mike Dunn in the final after dispatching Bernstein in the semifinals to increase his lead to 45 points. A few weeks later, after the September 11th tragedy shuffled the schedule, Bernstein answered back in Memphis, Tenn., by driving his Budweiser dragster past Dixon in the final, closing the gap to just 27 points.
The tour then turned to Chicago where Bernstein regained the points lead for good by beating Dixon in the semis and Darrell Russell in the final to claim two more rounds than his biggest foe. In Reading, Pa., Bernstein extended his 14-point advantage to 58 with another two-round swing, beating Dixon himself once again, in the quarterfinals this time, and racing to the final, where he took runner-up honors to Gary Scelzi.
But Dixon wasn't through. He clubbed Bernstein in the third round of the Dallas event and went on to beat Doug Kalitta in the final to close back to within 15 points. With two races left, Dixon needed to make up just one round to re-take the lead.
Needing a clinching performance, Bernstein came through on one of his favorite tracks when he hit a Las Vegas-style jackpot at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He didn't win, finishing second behind Russell, but No. 1 qualifier Dixon's unlikely quarterfinal loss to 2000 Rookie of the Year Don Lampus allowed Bernstein's lead to balloon to 54 with one race remaining on the schedule. Bernstein didn't flinch; winning Pomona outright while Dixon fell to Dunn in the semis. The championship was actually decided when Bernstein beat Russell in Round 2.
"There were several times I thought we were in trouble last year," Bernstein said. "What a finish, and we needed every bit of it to get the job done. At the time you don't think about it but it really makes it special that it took so much effort."
The way it is
"When you look at how we got to this point, you couldn't find two more different ways to get here," Bernstein said. "Last year it was a dogfight from the start and, for all intents and purposes, there were just two of us in the fight me and Larry. No one else was even close.
"This year, without question, they had the best car early on. [Dixon's crew chief] Dick LaHaie figured out the new Goodyears so well. Plus, they really worked well with his tune-up. He showed us last year he was so adept at racing hot tracks. The new tires need the same sort of tune-up you use on a hot track. The balance is in the transition you hit between 1.8 and 2.4 seconds.
"We kept working at it, and like I said Tim never let up, and he finally found the right combination. They had the best car. Now I'd say it's pretty even.
"The biggest difference in my mind between last year and this year is we have the wildcard of three or four other cars that can take either one of us out at any time. Darrell Russell is running just as well as Larry and I. Doug Kalitta has shown signs. Tony Schumacher can throw one at you every once in awhile. Doug Herbert can take you out. Even Rhonda Hartman-Smith and her husband [John] are capable of ruining your day. You can't let up at all."
The way it needs to be
"I think we got their attention," Bernstein said of Dixon's team. "They're probably not so much worried about us as they are about their own performance level and the fact other guys can beat them. They know they're in for another dogfight.
"When you're up 259 points you can afford to make a mistake here or there. Now they've backed themselves into a situation where every run becomes critical. It's crunch time, just like last year. We've already been operating under these conditions for five or six races. Does that give us an edge? I don't know. I worry that the law of averages will catch up with us.
"We'd like to make up 40 or 60 points on them in Indy. That would be great. I feel good about our position but 80 points is a lot to make up and if we slip up one bit then it could be 100 or more. Then we're in trouble again. One hundred points is a race gone. We need to just chip away at them, beat them if we race them, and get some help from guys like Russell. Of course, they're wishing for the same thing."
Another crowning for 'The King'?
"I've said numerous times this year that I wish I had quit after last season because it would have been awesome to finish my career on top," the 57-year-old Bernstein said. "And we're still going to try to do it again, obviously, this year. But if we come up short it won't be the end of the world for two reasons. First, we proved we could still compete last year and I answered the questions I had about myself by winning the championship. That was so fulfilling. Second, we've been in the battle this year and I'm so proud of the way we fought back when the chips were down. If we were seventh or eighth in the points and not a contender, I'd feel different. But I sure can't complain about the effort of this Budweiser team."
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