FAREWELL TOUR 2002
Kenny Bernstein's Most Memorable
1996 Keystone Nationals
Bernstein, however, was determined to make sure that the championship, which would be his first in Top Fuel and would make him the first driver to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, lived up to that merit. It took him just one race to do it.
At the Pioneer Electronics Keystone Nationals, just two weeks after Johnson's death, Bernstein made us all believers in destiny when he rode a streak of good fortune and good performance to the winner's circle and the points lead he would not relinquish.
It was a teary-eyed Bernstein, who in post-race interviews said that he felt Johnson's hand all over the win, that his former comrade had smiled upon in the second and third rounds, where Bernstein admitted humbly he was in trouble and probably should have lost.
"I'm not so sure that little drag arcing angel in the sky didn't look down on us today and help us," he said. "He probably looked down and said, 'Okay, I'll let you win one.' "
Until those two middle rounds, Bernstein and crew chief Dale Armstrong had led the way, qualifying No. 1 with a 4.59 on a tricky track, but trouble reared its head with a burned piston on a first-round bye run. The trouble continued in round two, where a dropped cylinder and a malfunctioning magneto led to the shearing of the blower-drive hub bolts, leaving Bernstein in coasting mode. Fortunately for Bernstein, Bruce Sarver already had smoked the tires and shut off. Bernstein coasted into the semifinals at just 188 mph.
A round later, against new points rival Dixon, Bernstein's mount sheared the input shaft at half-track, again leaving him powerless and coasting. Fortunately for Bernstein, Dixon had red-lighted.
Bernstein and Armstrong got it together for the final, though, where their ripping 4.67 defeated Connie Kalitta, who lost a cylinder and struggled to a 4.83.
The win, his fourth of the season, boosted Bernstein ahead of Johnson by 24 markers and Dixon by 149; two-time and defending series champ Scott Kalitta was in fourth, 207 points back.
"We've got some breathing room now over Larry and Scott, but it's not over by any means," he said. "There still are three races left, and it's still a battle.
"Our hearts are extremely heavy, and they will be for a long, long time," he added. "It's tough to take over the points lead from someone [who died]. We're trying to represent Blaine the way he would do it. We dedicated the rest of the year to him, and we just want to perform the way he would, which was always in the first class and in the number-one position."
Bernstein did just that, finishing more than 200 points ahead of Scott Kalitta in his run to the title, then presenting Blaine's brother, Alan, with the championship trophy during the awards ceremony at season's end.