The final round of the 24th annual Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals seemingly had it all: Dominance by a frontrunner, reemergence from a former champion, a scrappy comeback from a crafty veteran, and a first-time winner.
Points leader Larry Dixon proved he's still the man to beat with a convincing win over second-place points earner Doug Kalitta. In Funny Car, John Force made his third consecutive final-round appearance the charm with his first victory of the season.
Almost an afterthought in the Pro Stock championship chase, 60-year-old Warren Johnson threw his hat back in the ring with a big win over reigning series champion Jeg Coughlin Jr., which kept him within striking distance of the leaders, while Blaine Hale became the 31st winner in the history of the Pro Stock Bike with a huge holeshot win over fellow first-time finalist Mike Berry.
Dixon extended his POWERade points lead to 229 points in the Top Fuel standings by beating the man closest to him in the points, Kalitta, in the final. Dixon's steady 4.737 at 313.15 mph was more than enough for him to run away from a tire-hazing Kalitta, who crossed the timers with a resigned 5.135 at 228.69 mph.
This was the 31st victory of Dixon's career and the sixth of the year in nine final-round showings. He remains fourth on the all-time Top Fuel wins list but is now just four victories behind "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and Kenny Bernstein, who each have 35 wins.
"Running 4.70s all day on the mountain, I don't know if that's happened before," Dixon said. "Heck, I've won races at sea level without doing that. It seemed like every round was a big round with a lot on the line. It was like we needed to run what we ran each lap to win this thing.
"[Crew chief Dick] LaHaie races the track, not so much the other car. The formula works for us so until it breaks, we won't try to fix anything. We try to race everyone hard, from Mitch King to Kenny Bernstein to Doug Kalitta. They can all beat you at any given time."
Dixon was racing on a different level Sunday, recording the quickest pass of every round in his Miller Lite dragster. He opened with a shocking 4.72 against Mitch King, posted a 4.77 opposite Tony Schumacher, and carded a pair of 4.73s versus Kenny Bernstein and Kalitta.
The only car even close to Dixon's was the Mac Tools rail of Kalitta, which was second to Dixon throughout the day. Kalitta used a 4.81 to beat Scott Weis, a 4.90 to down defending event champion Darrell Russell, and a 4.76 to trailer Melanie Troxel. This was Kalitta's 30th career final round. He has 14 national event wins. Top Fuel results
Finally, Force has a win, extending to 17 years his streak of seasons where he has claimed at least one victory. This one was a throwback of sorts, as he squared off with old rival Cruz Pedregon. The two men, who own the last 13 titles between them - Force with 12 and Pedregon with one - had raced for the trophy 20 times in the past.
As was the case on 12 of those occasions, Force came out on top with a thrilling side-by-side squeaker over Pedregon, 5.044 to 5.060. This was the 107th win of Force's illustrious career and his fifth at this racetrack.
"I know it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings but she's sure been humming a lot around me lately," Force said. "I still have the drive to win every race I enter. People say I've won 12 titles and that I don't have what it takes any more but that's just not true. I ain't lost nothing and we won't concede a thing. Our job is to win races and beat the Dodges and the Pontiacs. That's what we get paid to do.
"[Crew chiefs Austin] Coil and [Bernie] Fedderly made great calls today. They knew when to push it and when to pull it back a little bit. It was a great day, especially getting by [Whit] Bazemore because after Tony [Pedregon] went out in the first round I really wanted to keep Bazemore from gaining too many points. I had to win that race. He's a great driver and I'll probably hire him one day, but today I had to take him out.
"This is a great feeling for me to be able to give this to my guys. They work just as hard for a loss as they do for a win but a win feels a lot better. I gave one away in Chicago when I drove over the centerline and then I lost another one when [Del] Worsham threw a great number at us in St. Louis so it was good to finish it off today."
Force's 166th career final-round appearance helped lift him from sixth to fourth in the championship standings. In reaching his third successive money round, Force's Castrol Ford Mustang carried him past Johnny Gray, Whit Bazemore, and Frank Pedregon.
By beating Bazemore, Force successfully kept the heat off teammate Tony Pedregon, who gave up just 19 points to Bazemore at this event despite the fact that Tony was dismissed in Round 1 for the first time in over a year. Tony now leads Bazemore by 124 points overall.
