T. Ped completes turnaround; Shoe, K.J. extend leads; Rivas nabs his first

The 11th annual Torco Racing Fuels Route 66 NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway in Chicago was hampered by rain early in final eliminations, but four Professional winners weathered the storm and raced to dramatic conclusions. No driver experienced more ups and downs than Funny Car winner Tony Pedregon, who bounced back from a fire during qualifying on Saturday to win for the second time this season and the 38th time in his career.

Also posting his 38th national event win was Kurt Johnson. Johnson won a final round that also decided who would leave the Pro Stock points leader against Jeg Coughlin. Tony Schumacher extended his hefty points lead by defeating Top Fuel foe Rod Fuller with the quickest pass of the weekend, a 4.499. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, fourth-year rider Chris Rivas stepped to the podium for the first time in his career.

Tony Pedregon

Pedregon's event typified his turbulent 2008 season. Pedregon, who opened the season with a violent first-round explosion two races before winning in Houston, was unhurt in a nasty fire during qualifying but bounced back to go the distance in eliminations. Pedregon drove his Q Horsepower Chevy Impala to his best time of eliminations, a 4.818 at 319.75 mph, to defeat a win-hungry Scott Kalitta, who ran a 4.957 at 308.92.

"That little incident last night took me back to the beginning of the year," said Pedregon, who moved from a sixth-place tie up to fourth in points. "We had a low-flash fire that I thought would go out. It seemed routine, but it gradually got worse. It wiped the chassis out, so we had to roll one out that we haven't run before. I felt good about it, though; I learned not to fall in love with race car parts.

"I've been doing this a lot of years, but this is the first time I've had a race where we've bounced back like this. We rose from the ashes after Pomona, but that took a few races. The way we did all this within 24 hours is a tribute to the great group of guys we have. I knew these guys were low on sleep after working until three in the morning, but I knew a taste of winning would give them the adrenaline they needed to get through the day."

Pedregon's performance on Sunday is one fans have come to expect from a two-time Funny Car world champion. The No. 10 qualifier ran a pair of 4.88s to put opponents Jerry Toliver and Mark Oswald on the trailer in the first two rounds. Crew chiefs Dickie Venables and Kurt Elliott followed that with a 4.89 to edge Ashley Force in a close semifinal. Both of Pedregon's semifinal appearances this season have led to wins, and Pedregon is the second repeat winner in the class this season.

Kalitta's three round-wins at this event in addition to his sole round-win in Phoenix equal his entire round-win output from the 2007 season. The 1994-95 Top Fuel points champion and driver of the DHL Toyota Solara has struggled since his return to Funny Car in 2006, but he made big gains with his first Funny Car final since his triumph in Houston in 1989. Kalitta, who qualified for just the second time in the past seven events, handled Ron Capps, Cruz Pedregon, and Gary Densham on his way to the final.

Tony Schumacher

The rivalry between Schumacher and "Hot Rod" Fuller heated up with their second final-round match-up of the season. Schumacher evened the score in dominant fashion by posting the event’s only 4.4-second pass, a 4.499, while Fuller's Caterpillar dragster smoked the tires less than 300 feet down the racetrack.

"Fuller said that we were 'Dark Side Racing,' and I would call that a 'Dark Side' wrath," joked Schumacher. "You can throw names out, but the right word to say is 'champion.' We earned that name. The rivalries will come later in the season. If you are going to make a rivalry, step. Me and Doug Kalitta had a great rivalry and never had to say anything.

"The race we had against Vandergriff in the first round was fun, but we should've got beat. If you give Alan Johnson one mulligan — he plays golf a lot — he’ll get it figured out and be hard to beat."

Schumacher and the U.S. Army team took care of business in an event full of personal milestones. Five years after crew chief Alan Johnson came onboard, Schumacher qualified No. 1 for the 50th time in his career and won the event while celebrating the U.S. Army's 233rd birthday. Schumacher didn't win his first-round race against Vandergriff as much as he survived it, as both drivers smoked the tires and "the Sarge" won by a narrow margin. He stepped up to run 4.56s in the second and third rounds to defeat Hillary Will and Doug Herbert, respectively.

Fuller reached the final round for the second time this season after defeating Schumacher in the Madison final. Fuller never made a decent qualifying lap until the final session, but crew chief Rob Flynn figured it out for Sunday as Fuller handled opponents Doug Kalitta, an upset-minded T.J. Zizzo, and a hungry Morgan Lucas.

Kurt Johnson

The points lead was decided in the Pro Stock final when incoming leader Johnson streaked to victory against troubled No. 1 qualifier Jeg Coughlin. Though K.J. was disappointed in his qualifying efforts that put him sixth, he made the necessary adjustments to become a force on race day.

"This is such a highly-competitive class," said Johnson. "I felt like I should have done a better job on the starting line, but 'Big Blue' — the ACDelco Cobalt — bailed me out every time. We made four big changes in the car last night, and we made a good, fast run this morning.

"The way this class has been this year is scary. It's like, 'What the heck have we been doing out here?' I raced Dad in the semifinals, and I thought it was the kiss of death because there were eight winners in the first nine races and he was the only guy who hasn't won that was in the semi's."

Johnson opened eliminations with a 6.717 to get past Mike Edwards, and he followed that with a thrilling win over friend Greg Anderson that was decided less than two-hundredths. He hurdled over father Warren in the semifinals before he earned his second win of the season.

Coughlin came off the pole position to beat upcoming rookie Rickie Jones in the first round. His next two races were nail-biters. He moved past Greg Stanfield in the second round by a .0098-second margin. In the semifinals, Coughlin overcame a holeshot to squeak by rival mail order business-sponsored Jason Line by .0002-second (approximately one inch).

Chris Rivas

Rivas' win from the top qualifying spot was decided in a final-round encounter with old Division 7 bracket racing rival Craig Treble. Treble, a crafty veteran who won two rounds by holeshots, used a little trickery on the starting line in the final round, but Rivas was unaffected as he pulled out the victory, 7.051 to 7.134.

"I've been waiting for this for such a long time and felt I was so past due in getting it," said Rivas, whose only other final-round appearance came in 2005 during the third of his 49 career events. "We did so good so early with my other team that I felt like we would be dangerous all the time. When I went with Matt Smith and the Torco team [in 2007], I thought that would be it; it didn't happen. When G2 Motorsports called me up and George Smith talked to me about riding, I thought, 'This is it for sure. If I can't do it with this team, I might as well retire.'

"Treble tried to play a little bit with me. He was trying a couple of things, and I knew he was doing it, but I didn't let it shake me. He rushed the first light and brought the rev limiter on before he full-staged. It worked out for him when he did it in the first round but not in the final."

Rivas' win was certainly a long time coming. After bouncing around from the Mohegan Sun team to Matt Smith's team to the G-Squared team, the talented rider from Fresno, Calif., finally got it done. Rivas dominated on the Drag Specialties S&S Buell V-Twin, running 7.0s throughout eliminations to crush the likes of riders Wes Wells, Karen Stoffer, and teammate Angelle Sampey. The win occurred at the home track of S&S Cycle.

Treble worked through his slow start to the season with his first final round appearance since his U.S. Nationals win in 2007. He rode Harry Lartigue's Suzuki to a huge holeshot win over Chip Ellis in the first round, defeating Ellis' class-best 7.001 with a 7.094. Treble then received a red-light gift from Hector Arana and prevented a seemingly-imminent match-up between Rivas and Andrew Hines by strapping a holeshot on the three-time world champ and winning with a 7.141 to Hines' quicker 7.112.

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