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Sat, 3 Sep 2005, 10:53 AM

Favorites Looking to Avoid IRP "Curse"
Courtesy of Duke Ritenhouse

CLERMONT, Ind. -- As the 2005 AMS Staff Leasing Pro Mod Challenge presented by TLR season begins to wind toward its conclusion, drivers Mike Ashley and Joshua Hernandez have established themselves as favorites to win any event in which they're entered. Whether that status means much at this weekend's Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, though, remains to be seen.

Over the last four seasons, Indianapolis Raceway Park has become something of a graveyard for favorites when the Pro Mod Challenge takes to the track. Other than Shannon Jenkins' win in 2002 - which came in the midst of an all-conquering season - the AMS/TLR series' Iron Eagle trophies have gone to Ronnie Hood (2001), Rickie Smith (2003), and Jim Halsey (2004), none of whom were considered to be leading contenders prior to the event. None of those three drivers, in fact, has gone on to win another Pro Mod Challenge event since their respective Indianapolis titles.

Entering the 2005 event, defending AMS/TLR Cup champion Ashley (Torco Race Fuels '67 Mustang) and three-time event winner Hernandez (Tommy Lipar Racing '57 Chevy) are certainly hoping to repeat Jenkins' feat of winning a U.S. Nationals title as a favorite. Between them, Ashley and Hernandez have won eight of the 11 Pro Mod Challenge events this season, have appeared in a combined 11 final rounds, and have solidly established themselves in the top two positions of the AMS/TLR Cup points standings (although third-place Jay Payne is only 219 points behind Hernandez).

Although the stakes are high for all the Pro Mod teams attending drag racing's largest event, they are arguably even higher for Ashley and the Torco team. Ashley can clinch the AMS/TLR Cup title in Indianapolis, and even a non-winning effort can make it virtually impossible for any other driver to move around him at the top of the standings (see separate story: AMS/TLR Cup championship scenarios). With just three events (including the U.S. Nationals) remaining on the 2005 calendar, Ashley leads Hernandez by 976 points; the Pro Mod Challenge points structure essentially rewards each round-win with 100 points.

With the unique Monday racing at the U.S. Nationals, the traditional Pro Mod Challenge structure has undergone some changes. The Pro Mods will get a single qualifying run Friday, two runs on Saturday, and a final qualifying shot on Sunday afternoon. The first round of the 16- car eliminations program will be run on Sunday evening, with the survivors coming back to race in Monday's quarterfinals.

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