CARQUEST AUTO PARTS NHRA NATIONALS RECAP

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By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com

A memorable weekend at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway ended with a euphoric trio of winners headed by legend Kenny Bernstein, who moved past "Big Daddy" Don Garlits into second place on the all-time wins list in Top Fuel with his 36th victory in that category. Bernstein also has 30 wins in Funny Car. Joining the Bud King in the winner's circle were Tony Pedregon, who regained the POWERade Funny Car points lead Sunday, and Jeg Coughlin Jr., who dismissed a red-lighting Greg Anderson in the Pro Stock final.

Unseasonably cool temperatures turned this 6-year-old facility into a mineshaft that resulted in national speed records being set in both Top Fuel and Funny Car, the first when Doug Kalitta reached 333.00 mph and the second when Gary Scelzi topped out at 329.18 mph. Additionally, the three quickest passes in Top Fuel history were carded, led by Kalitta's mind-boggling 4.428-second rocket-blast, while four of the top five Funny Car passes of all-time were run this weekend, topped by Gary Densham's near-record 4.723-second pass.

Bernstein's first victory of his abbreviated season came at a track where he's had plenty of success. This was Bernstein's fourth victory in six final-round appearances at Route 666 Raceway. It was also the sixth time he has beat beer rival Larry Dixon when the trophy was at stake.

Dixon, who now leads the POWERade points by 323 markers, got an early jump on Bernstein with a .057- to .073-second starting-line edge, but the 59-year-old crowd favorite had caught Dixon by the 330-foot timers and he roared away from there, posting a 4.503 at 328.46 mph to Dixon's 4.638 at 321.35 mph.

"It's always good to win," Bernstein said. "No matter how many times you do it the feeling is always the same. It's the ultimate deal. This one is extra special because it's for Brandon. He went through so much since his accident, especially in those first few months. He's a real warrior. We've been trying to get a win for him ever since and we finally got it done.

"Passing Garlits is something. I mean, he's King Kong. He made this sport go in the beginning. Who would have ever thought I'd catch him? I never thought I'd be out here that long. It's an honor to even be in the same room with him. I might have passed him but he's the real king of drag racing and always will be.

"Can you believe [my national record held?] I told the gang that baby was gonna fall for sure this weekend with the numbers Doug and Tony [Schumacher] were throwing up there. I thought they'd knock it out of the park for sure. Heck, we could've even made a run at it. But it held for a little while longer."

Budweiser's Bernstein was rock-solid in his bright-red dragster. He opened with a 4.53-second victory over David Grubnic, posted a 4.494 opposite a red-lighting Paul Romine, used a 4.51 at 331 mph to better retiring legend Shirley Muldowney in the semifinals, and carded the winning 4.50 against Dixon in the final.

Muldowney and Bernstein, fifth and sixth on the list of all-time drag racing greats, have now met five times in their careers. Despite Sunday's loss, Muldowney owns a 3-2 advantage in head-to-head match-ups with the Bud King, while Bernstein improved to 20-19 lifetime against female opponents.

Remarkably, Bernstein's national elapsed time record of 4.477 seconds set here in June of 2001 survived multiple threats this weekend. His pass has actually been bettered four times, including three times this weekend, but none of the other posted elapsed times were backed up to make them official. By rule, a national record time or speed must be backed-up at the same event with another run within one percent of the posted mark to make it an official NHRA national record.

Miller pro Dixon used up a year's worth of luck in one day, racing to his 13th final of the year despite struggling in each of the first three elimination rounds. He got by a tire-smoking Darrell Russell with a 4.95 as his motor expired near the top end, out-pedaled Rhonda Hartman-Smith 5.69 to 9.23, and out-pedaled Tony Schumacher 6.05 to 10.19.

