Burkart aims to continue giant-killing spoiler role
Las Vegas, prerace: On February 13th, Phil Burkart pulled his Checker, Schuck's, Kragen Funny Car to the starting line in Pomona, ready to face championship contender Gary Scelzi in round one at the season's first race. What happened then set a series of dominos falling in an odd order, with Burkart taking the win on an enormous hole-shot, causing Scelzi to start the season in an 0-1 hole when he knew every round was going to be critical. With that huge first round win, Burkart established a precedent of being able to send some of the sport's biggest names home early, scratching their heads in disbelief. The "Giant Killer" was born.
Since that day in February, Burkart has also sent John Force packing in round one at Denver, ended Ron Capps' day in round one at Seattle, then booted Robert Hight from the ladder during round one in Sonoma. Was he done? Not by a long shot, as Burkart then stunned Force again in round one at Indianapolis, before Scelzi provided his own personal "bookend" to the Pomona surprise by red-lighting against Burkart in round one at the tour's most recent race, in Dallas. That adds up to six first round wins against a small group of drivers who are all battling for the POWERade Championship. The oddest part of that statistic? Burkart has but seven first round wins on the year, with the other victory coming against Cruz Pedregon in Phoenix.
This weekend, as Burkart returns to the scene of one of his two 2004 race wins, the CSK Toyota driver has resigned himself to his spoiler role, and looks forward to reprising it one more time.
"For a while I was fighting this whole 'Giant Killer' thing," Burkart said. "To me, they were just first round wins, and we haven't had enough of those this year. The only reason it was news was because we were beating guys I guess people thought we shouldn't beat. I always thought we could beat them, but apparently it was a surprise to a lot of folks and considering the 10-race streak we went on where we couldn't beat anyone, I guess it was big news.
"What happened in Dallas, though, maybe opened my eyes a little. Gary Scelzi is the ultimate pro, one of the very best, and he was racing me in round one as the points leader with only three races left. As I said after the race during an interview, you don't see people red-light when they think they've got an easy one on the table. Whatever the cause was, Gary must have felt like he needed a good light to beat us, and I agree. He did. Even though he fouled, we ran great and if he'd been asleep up there we could have beaten him on a hole-shot. I'm proud of our team, and proud that we've come to a point where beating the big boys is what we're known for."
If that is the case, Burkart might want to hope for an eliminations ladder that features nothing but the best, from first round to final. Perhaps then, the "Giant Killer" can wallop four monsters in a row, and have even more to say about the POWERade Championship.
"Well, I can't really control that, and all things considered what I'd really love is an unopposed single in round one, but if we get Force, or Scelzi, or Capps, or any of those guys in round one, we'll try to take them out. If we do that, and another one lines up next to us, we'll try to take them out too. I would imagine that this little joke about slaying giants might turn into a real legend if we plowed through the whole championship pack in one day.
"We've already had quite an impact on the crown to this point, which makes us all feel good. Do you think Gary wouldn't like to have those two first rounds back? I bet Force would like his back, too. Ain't gonna happen, though. We beat all those guys fair and square and those rounds are ones they'll never have now. What it says about my guys is that they have a lot of pride. There might be some teams who would go up there against the contenders and just roll the dice on a wild tune-up, which means they probably end up making a mistake, but we go up there with a plan and we've been able to make it work a few times. We have a lot of team pride, and we want to finish strong."
Only time, and the eventual eliminations ladder on Sunday, will tell us if Burkart will be able to further the legend. One would assume, furthermore, that the prospect of facing Phil Burkart in round one is not the sort of thing any of the contenders would care to experience. "Beware of Burkart," they say. "He slays giants!"
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