This was Cruz's first final-round appearance since his victory over Force at the 2000 Englishtown race. By reaching his 43rd career final, the 1992 series champion moved back into the POWERade Top 10 for the first time since last year's Phoenix race.
On the day, Cruz drove his Advance Auto Parts Pontiac Firebird past Gary Densham, low qualifier Tim Wilkerson, and a red-lighting Dean Skuza. Funny Car results
He may be a distant third in the POWERade standings, but there appears to be no quit in Johnson, who extended his class-leading total of all-time victories in Pro Stock to 91 with his win over Coughlin. Johnson gave up a hundredth of a second to Coughlin at the starting line but had made up the deficit by the 60-foot timer and never looked back, winning with a 7.225 e.t. to Coughlin's competitive but losing 7.250.
Johnson is now 250 points behind Greg Anderson and 179 points behind his son, Kurt Johnson, in the '03 chase.
"This helps both Kurt and myself," Johnson said of his win. "When Kurt lost to Jeg in Round 2 I was right behind him and I was up against Greg so I knew I needed to take him out to keep their relationship in the points the way it was coming in here. Overall, Kurt's still in better shape then I am but I did gain 60-odd points on both him and Greg today.
"It's always special to win, especially when you look at all the effort teams put into racing this class. I fully expect a call from the President because the Gross National Product should be shooting up now. I'm sure [Anderson's team owner] Ken Black and Jeg will spend another $30 million dollars to figure out how to beat me again."
Both Johnson and Coughlin stayed in the mid-to-low 7.2-second range all day despite big variances in cloud cover and track temperatures. Johnson's GM Performance Parts Pontiac Grand Am actually got quicker each round in victories over George Marnell, No. 1 qualifier Anderson, defending event champion Mike Edwards, and Coughlin.
For his part, Coughlin drove his Jeg's Mail Order Chevrolet Cavalier past Greg Stanfield, Kurt Johnson, and his brother, Troy Coughlin, to reach the 45th final of his brief career. The quarterfinal win over Warren's son Kurt came courtesy of a .030 to .073-second holeshot. Pro Stock results
Hale wasn't about to surrender his first chance at an NHRA win to nerves. With the crowd boisterously rooting for local hero Berry, who had the quicker bike heading into the final, Hale focused on the task at hand and sawed the Christmas Tree down with a near-perfect .006-second launch. Berry's forgettable .141 start was simply too much for him to overcome, despite the fact he posted a quicker 7.591 to Hale's winning 7.623.
The win by Hale was made all the sweeter by the 800 employees of Cornwell Tools who were on hand at this race to root for their newest racer.
"I never would have thought this would happen," Hale said. "This is our first year on a Suzuki and we're still trying to figure it out. I mean everything just feel into place today. Every time I looked up the win light was on. I couldn't believe my eyes. It's incredible.
"I went into the first round giving up a lot to GT [Tonglet]. I knew he would either have to break or red-light for me to win. Then he red-lights and I get back to my pit and call everyone I know and tell them about it. My day was made right there. Who knew it would happen three more times? Fred Camarena told me it was karma. I guess he's right. When that win light came on in the final I nearly jumped off my bike I was so excited. I will never forget this day, ever."
This was the first time in 16 years, since Rick Stetson won the 1987 national event in Baton Rouge, La., that a Pro Stock Bike emerged from the 16th position and raced to a final round. Like Stetson, Hale went on to take the win.
Certainly, Hale will admit that he cashed in plenty of luck to reach the money round. The Midland, Texas-based rider took red-light wins over No. 1 qualifier GT Tonglet in Round 1 and POWERade points leader Geno Scali in the semifinals, and got a free pass against quarterfinal foe Karen Stoffer when she failed to get her bike started.
Atop his MB Precision Suzuki, Littleton, Colo., native Berry began the day with a pair of gift-wrapped wins over Sean Conner and Fred Collis, who both red-lighted. He then got a great jump on heavily-favored Harley-Davidson rider Andrew Hines and held on for a miniscule .001-second win that put him through to the final. Pro Stock Bike results
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