Force conquers Bristol


Photo by Rick Harris
John Force, driving the Castrol GTX Funny Car, gaind his 110th career win on Monday, and first at Bristol.

By Marvin BirchfieId
STAR STAFF
mbirchfield@starhq.com

   BRISTOL -- Waiting out rainy weather on Sunday, and coming back on Monday, drag racing fans witnessed the sport's most notable legend get his first career victory at Bristol Dragway in the O'Reilly Thunder Valley Nationals.
   John Force dominated the NHRA Funny Car ranks for over a decade with an amazing 12 championships, along with 110 victories.
   A first-place finish has eluded Force since Dallas of last year, and what a better way to celebrate a birthday than score a win.
   "We hadn't won since Dallas, and that's not good for this us, and 'boom,' we come out here and win this race and feel just totally great about it," said Force, who turns 55 today.
   "Everybody asked what's wrong with John. I'll admit I lost over 24 pounds. I lost my body muscle, and I didn't have the energy to run around."
   "It's my birthday this week and I'm not going to tell you how old I am. I don't want to make you cry."
   It was the points leaders of the Top Fuel and Pro Stock who continued to shine, as Greg Anderson won his fifth race of the season, defeating Jason Line in the final match.
   Anderson, the reigning champion, has been unstoppable so far winning an amazing five out of six events in the season, having the other competitors scratching their head for answers.
   "Life's great for we're riding a huge wave right now," said Anderson. "You need to take it and win all the races you can when you're on top, for we all know it doesn't last forever.
   "We don't think we're going anywhere, and it's up to the rest of the teams to pick up the slack."
   Tony Schumacher, who is at the top of the points in Top Fuel, added to his advantage by ousting Clay Millican in a thrilling ride, where he managed to peddle his way to victory.
   This ties Schumacher's personal best for most wins in a season with four. This year, he has accomplished in only six attempts.
   "I loved it, and you have to win one like that," said Schumacher. "I tell this to everybody, when you're in high school and play football, you don't have the dream of winning the homecoming game by 900 points.
   "You catch the ball with one second to go with 30 guys tackling and landing on your head to win the game. You dream about winning the championship by a tight race with smoking the tires and the wheel standing sideways, that's fun for us."
   In the first round of Top Fuel elimination, it was Schumacher breaking his previous track record which was set on Friday with the time of 4.482.
   Schumacher also set a new speed record by running 331.04 miles per hour down the quarter-mile track to beat out Rhonda Hartman-Smith, who had her best run of the season by posting the sixth quickest time of the round.
   The biggest upset in first-round elimination was the run of David Baca, who knocked off the number two qualifier Doug Kalitta with a time of 4.528.
   This was nearly two tenths quicker than what he had ran all weekend, before he went on to face the number ten qualifier Scott Wise.
   Top Fuel champion Larry Dixon continues struggling this season, losing a close two-thousandths decision of a second to former IHRA stand-out Doug Herbert.
   The Bristol-based Carrier Boyz Racing Team with driver Cory McClenathan advanced to take on Brandon Bernstein in the second round. The local team had a good showing all weekend long, qualifying fifth.
   Trouble off the line resulted in a blown engine, as the Carrier team's day ended with the Budweiser Top Fuel Dragster getting the win.
   "A disappointment," McClenathan said. "I really wanted to give the Carrier family their first win. It would have been great in front of their hometown fans, but it just wasn't meant to be."
   As if the first run for Schumacher wasn't quick enough in round one, the second time around was even more impressive, stepping up both time and speed.
   Schumacher defeated Herbert by turning in a time of 4.477 seconds and a speed of 331.36 mph, which set up a tough battle for the semi-finals with Bernstein.
   After blowing up his engine on his second round run, Clay Millican caught a break, as David Grubnic got the red-light to disqualify his time of 4.528.
   Millican went on to face Scott Weis, who had problems with smoking the tires in his second run, but trouble from Baca, who also couldn't find grip, allowing the Ashland, Va. resident a chance to grab his first win ever.
   The race between Weis and Millican was one of the best on the evening, with a half a car length deciding the finish.
   Millican edged out Weis for the win, earning his second opportunity ever to compete in the final round of a NHRA Top Fuel event.
   In the most recent NHRA event at Houston, Millican made it all the way to the final round, where he was defeated by Bernstein.
   The door was left wide-open after Schumacher smoked the tires, but Millican was never able to get his car hooked up to make it down the stretch.
   It was Schumacher's fourth win this season, as he continues to hold an advantage over second-place Bernstein.
   "If you're going to win a race these days, then you have to have one that you earn, and you're not seeing it here because it's an awesome track," said Schumacher. "With these new tires, when it gets hot out there, then you're going to see some tire smoke and have to earn that.
   "We're better than most when it's hot, but still when you're given the chance to take 20 points, then you've got to take it."
   In the first round of Funny Car, it was Tommy Johnson Jr. posting the quickest time of 4.799 seconds, but a reaction time of .096 from Gary Scelzi was the difference in advancing.
   Scelzi's win matched him up against the top qualifier of the event Whit Bazemore, who was a tenth of a second off from his qualifying time with a run in the first round at 4.870.
   Bazemore picked up his time in the quarter-finals with the time of 4.773 to defeat Scelzi. A best effort from Eric Medlen put out points leader Del Worsham by a mere two thousandths of a second.
   Barely escaping the semifinal round, Bazemore made it to the championship match after he and Medlen both struck the tires, having to get on and off the gas.
   Bazemore almost went across the center line. Just before reaching the finish, the Hemi-powered Oakley Dodge Stratus went up in smoke with a blown engine.
   All three Force team cars advanced during the first round, as a disappointing run from Tim Wilkerson sent him home after his car drifted and touched the wall, which disqualified his effort.
   Force went on to defeat teammate Gary Densham, who beat Phil Burkart Jr., to advance.
   Burkart posted a terrible time of 9.254 at 136.10 mph, but scored the upset when trouble by Cruz Pedregon gaining traction enabled Burkhart to cross the line first.
   Burkhart got the victory by winning the hole shot as both drivers were all over the track in trying to gain control of their machines.
   "Wow, it felt like the car was standing straight up a couple of times out there, and just when I thought it was over I heard him hit the throttle again," said Burkart. "That was wild, absolutely wild."
   The luck ran out in the semi-finals, as Force easily defeated Burkart, who red-lighted from the start.
   Force, the NHRA's winningest all-time driver, had made it to the finals at the only track where he lacks a win, with both him and Bazemore were searching for their first victory on the season.
   "I said in an interview the other day, if I broke my legs, then I'd say I never won Bristol," said Force. "I even asked Rusty Wallace, 'Why do you seem to do so good at Bristol,' and it's just what you go through.
   "I was tripping on it when he won a few weeks ago, and you wonder if you're going to get in a slump and not win again."
   A time of 4.781 seconds at 322.98 mph was turned in by Force to capture his 110th career victory, while Bazemore never had a chance after lighting up his tires.
   No surprise in Pro-Stock, as Anderson finds ways to get faster each time out, and a time of 6.771 seconds broke the track's previous best which he set in Friday's first round of qualifying.
   A time of 6.773 seconds and speed of 202.30 was enough to send Jason Line to the championship round against teammate Anderson.
   Nothing was about to change, as Anderson went on to score his fifth win of the season over Line. His only loss in 2004 came to Kurt Johnson at Phoenix.