Burkart scores runner-up
Denver, Sunday: One year ago, Phil Burkart and his blue Checker, Schuck's, Kragen team came to Denver with one win in the books and 12 round wins to their credit. They then plowed through four huge rounds of competition to take the Wally on the mountain. This year, the scenario was quite different. Burkart was runner-up in Pomona, went to the semi-finals in Phoenix, and then saw the floor drop out from under him. Since that day in Phoenix, on February 27th, Burkart and the blue CSK team had not won another round of competition. That all changed on a hot Colorado Sunday.
Burkart and his blue squad began their improvement by running consistently during qualifying. An aborted first run was followed by a 4.950 late on Friday night, a 5.101 in the heat of Saturday afternoon, and a beautiful 4.948 on Saturday evening. It might not have been the quickest car on the property (Burkart qualified 11th,) but the blue CSK machine was hitting its stride and looked, very much, to be improving with every run. Though his bottom half qualifying spot earned him the dubious honor of facing John Force in round one, Burkart was confident.
"You put all the snake-bit stuff out of your mind and just focus on each lap," Burkart said. "We've qualified well many times this year, and then lost ridiculously close races in round one. But this time, with Force in the other lane, for some reason it felt different to me. If you're going to snap out of an awful streak, you might as well do it against the greatest there ever was. It's like you have nothing to lose, and you just go up there and race. When you face him, you just go for it and see what happens."
What happened was Burkart's wire-to-wire domination. He left first, with an .058 light to Force's .089, and he then led at every increment down the race track. At the stripe, the blue CSK car posted a 5.100 to Force's 5.262, and ten races worth of frustration were exorcised in one starting line celebration. It was just the first round, but it was a huge win for Burkart and his team.
In round two, now attempting to shift gears from "just win a round" to "let's get on a roll," Burkart had to face another front runner as Ron Capps lined up beside him. Both drivers left within an eyelash of each other, but Burkart then went on to a 5.397 with a couple of dropped cylinders, while Capps trailed with a 5.747. The turn-around was now in full swing.
The semi-final brought with it a match-up with Tim Wilkerson, who has a history of running incredibly close races against both Team CSK drivers. This time, as rain clouds danced overhead, Burkart and his team sat at the water box, without an opponent visible, ready to fire. When told Wilkerson and his team were late, but were on their way, co-crew chiefs Marc Denner and Chris Cunningham agreed to wait for their opponent.
"Had Tim been really late, like five or ten minutes late, we probably would have just had to go ahead and take the solo run," Burkart said. "But Chris and Marc knew they were close, and they made the call to wait a few minutes for them. Tim and his team would have done that for us, and it was the right thing to do. If you're going to win the round, you want to earn it, and you want to give the fans a show."
5.153-seconds later, it didn't matter whether Wilkerson had made it or not. Burkart streaked to his third straight win and earned a date in his second final round of the season. Waiting for him there would be the "baddest dude" on the property, Robert Hight, who had qualified No. 1 and then simply destroyed everyone who got in his way on Sunday.
"You don't run them on paper," Burkart said. "On paper, they had us covered, but drag racing is a tricky deal and you go up there and run it. I figured we probably wouldn't outrun him if his car made the sort of lap it was making all weekend, but we had a legitimate chance to win."
After waiting through an "on again, off again" rain delay, Hight and Burkart left almost identically and took off for the promised land. Side-by-side, they tore down the Thunder Mountain track and headed for glory. Burkart's CSK machine then hiked the front end, and began a slight drift to the left. When he quick-pedaled the car to settle the front end, it again lifted the front tires off the ground and made a hard move to the left. As Robert Hight screamed by to a well-deserved win, Phil Burkart called it a day and took the runner-up honors.
"We wanted to win, and we know what it feels like to win here," he said. "You can taste it, you can feel it, and you want it so bad. But, all in all, a runner-up finish here after going so long without a round win of any kind, is a very good thing. We feel like we know what we're doing again, and that maybe fate isn't working against us. We beat Force, Capps, and Wilkerson. There's a lot to be proud of around here."
And a lot to build on.
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