BRAINERD, Minn. (Aug. 13, 2003) - On his way from his Indianapolis home to Brainerd, Minn., for the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals this weekend at Brainerd International Raceway, the 16th of 23 events in the 2003 POWERade Drag Racing Series schedule, Whit Bazemore stopped off at Route 66 Raceway in Joliet, Ill., to test some changes to his Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus. This is the track where he won one of his two Funny Car races this season in team owner Don Schumacher's backyard. "We made two half-track runs and one full pass and our two half-track runs were very strong. Then we came back and ran a 4.75-second elapsed time at 326 mph," he said. This stellar pass was encouraging to Bazemore, the team and crew chief Lee Beard, who were focused on improving the car's early numbers. "We worked on our weak areas, which have been reaction time and the first 60 feet, and I think we made good progress," said Bazemore. "Beard seems pretty happy. We definitely saw an improvement, so what we did differently at the last couple of races seemed to work. We already knew it would be good, so it seemed to help. That's exciting." Beard was looking ahead to the upcoming fall races. "We feel that we're going to be getting into the time of the year when the temperatures cool down and the track conditions become very good," said Beard, who has 48 NHRA national event wins to his credit as a crew chief, "so it's going to be a real hard-core performance that is going to win you the races in the fall. Being able to outrun our competitors, mainly the two John Force cars, is our No. 1 priority. The conditions at Joliet - the way the track was prepped, the fact that it was a cool overcast day - are the type of conditions that we hope to see in the fall. "We ran a 4.75 at 326.79 mph at Joliet, and we're going to need that type of performance if we're going to rise to the occasion and be able to outrun the Force cars." In a see-saw points-chasing season between Bazemore and his rival for the crown Tony Pedregon, Baze finds himself sandwiched in between Pedregon and John Force in the standings. He's just 44 points behind Pedregon and 155 points ahead of Force in probably one of the more hotly-contested battles for a championship in NHRA history. Bazemore has been close in the past while seeking his first Funny Car crown, but he knows he needs to maintain consistency if he's to achieve that goal in 2003. "I'm not even thinking about the championship," he claims. "I have at times, but I honestly think the best approach is the same approach that I've always had, whether we're caught in a points race or not, and that is just focusing on each race and doing what we can to win each race. That's the most important thing. "I think that if you start looking at the championship, it's easy to get caught up in the extra pressure that that brings. I don't think it's really healthy. There's still a lot of time left, and as we've seen with our team and with our competition, anything can happen and it will. It's important to keep an eye on things that are right around the corner and the next challenge, and try to control what is the closest to us and that's the next run, the next race." Brainerd International Raceway is one of those challenges, and it's a place Bazemore enjoys visiting. "Brainerd is a fun race. It's a little bit off the beaten path," he said. "I like going there. It's kind of a fun little town. It's unique for the fans. There are so many fans that come from obviously faraway places and they camp. The fans are kind of hard core, because they travel to Brainerd, not only to see the race but to party. I imagine it's kind of like the fans used to be at the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) Formula 1 race back in the '60s and '70s, when it was a real party atmosphere." As for racing conditions, "Brainerd is another thing. It can go either way," remarked Beard. "It's a brand-new race track surface-wise. It's probably not going to have a lot of rubber on it, so it's going to take a few qualifying rounds before it really comes around. But if it's cool and overcast here you'll have to have to be able to run the big numbers." Although Bazemore has never won here at Brainerd, he's been runner-up twice (in 1999 and 2001), and was No. 1 qualifier two times, in 1997 and 2001.
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