Champs reign at Gatornationals

Reigning NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series champs Tony Schumacher, Tony Pedregon, and Jeg Coughlin all collected victories at the 39th annual ACDelco NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway, the third round of the 2008 season.

Coughlin and Pedregon earned their first wins of their title defense seasons, scoring in Funny Car and Pro Stock, respectively, with final-round victories over Gary Densham and Jason Line and Schumacher (pictured) his second in Top Fuel by defeating Brandon Bernstein. As he did for his first career win in Reading last year, No. 1 qualifier Matt Guidera again won Pro Stock Motorcycle with a blistering string of four six-second passes. He’s the only rider to accomplish that feat.

Schumacher, who started from a season-low fifth spot in qualifying, defeated J.R. Todd and Antron Brown with back-to-back laps of 4.61 and 4.59 but squeaked by season archrival Larry Dixon in the semifinals where neither driver’s car ran up to its capabilities. Schumacher’s Army digger squirmed around its lane and dropped cylinders on the top end but managed a 4.74 to 4.85 win over Dixon’s U.S. Smokeless rail, which wasn’t in much better shape, to reach his 71st career final. The race was their third straight in the semifinals this year and was a rematch of last year’s final round, which Schumacher also won. To add insult to Dixon’s injury, he also was tagged with a 10-point oildown penalty in the loss. Schumacher scored his second straight and third overall Gatornationals victory by a 4.60 to 4.66 decision over Bernstein. The victory is Schumacher's 43rd in Top Fuel, just nine behind all-time class winner Joe Amato.

“There were a lot of good cars and a lot of people running equal to us, and every round was a battle," said Schumacher. “We really had to earn this one. I look at this trophy and it’s a nice one, and we had really difficult cars to beat and it was one of the harder ones to earn. We got some breaks. Running 4.74 against Dixon; last year we would have gotten taken out.

“We’re really good at crunch time and when it matters, but getting a break every now and then is nice. This is Gainesville, one of my favorite races, and you look at the full stands and it’s a great race to win, but we’re going to need to try some different parts to get back ahead because everyone is right there with us."

Bernstein, who won the Gatornationals in his 2003 rookie season but hadn’t won a round since and even failed to make the starting field for last year’s event, came from seventh in the field and worked his Budweiser dragster past a pair of drivers making their 2008 debuts, Clay Millican and Michael Gunderson, the former with a 4.59 and the latter in a smoke-filled second-round bash. Bernstein regained a semblance of form in the semifinals and earned lane choice for his 24th Top Fuel final with a close 4.66 to 4.67 conquest of Hillary Will, ending her best outing of the season.

Pedregon completed a great comeback from his terrifying explosion at the season opener in Pomona by reaching his 63rd career final round with his Q Horsepower Impala then defeating Densham in a close battle, 4.921 to 4.924. Pedregon, who paced the field with a 4.78 – the only 4.7-second pass of the event – blew past Jerry Toliver in round one, 4.86 to 4.93, out-pedaled Ashley Force in round two, 5.98 to 6.50, and reached the final with an off-pace 5.03 after Jim Head smoked the tires. Pedregon collected career win number 37 in a close tilt with Densham, 4.921, 315.21 to 4.924, 309.13. Both drivers had won this event while in the employ of John Force, Pedregon in 2002 and Densham in 2003.

“We ran good when we had to run good and had a few rounds where we did what it took to win," said Pedregon. “Usually it’s all about how quick and fast can we run and how much power can we apply to the track, but today we raced the conditions. Dickie [Venables, crew chief] had a really good game plan today. I have a lot of respect for Gary Densham, and we didn’t take him lightly — I know some of his tricks; I hope he doesn’t think I forgot – and he’s a tough customer, and these conditions played right into his hands.

“To think that a little over a month ago I was in the hospital with burns on my hands is quite an accomplishment. It’s been pretty much non-stop for our crew, and we’ve had great support from our sponsors. We didn’t get off to the kind of start we wanted, but when you look at the quality of cars out here, you know why. You can’t count on too many of these guys just folding up. It used to be not that many years ago you had one or two cars; now you have a world-class field of 12 to 15 cars with all of the resources and talent. It’s going to be a dogfight, and every race is going to be important."

