FAREWELL TOUR 2002
Kenny Bernstein's Most Memorable
1996 Champion Auto Stores Nationals
Whether Bernstein would have been able to catch Johnson in the season standings is a question that never will be answered. But Bernstein does have the satisfaction of knowing that he was closing the gap on the popular points leader, and, in their last event together before Johnson's tragic crash during qualifying at the U.S. Nationals, Bernstein not only won the event but beat Johnson in the process.
Bernstein entered the 1996 Champion Auto Stores Nationals winless since the Houston event that March, yet he had managed to keep Johnson within range with a series of late-round finishes. Johnson and Bernstein had traded wins through the season's first four events, and Johnson had just scored his third season win in Sonoma, making it Bernstein's turn to respond.
Bernstein was 152 points back of Johnson as the tour pulled into Brainerd Int'l Raceway in late August, and Bernstein, a three-time winner of the event, was looking forward to the U.S. Nationals and the home stretch, where he had experienced so much success during his career.
Bernstein qualified third at the event with a 4.70, right on the heels of Johnson's 4.69 and behind polesitter Eddie Hill, who had rebounded impressively from failing to qualify in Seattle two weeks earlier.
All three made it to the semifinals, where Larry Dixon joined them. Bernstein had defeated Doug Foxworth with a first-round 4.80, then poured on the coals in round two with a 4.67 conquest of Mike Dunn. By comparison, through the first two frames Hill had run a best of 4.79, Johnson 4.72, and Dixon 4.76.
Bernstein drew Johnson for what he then called "the biggest round of the season." Bernstein explained, "A loss in that round would have given him a chance to gain another 40 points against us. That would have created a mountain that would have been almost too tall to climb with just five races left."
When the light turned green, though, it was Johnson doing the climbing as the front end of the Travels Tool dragster pawed for the sky and reached critical height just before half-track, where Johnson wisely aborted the pass. Bernstein hammered home the victory with a stunning 4.62, low e.t. of the event.
Hill advanced to the final with a 4.78 to 4.77 holeshot win against Dixon, then tuned it up for the final against Bernstein. Conversely, Budweiser King crew chief Dale Armstrong detuned the Bud King to deal with the reemergence of the sun from behind cloud cover, which turned out to be a crucial decision.
Hill's yellow Pennzoil dragster lost traction at the 60-foot timers while Bernstein's hot rod stayed glued to the BIR quarter-mile en route to a deciding 4.73 performance.
Less than two weeks later, Johnson was gone and Bernstein ultimately powered to the championship in decisive fashion, finishing more than 200 points ahead of second-place Scott Kalitta and completing the season with a win in Reading and a runner-up in Topeka en route to setting season highs for round-wins, final-round appearances, and victories.