by Rob Geiger, NHRA.com
John Force recorded his 125th Funny Car victory Sunday and secured a spot in the Countdown to the Championship by beating fellow legend Kenny Bernstein in the closest drag race of the 26th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd Int'l Raceway. Force nipped Bernstein by .0048-second, or about two feet, with a 4.794-second pass at 316.60 mph to Bernstein's 4.801, 320.43.
Bernstein's son, Brandon, quickly brightened his father's mood by beating friendly rival Larry Dixon in the Top Fuel final, 4.525 to 4.586. In Pro Stock, Jeg Coughlin became just the 11th racer in 56 years of NHRA competition to score 50 national event wins when he beat Greg Anderson. An all-Harley Pro Stock Motorcycle final between teammates Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec favored Hines.
Dixon gave Bernstein a run for the Top Fuel trophy with a quick launch that gave him an early lead of .029-second. The two were dead even at half-track before Bernstein sneaked in front and take the win with a 4.525, 329.91 in his Budweiser dragster to Dixon's 4.586, 323.35 in the SkyTel rail. Bernstein's elapsed time was the quickest of the weekend.
"That's a great team over there, and they were running 4.50s all day just like us, so we knew the final would be a tough race," said Bernstein, who also won this race last year. "It's wonderful to see the Budweiser car running so consistently because Indy will be here before you know it, and we really want to be as close to perfect as possible when the Countdown starts.
"It was tough watching Dad lose right in front of us. I could see the big screen, and I saw how close he was at the finish line. I know he wanted that one really bad and for as much jubilation as we're feeling on our side of the pit, we're bummed out for them. I really wanted to get done with our race and give him a hug because I could see he was down. It'll happen one of these days, hopefully for both of us at the same time."
This was Bernstein's fifth win of the season – a career high – and the 17th of his career. He improved his head-to-head mark over Dixon to 14-5 overall, including a 2-0 record in final rounds. Dixon falls to 2-2 on the year and 40-35 in career final rounds.
Bob Vandergriff Jr. became the sixth Top Fuel racer to lock up a spot in the Countdown to the Championship field, leaving just two slots. Seven drivers are vying for those final two positions now held by Whit Bazemore and Dave Grubnic.
The Force/Bernstein Funny Car tilt was a classic. Both men left with nearly identical reaction times and raced all the way down the strip side by side. In the end, Force's Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang inched ahead to take the strip first with a 4.794, 316.60 to Bernstein's 4.801, 320.43 in his Monster Energy Drink Dodge Charger R/T.
Force and Bernstein last faced each other in 1989 at the SuperNationals in Englishtown, N.J., an event that Bernstein won for his last Funny Car victory. Bernstein now holds a 13-8 mark against Force, including a 6-2 record in final rounds. Force's record improved to 125-74 while Bernstein's fell to 69-51.
"Austin Coil [crew chief] has run this track a lot more than me from the old days of match racing, and he really knows this place, whether it's hot or cool here," said Force, who now has 11 wins at this facility. "This season has been something. Early on I couldn't beat anyone, including that girl named Force, and I remember a while back telling Coil we were pathetic. Something just had us snake-bit, and we never did find what it was.
"Heading into Bristol, John Medlen got into me and said I needed to start being the leader of this team. Eric [Medlen's] gone, and it was time to get up and do our job. It was hard to get up for the fight, but then the car came around and we got on a roll.
"Bernstein had been hitting the lights all day, and Coil said I needed a light in the final if I wanted to win. He said the motor was all the way up; there wasn't nothing left. That race took me back to 1978 when Kenny Bernstein was the king and he beat me, and I told myself that one day I'd beat him. But then he left the class, and I never got my chance."
Force has raced to the final round at four of the last five races and has moved up to fourth in the POWERade points.
Five more Funny Car racers gobbled up positions in the Countdown to the Championship: low qualifier Mike Ashley, "Fast Jack" Beckman, Force, Tony Pedregon, and Gary Scelzi. Six racers are mathematically alive for the one remaining position currently held by Jim Head, who has a comfortable 83-point edge over No. 9 Tommy Johnson Jr.
One race after Greg Anderson scored his 50th national event win, Coughlin collected his 50th victory by beating Anderson in the Pro Stock final. Coughlin left nothing to doubt, recording a strong .018 to .047 reaction-time advantage and creeping to the win with a 6.667, 205.94 in his Jegs.com Chevrolet Cobalt to Anderson's 6.669, 207.24 in the Summit Racing Pontiac GTO.
Coughlin has scored his 50 wins in the Pro and Sportsman categories. He has 37 Pro Stock wins, including three this year, and 13 Sportsman wins in four classes: Super Stock (seven), Super Gas (four), Comp (one), and Top Dragster (one). Coughlin is just the 11th racer in history to win 50 national events.
"This was big," Coughlin said. "To get our 50th win against the competition we run these days is special. Today's a great example of how tough it is; I had Allen Johnson, who's fourth in the points, Jason Line who's fifth, the big cowboy, six-time champion Warren Johnson, and then the best driver in the class over the last four years in Greg Anderson.
"Getting to 50 wins was one of my goals when I returned to Pro Stock. It's special to think that only 10 other people have achieved that mark in 50-plus years of drag racing. Fortunately, I've had a great hot rod with [team owner] Victor Cagnazzi and his entire team of technicians and mechanics, and they've given me a car capable of winning races.
"I remember winning Indy in 1992 [in Super Gas] and standing in the winner's circle with [NHRA founder] Wally Parks. That was my second win, and now I look back and see how far we've come as a sport. It's just phenomenal the vision Wally had and how it's grown."
Known for his starting-line prowess, Coughlin left on all four of his opponents. He also reset the BIR elapsed time record with a 6.659-second clocking in his quarterfinal win over low qualifier Line.
Three positions still remain to be filled in the Pro Stock portion of the Countdown as no one secured a spot this weekend. Kurt Johnson, Warren Johnson, and Larry Morgan hold the final three spots, with Morgan 55 points ahead of ninth-place runner V. Gaines.
Three-time and reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle world champ Hines got bragging rights over teammate Krawiec with his wire-to-wire job here. Hines left with a .034 to Krawiec's .091 and rode away for his 11th victory, winning with a 7.009, 188.20 to Krawiec's 7.077, 183.94. Both men ride identical Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson V-Rods.
"It's always a great deal when you can run your teammate in the final," Hines said. "It doesn't matter who wins or loses because the team has already accomplished its goal. It's so tough to get one bike to the final round these days, let alone to get both of them there. It was a great day for the entire Screamin' Eagle Vance & Hines team.
"This was my Brainerd redemption win because I had GT [Tonglet, former teammate] in the final here two years ago, and he beat me. I remembered that, and I just pretended Eddie was him and I wanted to pay him back. I'm great friends with GT and I never got the chance to get him back on the track, so I had to use Eddie instead."
Moving up to second place with his win, Hines was the only rider to clinch a spot in the Countdown to the Championship this weekend, leaving five open spaces. Krawiec's second final-round appearance in as many races lifted him from 12th to eighth place in the POWERade points.