Densham, who hadn’t reached a final round since doubling up at the 2004 U.S. Nationals while driving for John Force, reached his first final as a team owner since the 1999 Winternationals, where, ironically, he lost to then-Team Force driver Pedregon. Densham, who hadn’t won a round this year, qualified the Racebricks Chevy just 15th but upset his tire-smoking former boss in round one with a 4.91, eked past tractionless Del Worsham in the second round with a blower-belt-breaking 7.66 to Worsham’s 12.80, then squeezed past Tim Wilkerson on a holeshot in the semifinals, 4.96 to 4.92.

On the weekend that his father celebrated his 70th birthday and team oner Victor Cagnazzi his 50th, Coughlin reached the second final round of his title defense from the No. 3 position and looked good doing it, racking up low e.t. of eliminations in round one with a 6.61 against Ron Krisher, then powering to passes of 6.64 and 6.66 to defeat Pomona champ Greg Anderson and lucky-on-the-day Johnny Gray, who scored the first two round-wins of his Pro Stock career by upsetting No. 2 qualifier Kurt Johnson and hard-charging Justin Humphreys. Coughlin collected his 39th career Pro Stock win and 52nd overall by leaving on Line and outperforming him the rest of the quarter-mile, 6.652, 208.07 to 6.656, 209.10.

“The Gatornationals is definitely a marquee event on the NHRA tour, so it feels good to win here," said Coughlin whose win here is the second at this event and earned him the points lead. “You always want to have the points lead with the Countdown to the Championship format, but we want that points lead bad coming into the second leg of the Countdown.

“Beating Greg on a holeshot in the second round was certainly a turning point for us, and we got a little fortunate in the semifinals after breaking the wheelie bar on the burnout. My crew chief told me I needed to shut it down, but I knew that Johnny had been having some problems, so I at least was going to stage it. As soon as I let the clutch out it brought the front end up but also started spinning the tires, which helped a lot and dropped the front end and ran quick enough to have lane choice for the final. Then to have Jason Line, the last reigning champ, in the other lane I knew we had our hands full, and both of us put .65s on the board and put on a good show for the crowd."

Phoenix runner-up Line, like Summit team boss Anderson in Pomona, reached the final round in his first race with a new Pontiac GXP. It was the first time since the end of his 2006 championship season that Line had put together back-to-back final-round appearances. Line, the No. 8 qualifier, got past red-lighting rookie Rickie Jones in round one then beat low qualifier Warren Johnson, who spun the tires hard off the line, and Mike Edwards with back-to-back passes of 6.67 at 208 mph.

Guidera, who scored his first career win last season in Maple Grove by becoming the first winning rider to run exclusively in the sixes on race day, did it again in Gainesville. Guidera rode his Rick Maney-tuned Mohegan Sun/Rocklin Motorsports Buell from his 6.92-second pole position to passes of 6.95 and a pair of 6.94s to race past Hector Arana, Chris Rivas, and Chip Ellis. Ellis was unable to contest the round after the engine on his new ride on Don Schumacher’s Suzuki soured after being started for the semifinals. He finished his run with yet another 6.94 to beat Andrew Hines, who also ran all sixes in defeat and lost with a 6.98.

“This win is so much better than our first win," said Guidera, whose Reading win came on a Wednesday after rain delays. “I’m so happy with the No. 1 qualifier and that I didn’t beat myself. We ran consistent all day, but it was a lot different doing it in front of 30,000 people. I was feeling it and trying to relax and stay calm with everyone waving at you and looking at you. They say the first one is always special, but I don’t know how this one could have been much better. Every win is great, but to come in and run like we did and kick everybody's butt all day long is great.

“I think our team has come around a lot faster than the rest of the teams," said Guidera. “I think a lot of these teams didn’t do their homework this season, and I know how hard our team worked, and it showed. We had the field covered by a couple of hundredths, but there was a lot of parity with two Buells, a Harley, and a Suzuki in the final four."

Hines, who made history at this event in 2005 by recording the class’ first six-second pass, reached the final for the first time here since his inaugural Gainesville win in 2004 from the No. 3 hole with a string of six-second passes – 6.96, 6.95, and 6.97 – to trailer Junior Pippin, Angie McBride, and McBride’s teammate, reigning champ Matt Smith, last year’s runner-up at this event. The battle between the class’ two most recent champs was indicative of their status as both recorded 6.973-second elapsed times and Hines won it with a perfect .000 reaction time aboard his Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson to Smith’s decent .014.

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