Worsham, Neff step up at Gatornationals, while Line, Krawiec repeat


From Susan Wade

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Del Worsham did what his boss, Sheikh Khalid Al Thani of Qatar, asked him to do: step away from a Funny Car after 16 years and return to a Top Fuel dragster for the first time since 1995.

Mike Neff, who earned Rookie of the Year honors in 2008 but dropped back simply to being a crew chief when funding for his third John Force Racing car disappeared, reprised his dual role as a Funny Car driver and his own tuner in late January when his boss also called upon him when Ashley Force Hood announced her pregnancy.

Both National Hot Rod Association drivers made their transitions look easy last Sunday, winning the Tire Kingdom Gatornationals on only their second assignments of 2011.

Repeat Gatornationals winners Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) joined the new nitro-class points leaders in the winners circle to close the record-setting weekend at historic Gainesville Raceway.

NASCAR star Kurt Busch also prepared himself Sunday for some big-time razzing from his circle-track peers at this weekend’s Jeff Byrd 500 Sprint Cup Series race at Tennessee’s Bristol Speedway. In his NHRA Pro Stock debut, he lost to a woman — who, unintimidated, remarked on the eve of the first-round match-up in eliminations. “It doesn’t matter whether he’s Kurt Busch or George Bush.”

Erica Enders had just a little more in her Victor Cagnazzi-owned ZaZa Energy Chevy Cobalt than Busch had in his Shell Dodge Avenger. She won by three-thousandths of a second, with a 6.538-second pass at 211.69 mph to his 6.541 / 211.59 in a thrilling side-by-side blast.

National records emerged the first day of qualifying. In Pro Stock, Rodger Brogdon reset the E.T. mark with a 6.495-second run, and Enders raised the speed record to 213.57 mph. With his 6.777-second pass, Hector Arana erased the Pro Stock Motorcycle national E.T. record that Krawiec had set last November. And Krawiec trumped Michael Phillips’ speed mark at 199.26 mph.

Top Fuel

Worsham added his name to an elite list of racers as he recorded a 3.858-second winning pass at 318.99 mph on 1,000 feet course in the Al-Anabi Racing/Toyota Dragster against Tony Schumacher’s 3.866 / 318.39 in the U.S. Army Dragster. He used his first NHRA Top Fuel victory to become just the 15th driver to win in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. Counting Antron Brown (Pro Stock Motorcycle/Top Fuel) and Pro Stock/Pro Stock Truck achievers Greg Stanfield and Mark Osborne, he’s only the 18th multiple-category winner in NHRA history.

With Al-Anabi Racing teammate Larry Dixon’s dominating Top Fuel championship run last year (perfect in 12 final rounds with eight No. 1 starts and a 62-11 elimination-round record), many figured Dixon would grab all or most of the Alan Johnson-managed organization’s victories this season, while Worsham worked at reacquainting himself with a dragster.

But Worsham, who won in a dragster in 1995 at the International Hot Rod Association’s Norwalk, Ohio, showcase race, scored the team’s first victory of the year.

The Chino Hills, Calif., resident heads to the April 1-3 SummitRacing.com Nationals at Las Vegas with the lead in the standings

“It’s almost surreal. I can’t even tell you the emotions I feel right now,” he said Sunday. “It definitely can’t get any better than it just did. I guess the only thing better would have been racing Larry Dixon in the final. But unreal — what a day.

“We experienced a little bit of everything today. We definitely didn’t have the fastest car but we had a great car when we needed to. The car performed well,” the winning No. 10 qualifier said after knocking off the top thee in the order.

The Al-Anabi Dragster that Worsham was driving was the one that Dixon used to carve out his third series title.

“I have a great car and a great team. I’m driving Larry’s car from last year. That thing’s won 12 races. Now it’s won 13. The fact that it won shouldn’t surprise anybody, but it surprised me. Basically, we’re just riding on Larry Dixon’s coattails, his tune-up,” Worsham said. “I’m just lucky to be the driver. I’m the rookie at this point.

