JOLIET, Ill. ? Tony Pedregon suddenly is as hot as a chile pepper. The youngest son of the late Frank Pedregon Sr., a Top Fuel dragster driver who proudly proclaimed himself the "World's Fastest Mexican," the 37-year-old Latino has added a little spice to what was becoming a pretty bland race for the $400,000 2002 NHRA POWERade Funny Car Championship. On the strength of consecutive victories the last two weeks at Reading, Pa., and Memphis, Tenn., Pedregon has driven his Castrol SYNTEC? Ford to within 80 points of the lead. That's the equivalent of just four rounds of racing. All he has to do now is catch and pass certain Hall-of-Famer John Force, the current points leader, the most prolific winner in drag racing history, the nine-time reigning NHRA champion and, oh yeah, his boss, teammate and mentor. "It's getting very interesting," Pedregon said as he prepared for this week's (Sept. 27-29) second annual Craftsman Nationals at Route 66 Raceway. "I understand the hype and why it happens, but John is still four rounds up on us. Still, I don't think anyone has been this close this late in the season for quite awhile." Indeed, the last time Force had a lead of less than 100 points entering the last four races of the season was 1992, which just happens to be the only time in the last 12 years that he DIDN'T win the series championship. That year, with four races remaining, Force clung to a 41-point lead over Tony's brother, Cruz, who went on to pass him and win the title by the 2002 equivalent of 124 points. Cruz Pedregon won the title by stringing together five victories in the last six races. His younger brother knows it will take a similar type of performance for him to wrestle the title away from the man who, in 1996, gave him his big break by tapping him to drive a second car. "If we win a few more rounds than he does (in Joliet), then it'll be worth talking about," Pedregon said of his bid to match his brother's success, "but right now would be too soon. "We've got a fast race car and a lot of momentum right now, but it's not like John's fallen off. His car has just had some mechanical problems the last two races. We'll just have to see what happens." Pedregon has won a career high five races already this season and has started from the No. 1 spot just as often as Force (five times). The difference is that Force has gone to the finals eight times; Pedregon "just" six. Although he has lost two of three meetings with Force this season and 37 of 47 in the overall series, Pedregon has won the last three times the two teammates have opposed one another in the final round, something that hasn't occurred since May of 2001. "Regardless of what happens, my hat's off to the guys busting their knuckles in the pits every day," Pedregon said, "plus guys like John Medlen and Dickie Venables, who tune this thing and make me look good." Pedregon has one more source of motivation. On the strength of his most recent victory, he now shares with Ed "the Ace" McCulloch the distinction of having won the most NHRA Funny Car races (18) without winning a series championship. In 1990, McCulloch was within 58 points of Force with four races to go, but ultimately lost by 50.
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