By Rob Geiger, NHRA.com

Three-time Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi drove his Oakley Funny Car to a big victory Sunday at the CARQUEST Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Route 66 Raceway outside of Chicago to pull within 64 points of the POWERade lead. Scelzi, who switched to Funny Car in 2002, now only trails John Force in the world rankings. This was the 31st career win for the Californian, who was joined in a raucous winner's circle celebration by Oakley founder Jim Jannard and fellow Route 66 winners Scott Kalitta, Jason Line, and Chip Ellis.

Kalitta's 4.51 in Top Fuel was simply too much for runner-up Rod Fuller, who was racing in just his seventh event as a Pro. It was his second win of the season. Line survived the closest race of the entire weekend, beating Jeg Coughlin to the finish line by four inches. Pro Stock Motorcycle newcomer Ellis cruised to his second career victory in just nine races against a tragically-late Geno Scali.

Scott Kalitta
With at least 100 supporters on the starting line rooting him on, Kalitta finished off a game Fuller with a quick 4.518 at 330.15 mph. Fuller had a great hot rod all day and even left the starting first in the final by a .063- to .078-second margin, but crew chief Connie Kalitta's tune-up kicked in and carried his son past Fuller for a relatively easy win.

After winning the season-opening Winternationals, Kalitta has since dropped to eighth overall entering this event. He gained back two of those spots with Sunday's victory, which was the 18th of his career.

"This worked out about as good as it could for our team because Tony [Schumacher] ended up going out right after I beat Doug [Kalitta] so Doug's lead in the points stayed the same. If anyone is still dumb enough to say anything about diving now then all I can say is they're beating a dead horse.

"This was a big relief for me personally because we've been struggling for awhile now. This car has a mind of its own. We've tried before to set all three team cars up the same way but mine just does what it wants. After qualifying we knew we wouldn't win today running 4.58s and 4.60s so we duplicated Doug's setup and today it took."

Both finalists started the day in the bottom half of the elimination field. Of the two, Kalitta was the deepest on the grid, with his Jesse James/Mac Tools machine 10th overall. Still he managed to upset Morgan Lucas, his cousin and points leader Doug Kalitta by .003-second in the second round, and fellow two-time series champ Larry Dixon in the semi’s with a string of mid-4.5 second passes.

Competing in just their seventh race of the year, Fuller and the David Powers Homes/Valvoline crew reached their second final of the season with a strong run past Dave Grubnic, low qualifier and defending champ Tony Schumacher, and surprise semifinalist John Smith, whose quickest run of the day was a 5.91. Remarkably, Fuller is just 23 points out of the top 10.

Schumacher only gained one point on class leader Doug Kalitta this weekend. He still trails the Michigander by 25 points.

Gary Scelzi
As the entire Schumacher Racing organization looked on, Scelzi delivered in a big way with a 4.740 at 330.80 mph -- the fastest pass of the weekend -- against Medlen's 4.805 at 321.73 mph. The win was the 31st of Scelzi's career, his second of the season in three final-round showings, and his sixth victory in a Funny Car.

"When Force went out in the first round I knew that it was very, very important to have a good day," Scelzi said. "He ain't gonna give you many chances like that. I mean, I was happy just to get the 20 points from the first round. Then we just kept on going round by round and here we are. We all count points, regardless of what we might say. I was counting points in qualifying.

"Maybe we can make a horse race out of this thing. If we can just run like this and have some luck and maybe Force falters a time or two, we could be there. It's exciting. I haven't been in a championship chase since 2000.

"I had this in my pocket today," a suddenly emotional Scelzi said as he showed the gathered media a photo of the late Darrell Russell. "I needed to get this done. I wanted to do it in Columbus but it didn't happen. He won about this time last year and I knew we didn't need to wait until St. Louis to remind everyone we're thinking of him."

Scelzi can clearly see Force in the points standing this victory moved him up to second place, just 64 points behind the 13-time champ. Scelzi's reached his 49th career final by beating Bob Gilbertson, low qualifier Robert Hight, and Tommy Johnson Jr. with his Dodge Stratus R/T.