After surrendering the POWERade points lead he held for most of the season to rival Whit Bazemore six days ago in Memphis, Pedregon answered back here with his seventh victory of the year, which leaves him a perfect 7-0 in final-round action. Pedregon's win, combined with Bazemore's unlikely first-round loss, pushed his lead to 69 points with four races left on the agenda.

Pedregon's 26th career victory came at the expense of Phil Burkart Jr., who was shut off at the starting line after completing his burnout when NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart noticed fluid leaking underneath his car. Pedregon might have been tough to beat any way as he posted his best pass of the weekend in the title round, a sporty 4.769 at 316.52 mph.

Pedregon raced the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang to his seventh final of the year and the 47th of his career with a lot of help from his teammates. After beating Bob Bode in Round 1, he accepted what amounted to free passes from teammates Gary Densham and Force, who both smoked their tires just off the starting line. His good luck continued in the final when Burkart failed to answer the call to race.

In just his third race in the Checker, Schuck's & Kragen Pontiac Firebird and his fourth with Worsham Racing, Burkart proved he belonged among the sport's elite with his second career run to the money round of an NHRA national event. On this day he beat Scott Cannon with a 4.81, and Cory Lee and Gary Scelzi with a pair of 4.77s before his meltdown in the final. Burkart won his only other final round appearance in 1999 at Columbus, Ohio, over John Force.

Scelzi bettered his national speed record for Funny Cars twice Sunday, finally pushing the mark to an impressive 329.18 mph in his Oakley Dodge Stratus R/T.

Pro Stock winner Coughlin avenged his final-round loss of a week ago by beating series points leader Anderson, who red-lighted by one-thousandth of a second. Anderson had the numbers to win as he posted a 6.728 at 204.91 mph to Coughlin's 6.749 at 203.22 mph, but the reigning champ took the trophy.

Coughlin's win, his second of the season and 33rd of his Pro Stock career (45 overall), lifted him to within 150 points of second place, which is currently held by Kurt Johnson. Anderson is another 286 points ahead of that mark and could clinch the championship as soon as next weekend.

The Vegas General Construction Pontiac Grand Am cruised through the first three rounds with relative ease as Anderson beat Mark Whisnant and Darrell Alderman with a pair of 6.72s, and red-hot Larry Morgan with a 6.73. This was the group's sixth final-round appearance in a row.

On the other side of the ladder, the Jeg's Mail Order Chevrolet Cavalier carried Coughlin past Ron Krisher with a 6.72, Kurt Johnson with a 6.74, Bruce Allen with another 6.72, and Anderson with a 6.74.

Kurt Johnson showed exceptional sportsmanship after he graciously waited for Coughlin under the timing tower as the Jeg's crew struggled to get Coughlin's car started before the two raced.

Mac Tools U.S. Nationals champ Morgan Lucas powered his Lucas Oil A/FD to yet another win, besting David Wells' Blue Bunny Ice Cream blown alcohol dragster in an incredible race, 5.25 to 5.27. Bob Newberry scored his 43rd career victory, driving his Hussey/Valvoline Alcohol Funny Car past Doug Gordon in the final round. Doug Engels took an easy final-round win in Comp, the fourth of his career, when former national champ Sal Biondo's D/EA Beretta made a right turn toward the guardwall just off the starting line.

Tony DeFrank scored his fifth career win in Super Stock, defeating the class' winningest driver, Dan Fletcher, who broke out in his SS/HA '69 Camaro. DeFrank is a perfect 5-0 in career final rounds. In Stock, Mark Biskup drove his G/FIA Mustang to his first national event title, taking the win when Nick Folk fouled in the final round.

Jeg's Allstar Super Comp winner Jim Perry lost a unique chance to double up when his entry broke in the final Sunday against Brainerd runner-up Lonnie Grim. U.S.

Nationals Super Comp champ Steve Cohen added a Super Gas win in Chicago, defeating Mike Coughlin in a final round in which both ran 9.92. Gary Thompson took Super Street honors with a 10.91 to fend off Bill Webb perfect 10.900 pass.

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