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NHRA: Scelzi, Pedregon, Johnson, Hines and Freeman Among Sears Craftsman Nationals Winners

29 June 1998

MADISON, Ill. -- The sophomore jinx is over.

Defending NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion Gary Scelzi and his Team Winston crew erased all memories of a sluggish start to the 1998 NHRA campaign by posting their first victory of the season at the second annual Sears Craftsman Nationals June 28.

Frank Pedregon, Kurt Johnson, Matt Hines and Tim Freeman were also winners in their respective professional categories at the $1.6 million race, the 11th of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

Scelzi, 37, of Fresno, Calif., powered his Team Winston dragster to a 4.711 second run at 300.60 mph to defeat Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King dragster, which smoked the tires near the finish line before clocking a 4.858 at 288.73.

Scelzi, who had not visited the Winner's Circle since Houston's Matco Tools Supernationals last October, had a wide grin poking through his familiar mustache following the victory.

"It's a pretty emotional win for me," said Scelzi of his sixth career victory. "After you have a season like we did last year and then you go through a stretch of races like we have where you don't win it can mess with your confidence. But we've worked on the tune-up and we're starting to get things together now."

Scelzi drove the Alan Johnson-tuned machine to victories over Joe Amato, Doug Kalitta and Mike Dunn, while posting extremely consistent 4.70-second efforts.

"Alan has a great tune-up when it's hot," Scelzi said. "We've been getting things back in order here lately and I definitely feel like our momentum is up. Everything worked perfectly this weekend. Alan was just flawless tuning the car today."

Johnson saved the best for last. But even if the car decided to make an uncharacteristic move in the final, Scelzi was ready.

"Kenny is so good at getting the car down the track when it smokes the tires that I knew I had to be ready for that final if our car smoked the tires," Scelzi said. "Fortunately I didn't need to. It's always good to beat the red Bud car. They've been on a hot streak lately and it feels really good to put an end to it."

Top qualifier Bernstein, who had won the last two races, was pleased with the performance of his team despite the final outcome.

"It was a great day and a great weekend," said Bernstein. "My hat is off to Scelzi and Alan Johnson for keeping the car running in the 4.70s all weekend in these kind of conditions."

With the win, Scelzi moved within 46 points of Winston leader Cory McClenathan, who lost in the first round. Amato is second, 20 points behind the McDonald's dragster driver. Runner-up Bernstein is 122 points behind in fourth place.

"It's going to be crowded at the top this year," Scelzi said with a grin. "Whoever wins the Winston championship is going be the last guy left standing. It's definitely going to be a war."

Alta Loma, Calif's Pedregon earned his second straight Funny Car victory, out-pedaling veteran Chuck Etchells in a close finish. Pedregon drove the Jim Dunn Racing Dodge Avenger to a 5.295 at 232.07, while Etchells' Kendall Oil Chevrolet Camaro was a tick slower, running 5.354 at 259.06.

Pedregon, 33, was confident as soon as he pulled onto the track property.

"When I got here I felt like we would do good because we had similar conditions at Columbus," Pedregon said. "Jim has so much experience tuning the car for tricky track conditions like we had out here. And I've driven sprint cars and alcohol cars on similar surfaces, so I was ready. It was a total team effort. It's awesome to get my second win this quick."

Pedregon demonstrated his creative driving skills in hard-earned round victories over Jim Epler, top qualifier and hometown favorite Tim Wilkerson and defending race winner Ron Capps to advance to the final.

However, after his machine took the win light against Etchells, Pedregon was able to enjoy the victory a little better.

"At Columbus I was sort of in shock," Pedregon said. "I'm a little more relaxed right now. I know the routine. I'm having fun with this one."

The eldest of the three Pedregon brothers, Frank hopes to continue his winning ways to hopefully join Cruz and Tony as the first trio of brothers to make the Winston Top-10 in Funny Car.

"My dream is to get in the top-10 with my brothers at the end of the season so I can walk across that stage with them at the banquet," Pedregon said. "Winning two races after 11 starts has really helped my confidence. Now I'm ready to win three in a row."

