Brown, Capps, Coughlin pick up big wins at 25th Phoenix race
Sunday, February 22, 2009

by Brad Littlefield, National DRAGSTER Associate Editor

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The silver anniversary of the Lucas Oil Slick Mist NHRA Nationals in Phoenix was highlighted by triumphant wins by Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Ron Capps (Funny Car), and Jeg Coughlin (Pro Stock).

Brown and Coughlin edged out multi-time Phoenix victors Brandon Bernstein and Kurt Johnson in their final rounds. Capps singled in the final when Mike Neff wasn't able to stage.

Brown and Capps leave the second event of the 24-race NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series as the points leaders, and Coughlin is a close second behind Pomona winner Jason Line.

Antron Brown

Brown began the season well in the Brian Corradi- and Mark Oswald-tuned Matco Tools dragster with a runner-up in Pomona but left California with a thirst for that coveted Wally. He got the chance again when he met Bernstein in the final round. Brown, a former Pro Stock Motorcycle rider, took his third Top Fuel win two races into his sophomore season by posting a 3.846 at 310.63 mph while Bernstein smoked the hides and ran a 5.17.

"This just shows you how strong this team is," said Brown, who leads the Top Fuel points standings for the first time. "During the off-season, I looked at the guy upstairs and said, 'What is all this adversity for?' It was crazy. Then I found out that we were going to get Brian and Mark, and I had no doubt that we were going to be a good team. They took our car to another level.

"We were bummed in Pomona because we had the car to beat going into the final before we had a mishap that slowed us down. The crew is getting more confident with every run. I think we're going to keep getting stronger as the year goes on."

The internal components of Brown's dragster were used and abused every time he got back to the pits in eliminations, but they worked well for 1,000 feet at a time as he ran strong Sunday. Brown's motor expired early in a first-round defeat of rookie Del Cox Jr. He was locked in the 3.8-second zone after that, running 3.885 and 3.819 to survive competitive battles against Morgan Lucas and Tony Schumacher.

Bernstein followed his semifinal performance in Pomona by going one better at the event where he scored his first win, in 2003, and defended the title in 2004. Bernstein was quietly effective in his fifth-best qualifying effort before crew chief Rob Flynn dialed in the Budweiser/Lucas Oil dragster to a 3.890 and two 3.84s on race day while opponents Joe Hartley, Spencer Massey, and No. 1 qualifier Larry Dixon had trouble. Bernstein's victory against Dixon was key because the Alan Johnson Racing/Al-Anabi Racing dragster had been the class of the field to that point, when it suffered a broken throttle cable.

Ron Capps

Capps and Neff had been the headliners in the Funny Car class from day one, but what was supposed to be an incredible final round ended in anticlimactic fashion when Neff was unable to get his Ford Drive One Mustang into reverse after his burnout. Capps would have been tough to beat, however, as he drove the Ed "the Ace" McCulloch-tuned NAPA Auto Parts Dodge Charger to his 27th win with a roaring 4.048 at 306.81 mph.

"The start we're having to the season is what NAPA signed up for," said Capps, who had one previous win in four finals at this event. "We did so well with the Brut car, and we were disappointed with what we gave NAPA last year. This is more like it. I'm living a dream right now.

"Neff was having one of those weekends going where they looked like they couldn't be beat. They had [crew chief] John Medlen in the hospital, and we're all glad to hear that he's okay. It was one of those stories that you almost hate to upset."

Capps entered eliminations from the No. 1 qualifying position, the eighth of his career and his first since the 2005 season. Capps stayed consistent with elapsed times ranging from 4.079 to 4.118 while turning back challengers Jeff Arend, teammate Matt Hagan, and Del Worsham en route to the final round. Capps became the first Funny Car driver to open the season with consecutive wins since John Force in 1997 and is only the third driver to do so (Frank Hawley first accomplished the feat in 1983).

Neff's misfortune in the final round was akin to the clock striking midnight during his Cinderella story. In addition to driving, Neff, who tuned Gary Scelzi to the 2005 Funny Car world championship, took over the tuning chores because crew chief Medlen was recovering in Indianapolis after a stent was inserted in his heart. Neff had the most consistent car on the premises. He is now 0-4 in final rounds. The last time that Medlen was unable to attend an event, next-in-command Dickie Venables tuned Tony Pedregon to victory in Seattle in 2002.

Jeg Coughlin

Two of the greatest active drivers in Pro Stock today met in the final round when Coughlin took on Johnson. Coughlin held a 30-25 advantage against Johnson in previous competition, though the odds were in Johnson's favor in final rounds, 7-0. Coughlin got a two-hundredths advantage when the pair of Chevy Cobalts took off and held on to win, 6.643 at 208.01 mph to 6.647 at 208.46.

"I didn't realize Kurt had such a good record against us in the final, but I didn't take him lightly because he's always tough in the money round," said Coughlin, who picked up the 42nd Pro Stock win of his career – he's the fourth-winningest driver in class history -- and his 55th overall. "We didn't have the best car today by any stretch, but we just kept crawling our way through them and keeping our head up. To see that win light come on in the final round with the crowd we had today and the points and the whole bit, it feels fantastic.

"The chips kind of fell the way they did for us to come home with the greatest achievement, and that's a race win here. You always go into race day wanting a win, but we kind of struggled with it. It seems like in my career in Pro Stock that I've very rarely had the feeling of being up front and not wanting to screw up. We just went up each time and raced hard for it."

The second round of Pro Stock featured upsets across the board as Johnson, Coughlin, Ron Krisher, and Greg Stanfield defeated respective favored opponents Allen Johnson, Line, Mike Edwards, and Greg Anderson. Coughlin was steady if not flashy as he moved Victor Cagnazzi's Chevy Cobalt through the eliminations ladder. He opened with a 6.619 to beat Steve Spiess, upset Pomona winner Line in the second round with a 6.653, and ran a 6.651 in the semi's to put Krisher's good showing to an end.

The wave of second-round upsets made Johnson a favorite at a track where he had won on three previous occasions. The ACDelco driver overcame a better reaction time from Larry Morgan in the first round with a 6.626, scored a holeshot win against Allen Johnson in round two, and cruised to a win in the semifinals with a 6.647 when Stanfield broke after staging.

Lucas Oil Sportsman winners were past Lucas Oil season champions Dan Fletcher (Comp), Michael Iacono (Super Stock), and Mike Ferderer (Super Gas); two-time national event titlist Brad Burton (Stock); and Lucas Oil-sponsored driver Tom Bayer (Super Comp).

Unofficial points

Related stories:
Friday:  Dixon, Capps, Edwards lead Friday Phoenix qualifying
Saturday: Friday qualifying leaders stay on top in Phoenix