Burkart's victory lifts Team CSK
Reading, Sunday: Cue the announcer from the creepy 1960s "B" horror movies, and have him describe Phil Burkart's season with the line "It's Alive!" It is, indeed, as is Burkart's Team CSK career, his legacy, and his ability to lift the entire program up on his shoulders and carry it to the Winner's Circle. It was a day to remember, and the popular Yorkville, NY driver provided many of the key moments, driving like the pro he is.
Long known as a "Giant Killer," Burkart could not have scripted a better Sunday for himself or his squad. After posting a pair of 4.79s during qualifying, he came to the track on a surprisingly sunny Sunday morning knowing he had the POWERade points leader as his opponent in round one. If there was ever going to be a day when frustration, disappointment, and anger could all be erased, this might have been it.
Coming into Sunday from the 12th spot, Burkart was matched with Ron Capps in round one. Capps, leading the POWERade points at the time, but holding only the most tenuous of advantages over John Force, was certainly amped up and ready to rock, but Burkart was just as motivated.
"It's been a while since I came to the track on Sunday with that special feeling, like something extraordinary was about to happen," Burkart said. "We made two great laps in qualifying, and we knew there was more in the tank there, so I really thought we had a chance to win a round or two, despite the fact we had to race the points leader in the first round. I was zoned, man, and my whole team had an 'all business' look about them in the morning."
In that first round, Burkart pulled to the line to face Capps with the knowledge that his teammate, Del Worsham, had already broken the seal on successful race by defeated No. 2 qualifier Mike Ashley. At the flash of amber, Burkart tore away from the starting line with nearly a 2-hundredths advantage at the tree, and was never behind in this race. He crossed the stripe with a strong 4.783, and Ron Capps' day was over. The round win, somewhat unbelievably, marked the first time since Houston (on April 2nd) that both CSK cars had moved into the second round together. The fact Burkart was actually running a special edition Havoline/CSK Monte Carlo here will be overlooked for the sake of history.
In round two, Burkart's mission was no easier. After having taken out the points leader in round one, he now had to face the defending POWERade Champion in round two, as Gary Scelzi was the opponent.
"The way the ladder lined up, I knew we'd have to wade through some of the best teams in the sport, maybe even in the history of the sport, if we wanted to go rounds today," Burkart said. "But the way I saw it, I'd rather have to face all the big hitters than waltz through on fluke wins against guys who had been lucky to advance. I mean, any round win is a good one, but when you outrun Capps, or Scelzi, or any of these guys, you know you earned it. It feels a little extra special when you beat those guys."
Burkart, well known for his starting line prowess, lived up to his reputation in the second round, jumping out to a sizable advantage at the tree. As good as his light was, it might not have even been necessary, as the Havoline car streaked down the track once again, while Scelzi lost traction and was left far behind. Burkart's 4.816 was easily good enough to move him on to his first semi-final since Phoenix, the second race of the year.
In the semi, the theme of having to slay the biggest of the giants continued. John Force, who had just taken over the points lead from Capps, was the opponent, and Burkart was ready for him. Though the two left almost together (Burkart's edge at the tree was only one thousandth of a second,) Force jumped out quickly to a lead and seemed to be pulling away. At half track, though, Force began to suffer engine problems and Burkart's Havoline car shot back into the lead. Moments later, the star-spangled Havoline/CSK Chevy also suffered from breakage, but by then Force was well behind and Phil Burkart was on his way to his first final round of the year.
"They just kept throwing monsters at us, but we kept finding a way to take them out," Burkart said. "Capps, Scelzi, Force, what more can you handle? We got by all of them, and then we had Robert Hight in the final round. Part of you, a very small part, is happy just to be in the final, but most of your heart and your brain wants to win. Hight's car has been the most dominant car in the sport for the last few races, and they were playing at a whole different level today, clicking off 4.74s like they were out there for free, but our goal was to just keep doing what we were doing. If you're in the final, you might just win. You have to go up there with the idea that you will."
If the entire Reading weekend had been one of super performance and huge numbers on the scoreboard, it's only fitting that the Funny Car final would be the antithesis of that trend. Burkart and Hight left the line together, and tire smoke almost instantly followed.
"I hit the throttle, and almost right away it went up in smoke, but I saw Robert having the same problems," Burkart said. "It was on, man, and I just kept feathering it, and trying to get it hooked up. I hit it again, and again, but all it would do was spin, so I grabbed the brake and kept laying my foot on the throttle as gently as I could. It finally started making headway, and I never saw him, so I just kept after it.
"I'm pretty sure it took about an hour to get to the finish line, at least that's what it felt like to me. You don't know where the other guy is, you don't know if you're going to make it without knocking the blower off the car or throwing the rods out of it, so you just keep battling. Let me tell you, when I crossed the finish line, a flood of emotions came over me. It's been a tough year, a very tough year, for the whole Team CSK program, and winning this race makes so much of it seem like ancient history. My dad was here, and he's never seen me win a race before, so that's about as cool as it gets. And Reading is the closest track to my home, so this is like winning in my own back yard. For my guys, and the red guys, and Del and Chuck, and everyone on this team, this is all for you. This is as good as it gets."
"It's Alive!" alright. Just when you think the CSK boys have faded off into the sunset, Burkart and his Marc Denner/Chris Cunningham-led crew come charging back, refusing to believe they can't slay the biggest of the giants.
It was a day to remember. And it's still very much alive.
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