MADISON, Ill. -- Kenny Bernstein has become a marked man. He is the consensus favorite to win the 2001 Top Fuel championship as the NHRA Drag Racing Series has now reached the halfway point. But on Sunday, Bernstein's run to the title was upended by soft-spoken, unflappable Doug Kalitta in the final round of the fifth Sears Craftsman Nationals at Gateway International Raceway in front of an enormous crowd.
Gary Scelzi needed a big day in Madison to at least preserve any hopes of getting into the 2001 points chase. But he didn't get what he wanted, losing to rookie Scott Weis in the first round as the Team Winston dragster smoked its tires. Scelzi came in having won this event three consecutive years and started Sunday as the No. 1 qualifier, but Weis won his first career Top Fuel round at the three-time champion's expense.
Meanwhile, when Larry Dixon lost in the second round to Tony Schumacher, Bernstein, the points leader, made the most of the opportunity to pad his lead over second-place Dixon by advancing to the final to face Kalitta. But it was Bernstein's slow reaction time, not crew chief Tim Richards' tune-up, that spelled the difference as Kalitta's .471 reaction time was .06 seconds quicker than KB's. In the end, Kalitta picked up his third win of 2001 with a 4.77/302 to Bernstein's quicker and faster 4.75/309.
Bernstein now has an 80-point lead over Dixon in the Winston standings and a whopping 189 point cushion on third place Mike Dunn, who suffered an upset loss to Bobby Lagan Jr. in the first round.
Ten-time Funny Car champion John Force did not win the Sears Craftsman Nationals on Sunday, but he left Madison with little to complain about. His team driver, Tony Pedregon, did win the event for his third victory of the year, moving him from eighth to third in points. Force saw Pedregon beat his closest pursuer for the points lead, Del Worsham, in the semifinals while another of the drivers who has exerted some pressure on Force this year, No. 1 qualifier Bruce Sarver lost in the second round. Force increased his points lead over Worsham from 268 to 271.
The final round was a classic matchup between Pedregon, the 1999 runner-up to Force, and Tommy Johnson Jr., who had failed to advance past the second round since his only national event win so far this season at Las Vegas in April. As in the Top Fuel final, driver reaction times were the determining factors as Pedregon's .07-second advantage at the green gave him the event title with a 5.00/296 to Tommy Johnson Jr.'s quicker 4.98/293.
The tricky conditions due to bright sunshine and 130-degree track temperatures resulted in numerous cars smoking their tires throughout the day's four rounds. The conditions were so tough, that there were no side-by-side four-second passes in the Funny Car class in any of the race's 15 matchups.
Warren Johnson would never announce publicly that the all-time national event victory record in Pro Stock, 85, belonging to his long-time arch nemesis, Bob Glidden, was something he wanted to break. But on Sunday, he came one step closer to moving past it when he tied the mark by virtue of his final round win over another bitter rival, Jim Yates, 6.90/200 to 6.93/200.
It was the second time in the event's history that WJ had beaten Yates in the final round. In 1997, the race's inaugural year, Johnson took the event title when he defeated the two-time Winston champion on a holeshot, 7.06/196 to 7.04/194.
WJ has won two races in a row for the second time this season, and has moved even further ahead in the Winston points lead. He is now 76 points up on Yates and 135 points ahead of third-place Mark Pawuk.
Pro Stock Bike
There were a number of strange twists in the Pro Bike class that led to a surprising final round matchup between two future stars of the two-wheeled category: 18-year-old GT Tonglet and 23-year-old Shawn Gann.
No. 1 qualifier and points leader Antron Brown never made it past the first round when he snoozed at the starting line against No. 16 qualifier, Ron Ayers, and recorded a .583 reaction time allowing Ayers to win his first round of racing in 2001 with a stunning 7.34/183 to 7.25/188 holeshot victory.
In the semifinals, Columbus winner Angelle Savoie had her Star Racing Suzuki mysteriously shut off during her race with Gann and lost, 7.34/182 to 8.23/115.
In the final, GT and Gann each had .433 reaction times but Tonglet had more bike the rest of the way as he won his first career national event trophy 7.32/187 to 7.33/188.
Despite Savoie's semifinal loss, she left Madison with the points lead, 33 points ahead of Brown 41 points better than three-time champion Matt Hines.
Pro Stock Truck
New names continue to emerge out of nowhere in the PST category and shove frontrunners Bob Panella, Randy Daniels, and Greg Stanfield off of the front page. Smith, Perin, Gracia, Patterson, Whisnant, and now Taylor Lastor have all stolen the racing spotlight with unpredictable immediacy.
Lastor won his first career national event in his first career final round appearance when he took down defending event champ, John Coughlin, two-time class champion Panella, No. 1 qualifier Todd Patterson, and two-time 2001 winner, Randy Daniels with machine-like consistency and solid reaction times. In the final, Lastor left on Daniels by .03 seconds and nipped the five-time 2001 finalist 7.520/179 to 7.524/180.
The NHRA tour now gets a week off and will convene in two weeks at the Fairplex in Pomona, California for the Inaugural Pep Boys NHRA 50th Anniversary Nationals to officially commence the second half of the 2001 season.