“Funny Car’s cool, man. I love Funny Cars, and I have a lot of great memories in Funny Cars,” he said, recognizing that he needs to consider himself a Top Fuel racer now. He said the sheikh approached him last spring with the idea of switching to a dragster and, he said, “What am I going to do? Say no? I like my job.”

However, he said, “To tell you the truth, I’m uncomfortable. I get in the car and I don’t have that comfort level I had in the Funny Car. I’m sure it’s going to be awhile before I do. I’ll go out there and do my best.”

It was plenty good Sunday, while Dixon was struck by some unfortunate racing luck.
“He’s had some bad luck over there. He had a great run going and he broke an input shaft,” he said about Dixon.

Worsham advanced past Brandon Bernstein, Antron Brown, and Spencer Massey to land in his first final-round appearance since the June 14 rain-delayed running of the SuperNationals final at Englishtown, N.J. His previous trip to the winners circle was Oct. 12, 2009, at Richmond, Va., in a Funny Car.

Funny Car

Neff, who doubles as his own crew chief on the Castrol GTX Ford Mustang, defeated fellow finalist Cruz Pedregon to extend John Force Racing winning streak to two this season and four, counting the final two 2010 races. Teammate Robert Hight won the season-opening Winternationals at Pomona, Calif.

“We needed this to keep the Force string going. Fortunately I have a great Mustang. It is the car John drove last year and I just got in it,” he said, alluding to Force’s 15th championship. “Now it is just a matter of not messing it up as a driver. That is the hardest part for me.”

Neff didn’t learn until late January that he would be standing in for Force Hood — ironically, the driver he defeated for his only other victory, in November 2009 at Pomona. He said in his encore Sunday, “I’m wore out. It’s not easy. I’m mentally drained. The hardest part is the mental side. It’s all worth it now.”

Somehow he figured that this might be the start of some self-imposed redemption plan. “When I drove a couple of years ago, I was disappointed with my results. I made some mistakes driving. For whatever reason I just felt kind of unsatisfied.”

He shouldn’t have Sunday, with consistent 4.0-second and low 4.1-second elapsed times on a track with temperatures above 110 degrees — a tuning and driving challenge.

“It is important to me that I want to be a good driver,” Neff said. “This win means more to me than the other one, by far.”

After eliminating Jim Head, Bob Tasca III, and Jack Beckman, Neff easily beat Pedregon with a 4.092-second clocking at 310.48 mph to a tire-smoking 7.819 / 99.32 on the 1,000-foot course.

Pro Stock

Line, making his fourth straight Gatornationals final-round appearance in the Summit Racing Pontiac GXP, scored his third straight victory at this track and has won both events so far this season.

He won on a holeshot against teammate Greg Anderson, using a better reaction time and a 6.554-second E.T. at 211.96 mph in the quarter-mile to top Anderson’s quicker and faster 6.554 / 212.43.

“It’s always good when you race your teammate in the final. There’s no pressure, because you know one way or the other the team is going to win,” Line said. “On the other hand, only one of us can go home with the Wally, so you try just as hard.”

Line, accused of spoiling teammate-boss Greg Anderson’s 50th birthday party Monday by beating him in the final round, said, “Greg’s a big boy and he’s won a lot of races. He’ll be OK.”

Just as they had in Pomona two weeks before that, the KB Racing brain trust of Rob Downing, Tommy Utt, and Jeff Perley helped line reach his 50th career final round.

“I felt just a little guilty beating Greg the day before his birthday,” Line said, “but then I realized he’d do the same to me if he could — and he’ll have the chance later this year. He’s a tough racer, which is why he’s the champ. If you want to beat him, you have to be on your game, and fortunately today we were. This KB Racing team once again did a phenomenal job, giving me a great hot rod to drive.”

En route to another winning performance, Line defeated Erica Enders. But she and her first-round opponent, Busch, stole much of the attention — she for coming from her No. 1 qualifying effort at Pomona, setting the national speed record this time in qualifying No. 5, and beating the 2004 NASCAR champion — and Busch for embodying hope that fans throughout NASCAR Nation will hear the word that drag racing is the ultimate, the most extreme motorsport in the world.

