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Keeping Pace

Kurt Busch heads to Gatornationals to compete in NHRA Pro Stock division

Kurt Busch will be competing against the world’s best Pro Stock drivers, including current points leader and recent Winternationals winner Jason Line, defending world champ Greg Anderson, and veteran racer Allen Johnson, who has been Busch’s mentor through testing and will provide engines for the new team.

Courtesy: NHRA Media Relations

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Historic Gainesville Raceway has long been regarded as a very fast racetrack where amazing performances take place just about every time a pair of vehicles blast down the dragstrip. For NHRA fans who expect nothing but the best in hot rodding and high performance, the upcoming Tire Kingdom NHRA Gatornationals, March 10-13, promises to deliver in every aspect.


NHRA will officially celebrate its 60th birthday during the weekend, as back on March 13, 1951 Wally Parks and several business associates signed the incorporation papers to launch what ultimately has become the world’s largest motorsports sanctioning organization.


Among the highlights planned for the traditional NHRA East Coast opener will be appearances from many legends of the sport, including most notably, famed Florida resident and the world’s No. 1 ranked drag racer, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, who will serve as an event dignitary and participate in many fan meet-and-greets and autograph sessions. Vintage car corrals, NHRA-exclusive Cacklefests, track walks with legends and special legends match races will highlight the 60th anniversary celebration off the track.


For those who crave speed and excitement on the track, there will be plenty of that to go around as well at the second of 22 NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series events. Tony Schumacher (Top Fuel), Tim Wilkerson (Funny Car), Jason Line (Pro Stock) and Eddie Krawiec (Pro Stock Motorcycle) are the defending winners of the race, which will be televised on ESPN2 HD.


While fans will be focused on many of the regular NHRA touring pros, there will be great curiosity surrounding a certain Pro Stock rookie who will be making his debut. Past NASCAR champ Kurt Busch will pilot the Shell Dodge Avenger and try to qualify for the field of 16 for Sunday’s 11 a.m. eliminations. It’s a rare opportunity for Busch to race in another major motorsports series as his tour takes the weekend off. Last year Busch competed in the Super Gas category at the Gatornationals and lost in the first round of eliminations. After finishing fifth in the Daytona 500 three weeks ago, Busch is looking forward to giving NHRA drag racing a go at one of the sport’s marquee events. 


“It’s a whole different world than NASCAR,” Busch said, “The toughest part is staging the car and, of course, cutting a good light; the thrill of the launch and the speed at the top end is why I’m so fascinated with drag racing. But I do know that heading to the Gatornationals and running with the pros, I will get a full dose of humble pie.”


Busch will be competing against the world’s best Pro Stock drivers, including current points leader and recent Winternationals winner Jason Line, defending world champ Greg Anderson, and veteran racer Allen Johnson, who has been Busch’s mentor through testing and will provide engines for the new team.


“Kurt is right on target,” Johnson said. “His shifting is awesome for a newcomer, he’s got a simulator to work on it and practice, and in my opinion he’s right where he needs to be to qualify for Gainesville.”


Busch, who has earned 22 victories and 12 pole positions during his 12-year NASCAR career, is optimistic about his chances but realizes NHRA Pro Stock competition is among the most cut-throat in all of motorsports.


“Pro Stock is the tightest Pro category as far as the elapsed time is concerned, and it’s not going to be an easy task,” Busch said. “I feel me teaming up with Allen Johnson and the Mopar folks, we’ve given ourselves the best opportunity to make the show.”


While Busch hopes to qualify and go some rounds in Pro Stock, Top Fuel points leader Morgan Lucas is anxious to build on his promising start to the season. The driver of the GEICO Powersports/Lucas Oil dragster claimed an emotional win at the season-opener and now wants to keep the round wins coming for the first-time points leader.


 “Someone on this race team has a horseshoe and it might be Dickie (Venables, crew chief),” Lucas said. “Since he’s been here the luck has been coming our way and the confidence among the guys is up. He’s making me want to become a better driver. The guy has two world championships in Funny Car and I hope he gets one soon in Top Fuel. I don’t want to dream too big but we feel real good right now.”


His competition in Top Fuel is extremely strong. Defending event winner Schumacher is a four-time winner of the event, as is defending world champion Larry Dixon, who reset the national elapsed time record at the Winternationals at 3.770 seconds in his Al-Anabi Racing dragster. A pack of hungry drivers follows those two, including Winternationals runner-up Shawn Langdon, Spencer Massey, Antron Brown, Brandon Bernstein, Doug Kalitta and Del Worsham, among others.


In Funny Car, the competition is just as stout. Defending world champ John Force is a seven-time winner at the Swamp. All of the Winternationals top performers will be looking to keep their strong starts to the season going, including winner Robert Hight, runner-up Matt Hagan and top qualifier Cruz Pedregon. 


“You look at the class, it ain’t that easy to get wins,” Hight said. “If we would have slipped up just a little in the (Pomona) final, we would have been dust.”


This event is also the traditional season-opener for the NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle category. Defending world champ LE Tonglet will open his title defense against some strong past champions including the Harley-Davidson team of Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec, Hector Arana and Matt Smith. A talented mix of rookies, led by Hector Arana Jr., Justin Finley, Paul Ray Jr. and Jerry Savoie should make the two-wheel category one of the most exciting to watch all season.

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Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.

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