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NHRA: Team NEC/AAA Funny Car Nipped at Finish Line

12 October 1998

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - Professional drag racing can be a humbling sport and the world's fastest drivers proved that point Sunday as the battle for the title of the 11th annual Pennzoil Nationals sponsored by AutoZone ensued at Memphis Motorsports Park.

Fighting out of the 16th and final qualifying position, Team NEC/AAA Auto Club of Southern California Funny Car driver Gary Densham turned on the power Sunday and improved on his best time of the weekend by a full two-tenths of a second. Densham had earned his way into the competitive field with a 5.341-second lap at 234.09 mph during qualifying and - knowing he needed to go for broke against the No. 1 qualifier Cruz Pedregon - told crew chief Greg Amarel to hold nothing back on race day. Amarel listened and the resulting pass of 5.199 seconds at 273.50 mph would have won several of the other first round races. But not Denshams.

Pedregon, who had qualified at the top of the field with a 4.916-second pass at 311.20 mph, knocked Densham out of contention with a fractionally better 5.139-second lap at 275.73 mph. Pedregon's victory resulted in Densham's seventh straight first-round loss and 12th Round 1 dismissal of the year.

"I can't believe we have a run like that and I'm still sitting here after the first round with nothing to do," Densham said. "Ask any fan, or any driver for that matter, which race was the best one of the day and they'll say Densham and Cruz. It's just one of those years.

"I really want to show NEC and the AAA Auto Club what were capable of doing and, believe me, we're all working our tails off to do that, it's just baffling why we can't get a break. I walk through the pits and every single driver tells me that they can't believe we're not in the thick of the Winston points race. That's how good this car is and everyone knows it. We just have to win a few races to prove it to the rest of the world."

Densham won't have to wait long to try his luck again. He has already qualified for the rain-delayed Sears Craftsman Nationals in Topeka, Kan., and will return to Heartland Park Topeka Saturday for a first-round match-up with Winston points leader John Force.

"I wish we could've run him last week when he was struggling," Densham said. "Because it looks like he's straightened out his problems at this race. Either way, beating the top guy in our class would be a great boost for the entire team, from the sponsors to the crewmen. We certainly plan on doing everything in our power to win."