Busch was no stranger to the NHRA environment, having raced at last year’s Gatornationals in the sportsman-level Super Gas class. But he was no token, try-it-for-a-weekend wannabe. Kurt Busch came to race — and qualified 12th among 16 drivers, ahead of a quartet that included veteran Larry Morgan and leaving experienced drivers Richard Freeman, Frank Gugliotta, Bob Yonke, Ronnie Humphrey, and V Gaines off the grid.

The driver of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series was stoked by his place in the starting lineup. He said he plans to frame and display the black-and-white printout of the 2011 Tire Kingdom Gatornationals Pro Stock qualifying order: “That’s something I’ll put in a frame and put on the wall. To be able to do this with my group of guys, that self-satisfaction, it’s high up there on the list.”

The only thing topping it this past weekend was his close side-by-side race Sunday against opening-round winner Erica Enders, who set the national speed record at 213.57 mph in qualifying.

Oh, Busch said he knew the “You got beat by a girl” jabs would dog him as soon as his colleagues heard the news from Gainesvilel. He was right. He said his mobile phone had received a flood of text messages that day.

But he can handle the heat. He understood that Enders is an experienced drag racer with her own set of achievements — in a motorsport discipline that barely bats an eyelash at female participation. Although he and Enders already had become acquainted during preseason testing at Bradenton, Fla., he recognized what mattered most. “She was P-1 in Pomona,” he said with a respectful nod.

“It was a great experience, to be competitive like we were,” Busch said. “It was a solid burnout. It was a great staging. It was the best (data) graph we produced in all of testing and in all of our rounds here at Gainesville, with our shift marks and everything else. It was the best run we’ve ever put together, and we just came up short.

“This was a weekend I’ll never forget. I feel we can hold our heads high about this,” he said. “To have the opportunity to be out here and to make the field was one accomplishment, and to see our run and see how we produced in that first-round effort, we would have beat half the field, with adding together reaction time and elapsed time. So we put together a solid run.”

He did better than expected. Afterward Enders said, “Kurt’s great for the sport. He’s great for Pro Stock, to shed some light on this class that hasn’t gotten a whole lot before. Hopefully he’ll go back and tell his NASCAR buddies how awesome NHRA is and how tough Pro Stock is to drive.”

He will. This brave new world of six-second performance bursts and brutal parity captured Busch’s fancy just as much for its unusually hospitable vibe from both competitors and fans. “It’s like a carnival atmosphere,” he said Sunday after exiting the race. “I want to get a corndog and a beer and stick around and watch Pro Stock racing.”
Busch said he has loved “being there in the open paddock. It would be something to try with NASCAR. The camaraderie here is unparalleled. It’s amazing to see. In NASCAR, you get cheered and you get booed. Over here, everybody gets cheered.”

“I wish I had more time to go drag racing,” Busch said. “Does the schedule pan out? It shows that we could go to Denver in July (to the NHRA’s Mopar Mile-High Nationals). That’s getting close to the cutoff point on when we really need to focus on our Cup points battle. If we’re right there in the 10th or 11th spot of making our Chase, then it’s not going to be the appropriate time to go and do that event,” he said. “Only time will tell.”

Pro Stock Motorcycle

Krawiec, aboard the Vance & Hines Screamin’ Eagle Harley-Davidson, won with a 6.847-second, 197.08-mph pass as Karen Stoffer fouled out by .002 of a second.

Still, Krawiec would have been hard to beat, for he opened the class’ 16-race season with perfect preparation, enough to take advantage of the uniquely favorable conditions and maintain his performance through four rounds Sunday.

“You’ve got to be on the Tree. You’ve got to be riding well. You have to have a good tune-up and a good motorcycle. And I had everything this weekend,” the 2008 series champion said.

“We had a great tailwind and some phenomenal conditions that Gainesville usually does bring,” he said. “You know when you come here that you’re going to go fast.”

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