Castrol GTX Ford Mustang driver John Force lost in the first round for the third time this season, opening the door for Etchells to move closer to his Winston championship lead.

"It's always disappointing to lose," said Force, who couldn't run down Whit Bazemore after the Team Winston Chevrolet driver deep-staged and motored on to the first round win. "When I hit the throttle it dropped a cylinder. Bazemore knew he had to go in deep because the way we were running he had to get a head start on us. He had the edge at the starting line, but at about 800 feet my car started spinning the tires and it was just over."

It's only the third time this decade Force has posted three first round losses in the same season.

"It really gets aggravating because you want to win races, but we just didn't get a good start," the seven-time Winston champion added. "We had a game plan for these last three races because in the past we've struggled on these tracks in the heat of summer. We wanted to keep the points lead leaving St. Louis and we were fortunate to do it."

Force leads Etchells by four points in the Winston standings, while Capps is in a distant third, 93 points behind.

Johnson, 35, of Lawrenceville, Ga., earned his first Pro Stock win of the season in his AC Delco Chevrolet Camaro. Johnson overcame a holeshot start by Jeg Coughlin Jr. in the final. Johnson covered the distance in 7.056 at 195.31, while Coughlin ran a slower 7.169 at 194.25 in his Jeg's Mail Order Oldsmobile Cutlass.

"It's a brand new race car and we made some major changes to it to get it down the racetrack," said Johnson, who defeated Steve Schmidt, Shawn Collins and Jim Yates to advance to his third final round of the season. "When we tested it, it ran flawless. It was really running fast and staying on the ground. We should've won Atlanta and Englishtown, but I'm glad to get this one. I guess I just proved that if you stick around long enough, you're going to win one of these things eventually."

Hines, 26, of Trinidad, Colo., continued his winning parade in Pro Stock Motorcycle, defeating veteran Dave Schultz in the final. Hines rode his Eagle One Suzuki to a 7.411 at 182.03, while Schultz' Suzuki ran 7.563 at 176.81.

"The bike was working well considering the heat and humidity, we just had to intensify the tune-up," Hines said. "Fortunately it worked out and we got another win. I'm really glad to win here because last year I red-lighted in the final against John Smith."

Hines had one major scare during the day, as his bike stalled on the starting line in a tough semi-final match-up with rival Angelle Seeling. However, Hines kept his composure during the situation and pulled out the win.

"We had a problem with the bike idling on the line today and a couple of times it quit," Hines said. "In the semis against Angelle, it quit and the starter gave her the go- ahead, but she waited for me. That was a class move and I have to thank her for that."

Hines increased his Winston lead over Seeling, who now trails by 231.

Freeman, of Roan Mountain, Tenn., earned his first career Pro Stock Truck victory in his first start in the category. Freeman, a noted Pro Stock crewman and multiple category sportsman competitor for many years, covered the distance in 7.877 seconds at 171.59 mph in his Kessinger Motorsports Chevrolet S-10, defeating local favorite Jerry Haas, from nearby Fenton, who ran a slower 7.810 at 173.07, also in an S-10.

For Freeman, the victory was a dream come true.

"I'm tickled that we won, I was definitely the underdog all day," said Freeman, 32. "It was a great team effort and the Jenkins engine gave us the power we needed. Especially since it was so hot out here. We worked through all the sweat and prepared the truck for each round. To win in my first-ever NHRA national event as a driver is something I'll never forget."

For Haas, who was also after his first career Pro Stock Truck win, the final result was the only disappointment in an otherwise outstanding weekend.

"Losing here in my hometown makes it tough," said Haas, one of drag racing's premier chassis builders. "The truck was so fast all weekend. We qualified No. 2 and we kept winning rounds and got really pumped up as the day went on. I wanted to win bad for everybody, especially since it was here. But Tim's familiar with the trucks and he's a real good driver and has some good engines from Bill Jenkins. That was a tough combination."

Larry Kopp remained in the Winston points lead in Pro Stock Truck, ahead of John Lingenfelter and David Nickens.

The four-day estimated attendance was 97,600.

The next NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series event will be the Mopar Mile-High Nationals, July 16-19 at Bandimere Speedway near Denver.