ATLANTA WINNER BAZEMORE RETURNS TO ROUTE 66 TO DEFEND TITLE

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Whit Bazemore, driver of the Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus, who was runner-up in the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series Funny Car championship last year and is favored by many to win the crown this year is back to fighting form and heading to Route 66 Raceway this weekend to defend his 2003 title at the track where he's arguably had the most success in his 16-year pro NHRA career. Fresh from a victory at Atlanta Dragway in his third final-round appearance of the last four races and a jump from sixth into second place in points, Bazemore is eager to get on the quarter mile for the NHRA Route 66 Nationals, where he also won the inaugural NHRA race in 1998 and the fall event in 2001. The Indianapolis resident and two-time U.S. Nationals champion also notched two No. 1 qualifiers here in Joliet. "We like Route 66 Raceway," said the 41-year-old who has won 16 events so far and is seeking his first Funny Car championship. "It's probably the track where we've had the most success ever, having won the inaugural race there back in 1998, and twice more since then, and we're coming in this year on a roll. But you can't take anything for granted. What we did in Atlanta a couple of days ago is a couple of days ago, it's in the past." Following two first-round losses and two second-round exits in the first five races of 2004, the Matco Tools team, led by crew chief Lee Beard, is buoyed by the recent turn-around of performance after finding a mechanical problem that had plagued the team from the start. "We'll be rolling into Chicago with a good race car, a good tune-up and the confidence in our own ability to get the job done," said Bazemore. The NHRA Route 66 Nationals is the second of six events in seven weeks, a schedule which can take its toll on any team. "I think it's just going to take everyone doing their job exceptionally well," said Bazemore, who is just 51 points out of first place, "and if we do that and we make the right decisions on the Matco Tools Dodge, and have a little racing luck going our way, the next five races should be pretty good for us. "I'm kind of excited for the rest of the year," added Bazemore. "At the same time, we're realists and we know it takes hard work on behalf of the entire Matco Tools Dodge team. We could lose this combination just as quickly as we have it, but I don't see that happening. "We've been in three finals in the last four races, which is pretty darned stout. The Matco Tools Dodge team was on top of its game and the driver has been on top of his game too and when you have that combination it's hard to beat." Legendary crew chief Lee Beard collected his 49th national-event victory as a crew chief when Bazemore won in Atlanta. He'll be aiming to round at that number to 50 on Sunday. This weekend's racing schedule includes pro qualifying sessions on Friday at 4 and 7 p.m. and on Saturday at 12:15 and 3 p.m.. Final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday. On Saturday, May 22, ESPN2 will televise two hours of qualifying highlights at 7 p.m. (ET). On Sunday, May 23, ESPN2 will televise three hours of eliminations at 7 p.m. (ET). Also on Sunday, May 23, ESPN2 will televise NHRA 2Day, a 30-minute magazine show, at 11:30 a.m. (ET). WHIT BAZEMORE QUICK FACTS: * Qualified No. 4 at NHRA Route 66 Nationals in 2003, won event * Route 66 Raceway is considered home track for team owner Don Schumacher, whose Schumacher Electric Corporation is based in Mt. Prospect, Ill. * Won Funny Car class here in 1998 and 2003. Also won the fall event in 2001 * First Funny Car driver to break 325-mph barrier (U.S. Nationals 2001) * 2003 Funny Car points runner-up * Won three times in 2003, runner-up five times * Has 16 career Funny Car event wins * Took the 2003 championship chase to penultimate race in Las Vegas in an exciting final round against eventual champion Tony Pedregon * Was also second in the NHRA Funny Car championship in 2001, third in 1997 and '99 and has finished in the top five six times and 11 times in the top 10 since 1992 * Age 41, born in New York City, an avid cyclist, lives in Indianapolis with wife Michelle, a semi-pro cyclist * 2004 is his fourth season with Don Schumacher Racing * Stands second in Funny Car points following Atlanta. * Two-time U.S. Nationals champion
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