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NHRA: Scelzi, McClenathan to End Top Fuel Battle at Winston Finals

12 November 1998

POMONA, Calif. -- So it has come to this. Two hometown California kids, living out their childhood dreams in 4.50-second, 325 mph Top Fuel dragsters. Two men driving red cars in hot pursuit of NHRA Winston Drag Racing glory. Gary Scelzi, from Fresno, the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series defending Top Fuel champion, smiling from ear to ear with his familiar handle-bar mustache curling more than ever wants to keep his crown for another year. Cory McClenathan, from Anaheim, who has been to the altar many times before only to be relegated to second-best, hopes this will be his year.

The two drivers will settle a season-long Top Fuel slugfest at the 34th annual Winston Finals at historic Pomona Raceway. The $1.7-million race is the last of 22 events in the $30-million NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series.

One will walk away as a Winston champion. The other will cling to thoughts of what might have been.

The two drivers have had outstanding seasons at NHRA events all over the country. Scelzi, driver of the Team Winston dragster, has six victories and mounted a late season charge that propelled him into the thick of the Winston points chase. McClenathan, who pilots the McDonald's dragster, has six victories and held the points lead for much of the season.

Their battle is one of the greatest in drag racing history.

"We're definitely developing a rivalry, no doubt about that," McClenathan said. "Jimmy Spencer told me one time that when the Winston Cup guys are rubbin' fenders there's actually a lot of love there. It's the same for me and Gary. When we go head-to-head at 320 miles per hour it's definitely two racers bonding at speed. This is what it's all about and to be in the middle of this type deal is an incredible feeling."

Ditto for Scelzi.

"Back when I raced alcohol funny cars, I always wanted to race the bad asses," Scelzi said. "I feel like that brings out the best in me. I want to race Cory as much as possible because I consider him to be one of the best. I might be throwing up in my helmet before the round, but when it comes down to it, if you beat him, you've accomplished something. Sometimes it's rewarding, sometimes it's disheartening -- but that's all a part of it. The bottom line is that it's a love-hate relationship that keeps you coming back."

And the final version of their season-long feud will be played out at their home track.

"If we're tied going into Pomona it's going to end up being a great weekend for somebody," said McClenathan, who trails Scelzi by 115 points entering the finale. "If it all comes down to one round, that would be fine with me. It would definitely go down in history as one of the all-time greats. I don't think there's ever been a Top Fuel field this strong and a championship chase this good. This battle has been so strong all year. If it comes down to our home track at the Winston Finals, I couldn't think of a better ending."

For a season that started in late January at Pomona, clipped through 20 other stops at places like Gainesville, Fla., Englishtown, N.J., Joliet, Ill. and Brainerd, Minn., the quest can take its toll. Especially on the drivers.

"It's absolutely driving me nuts," said Scelzi, who clinched his 1997 title at the Winston Finals on his first qualifying attempt. "I would have liked to have it over with earlier in the season. I was always a kid that wanted to open the Christmas presents before Christmas. I would just as soon have it over with already, but I guess we'll just have to fight it out.

"Last year Cory was on our tail the whole way. The competition got tighter midway through the season. This year it's been a battle all the way through. There's been several cars that have had stellar performances this season. We had to chase down Cory, because he got off to a very good start. It's definitely been a long season. To have it end in Pomona is pretty fitting to the type of year it's been."

While Scelzi's start was a little shaky, the team began to build steam as mid-season approached. The key to Scelzi's season is that when his team was struggling, they still managed to win several rounds at each event. During the last half of the season he came on strong, winning four races, including three straight, and setting the elapsed time (4.525 seconds) and speed (326.44 mph) records. All Scelzi needs to do to win his second consecutive Winston championship is qualify for the Winston Finals.

"If you look at past championships it's consistency that wins it," said Scelzi, who hasn't lost in the first round since the season-opening Winternationals. "Every little bit helps, even qualifying points and especially bonus points for setting national records."

McClenathan, despite a mid-season slump that included first round losses at Chicago, St. Louis and Sonoma, Calif., says this season has been one of his most memorable, no matter the outcome. He knows the odds are stacked against him going into the final race. Still, he is optimistic.

"It's been a lot of fun," McClenathan said. "I grew up wishing to be in a position like this, and here I am. Now, I can't stand it because it's driving me crazy. But the chase has been incredible. The fans are having a great time with this and that's what's important.

"I've been doing this for eight years and I've finished third a couple of times and second three times. The notoriety you get from being the Winston champion is something I've never experienced. I really want it bad. We're holding strong to the attitude that anything can happen."