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Top Fuel legends step aside for Dixon

Shirley Muldowney and Kenny Bernstein fall to him at Gatornationals.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 18, 2002


GAINESVILLE -- Larry Dixon grew up reading in magazines about legends Shirley Muldowney and Kenny Bernstein, dreaming of the day he might emulate them.

Sunday, he beat them.

Dixon eliminated Muldowney in the second round and nipped Bernstein by .048 seconds in the final to win consecutive Gatornationals in Top Fuel. Dixon made a quarter-mile pass of 4.629 seconds at 319.75 mph at Gainesville Raceway.

"All the wins are important, but going up against Kenny and everything he stands for, that's a lot of pressure on you when you go up to race," said Dixon, who won $40,000. "We got it done."

Tony Pedregon won the Funny Car title, giving owner John Force a victory other than the one he wanted most. Darrell Alderman won for the first time since 1997 in Pro Stock and Craig Treble for the first time since '99 in Pro Stock Bike.

Force, seeking his milestone 100th career win, lost in the first round to Dean Skuza. Force, who had not lost in the first round at Gatornationals since 1989, will renew his quest for 100 in three weeks at Las Vegas, where he has never won.

"We dropped a cylinder halfway down the track," said Force, who retained the points lead because second-place Del Worsham failed to qualify. "I really want to get that 100th win, but I'm trying to be laid-back about it. It's destiny, and maybe it will happen at Las Vegas."

With Force eliminated, the Dixon-Bernstein rivalry took center stage.

Sponsored by rival beer manufacturers, Dixon, 35, and Bernstein, 57, battled for the 2001 championship, won by Bernstein in the final event.

Bernstein, the only driver to win championships in Funny Car (1985-88) and Top Fuel (1996, 2001), became Dixon's nemesis. Last season, Dixon won a career-high six events but was 3-6 against Bernstein, including 0-for-2 in final rounds.

This season there has been a reversal. Dixon is 2-for-2 against Bernstein in finals, including the opener at Pomona, Calif., and leads Bernstein by 105 points in the standings.

He is 14-19 all-time against Bernstein.

"I learned a lot last year being in the points run," said Dixon, who tied Muldowney and Darrell Gwynn for 25th on the NHRA's list with his 18th career win. "It made us work harder over the wintertime to do a better job.

"We wouldn't be running as good as we are had we not come up short last season."

Bernstein, who will retire after this season, improved in every round but fell short to what clearly was the weekend's dominant dragster.

Dixon set qualifying marks for elapsed time (4.604) and top speed (321.96) and won for the third time at the track where Bernstein was the first to break the 300 mph barrier in 1992.

"I would have loved to have won my last time at Gainesville, but it wasn't meant to be," said Bernstein, whose farewell tour is called Forever Red for his bright red dragster. "We'll just carry on. This championship is a long way from over."

Winning at Gatornationals is especially satisfying for Dixon, regardless of who is in the next lane. Dixon got his Top Fuel license here in 1995 and won the race as a rookie.

With consecutive wins, he is only the fifth driver in the event's 33 years to repeat.

"I consider this one of our major events," said Dixon, whose team owner, four-time Funny Car champion Don "Snake" Prudhomme, is celebrating his 40th season in NHRA. "I hadn't seen a crowd this big in a while. There weren't 12 people in the stands when I got my license.

"But with all the people who have won here, like Snake and Don Garlits and Shirley Muldowney, this is pretty sweet. You think back 10 or 20 years, and all those names are still in the mix. But I do know that Kenny won't ever win Gatornationals again, and we stopped him from doing it."

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