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Force finally gets first season victory; Bernstein, Coughlin also win in Bristol
An emotional John Force celebrated his 123rd Funny Car victory like it was his first, erasing the memories of a very tough first half of '07 Sunday afternoon with a huge win at Bristol Dragway. Force shared Thunder Valley's winner's circle with Top Fuel winner Brandon Bernstein and Pro Stock titlist Jeg Coughlin Jr., who are both challenging the points leaders in their categories from their second-place rankings.
Force outlasted Cruz Pedregon in the final -- 4.99 to 5.02 -- to score his first win of the season. Prior to this weekend's seventh annual O'Reilly NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals presented by Q, the 14-time champion hadn't advanced past the quarterfinals. Bernstein zoomed away from an up-in-smoke Bob Vandergriff Jr., while Coughlin survived a starting line scare against Kenny Koretsky to win his second race of the year.
As soon as Force completed his top-end interviews with ESPN2 and shook hands with Pedregon, he climbed aboard a scooter and zipped back to the starting line for a long hug with John Medlen, the father of the late Eric Medlen, who lost his life earlier this year as the result of a testing accident. Eric Medlen drove a fourth Funny Car for John Force Racing.
Force was obviously up for the finals, leaving with a stellar .052-second reaction time to Pedregon's .073-second start, and never looking back, winning with a 4.993 at 284.62 mph in his Castrol GTX High Mileage Ford Mustang to Pedregon's 5.024 at 279.73 mph in his Advance Auto Parts Chevrolet Impala SS.
"We went from being one of the greatest teams ever in the sport, if I can pat my own back, to being the worst, right there in the cellar," Force said. "We just couldn't figure out what was wrong. This [car] was the most stubborn woman I've ever met in my life. No matter what we did to her she wouldn't go down the track. I couldn't even beat my own daughter.
"We spent a month going through the car from one end to the other and we couldn't find nothing. The only thing left was the chassis and [crew chief Austin] Coil. I can't get fire Coil because he'd just write a book about me and make a lot of money, and don't think he don't tell me that.
"It's easy when you're on top to be a good boss. But this year I've been a jerk. I finally got the guys together this morning and apologized to everybody. I told them I was wrong, that this isn't how you lead. And, I don't know, the attitude changed.
"I also asked Eric Medlen to forgive me. I said, 'I know you're up there Eric and if I've done something wrong, I'm sorry.' I don't know how all that works but it made me feel better in my heart to get it off my chest. I'm not seeing aliens or hearing voices, but today we started having magic."
Despite all of his struggles this year, Force's win puts him in a tie for 13th place, just 63 points behind the Countdown to the Championship cut-off point.
Bernstein had an easy victory pass after Vandergriff smoked his tires right at the hit of the throttle. Just to make sure, he kept the Budweiser machine in the middle of the lane and posted a 4.648 at 317.57 mph to claim his fourth win of the year in five finals. He now has a career final-round record of 16-5.
Vandergriff padded his sixth-place position in the POWERade rankings with his ninth visit to the trophy round. At 0-9 lifetime in final rounds, he also matched Force's dubious start that ended in Montreal in 1987 when he won his first race in his 10th final.
"We started the day with that 4.53 and I was blown away," Bernstein said. "Then we go out in the second round and the semi’s and we're pedaling like crazy just to get to the other end. Tim [Richards, tuner] made a great call in the final to just back it down and get it to run from A to B.
"We've struggled the last few weeks but this team doesn't get down. We just stayed focused and we were able to come out today and get a win. We seem to have a habit of rebounding like that after we DNQ or lose in Round 1."
After three forgettable races that resulted in him dropping from first to fourth place, Bernstein moved back up to second Sunday with his big win. He now trails "Hot Rod" Fuller by 74 points.
After stealing away holeshot wins from points leader Greg Anderson and third-place runner Dave Connolly en route to his second career final, Koretsky almost did it again in the money round against Coughlin. The veteran racer left first, .013 to .041 seconds, and led past the 1,000-foot timer before Coughlin's Jegs.com Chevrolet Cobalt blew by to take the win by .0024 second. The final numbers had Coughlin crossing in 6.809 at 203.22 mph to Koretsky's 6.839 at 201.82 mph in his Indicom Electric/Nitro Fish Cobalt.
"What a great win for this race team," said Coughlin, who tied Don Prudhomme and Anderson for 10th place on the all-time wins list. "Kenny raced his wheels off his car today and he was hammering the Tree. Luckily, our Cagnazzi horsepower was just barely enough for me to win, and when I say barely, I mean barely, just two-thousandths of a second margin of victory.
"There's been a Cagnazzi Racing car in the last six finals and between Dave [Connolly, teammate] and me we've won four so that tells me the entire team has been working extremely hard to make us look good. Today they gave me a flawless car. I was slow letting the clutch out a few times; that was the only issue we had.
"We're sneaking up on Greg in the points and it's gonna get really exciting when they reset them at the U.S. Nationals, the granddaddy of them all, in Indy. KB Racing has been a picture of consistency the last four years and they have the championships to show for it. To see our team come this far is really exciting."
Coughlin's second win of the year combined with points leader Anderson's first-round exit allowed Coughlin to pare Anderson's once gigantic lead to just 86 points. Over the last nine races, Coughlin has outscored Anderson by a margin of 804-718 points.
Koretsky averaged a .013-second reaction time on the day. He was runner-up to Anderson at the 2004 Indy race.
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