Medlen and the Castrol Syntec Ford Mustang crew got past Gary Densham, Del Worsham, and Jeff Arend for Medlen's third career trophy run, despite the fact his average reaction time in the first three rounds was a dismal .128 seconds.

Jason Line
Known for close finishes, Pro Stock didn't disappoint as Line took out Coughlin by the smallest margin of victory of the entire weekend, just .0015-second (or about four inches). Coughlin left the starting line first, .023- to .039-second, but was slowly reeled and passed right at the finish line.

The final numbers had Line winning with a 6.783 at 203.09 mph to Coughlin's 6.800 at 202.48 mph. It evened up the reigning Rookie of the year's final-round record to 6-6 and helped him move up to third in the points, 24 behind second-place Warren Johnson and 49 off the pace of leader Greg Anderson, who assumed the POWERade lead for the first time this year.

"We should run all our races here," said Line, who scored his first career victory at this event one year ago. "That one was close. I looked over after putting it into high gear, which I normally never do, but I could see him right there and it looked like we were gaining on him. It was still very close at the other end.

"The chemistry on the entire team is the best it's ever been and we're definitely going in the right direction. Each one of our personal attributes is what makes this team what it is. It's a good thing to be involved in."

Line and Coughlin drove expertly throughout the day. Sporting his new Summit Racing Equipment livery on his Pontiac, Line beat Greg Stanfield, King Demon Crown winner Dave Connolly, and Richie Stevens with stellar lights (.018-second average) and a quick hot rod (6.762).

On the other side of the ladder, Jeg's Mail Order Dodge Stratus R/T racer Coughlin was playing giant killer, rolling past "Tricky Rickie" Smith, Kurt Johnson, and series champ Greg Anderson. The wins over Johnson and Anderson both came on holeshots. It had been 29 races since Coughlin had reached a final round, the longest stretch of his career. His last win came at this track in the fall event of 2003.

Chip Ellis
Sending the best "Get Well" message possible to his injured crew chief, Ken Johnson, Ellis took home the hardware by thrashing a dead-late Scali in the Pro Stock Motorcycle final. This one was over at the line when Ellis' mediocre .063-second light was completely overshadowed by Scali's .242. Just for good measure, Ellis ran through the lights with a 7.203 at 180.79 to Scali's 7.343 at 179.30 mph.

"Ken is missing in action and everyone worked real hard to fill in the gaps," said Ellis, who went from eighth to second in the standings Sunday. "He's invaluable to this team and it took five people to take the place of one man. We were putting oil in there and I asked George [Bryce, team owner] how much and he said, 'I don't know.' Things like that happened all day. This win's for Ken and we want him to know we really need him back.

"He's still in a lot of pain. I haven't talked to him yet but Jackie [Bryce] called him and told him we'd won and he said it was the best thing he could possibly hear.

"This was good for me because I'd been in a mental slump. I'm lucky the Bryces and the Smiths believed in me. I finally feel like I got it back at the last race but the bike wasn't quite perfect. This race it all came together."

Although this was just his ninth race on the NHRA circuit, Ellis was rock solid in guiding his G-Squared S&S Buell V-Twin past Matt Guidera, Columbus winner Ryan Schnitz, and three-time world champ Angelle Sampey.

Scali, who hadn't won a race or even been to a final since the 2003 event in Sonoma, Calif., came to life Sunday on his Trim-Tex Suzuki, beating points leader GT Tonglet, who red-lighted, Matt Smith, and Gainesville victor Steve Johnson to reach his 10th career final.

In AMS TLR Pro Modified action, defending series champion Mike Ashley scored an unprecedented fourth consecutive national event victory by defeating first-time finalist Joey Martin. Ashley entered eliminations as the sixth qualifier and soundly defeated Mike Bell, Shelly Payne, and Frankie Taylor to reach his fifth final round in six races.

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